5 Amazing, Iconic Jewish Cookies
Five iconic Jewish cookies – and recipes – that reflect the vicissitudes of Jewish history and the resourcefulness of Jewish cooks.
Mandelbrot means “almond bread” in Yiddish. It’s made by forming an almond-flavored dough into a loaf, baking it, then cutting it into slices and baking those slices a second time. Mandelbrot bears a striking relationship to Italian biscotti; in fact, the two pastries share a common origin.
Baked twice, biscotti are hard and long-lasting. The name comes from Latin (bis means twice and coctum means cooked) and might indicate that twice-baked bread has its origins in Roman times. Italian cooks began to bake sweet biscotti in the Middle Ages. Food historian Gil Marks notes that some historians believe the very first sweet biscotti were baked by Jewish cooks in the Jewish ghetto in Venice. These original biscotti were flavored with anise or nuts and became wildly popular not only in Italy but also in central Europe.
Jews embraced the cookies – using the Yiddish name mandelbrot – and they were soon considered a Jewish delicacy. A key difference was the use of oil instead of butter in Jewish mandelbrot, so that they could be eaten after a meat meal on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. After baking soda was invented in the mid-1800s, some Jewish bakers began adding it to their mandelbrot – resulting in a lighter, fluffier cookie. In America, cooks started substituting dried fruits or chocolate to mandelbrot’s signature almonds, giving a New World flavor to this classic pastry.
Here’s a classic recipe to try:
- 3 eggs
- ¼ cup (175 g) sugar
- 1 cup (250 ml) vegetable oil
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- Grated zest of 1 orange
- A few drops of vanilla extract
- A pinch of salt
- 1 T baking powder
- 3 ¾ cups (500) flour
- ½ – 1 cup (100-200 g) whole blanched almonds
- 1 egg yolk to glaze
Beat the eggs with the sugar to a pale, thick cream. Add the oil, lemon and orange zest, vanilla extract, salt and baking powder and beat to a light emulsion. Now blend in the flour and work in the blanched almonds. Oiling your hands so that they do ot stick, shape the dough into 2 or 3 long slim logs about 3 inches (7 ½ cm) wide, on a well-oiled baking sheet. Leave a good space in between because they spread. Brush with egg yolk and bake in a preheated 350-degree F (180-degree C) oven for 30 minutes, or until lightly browned.
Let the cakes cool, then cut into diagonal slices about ½ inch (1 ¼ cm) thick. Arrange the slices, cut side up, on baking sheets and bake in a preheated 400-degree F (200 degree C) oven for about 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. They keep for a long time in a tin box.
(From The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York by Claudia Roden: 1996.)
Kahk – also known as ka’ak, biscocho, biscotcho, rosca and roskita – are an ancient form of hard, round biscuit that is found throughout Jewish communities in the Middle East.
There are many forms of this popular biscuit. For years, kahk were a savory treat, often flavored with sesame seeds; with the popularization of sugar in the Middle East during the Middle Ages, many cooks began baking sweet kahk pastries as well. Kahk is often baked using a yeast-based dough, though some modern cooks make kahk with dough leavened with baking powder. Syrian Jews bake a delicious kosher for Passover version of kahk that uses ground almonds instead of wheat flour, called kahk bi loz.
In Spain, Jews baked small round pastries twice – like Italian biscotti – and called these hard pastries variously roscas or biscochos. Jewish bakers made their ring-shaped cookies differently from their non-Jewish neighbors: Jewish cooks generally used oil in their pastries (as opposed to butter or lard); another Jewish innovation was adding eggs to the dough. Spanish Jews also developed a softer version of roscas, which was only baked once and was more cake-like, which became a beloved Shabbat treat. When Spain expelled its Jews in 1492, Sephardi (Spanish) Jews took their love of biscocho/roscas with them to new homes.
“Biscocho” soon came to mean any cookie in Ladino, the language of Sephardi Jews. Hard, ring-shaped cookies became a hallmark of Sephardi Jewish cooks across the world. Like kahk, there are many versions of biscocho/roscas/roskitas. They can be savory or sweet. In some communities they lost their traditional round shape. For instance, “roscas alhashu” are popular Purim cookies among Balkan Jews: these are crescent-shaped cookies stuffed with walnuts.
Here is a traditional recipe for Biscochos:
- 385–420g plain flour, plus more for rolling
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1⁄4 tsp kosher salt
- 3 eggs
- 120 ml vegetable oil
- 200g sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp finely grated orange zest
- Sesame seeds, for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, whisk together 385g flour, the baking powder, and salt.
