This month’s column is an homage to our cookie heritage. Many of our favorite foods have varied and interesting backgrounds. We thought it would be fun to share the roots and history behind some of our most popular treats like Rugelach, Babka, Linzer Tarts and Black and Whites. Go ahead and see if you can stump your Mom with some Mother’s Day food trivia!
“There is no other Jewish sweet that has gone more mainstream than rugelach,” says Joan Nathan in her book Jewish Cooking in America. A crescent-shaped cookie made of a rich, flaky, pastry-like dough with fillings like cinnamon, raisins, nuts, jams or chocolate, these irresistible little twists were brought to America by immigrants from Hungary and Yugoslavia. They go by several names, including kipfel (German) and kifli (Yugoslavian). Originally, the dough was yeast-based, but the American adaptation uses a cream cheese dough, possibly developed around the 1950s with encouragement from American cream cheese companies. For more information about rugelach, read the extensive information in our review of My Mother’s Delicacies.
Jewish Cooking in America, by Joan Nathan is one of the great Jewish cookbooks. Click here for more information.
A yeast-based coffee cake like no other, Babka is typically made with raisins and flavored with cinnamon, chocolate, cheese or fruit. It originated in Poland where it was also served as a special Easter treat. Brought to America by early Eastern European immigrants, its name is the Polish diminutive of baba, meaning old woman. Originally, babka was baked in either a tall cylinder or bunt-type pan with a fluted shape that resembled a grandmother’s skirt. Today, using a loaf pan is more common. Chocolate babka from Eli Zabar.
These are the cookie version of the delicious Linzer Torte, Austria’s famous dessert. The Linzer Torte is the oldest known cake in the world, dating back to 1696. It’s made with ground almonds and filled with raspberry preserves. Using the same ingredients, two cookies are sandwiched together with a layer of preserves. The top cookie is dusted with powdered sugar and has a round cutout showing the preserves, making it resemble an eye and getting the nickname, Linzer Eyes. Linzer desserts came to America in the 1850s when Franz Holzlhuber from Linz, Austria was waylaid on his way to a promised job in Milwaukee to work as an orchestra conductor. A musician, an artist, and educated in law and in draftsmanship, Holzlhuber ended up becoming a baker, introducing the Linzer Torte to America. He also left many fine sketches and paintings of the New World as he saw it. Linzer cookie set from The Baker’s Catalogue.
Black & Whites
The quintessential New York cookie! In other parts of the country they’re called half-moons or harlequins, but nothing says it better than the original. Technically, the black and white is not a cookie but a drop cake. The batter is just thick enough to hold its shape on a cookie sheet without becoming too dry. It’s topped with half vanilla and half chocolate icing. Their exact origin is lost to history: any baker will tell you they’ve been around “forever.”
Black and White cookies from ChallahConnection.com.
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