My Family Recipe

The Rugelach Recipes I’ve Waited 9 Lives For

May  2, 2018

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more! In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish they've inherited, and why it's meaningful to them.

It was my third call to Evelyn, and I was still getting her voicemail. On the fourth try, she told me she was dodging my calls because my husband’s last name, which she did not recognize, was popping up on the caller ID. “You know you have these meshugganah calling to steal your identity, so you can never be too careful,” Evelyn tells me.

I’m calling, of course, not to steal her identity, but to have her walk me through her rugelach recipes, the Xeroxed copies of which she only recently passed along. On one of the papers was a sticky note that stated, in capital letters, CALL ME FOR SPECIAL DIRECTIONS.

Photo by Danie Drankwalter

Evelyn feels like an aunt to me—she’s caring, with a heart of gold and plenty of Yiddish wisdom. But she’s actually a loyal client of my veterinarian mother. She and her husband, Lenny, have been coming over with their cats for house calls my entire life. She’d do anything for her cats, like driving all the way from her home in Coney Island to our house in Queens—and then Long Island—with Tiger and Misty in tow. It wouldn’t be uncommon for me to come home from school and find Evelyn patiently waiting with her husband in her car or our driveway, presents in hand for our dogs. (Dr. Cohen was always delayed.)

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My mom had been their vet since before she was pregnant with me, and when my sister and I were kids, the rugelach tradition began. Every year, she’d show up with a giant aluminum tray of her rugelach, my favorite of the classic Ashkenazi sweets. She’d start making them—by the hundreds—in July, so she could give them as gifts for Rosh Hashanah in early fall. As soon as they pulled out of the driveway, my family would rip into the tray, which was layered with two types of rugelach: jelly-roll-shaped slices filled with chocolate and walnuts, and crescents packed with cinnamon and walnuts.

Two cats, two rugelach, and all the joy. Photo by Rocky Luten

My mother would microwave a few of them until they were warm and gooey. I, on the other hand, would always eat them straight up frozen, so they’d be chewy with the most satisfying crunch from the chocolate and nuts.

Evelyn talked me through her annual process: The chocolate rugelach use a cream cheese dough that’s spread out thin and topped with three types of chocolate before getting rolled up like a streusel, sliced, and baked. The cinnamon rugelach use a sour cream dough, divided and rolled out the traditional way, where a large circle of dough topped with the filling before getting cut into wedges and rolled up into little crescents.

“Lenny! Where’s the place we get the chocolate from?” she paused to ask her husband after she had me unsuccessfully list off grocery stores to jog her memory. "Oh yes, Trader Joe’s," she said. "That’s the only place I’m able to find the good Belgian chocolate for these." She does a mix of dark, milk, and semi-sweet—"but you can do whatever." After baking them myself and tasting how brightly the chocolate shines through the dough, I'm convinced splurging on a nice bar makes a big difference.

Reading through her Xeroxed recipe for the cinnamon-raisin rugelach, I realized something that made my brain stop in its tracks: raisins? I never remembered them being in all the trays of rugelach she brought to our house.

That, I soon learned, is my mother's fault. Evelyn took special care to omit them from the batch she made for us because Dr. Cohen was not a fan. But my mother's attempts to hijack the recipe did not work on me.

“You couldn’t even make a couple without the raisins for me?” she implored when I was done making them. "How hard would it have been to just leave some without for your mother?!” But Jewish guilt wouldn’t work this time, because after baking these beauties, I was finally enlightened to what the floral sweetness of the raisins adds to her recipe. So for the record, I’m now pro-raisins on the matter.

While it may just seem like a cookie delivery, it meant so much more than that to me—and how I relate to my heritage. Evelyn’s rugelach show up exclusively on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, because the spiral shape of the cookie represents the cyclical nature of another year passing. The sweetness of the cookie is a wish for another sweet new year in this cycle. It symbolizes our continued freedom to live openly as Jews and forge bonds with others in our community, no matter how differently we live our lives.

Times have long changed since I would come home to find Evelyn waiting in my driveway. I now live in Manhattan. I got married. Sadly, Tiger and Misty both passed. However, every fall, I get a call from my mother to let me know the rugelach have arrived and that she’s willing to split her stash with me. Even my husband, who had never had rugelach before meeting me, is now part of the tradition (he prefers the cinnamon ones, while I go for the chocolate).

So when I consult the emergency rugelach stash in my freezer during a late night craving, I taste more than just nostalgia. I now know how to make Evelyn's recipes myself, and am lucky enough to have received instructions from her directly. With this knowledge, I can do what Evelyn has done for decades: bring some sweetness to the people I love.

Got a family recipe you'd like to share? Email [email protected] for the chance to be featured.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Laura Keeler
    Laura Keeler
  • kwolffman
  • QuesoB
Culinary Content Creator, Nice Jewish Boy


Laura K. May 2, 2018
Somehow, and I'm really not clear on the details, rugelach became my (Midwestern Episcopalian-turned-atheist Texan) family's iconic Christmas cookie-- my mother, and now I, make dozens every winter. They're among the foods that say home, family, and community to me most clearly, though the context of mine are rather removed from yours. (Our recipe has chocolate, currants, walnuts, and cinnamon, with apricot jam.)
kwolffman May 2, 2018
So what were the SPECIAL DIRECTIONS? Was there more to it than going to Trader Joe's for the chocolate?
QuesoB May 2, 2018
Thank you. I love these little pastries that I have not had since I was a kid in L.A. 40 years ago. Happen to have all ingredients on hand for both and will make 1/4 batch of each this afternoon. Fun!