On Thanksgivingukkah, Cooking, Cooking Rugelach (?!), and Writing
You can tell it’s pie sale time because I’m saying things like “Okay peeps.” During the pie sale I morph into another version of myself. One who is peppy and cheerful and obsessive. Manic’s a reductive word, so I’m not goin
g to use it, but I think you can see what I mean.
(I promise this post is related to writing. I will get there. But it’s going to be long. I’d say sorry but no one reads this except my mom, and she loves long.)
The pie sale is an annual event at my kids’ elementary school where parents sign up to bake pies of many flavors and other parents sign up to buy them. It sounds simple but matching the bakers with the buyers requires organizational management along the lines of the Normandy invasion. I have taken it on four years running and though I love doing it, I end up staying up until 2 in the morning massaging the data in an excel spreadsheet and then sweet-talking/guilting a bunch of time-strapped parentals into staying up until 2 in the morning also, baking pies.
And then comes my own personal baking journey. I have never been a person who bakes. I don’t own cute silicone measuring cups in perky colors. I don’t like custard. I’m not particularly good at following instructions and measuring things with precision.
But I do want the sale to be a success so I bake whatever we sell that we don’t have bakers for. This can be tricky. This can be a nightmare. This can be Lucy and Ethel and the salad dressing factory gone wrong. There have been years when I’ve baked 7 pies and 5 cakes the night before the sale. There have been years when I offer to pay seven year olds to roll out pastry.
But not this year. This year, in addition to 5 pumpkin pies, I’m baking something called “Pecan Pie Rugelach.” You can see the recipe here on Buzzfeed. PPR is a Thanksgivingukkah dessert created in honor of the first-ever Thanksgiving and Chanukah mash up. The Thanksgiving and Chanukah mash up is something you need to celebrate fully now or forever hold your peace because it’s not coming around again for 70,000 years.
Which is good because I don’t think I’ll be ready to think about Pecan Pie Rugelach until just about then.
Over the weekend, I whipped up a batch according to the recipe directions and produced 32 crumbling blobs of cornstarch-soaked, overly cream-cheesed puddles. You know what they looked like? I’m not going to go there. But I’ll tell you how they tasted. Like fat. Beef fat. Maybe I shouldn’t have slammed our salmon dinner in the oven while they were cooking. And maybe Churchill shouldn’t have signed the Munich accords. The past is behind us. We have beachheads to storm.
I went to an obsessive place. I looked at a dozen rugelach recipes. I bought a rugelach in a bakery and put it on my counter for inspiration. I emailed the people who’d signed up to bake rugelach for the school sale, begging them for their secrets, warning them of the pitfalls. I made a colleague pump his baker-wife for tips and tricks even though she’s never made rugelach. And then I did what I should have done to begin with. I read The Joy of Cooking. I have the edition from the late 90s when they tried to get away from the your-grandmother’s-cookbook. It is NEVER wrong.
And I made a wonderful, beautiful, light, rich, sweet, salty, buttery, crumbling confection. And I feel AMAZING about it. The recipe will follow but first I want to explain how this relates to writing.
I’m writing a book right now about cooking. It’s a novel. Kids are in the kitchen. It is fun and I’m frankly more worried about the characters than about the food writing. But there’s something about the overwhelming quality of cooking, the potential for disaster, destruction, waste, wreckage that I love. There’s something about the public quality of cooking also — rarely are you cooking for nobody such that nobody will know if you fail. There’s something about the improvisational quality of cooking – to get a sense of the pleasure people take in putting their own stamp on a recipe, read the comments on epicurious: “This recipe for beef, bacon and leek stew was perfect and easy to follow. I improved it by using chicken instead of beef, green pepper instead of bacon, and cauliflower instead of leeks. I served it on pasta. Four stars!” And there’s something about the temporal pleasure of cooking. No matter how good or bad whatever you cook is, you’ll never recreate it exactly. Or if you do, you will be different.
The act of creation is precious. Self confidence matters. Sharing matters. Research matters. Paying attention matters.
Okay, here’s the rugelach recipe, adapted from Buzzfeed and Joy:
PECAN PIE RUGELACH
Makes 32 cookies
INGREDIENTS Dough: (This is the c. cheese pastry from Joy of Cooking (mostly). Not their rugelach pastry.) 1 cup all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 stick unsalted butter COLD, cut into 8 pieces 2 oz. cream cheese FROZEN, cut into 8-ish pieces 1/8-1/4 cup half & half, milk or water
Filling: 2 cups shelled pecan halves 3 T unsalted butter, in 3 pieces [less than Buzzfeed. Thanks, Nancy Fishman!] 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1/4 cup corn syrup [again, less than Buzzfeed per Nancy] ½ cup dark brown sugar
cinnamon sugar [I added this because it seems like a gimme for rugelach]
flake sea salt (Maldon) [an idea I got from Four and Twenty Blackbirds salted honey pie we made last year.]
1 egg 1 tablespoon water
Add flour salt, butter and c. cheese to cuisinart. Pulse about 8 times until cream cheese pieces are even and dough looks like wheat germ. Pulse in liquid. (Everyone says use an electric mixer with rugelach but I just couldn’t stand it. -CB)
Pour dough onto wax paper. Form into a ball inside the paper. Divide dough in half, forming each half into it’s own ball, then 4″ disc. Wrap each one separately in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 2 hours, up to 1 day.
Filling: Using a knife, finely chop pecans and put in a medium mixing bowl. Do NOT do chop the nuts in a food processor. You want the pecans to be chopped but still coarse, and a food processor will turn them into nut butter.
In a small saucepan over medium heat, brown the butter by adding all 3 pieces at once and constantly stirring with a heatproof spatula until completely melted. Continue to stir or swirl the pan as butter starts to bubble and foam. When the foam subsides slightly and butter turns a light brown color, take it off the heat immediately and add the it to the chopped pecans. Add vanilla extract, corn syrup, and brown sugar, and mix with a rubber spatula just until combined.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Beat egg yolk with the tablespoon of water and set aside.
When dough is chilled, unwrap one disk onto a lightly floured surface, and roll with a rolling pin into a 10-11-inch circle. [The colder the surface you're rolling on the better - thanks to my work colleague's wife for this tip!] I had good luck with a stone rolling pin and not rolling it out on the counter near the stove that also has halogen under-cabinet light shining down. I always roll out pastry dough on wax paper with loads of flour, flipping it may times to keep the flour coating even.
It is important to have an even, symmetrical circle, so trim any excess. If dough gets too soft during rolling, lay it on one of the lined baking sheets and put it in the freezer for 5 minutes, until slightly chilled. Once the dough is rolled out, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and Maldon flake sea salt. Then use 1/3 of the pecan mixture on top of the dough, all the way to the edges of the circle, making sure the mixture is evenly distributed. Try to keep the very inside circle a bit clear. With a pizza cutter (or a knife), cut dough into 16 equal slices. Roll each slice from the outside in (starting the wide end and rolling towards the point), placing each roll onto the cookie sheet as you go. Repeat this process with the other disk of dough.
Use a pastry brush to coat the top of each cookie with the egg-water mixture. Bake rugelach for 20 minutes until golden, turning the cookie sheet halfway through baking.
Cool completely before serving.