Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rugelach with Chocolate and Hope

gluten free rugelach, with chocolate and hope
When I tell people that the best rugelach I ever ate was at the Ad Man’s funeral, there is a momentary awkward pause in conversation, until I also mention that they were filled with bittersweet chocolate.   
In fact, the only thing I can recall of my father’s funeral was that fabulous rugelach.   While the rest of my siblings were busy in the kitchen taste-testing and reviewing the platters of food that had arrived as condolence calling cards, I was in the living room, busy stuffing the perfect little rugelach into my pockets and running outside, stashing them in a paper bag I found on the floor of my car.  The platter was emptied in a mere half dozen trips.  All that remained was one broken pastry and a trail of crumbs from the plate sitting on the coffee table. 
Arriving back in the house after my last sojourn to the car, I heard someone exclaim that the dog must have eaten the pastries and was now banished to the back bedroom.  Thankfully no one used any common sense to think about how a 4 pound, 8 inch tall dog could eat over 4 dozen chocolate pastries and not look like the Goodyear blimp or worse.   Back then no one gave any thought to a dog eating chocolate.   I owed that pup some biscuits which I delivered once the coast was clear. 
The rugelach had arrived with a woman I knew as fake Aunt Hope, a family friend.  I only knew her in one capacity and that was as the lady in a white coat behind the pharmacy counter.  The small drug store, a few blocks from our childhood house, was a family business that she and her husband, Doug owned.  
At age of 5 when I was appointed chief step & fetch it by the Ad Man, it was my job to run to the drugstore whenever he needed something.  Something was usually cigarettes and a giant box of 1960 vintage Kotex for my mother.  I had already tested out smoking behind the garage with my older brothers and knew what the stinky cigarettes were for.  Fake Aunt Hope was the one who usually handed me the step & fetch it items along with my pack of Necco Wafers, payment for the job, but not nearly payment enough for the mortification I felt hauling that giant box of Kotex 5 blocks home.  It was too large for a bag so I had to carry it like a walking advertisement. 
Since that was the only place I ever really saw fake Aunt Hope, I assumed she lived in the drug store.  Until the funeral, I hadn’t realized that she had a real home with a real kitchen, let alone was a fabulous baker.  I wanted to ask her for the recipe, but at the time I was too busy trying to act like the dog was the thief.  I thought if I made a big deal out of it, someone might really figure it out.  So I kept quiet.
I deconstructed those rugelach by eating each one very slowly and carefully over the course of the next few days.  I took mental notes on the character and flavor, but came up with no better explanation on what made them so special.  Years of trying to find a recipe that came even remotely close made me get within postage stamp placement on a note to fake Aunt Hope to ask for the recipe.  Once again, my good intentions were waylaid with a phone call from my in-laws.  
The evening before, they had decided to hop over to the indie theater to catch one of the new art films.  In line, they ran into fake Aunt Hope and her husband, Doug, whom they knew only casually from our wedding the decade previous.  On occasion at the grocery or hardware store they would see one another and chat about the weather.   Fake Aunt Hope and Doug were thrilled to see the in-laws and expressed how pleased they would be to share watching the movie together.  Since they were further up in line, fake Aunt Hope and Doug would save seats.  When the in-laws got close enough to see the movie poster, they couldn’t run out of there fast enough.  I could feel them blushing through the phone two states away.  Somehow they missed the big giant marquee that had a giant red XXX  running across it.   Turns out, the old Indie was no more.  Fake Aunt Hope and Doug were very disappointed when the in-laws remembered sudden prior headaches and hastily took their leave.  
With that fine mental picture in my mind, I never did mail that note.  Rugelach making took a back seat to raising kids and jobs.  Once in a while I’d have a moment when I thought about how I could duplicate it and yet something was always not quite right.  I thought about sending that note years later, but by then Doug was gone and Fake Aunt Hope had advanced Alzheimer's. After more than two decades I'd missed all the windows of opportunity.
Not long ago I took another look at what might have made her rugelach so special, aside from the chocolate.  I read recipes, stories, and searched for old Eastern European recipes since that is where Fake Aunt Hope’s family was from.  Most Jewish women of her age would have gotten the recipe from watching their mother or grandmother.  No one ever wrote anything down, so it was a matter of collecting common themes.
And there was the additional challenge in making it gluten free.  Recently I made several batches in a matter of days.  I was beginning to give up when the mental light bulb flipped on and delivered me from total failure.
The last batch annoyed me to no end.  I was tired and had run out of patience.  The perky cream cheese and butter were still in the refrigerator and I had forgotten to take them out to soften.  Annoyed at my own bad judgment, I took my frustration out on the ingredients.  Instead of treating them like fragile, delicate ingredients, I slammed them around a bit.  I tossed the unsoftened mess into the food processor, barely measuring and weighing the ingredients.  If the measurement came close and it looked right, in it went.  I whizzed it less than usual and dumped it unceremoniously on the counter and banged it around a couple of turns to get all the flour mixed in.  I split it in two, bopped them into two disks with my fist, dropped it on parchment, folded it up and practically tossed it into the refrigerator.
Later, realizing I had forgotten about them, and running short on time, I pulled one disk at a time from the refrigerator, opened the parchment, grabbed another piece for the top and hit it with the rolling pin to make it pliable and rolled it out to about a ten inch disk.  I tossed the filling on top and in my haste rolled the whole thing up like a big cigar and sliced off pieces for the baking sheets.  It took about five minutes from the first rolling pin smash to finishing. 
The second disk got the same treatment, but instead of the cigar tube, I began to cut it into the traditional wedges to make the crescents – the point at which the dough falls apart and makes me crazy.  Instead, without any hesitation I made the circle into a square with a cutting tool and banged out several 1.5 inch squares.  I dropped the filling on the whole thing and took each square at a corner and rolled it up.  It worked easily and took a few minutes longer than the first cigar tube disk. 
I placed those on the cookie sheet and they all went back into the refrigerator for more time cooling their heels.  Again, worrying about time, I practically threw them into the oven even before it had finished preheating. When they emerged, they looked splendid and tasted even better than I had hoped.
I learned two things.  They will never be exactly like fake Aunt Hope’s beauties.  But they will always make me remember her quirkiness with fondness and affection.   And second, they are hearty and appear to taste much better if you treat them like the peasant pastry they are.  Less handling, less fuss.   Like a good pie dough, they benefit from as little work as possible.  Fake Aunt Hope would be proud.

