A Strong Sense of Place

Admittedly, the picture below doesn’t look like much.

It’s off center, out of focus, the lighting is all wrong. And, it could be just about anywhere.

Of course, it’s not.

It’s taken at the corner of Rivington and Stanton on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Squint and you’ll see my mother in the lower right part of the photo. Her Auntie Hannah lived in this building in the 1950s.

It was different then—then, she had a bathtub in the kitchen with a piece of plywood to cover it when it wasn’t in use.

Now, the hallways are being repainted, the entryway is well lit.

Zuflacht’s is still on the corner, nominally speaking, at least.

It’s an art gallery now, though the facade remains. The Essex Street Market, too—still there, but gentrified. My Bobbie used to talk about going with her mother to get freshly killed chicken and having to clean the pin feathers out. Now you can buy quinoa and organic soaps.

And, so, my mother and I walked around the old neighborhood, talking about how things had changed. As you can imagine, there was a lot of say. Not least when we met the developer of my great aunts’s old building who shared some stories from his family’s history, too.

I was thinking then about how, when I first returned to New York following graduate school and was desperate to get off of Long Island and start my real life, an apartment anywhere would do. Almost.

The Lower East side was out. How could I go back after my mother’s family had tried so hard to move away themselves? And, what of the gentrification? Necessary, I suppose, but it made me uneasy to say the least.

And, so, for years, my knowledge of Manhattan was like a half-finished map. I knew Delancy Street, yes, but I knew it in the context of a movie watched yearly at Hebrew School. The takeaway, I think, was that intermarriage was bad. Or, maybe if was that if you meet someone who can keep you well stocked in half sours, hold on to them with all of your might.

It occurs to me now that I should have paid more attention (although, for the record: I make my own pickles. Make of that what you will).

All of this is to simply to say it took me years to appreciate what was there as part of my own family history, to let the streets to start to reveal their secrets to me and to fill in the gaps of what I knew of my grandparents.

And, so, when I finally went to Katz’s, it felt long overdue.

And, it hardly felt surprising when, after a few sips of Cel-Ray Tonic I found myself thinking about improving upon it with some gin, becoming guilty of putting my own gentrified spin on it in the process.

I’m still formulating a cocktail.

In the meantime, here’s a recipe for another classic—Rugelach—that needs no improvement. I must confess, however, that this is another cookie that took me years to warm to, much like the Lower East Side.

So, slowly, I’m learning.

Recipe adapted from The New York Times

For the dough:
4 ounces cold cream cheese
1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the filling:
2/3 cup raspberry jam
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup raisins

To make the dough: Let the cream cheese and butter rest on the counter for 10 minutes until they are softened, but still cool.

Put the flour and salt in a food processor, scatter over the chunks of cream cheese and butter and pulse the machine 6 to 10 times. Then process, scraping down the sides of the bowl often, just until the dough forms large curds. You want the dough to be blended, but not to form a ball around the blades of the machine. If the dough forms a ball, it has been over worked.

Turn the dough out, gather it into a ball and divide it in half. Shape each half into a disk, wrap the disks in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 1 day.

To make the filling: Heat the jam until it liquefies. Mix the sugar and cinnamon together. Set aside.

Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.

To shape the cookies: Pull one packet of dough from the refrigerator. If it is too firm to roll easily, either leave it on the counter for about 10 minutes or give it a few bashes with your rolling pin.
Working on a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 11- to 12-inch circle. Spoon (or brush) a thin gloss of jam over the dough, and sprinkle over half of the cinnamon sugar. Scatter over half of the nuts and half of the raisins. Cover the filling with a piece of wax paper and gently press the filling into the dough, then remove the paper and save it for the next batch.
Using a pizza wheel or a sharp knife, cut the dough into 16 wedges, or triangles. (The easiest way to do this is to cut the dough into quarters, then to cut each quarter into 4 triangles.) Starting at the base of each triangle, roll the dough up so that each cookie becomes a little crescent. Arrange the roll-ups on one baking sheet, making sure the points are tucked under the cookies, and refrigerate. Repeat with the second packet of dough, and refrigerate the cookies for at least 30 minutes before baking. (The cookies can be covered and refrigerated overnight or frozen for up to 2 months; don’t defrost before baking, just add a couple of extra minutes to the baking time.)

Getting ready to bake: Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Bake the cookies 20 to 25 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back at the midway point, until they are puffed and golden. Transfer the cookies to racks to cool to just warm or to room temperature.

Makes approximately 3 dozen cookies


1 Comment

Filed under Brunch, Cookies, Dessert

One response to “A Strong Sense of Place

  1. Such a great post–I love the family history, which always seems to lead to the kitchen. Mmmm…and I’ve never made rugelach. Perhaps I shall try.

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