Every December, I faithfully recreate my French-German grandmother’s sugar cookie recipe. But to be honest, they don’t hold a candle to the Jewish holiday cookie, rugelach. This two-bite, crescent-shaped pastry delivers so much more than all the candy sprinkles you can stick on a cutout star cookie. The tender flaky dough, the crispiness of cooked sugar at the edges, and on the inside, a surprise of raspberry, apricot or chocolate, cinnamon and walnuts.
Resembling miniature croissants, they are easy to spot, and I reach for rugelach whenever I am lucky enough to encounter them. It was on a recent trip to New York where I found a batch of rugelach to write home about. Not at Zabar’s, the Jewish food emporium on the Upper West Side, but 38 blocks north on a side street in Harlem.
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Lee Lee’s Baked Goods is a one-man bakery with a candy-cane striped awning on 118th Street. Just a few steps from the re-energized Frederick Douglas Avenue, the place straddles the neighborhood’s old world of the Halal Meat shop and 99-cent store and the new Bier International, Harlem’s first beer garden, Harlem Shambles butcher shop and Levain Bakery.
I was on my way to the subway at 125th street when an acquaintance steered me on a side trip to Lee Lee’s. It was just before 7 p.m., the streets growing dark and the glass-front bakery cast a glow. Alvin Lee Smalls, 62, stood behind the counter with the day’s remaining carrot muffins, red velvet cake and bread pudding.
With a quick greeting, the gentleman handed me one of his cinnamon-raisin rugelach — as he does for anyone who enters his shop, I later learned. Then, he stood by and watched expectantly.
Go-to Rugelachs in New York
“Rugelach by a Brother” is the famous tagline of this veteran baker who’s been making this Jewish specialty in this location since 2001. As traditional bakeries have disappeared on the Lower East Side, Small’s reputation as the rugelach maker of Manhattan has only grown with help from mentions in the New York Times and raves on Yelp. From 5:30 a.m., he bakes them fresh throughout the day, but will often run out and have to close the doors until the next batch comes out of the oven.
His followers are devoted. In May 2010, when the recession forced him to close Lee Lee’s, a band of local fans launched a social media plea for help. He was back in business within a month and hasn’t stopped since.
“I’m tired,” he said while sliding my to-go rugelach into a paper bag. Still, there was a smile in his eyes, and when I asked about his rugelach, pride revived him. “I use real ingredients,” he said. “Real butter, not shortening.”
Smalls continues a long tradition of a filled cheese sweet (“little twists” in Yiddish) served for Shavuot and Chanukah holidays. The version popularized in the United States by cookbook author Maida Heatter combines equal parts butter and cream cheese to produce a tender and flaked dough. Her recipe remains the gold standard among home and commercial bakers.
Smalls mastered his own technique after discovering the recipe in a newspaper. His rugelach come out the right size and texture because he insists on excellent ingredients and mixes the dough and rolls them up by hand. He’ll ship them by the dozen — apricot, raspberry of chocolate — anywhere from his online store in time for the holidays, or anytime you want a cookie that is so very much more than that.
Top photo: Rugelach from Lee Lee’s Baked Goods. Credit: Dave Cook