My sister, Mary Pat, is the born baker in the family. She has a sweet tooth that she has polished into a fine baking skill. Everything she makes is delicious, but she is famous for her rugelach.
As is common with rugelach, the recipe is passed down from family baker to family baker. This recipe originally came from our cousin Vera, but my sister has lovingly tweaked it to make it her own. It is made with sour cream instead of cream cheese, making the pastry lighter and flakier than most rugelach.
She also uses a simple filling of cinnamon-sugar and toasted pecans that perfectly complements the delicate dough and gives the traditional Jewish cookie a Southern flavor. Most other recipes use walnuts, chocolate, raisins, cinnamon-sugar and jam to fill the cookies, often in combination. But this is a cookie that I think benefits from the less-is-more rule.
The key to making rugelach is not overworking the dough. You also have to keep the dough chilled and work fast or you will lose the flaky-melt-in-your-mouth texture. This is especially true with Mary Pat’s sour-cream dough; it is very delicate.
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There are many different ways to shape the cookies, but I love my sister’s streamlined technique the best. She rolls the chilled dough into a circle, then uses a knife or a pizza cutter to slice the cinnamon-sugar topped circle of dough into 16 wedges. Then she just rolls the rugelach up into crescents.
Once the cookies are cool, Mary Pat packs them into brightly colored cookie tins lined with a bit of waxed paper or tissue paper to keep the rugelach from breaking. And you don’t have to be Jewish or celebrate Hanukkah to love these cookies. My sister makes them all year long and gives them as gifts.
Start to finish: 1 ½ hours, plus chilling
Makes 48 cookies
For the dough:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, cut into chunks
1 egg yolk
¾ cup sour cream
For the filling:
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup sugar
½ cup chopped toasted pecans
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Sift the flour into a large bowl. Add the butter, then use a pastry cutter or two butter knives to cut the butter into the flour until fully incorporated and the mixture resembles small peas.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and sour cream, then add to the flour mixture. Mix well to form a dough. Shape the dough into a disc, then dust with flour. Divide the disk into thirds, then wrap each piece in wax paper. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
Meanwhile, to prepare the filling, in a food processor combine both sugars, the pecans and cinnamon. Pulse until finely ground, then set aside.
When ready to assemble, heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with either a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.
Work with one piece of the dough at a time, leaving the others in the refrigerator until needed. On a lightly floured surface, roll out each piece of dough into a circle about 1/8 inch thick and 12 to 13 inches around. Sprinkle a bit of the filling over the dough, then use a rolling pin to gently press the topping into the dough. Use a paring knife or pizza cutter to cut the circle into 16 wedges (make 8 cuts across the circle).
One at a time, roll up each wedge starting with the wide end. Gently curl the ends inward to resemble a croissant. Sprinkle a bit of the filling over the rolled rugelach, then place on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining wedges, then repeat the entire process with the remaining thirds of the dough.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until browned on top and the sugar has melted and caramelized around the sides of the cookies. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Store in airtight containers.
Nutrition information per cookie: 80 calories; 50 calories from fat (63 percent of total calories); 6 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 15 mg cholesterol; 6 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 1 g protein; 0 mg sodium.
Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including “Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned.”