In a stand mixer (or using a handheld electric mixer and a large bowl), beat 2 of the eggs, the oil, sugar, vanilla, and orange zest at medium-high speed until pale and creamy, 2–3 minutes.
Add the flour mixture in two additions, beating to incorporate and scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary, until a firm but pliable dough forms. If the dough is too wet or sticky to handle, add up to 35g additional flour, 1 tablespoon at a time as needed, until the desired consistency is reached. (You may not need all of the additional flour.)
Working on a lightly floured surface, pinch off a walnut- size piece of dough and roll it into a rope that is 15cm long and about 1.25cm thick. Repeat with several more pieces of dough. Using a sharp knife, score little notches about 16mm apart along the length of each of the ropes.
With the notched edge facing out, form each rope into a ring, gently pressing the ends together to seal.
Place on the prepared baking sheets. Repeat the rolling, scoring, and shaping process until all of the dough is used.
In a small bowl, beat the remaining egg. Brush the rings with a little egg (you may not use all of it) and sprinkle generously with sesame seeds. Bake, rotating the sheets front to back halfway through, until the cookies are gently puffed and golden brown, 20–25 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to cool. They will continue to firm up as they cool.
With their Yiddish name and old fashioned-seeming ingredients, these popular Jewish cookies seem like they’ve been around forever. In fact, rugelach as we know it is a New World invention, popularized by Jewish cooks in the United States after World War II.
As its Yiddish name implies, the roots of rugelach lie back in the shtetls of Europe. Rugelach are rich pastries: a flaky dough is studded with fillings – walnut, sugar and cinnamon is one popular combination – then rolled up and formed into a crescent. They are similar to several other crescent-shaped cookies that are popular throughout Europe. Kipfel are crescent shaped cookies made out of yeast dough and stuffed with fruits or jam that were popular in the Autro-Hungarian Empire. Czech kolaches are rounds of yeast down surrounding jam. French croissants are crescent-shaped yeast pastries that are thought to recall the defeat of Ottoman forces (represented by the Islamic crescent in the Turkish flag) at the Battle of Vienna in 1683.
The name rugelach might have entered Yiddish from the Polish word rogel meaning horn, which the cookies’ shape resembled. But little evidence that Jewish cooks were making rugelach in Europe exists. In fact, the first known mention of rugelach was in the 1941 American cookbook The Jewish Home Beautiful by Betty D. Greenberg and Althea O. Silverman. They called their cookies “Crescents or Rugelach”. Instead of using a yeast dough, like many European crescent-shape cookies call for, they used a new American invention to give their dough a rich taste: cream cheese. “Here is a raised dough recipe minus the bogey of countless hours of rising and endless kneading,” they wrote; “The method is not traditional; in fact, it is quite modern…” (Quoted in Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks: 2010.)
The recipe Greenberg and Silverman provided was remarkably similar to one distributed by Kraft Food in 1939 to promote their new product, Philadelphia Cream Cheese. The Kraft recipe called for cream cheese to be mixed with shortening, flour and salt, then refrigerated overnight before being rolled out, stuffed and baked – a familiar recipe to many Jewish cooks today.
Since then, rugelach have been adapted to include parve (non-dairy) options that omit dairy ingredients and can be eaten with a meat meal. Cooks tinker with the fillings too: chocolate is a popular rugelach ingredient today. Some Jewish cooks serve classic cream-cheese based rugelach on the holidays of Hanukkah and Shavuot when it’s customary to eat dairy foods.
Here is Betty Greenberg’s and Althea Silverman’s 1941 rugelach recipe:
- 4-1/2 cups flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 pound butter
- Rind of 1/2 lemon, grated
- 3/4 tsp. salt
- 2 yeast cakes dissolved in 1/4 cup warm milk
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 3 tbsp. butter melted
- 1/2 cup nuts, chopped
- 1 tbsp. cream
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla
- Rind of 1/2 lemon
For the Dough
Sift the flour, salt, and sugar into a bowl and cut in the butter as for a pie crust. When it is finely crumbled, add the grated rind, the beaten eggs (reserve a little of the white for the brushing the tops), the sour cream and the dissolved yeast.
Knead until the dough comes away from the bowl without sticking. Cover and set in the refrigerator overnight.
To Make the Filling:
To make the filling, mix all filling ingredients together.
