There's the hackneyed (and true) saying that defines insanity as doing the same thing and expecting a different result. And yet. I saw a blog post on rugelach, all splayed and fallen-over, which said that the recipe is both ridiculously flawed and ridiculously delicious. So I somehow thought oh, let me make them! Cut to: scene of a tray of rugelach, all splayed and fallen-over, and me shaking my fist at the recipe. And then swooning over the cookies.
So yes, this is not a foolproof tested recipe — even if the previous intrepid blogger already did some of the heavy lifting, like clearing up actual typos and conversion errors (sigh). But this oh-well-here's-my-best-guess recipe, with its misshapen results, yields one of the most delicious cookies I've eaten in a good long while.
I've long been a fan of our family rugelach recipe, yielding a crisp-yet-flaky cookie studded with cinnamon, rich nuts, and sweet-tart apricot jam. But these are a different animal. They use a cream cheese dough (versus my sour cream version), for a cookie that's also rich and flaky, but softer. The dough is scented with fennel and a spot of black pepper, then rolled around a lightly sweet, rich-yet-nubby poppyseed filling. The whole result is a bit more European, a grown-up, less sweet cookie with a whole lot going on. Oh so perfect with a cup of tea (or, as we proved, a glass of wine and some latkes).
So yes, accept that this is recipe has some flaws. You've got to take some leaps of faith (how big is that rectangle?), and make peace with the fact that the beautiful spirals you put into the oven might look a bit different when they come out. But they're also be very, very good. And even though they're different from my rugelach memories, they still feel like a holiday.
And if you're looking for more holiday food and flavor (without the frustration), here's a recent story I did on the Norwegian-American tradition of Christmas lefse. It's what it all comes down to, really. Listen over at NPR.
adapted from Bar Tartine by Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns, as first adapted/trouble-shot by Lottie and Doof
yields ~3 dozen rugelach
3/4 cup poppyseeds
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup light rye flour
1 cup kamut flour (I substituted whole wheat pastry flour for this)
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon fennel pollen (I swapped in 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel seeds)
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound (1 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch dice, chilled
1/2 pound cream cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons sour cream, at room temperature (I tossed some full-fat yogurt to drain in a dishtowel, which seems close enough for just a few tablespoons)
Egg wash (an egg beaten with a splash on milk and pinch of salt)
coarse sugar for sanding
To make the poppyseed paste: In a spice or coffee grinder, pulse the poppyseeds in batches for 15-20 seconds until broken up and powdery.
In a small saucepan, heat the butter, milk, sugar, honey, lemon juice and zest, and salt over a medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter melts and the sugar and honey dissolve, and it starts to barely steam.
In a medium bowl, whisk the egg. Gradually drizzle in the hot milk mixture, whisking constantly, until incorporated. Return the mixture to the saucepan, and heat over a medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, ~5-7 minutes (this won't be full-on pudding-type thickness, but it will thicken, like a custard sauce).
Remove from heat and whisk in the poppyseeds and salt, then let cool completely (it will thicken further as it cools — you can do this up to a week in advance).
To make the dough: In a food processor, combine the flours, sugar, fennel, salt and pepper. Pulse to combine. Scatter the chilled butter over the flour mixture, and pulse until the mixture is crumbly, with rice-sized pebbly bits. Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer, add the cream cheese and sour cream, and mix briefly until a smooth dough forms (you can do this by hand as well, with a wooden spoon). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 4 hours, or for up to 24 hours.
To make the cookies: On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough to a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick (if it's too square-like, you'll have a nice long spiral, but a greater chance that the whole mess will tip over, so aim for something long). Spread the poppyseed paste in a thin layer over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch or so on the far long edge. Starting from the inside long edge, roll up the dough into a log, with the seam on the bottom. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap or parchment, and chill until firm, at least 2 hours or up to overnight.
When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Brush the log with the egg wash, and sprinkle generously with the sanding sugar. Cut the log crosswise into 1 1/2-inch thick pieces (you can go for 1-inch, which are more delicate, but a bit more inclined to flop over).
Transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheet, leaving about 2 inches between cookies. Bake until golden brown, ~15 minutes. These cookies are best the first day or two.