Saturday, September 10, 2011

Baking Rugelach And More

When I opened my baking book and selected some recipes for a baking session at home yesterday, I had no idea what I had let myself in for! My large oven refused to cooperate, so a one-day baking indulgence got stretched to a two-day concentrated affair, as my trusty toaster oven stepped in to substitute. Working in Indian conditions also added some unexpected excitement to the process.

Interestingly, without my knowing it at the time, both recipes were Ashkenazic Jewish in origin. I began by making challah, a wonderful soft, braided loaf that tastes heavenly even if the braids don't quite come out in the right shape after rising. I had a lot of problems with getting the perfect shape and finally realized that there are subtleties to the braiding - the number of strands one can use and also the shape of the individual strands. I realized that the strand must not be uniform in thickness but considerably thicker in the middle, a bit like a crocodile! And while braiding, the dough looked to me just like three crocs piled one on top of the other, like we see them sometimes, when they are sunning themselves. After the first loaf went in, I remembered I had forgotten to add salt, but all was not lost! Indian butter is fairly salty and for good measure I sprinkled a bit of salt over the surface of the second loaf, which made it look arty! This arty look, alas, was lost by the morning, as the salt had absorbed some moisture and dissolved in tiny patches...

The next recipe was a little more ambitious, attempted because of the sudden appearance of cream cheese in the market. Local cream cheese (though very good) is almost never seen, perhaps there are not enough consumers here. It appears one every decade or so and then I buy a few packets and try some different recipes with them. Rugelach was on the top of my list - it is a tender pastry filled with dried fruit and nuts, rolled up and baked. It began smoothly - making the dough was quite simple. But when I had to deal with the filling, things got a bit sticky. For one thing, I was using an American cookbook (Baking with Julia) and American dried fruit are quite different from the Indian ones! The introduction to the recipe was tempting - "...And the filling - layer after layer of wonderful dried fruits and fruit butter. Don't skimp on the quality of the filling, nor on the variety, for this is what makes the cookies so remarkable. The dough is spread with very thick prune or apricot butter (known as levkar), either homemade or store-bought, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, studded with nuts, and strewn with plump, moist pieces of dried fruit. Absolutely excessive, but exceedingly good."

Well, there was no question of buying levkar here, so I got down to making it with tiny Himalayan apricots. I forgot to look closely at the key word ("thick"), so the paste just dribbled all over the dough. We also don't find many of the nuts used in American cooking (especially hazelnuts) so I added some cashews. I also found the flavours of all the dry fruit when mixed together overwhelming, so midway I threw out all the dates! Rolling the pastry lengthwise was impossible but I managed breadthwise and somehow transferred it to a baking sheet- it was a very gluey gloop! I didn't care too much, knowing that food chemistry would come to my rescue; I generally believe that if the ingredients are good, things will taste fine even if they don't look appealing!

So I carried on, slicing, glazing, sprinkling that home-made cinnamon sugar on them and baking. As I had only a small oven, I couldn't space them out, but they looked fine eventually and I decided that at worst I would just have to re-baked them (like biscotti).


They smelt yummy while baking - the monkeys thought so as well (they came in a large group and some of them began pounding at the windows making small growly sounds)! An additional instruction to add to Indian cookbooks -"Keep the windows and doors closed while baking"!

Am weary and worn! But we now have this wonderful bread and rugelach (yes! they do taste good - once they have cooled)!

(While reading about rugelach, I learned that the pastry was traditionally leavened with yeast or sour cream and cream cheese doughs are an American innovation. This makes more sense to me, flavour wise and also because I feel the cream cheese dough is too rich for something like this. I'm quite determined to make more batches in the future with more traditional recipes and also to simplify the combinations of dried fruit and nuts. It seems like this would be a delicious after-yoga breakfast, with a cup of steaming tea!)

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