Holiday recipe, still sweet years later

When I first moved to Denver as a young restaurant cook, I interviewed with a chef named Yumiko Baron. She was 4’10”, weighed about 90 pounds and could carry a sheet pan stacked with six lamb legs over her shoulder as she descended the treacherous kitchen stairs to the basement walk-in refrigerator. Despite her quiet manner and heavy Japanese accent, she commanded the respect of her staff.

I temped for Yumiko only for about a week, but she had other ideas for me. “Do you like Chinese food?” she asked. “I really think you should come eat with me and my husband.” My fiancee and I joined them that Sunday at a real-deal Cantonese restaurant and ate platters of enormous steamed Pacific oysters with black bean sauce. Arthur, her husband, was only slightly bigger than she. He spoke with indelible Bronx diphthongs and was a ringer for Woody Allen. He and Yumiko were about 10 years our senior and could both consume seemingly twice their body weight at a meal. It was the start of a great food friendship.

We worked at our respective jobs during the week and often got together on Sundays to prepare blowout feasts at our homes. One weekend before Christmas, Denver got walloped with a snowstorm, and Arthur and Yumiko couldn’t get back to their apartment in Boulder. So they spent the next days and holiday with us, baking and cooking nonstop. That became our annual tradition, one that our baby daughter soon joined in. Christmas for her always began with the sight of Arthur and Yumiko pounding through the front door with boxes and trays of food for the projects we’d be undertaking.

Yumiko was the best cook I ever met. I don’t mean that she was the most creative or most skilled with difficult preparations. But she was so curious, so eager to learn and so completely devoid of ego. She didn’t cook for praise, she cooked for the pleasure of the activity and for the shared experience. She had a giving touch. You could taste this in her food.

On a year that Christmas and Hanukkah overlapped, Yumiko arrived with all the ingredients to make rugelach. She had been spending the last few weeks cooking with an elderly Jewish lady who was her neighbor, and she had learned to turn out masterful pastries, kreplach and chopped liver. But she was especially jazzed about this recipe.

The first time we made that rugelach, our daughter was just old enough to help. She stood on a phone book on a step stool and helped Yumiko pat out the rounds of soft dough in a pie plate and sprinkle them with cinnamon sugar. She learned to cut the dough into wedges and roll the wedges into tiny crescents. “Mine are the prettiest!” she crowed.

“Keep going,” laughed Yumiko, “we’ve got a lot to make.” She and that little girl cranked out 128 rugelach in record them.

For Yumiko, who died way too young, there’s no reason to stop and admire your handiwork, not when you’re making it with so much joy.


Total time: 4 hours

Hands on: About 1 hour

Makes 32 cookies

  • 1 package dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup lukewarm water
  • 3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons plus 1 cup sugar
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 1/2 pound unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

In a mixing bowl, place yeast and lukewarm water with two tablespoons sugar and wait until foamy, then add flour, four tablespoons sugar, eggs and butter. Mix together until dough is uniform; do not overwork. Place in a bowl, cover tightly and refrigerate at least 3 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Remove dough from refrigerator and bring back to room temperature. Divide the dough into 8 equal parts. Roll each part into a ball. Combine the remaining cup of sugar with the cinnamon. Set aside. Sprinkle a little of the sugar/cinnamon mixture in the bottom of a 9-inch pie plate. Flatten one ball of dough with your hands (you may wish to roll it out a little bit with a rolling pin), sprinkle cinnamon sugar on top, and press the dough to the sides of the pie plate so that you have a flat 9-inch circle of uniform thickness.

Cut the dough circle like a pie into 8 triangular wedges. Sprinkle a little more cinnamon sugar on top for good measure. Roll up the wedges, starting at the thick end, like a croissant. Bend the edges in to make the rugelach crescent-shaped.

Place prepared rugelach on ungreased baking sheets and bake in preheated oven, 10 to 15 minutes, on a rack in center of oven. They are done when they’re puffed and lightly browned. Remove baking sheets from oven and let rugelach rest several minutes before removing them with a metal spatula.

Store at room temperature in an airtight container. The rugelach will last about a week. You may also freeze them.

Variation: If desired, sprinkle chopped nuts or raisins over rugelach before rolling them up.

Per serving (two cookies): 133 calories (percent of calories from fat, 41), 2 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 6 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 29 milligrams cholesterol, 6 milligrams sodium.