Many recipes from our grandparents' generation are pretty cryptic when it comes to instructions. Unlike today's blogs and cookbooks, with their blow-by-blow pictorials, older recipes often give just the basics. My grandmother's typewritten index card for potato pancakes tells you to "fry in a lot of grease quickly." Others don't even provide that much detail -- just a list of ingredients. Because that was all you needed. Cooking used to be an oral tradition, learned from members of your family. You knew how to handle fat and flour, and when to take something out of the oven.
Unfortunately, there seems to have been a breakdown in the system, sometime around the 1950s. Take these ruggelach as an example. They're a delicate cookie from Eastern Europe, popular among Ashkenazi Jews. My mother's recipe features a “potchke” of jam, nuts and cinnamon rolled up in rich sour cream dough. And since the advent of the food processor, she's made this dough by blitzing the ingredients into a homogenized mass. The cookies had a lovely flavor, from the sweet filling and rich sour cream, but the dough had all the delicacy of a day-old breadstick.
On my first ruggelach-making session, I approached the dough with knowledge gleaned from obsessive cookbook-reading and pie-baking sessions. I pulsed the dries, cut in the butter, and gently mixed in the sour cream until it just held together. My mother steadfastly refused to believe that my light, flaky cookies were made from the same recipe. This is not an exaggeration. I never got the admiration my transformed ruggelach so rightly deserved. But at least I have delicious cookies to console me.
adapted from a family recipe
yields 64 small cookies
Make sure you line the cookie sheets with either a piece of parchment paper or silicone liners like Silpat, to prevent the molten jam from gluing the cookies to the pans.
3 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 lb cold butter, cut into tablespoon-sized cubes
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/3 cups apricot jam
1 1/3 cups finely-chopped walnuts
1/4 cup cinnamon-sugar (1/4 cup sugar mixed with 2-3 tsp cinnamon)
In a bowl or a food processor, mix together the flour, salt and sugar until combined. Add the butter, and pulse in the food processor or cut with a pastry cutter (or two knives) until it is reduced to bits that are about half the size of a pea. If using a food processor, dump the contents into a bowl at this point. Stir the vanilla into the sour cream. Using a spoon, and then your hands when needed, knead the sour cream and vanilla into the flour mixture until it is well incorporated, and the dough holds together when you squeeze it. Stop as soon as this is possible -- do not over-mix. Shape the dough into four chubby disks, cover with plastic and allow to relax in the refrigerator for at least one hour (overnight is fine too).
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Take a disk of dough out of the refrigerator, and place on a floured countertop or pastry mat. Roll out to a 12" circle, trimming off the ends if needed. This dough is much softer than a traditional pastry crust, so you shouldn't need to let it warm up before rolling. Spread 1/3 cup apricot jam over the round of dough, and sprinkle with 1/3 cup nuts and 1 Tbsp cinnamon-sugar. Taking a chef's knife or pizza cutter, divide the dough evenly into 16 wedges. Starting from the wide base of each wedge, roll towards the center to form a crescent. Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or silicone liner, making sure that the tip of the crescent is pinned underneath to prevent the cookie from unrolling. Bake until the filling is bubbling and the crust is just beginning to color, about 30 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool, being careful of the hot jam. Best enjoyed the day they are made (any leftovers are best kept in the freezer).