NEWTON — John Amichetti gets an early start on Sunday mornings at Blacker’s Bakeshop. He arrives at 3 a.m. and spends about seven hours working on rugelach, traditional Jewish pastries that surge in popularity around Hanukkah. An experienced baker, Amichetti knows why customers are loyal to his cookies.
“This keeps everyone coming back,” he says while sprinkling a big fistful of raisins on what will become 20 pounds of apricot-raisin rugelach.
Amichetti makes about 80 pounds of rugelach every Sunday, and that doesn’t last Blacker’s long (a different baker makes more midweek). The rolled and filled cookies are beloved in the Jewish community, especially surrounding holidays that call for sweets. The flaky, dairy-based dough, flavorful fillings, and coat of cinnamon sugar combine for a hit of sweet nostalgia with each bite.
Rugelach can refer to a number of similar looking pastries. They are rolled cookies with a filling, but beyond that there isn’t really a “true” rugelach. Typically, rugelach are small and crescent-shaped, but bakeries often roll up logs and cut them into 1-inch lengths. That shape is easier when you’re producing thousands. The yeastless dough can be made with sour cream, cream cheese, yogurt, or a non-dairy alternative. As far as the origin, it’s believed that rugelach originated among Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe, but they’re also wildly popular in America and Israel.
Blacker’s offers four varieties: chocolate, raspberry raisin, apricot raisin, and cinnamon. Poppyseed also emerges for special occasions. Every batch starts the same way: with a simple dough consisting of flour, baking powder, margarine, and tofu-based cream cheese. Blacker’s is a kosher pareve bakery — meaning that all of the products are dairy-free and can be eaten right after a meal containing meat.
“We see a spike around holidays,” says Karen Blacker, who has owned Blacker’s alongside husband Richard for 10 years. “It’s a great pickup dessert, you don’t have to cut it or anything, it freezes really well, and there’s a lot of variety.”
After mixing the 80-pound batch, Amichetti lets it sit for 10 minutes before rolling it into a 6-foot-by-2-foot rectangle. Next come the toppings, like the chocolate spread, which is made in house from sugar, cocoa, oil, and water. Once the “schmear” has been deployed, heaps of chocolate chips are spread over the dough sheet.
Amichetti makes two folds, one to form the basic shape of rugelach and another to lock in the fillings. After the rolls are complete, they are cut off from the main sheet of dough using a pizza cutter, and the seasoned baker uses his thumb to measure each pastry before cutting around 300 individual pieces out of the strips.
From there, the pieces are coated in butter substitute, to keep them dairy-free, before Amichetti reaches under the table for his finishing touch — a substantial scoop of cinnamon sugar he dusts over every piece. While the pastries bake, Amichetti makes occasional checks on the process while preparing the next flavor. “These need about two minutes” he says while checking an aromatic batch of raspberry raisin as Blacker looks on, heaping praise on her 10-year employee. “This is like my dream kitchen,” she says, “I love to experiment here and try new things, it’s the best.”
While Blacker’s bakes pounds of rugelach, home cooks are preparing their own recipes for the holiday. Margie Gordon Hurwitz produces fruit varieties in her Randolph kitchen for the Sabbath or holidays, especially when she’s been tasked with bringing dessert to parties. For Hanukkah, Hurwitz favors rugelach partly because it’s traditional to serve dairy products as an homage to the story of Judith — a widow who tempted Holofernes, leader of an occupying army.
“Judith, the Hanukkah heroine, fed Holofernes cheese, he became thirsty so he drank wine,” Hurwitz says. “He got drunk, fell asleep, and she beheaded him. Foods with cheese are traditional for Hanukkah for that reason, and the cream cheese of rugelach fits right in.”
Hurwitz says high quality fillings are the secret to great rugelach. She uses a friend’s homemade fruit jams, and substitutes Greek yogurt as the dairy in her dough. “The layer of jam is pretty thin, so you want to use something really flavorful,” she says.
While everyone has their favorite flavor, chocolate is the most popular at Blacker’s.
“If we run out of rugelach, people aren’t happy,” Blacker says. “That’s why we make sure we always have them, even if it means making 2,000 pieces at a time.”Jon Mael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.