Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Happy Hanukkah!

I have been invited to a holiday cookie party tomorrow, and there are six invitees, so each of us needs to bring six dozen cookies to swap. We got a preview of my friend June's gingerbread cut-outs tonight at pub trivia, and they were spicy and delicious! But the thought of rolling out, cutting, and then frosting 70 cookies made me want to take my own life. I am still making batches of toffee for relatives and another cranberry-orange pound cake for my roomie's parents, so I needed something less involved for my cookie offering. I honestly considered Rice Krispie treats at one point (fancy ones, mind you, with Froot Loops and Rainbow Pebbles and such, a la Alexis Stewart). But when I was at the health food co-op yesterday, I spotted a beautiful bag of finely-diced dried apricots, and I had a vision. I would make a version of one of my favorite holiday cookies, that Jewish and/or Eastern European favorite, rugelach. Rugelach is made with a rich, unsweetened cream cheese dough, filled with cinnamon sugar, nuts, and/or some kind of fruit. You roll out small rounds of dough, sprinkle on the filling ingredients, cut into triangles, and then roll each cookie up, not unlike canned crescent rolls. The recipe I use is from 1999's Holiday Baking Magazine from Woman's Day. This fabulous magazine is also the source of my croissant bread pudding recipe. I am absolutely OBSESSED with holiday baking magazines--I need a 12-step program! Anyway, the original recipe is for rugelach filled with hazelnuts and brown sugar, but I play fast and loose with this template. This time, I swapped out toasted walnuts for the filberts, and added an equal amount of the diced apricots for good measure. Whatever you fill yours with, they would be perfect for your cookie swap, holiday party, and particularly, for Hanukkah (I think our Jewish friends are up to six candles as of tomorrow night, if I am not mistaken).

Hazelnut and Brown Sugar Rugelach
(Source: Holiday Baking Magazine, 1999)

For the pastry:
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 lb. cream cheese, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour

For the filling:
1 1/3 cups hazelnuts (or walnuts or pecans)
1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons (1/2 a stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

* 1 1/3 cup dried apricots, finely diced (or dried fruit of your choice), optional

For the topping:
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 egg white, beaten with 1 tablespoon water (I used a whole egg)

To make the pastry, in a large bowl, combine the butter and cream cheese. Using an electric mixer set on high speed, beat until smooth. Mix in the salt. Reduce the speed to low, add the flour, and mix just until a dough forms. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface. Using floured hands, form the dough into a log. Cut into 4 equal pieces. Flatten each piece into a disk and wrap separately in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours or as long as overnight.

Preheat an oven to 350°F. To make the filling, spread the nuts on a baking sheet and toast, stirring occasionally, until they deepen in color, about 10 minutes. Let cool, then chop finely. Increase the oven temperature to 375°F.

Butter 2 baking sheets (I prefer to use Silpats instead). Let the dough disks stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes to soften slightly. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together the brown sugar, granulated sugar and cinnamon.

Flour 1 dough disk and place between 2 sheets of waxed paper. Roll out into a round 10 inches in diameter and 1/8 inch thick. Remove the top sheet and brush the dough with the melted butter, then sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of the brown sugar mixture. Top with about 1/3 cup of the nuts (and 1/3 cup dried fruit, if using). Using a rolling pin, gently roll over the filling to help it adhere to the dough. Cut the round into 12 wedges (a pizza cutter works great). Starting at the wide end, roll up each wedge. Transfer to a prepared baking sheet (you can get 18 of them on one half-sheet pan), arranging the cookies point-side down and spacing them 1 inch apart.

To make the topping, in a small bowl, mix together the granulated sugar and cinnamon. Brush the cookies with the egg wash, then sprinkle with the cinnamon-sugar topping.

Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes (I baked two trays at a time, rotating halfway through the baking time, and mine took 22-24 minutes). Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool. Repeat with the remaining dough, filling and topping. Store cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days. Makes 4 dozen cookies.

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