Aunt Lil’s 100-Year-Old Meringue Rugelach, Courtesy of Bonnie Stern
Shared by Bonnie Stern
Recipe Roots: Toronto
If you are an avid Jewish baker, you might have heard whispers about, or even tasted, Bonnie Stern’s rugelach. The acclaimed food writer, cooking instructor, and cookbook author is known for her rendition where apricot jam and nuts are tucked into a cream cheese dough and topped with crunchy demerara sugar for a buttery, flaky pastry. In Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh’s book Sweet, the authors explain that Yotam and his business partner Sami Tamimi have come to expect a bag of them whenever they are in Toronto.
But, there’s another rugelach recipe Bonnie has held to closely, sharing only a few times, including with us — and it’s unlike any rugelach we know. This 100-year old recipe comes from her aunt Lil. In place of a cream cheese dough that’s popular in North America, this recipe opts for a yeasted dough and a filling not of jam or chocolate, but meringue that becomes slightly chewy when it puffs out of the dough. The dough “comes out so light it just melts in your mouth,” says Bonnie. “It’s very different and really special.”
Aunt Lil, who went by Lillian outside of the family, was elegant, once named one of the best dressed women by the Toronto Star. And, the maitre’d at The Royal York, which at the time was the classiest hotel in the city, knew her name. To Bonnie’s mother, Lillian’s sister-in-law, “that was the epitome of sophistication,” Bonnie explains.
She entertained often and these rugelach were her specialty. She was a gracious host, but always aware of what was happening at her table. On one evening when an orchestra conductor was her guest, Bonnie explains: “He said he had already had two rugelach and was just going to take one more. Lil said ‘you have already had four!’”
Before she passed away, nearly 20 years ago, aunt Lil was known for bringing these rugelach to the family’s annual Hanukkah party in Toronto, a tradition started by Bonnie’s grandmother who had eleven children. There are now over 150 cousins and every year at least 80 come to the Hanukkah parties and family seders.
No one in the family is certain where her recipe came from originally or when aunt Lil started to bring them to the Hanukkah party. “You take things for granted in a family. It didn’t occur to me to get a recipe for it for a while,” Bonnie explains.
When she decided to learn the recipe, “I was so afraid that I wasn’t doing them right,” Bonnie says. Aunt Lil stayed on the phone with her as she worked her way through the recipe. Still worried that hers wouldn’t match up to aunt Lil’s, Bonnie made the cookies and froze some. “The next time [aunt Lil] made them for a family event, I took them home and compared them,” Bonnie says. Much to her relief, “they were exactly the same.”
Today, Bonnie — who was baking for one of the legendary Shabbat dinners she hosts weekly during our interview — isn’t the only protector of aunt Lil’s recipe. Lillian’s grandson Jonathan Soles, who lived with her for several years has mastered them and they are now the dish he’s known for at the Hanukkah party. “He officially carries on the tradition,” Bonnie says. “Jonathan’s are always meticulous and perfect, just like his grandmother’s.”
Aunt Lil's Meringue Rugelach
Makes: 48 rugelach
Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes + overnight resting of the dough
For the pastry:
¼ cup warm water
2 teaspoons white sugar
1 scant tablespoon active dry yeast
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1" cubes
2 egg yolks (reserve the whites for the filling)
For the filling:
¼ to ⅓ cup finely chopped walnuts, toasted
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 egg whites
½ cup granulated sugar
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted into a shallow bowl or plate
1. For the pastry: place the warm water and sugar in a 2 cup measure and sprinkle with the yeast. Stir to dissolve. Let the mixture rest for 5 to 10 minutes until bubbles form and it doubles in volume.
2. Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter. If using your hands, cut the butter into small bits with a pastry blender or your fingertips. If using a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment, but be careful not to over mix - use the lowest speed and stop when you can still see small pebble sized bits of butter in the flour.
3. Stir the yeast mixture down and add the egg yolks, mixing to combine. Add the yeast and egg mixture to the flour and combine until the dough comes together (it will be sticky - don't worry!). Divide the dough into four pieces. Shape into a ball and flatten with your hand to form into a 4" puck. Wrap each one in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
4. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350°F.
5. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it sit out for about 15 minutes before rolling, so that it softens a bit and become easier to handle.
6. For the filling: Combine the walnuts with the cinnamon in a small bowl and set aside. Beat the egg whites by hand or with a hand mixer in a glass or stainless steel bowl until light and opaque. Add the sugar gradually and continue beating until stiff peaks form.
7. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out to an approximate 12" circle. (Do not worry about perfection or attempt to re-roll the dough - it usually gets worse not better and the dough will be heavier. You can always patch up the uneven parts or make some smaller and some larger). Cut each round into twelve equally sized wedges. Place ½ to 1 teaspoon of the egg whites on the wide end of each dough wedge. Sprinkle with the cinnamon and walnut mixture.
8. Starting from the wide edge of each dough triangle, fold the dough over the meringue filling and roll the rugelach up tightly. Place on an ungreased baking sheet with the point down. Refrigerate if not baking immediately.
9. Bake the rugelach until lightly browned, about 20 to 22 minutes.
10. Remove the rugelach from the oven and immediately toss in the powdered sugar (use your fingers if they can stand the heat or use two forks or tongs to gently toss them in the sugar). Cool on a wire rack. Enjoy them while they last!