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Jewish Holiday Cookies

Michael Savino/flickr creative commons

As our collective holiday season reaches its climax, it's a great time to consider a few of the traditions that make it so enjoyable. In our Jewish community, this is the time of year when a tasty annual practice comes to the fore: the baking of Jewish holiday cookies. 

One old Hanukah standby is sufganiyot, which is so good, it's popular year-round. We're talking about a jelly-filled donut, cooked in oil. And there's the Hanukah connection. If you are an adept baker of bread, you will find this recipe a snap. You use a yeasty bread dough, which rises several times, which you cut into rounds. Let them rise again, then fry in oil. After you have drained the puffed-up donuts and let them cool down, all you need to do is fill a pastry bag with jelly and squirt it into the middle of the donut. Dust with powdered sugar and make a big bunch because all your friends are going to devour them.

One cookie that I've munched on many times is rugelach. This crescent-shaped pastry has its origins in middle Europe, and is probably quite ancient.

This is a roll-up cookie with a sweet filling. Classically, the dough is made with sour cream. The dough is cut into triangle shapes, then filled with any one of a long list of treats: cinamon, walnuts raisins, poppy seeds, chocolate or marzipan, to name a few. You roll the filled dough into a crescent and then bake them in an oven for about 20 minutes on 350°.

Mandelbrot is a holiday staple, and people can be pardoned to thinking it has an uncanny resemblance to biscotti. Chances are both cookies have an ancient common ancestor and drifted apart back in the mists of time. In both cases a sweet dough is shaped into a broad loaf and then baked. The loaf is cut into the familiar small slabs and baked again. Because the mandelbrot dough is moister, it stays a little softer in the middle. The "mandel" part of the name is Yiddish for almond, an ingredient also common to biscotti. To achieve variety any number of additional ingredients can be added: dried fruit, almonds, cinnamon, or chocolate chips are popular choices. Purists argue that the madelbrot should be dipped only in tea, but we think you should try whatever hot drink your heart desires.

Whatever culinary tradition you grew up with, the holiday season doesn't seem complete without sugar cookies. This easy to make dough is rolled out quite thin and then cut into shapes. Christians go for Christmas trees, angels and stars, and Jewish people go for Star of David, menorahs, and dreidels. I went online and was delighted to see that Hanukah-themed cookie cutters are easy to find and very inexpensive. 

Christmas sugar cookies usually have some sort of sweet sprinkled on them.

But Hanukah sugar cookies are at their best when iced. Blue and white Royal Icing, a purpose-designed concoction is just the ticket here.  Pipe it onto your cookies with a pastry bag and small circular tip, and you'll be good to go.

And to all our faithful listeners out there, Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas and Joyful Holidays to one and all.


Royal Icing


3 ounces pasteurized egg whites

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 cups confectioners' sugar


In large bowl of stand mixer combine the egg whites and vanilla and beat until frothy. Add confectioners' sugar gradually and mix on low speed until sugar is incorporated and mixture is shiny. Turn speed up to high and beat until mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks. This should take approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Add food coloring, if desired. For immediate use, transfer icing to pastry bag or heavy duty storage bag and pipe as desired. If using storage bag, clip corner. Store in airtight container in refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.