 Gluten Free Chocolate Nut Rugelach
  • 2 cups of classic blend gluten free flour (authentic brands is my choice)
  • 2 sticks of unsalted butter (chilled)
  • 8 ounces of cream cheese (full fat and chilled)
  • Pinch of guar gum and xanthan gum (for gluten free version only)
  • ¼  cup white or brown sugar
  • ½ cup chopped nuts
  • ¼ cup chopped bittersweet chocolate
  • ½  cup dried fruit (raisins, currents, cherries) optional
  • ½ teaspoon of cinnamon
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 egg or melted butter for brushing the tops
  • Pinch of brown or turbinado sugar for sprinkling on top
  • Cinnamon for sprinkling on top

Place all the filling ingredients in one bowl and mix well.  Or conversely, set up several small prep bowls for each filling ingredient and add what you feel like when the dough is rolled out.  Set the bowl(s) aside.  
Place the flour, guar and xanthan gum in a food processor and whiz up with one pulse.  Chunk up the cold butter, cold cream cheese and drop into the processor on top of the flour.  Pulse just until it comes together, but before it turns into a ball.  It will take under ten pulses.  Drop it onto a floured piece of parchment paper and incorporate the remainder of the flour by kneading it just once or twice.  Handle it as little as possible. Break into two even chunks and smash into a ball-like disk.  Wrap in parchment and set in the refrigerator for at least an hour and up to a day.
Remove one disk at a time.  Open the parchment and place another piece of parchment over the top of the cold disk.  Smash it with a good sized rolling pin and roll it into about a 10 inch disk.  You want it to be thin, not thick, but thick enough to roll easily.  Make sure it stays cold.  If you have to leave it for any reason, toss it back in the refrigerator.
For the big cigar roll up version:  take a handful of the filling and scatter it around the disk, all the way to the edge.  Dorie Greenspan has a great suggestion that I will use next time.  Put the parchment over the filling on the rolled out disk and give it once over with the rolling pin to secure the filling to the pastry.   Remove the top parchment.  Using the bottom parchment, grab it and help the dough start rolling.  Like rolling up a tee shirt for the suitcase, keep it going using the parchment as necessary to keep it tight and unbroken.  You can pinch the dough together wherever it might crack. 
Finish with the seam side down.  It helps to refrigerate it before cutting.  When chilled again, using a very sharp paring knife, or a serrated edge, and cut them into one inch pieces and place on a silpat lined baking sheet.  Refrigerate for another hour at minimum.
Do the same with the second disk or follow these directions for baby cigar rolls:  Get it rolled into a 10 inch or so disk following the directions above.  Try to make the circle more square as you finish off.  Keep it cold!  Take a butter knife or other cutter (I use a pizza cutter or a pastry scraper) square off the edges of the circle.  Now cut even sized squares so that each one measures about 1.5 inches.   You can actually make them any size you want, but if your goal is to have them all look the same when finished, make each square the same size.   Do the same with the filling, but even more gently because you don’t want to smash the cuts you made.  Roll each square from one corner to the other.  They will look like little cigars with points.  Place them seam side down on the silpat lined baking sheet.  Refrigerate for at least an hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 
If you want, quickly brush the tops of each cold batch with a beaten egg or melted butter and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon.  Bake for about a total of 25 minutes.  Rotate and turn half way through for best browning. They are done when the pastry looks set.  Remember that gluten free dough never browns up like regular flour.   Leave on the silpat to cool.   Once stone cold, store in a tin separating the layers with parchment.  The rugelach will keep for about 4 days, although you won’t have any left by the second day.
Makes 2 to 3 dozen.
Notes:  The biggest lesson here is to not fuss with the dough and to keep it cold.  The directions took longer to write than it would take to make the whole thing aside from the chilling and baking time.  Once you have it down, the labor part goes quickly.  Work the dough as little as possible.  Obviously bakers made rugelach long before food processors were in our kitchens, so you can mix the dough by hand.  Do it as quickly as you can without handling it very much.  A food processor only means that you can create the dough base in under five minutes from start to finish.   Create your own fillings.  Jam, nuts, chocolate, dried fruits, spices are all possibilities.  To make this recipe not gluten free, use all purpose flour and leave out the guar and xanthan gums.  Different unsalted butters have different fat and liquid contents, so find one that works for you and stick with it. 
Bon app├ętit!
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