The next morning divide the dough into eight parts, and return to the refrigerator, removing only one part at a time.
Roll each piece to form a 9" round and spread with the filling.
Now divide the round into six wedge-shaped pieces like a pie, by cutting it first in half, then dividing each half into thirds. Roll each wedge from the outer rim of the circle to the center and then curve it into a crescent. Brush the top with the beaten white of an egg and sprinkle with sugar.
Place on a greased tin, allowing room to double in size. Allow about two hours for rising, then bake in a 350° oven.
(From The Jewish Home Beautiful by Betty D. Greenberg and Althea O. Silverman: 1941.)
Teiglach are small nuggets of dough that are baked in a thick, sweet honey-based syrup. A popular Rosh Hashanah dish, they are popular throughout the Ashkenazi Jewish world, and are particularly associated with Jewish communities from Lithuania. Many Lithuanian Jews emigrated to South Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and teiglach have become a beloved element of South African Jewish cuisine.
Despite its Ashkenazi associations, teiglach originated with Sephardi Jews. Cooking or soaking biscuits in sweet syrup is a popular mode of cooking in the Middle East, and Sephardi Jews embraced it. Muslims in Spain used to make a dish of small balls of dough simmered in honey called pinonate; Spanish Jews adopted this, calling it pinyonati, and spreading it to other Jewish communities, particularly in Italy, which had a thriving Jewish community in the Middle Ages and maintained many trading links with Jewish communities in Spain.
Soon, sweets consisting of balls of dough cooked in honey were a favorite of Italian Jews. Northern Italian Jews called this cicerchiata (meaning chickpea, whose shape the dough balls resembled); in southern Italy, Jews added hazelnuts to the confection and called it struffoli. This was a popular Hanukkah dish.
As the dish spread to new Jewish communities, Yiddish-speaking Jews called it teiglach, meaning little pieces of dough. While many Sephardi cooks fried the balls of dough, northern and eastern European Jews either baked them or cooked them directly in the honey. They also began to add egg to the dough to give it a lighter texture.
One Canada-based mom, Lynn Jacobson, who was born in South Africa, recalled to the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia that “Teiglach were served at every holiday, except Passover”. This is Ms. Jacobson’s family recipe:
- 6 large eggs, minus 1 white
- 1 Tbsp. corn oil
- 1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp. vanilla
- 1/8 tsp. ground ginger
- pinch of salt
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- Syrup Ingredients:
- 2 cups water
- 3 cups Lyle's Golden Syrup, a South African sweetener that can be ordered on Amazon.com, or substitute with honey
- 2 cups granulated sugar
In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs until frothy. Add the remaining dough ingredients. Beat until a soft dough forms.
Take a small amount of dough and roll it in your palms, forming a ball 1/4-inch in diameter. Continue until no dough remains. (If the dough is sticky, moisten hands with water.) Place teiglach balls on a platter and reserve.
To Prepare Syrup: Place all syrup preparation ingredients into a large, deep pot. Stir to blend. Cover the pot; bring it a low boil. Remove the pot from the flame. One by one, carefully slide each teiglach ball into the syrup. Give the pot a quick stir and then cover it. Return to the flame and bring to low boil. Do not uncover the pot for 20 minutes. Watch the pot almost continuously to avoid a spillover. Should the syrup rise more than halfway up the pot, lower the flame immediately.
Open pot and stir the contents. Teiglach should be brown. If not, simmer a few minutes more. Remove from flame; cool to room temperature. Serve immediately or place in an airtight container.
Makes about 100 teiglach.
Long associated with Jewish cuisine, macaroons were probably first made in the early Middle Ages in either France or Italy: a number of legends attribute their invention to Christian religious communities in those two countries. Food historian Gil Marks notes that confections made of ground nuts mixed with sugar were popular in Medieval Muslim communities as well: amarguillos were made from almonds and sugar in Moorish Spain, while similar pastries were called hadfi badam in Iraq and guizadas in Tunisia. He speculates that Jewish traders from Spain might have been among the first to introduce these pastries to Italy. (Described in Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks: 2010.)
Italian cooks began making pastries out of ground almonds, sugar, and egg whites. While the name macaroon came from Italian ammaccare, meaning to crush – a reference to the crushed almonds that lend many macaroons their delicious taste – the name was invented in France, where French cooks welcomed and popularized this Italian delicacy. Macaroons were also embraced by Italian Jewish cooks, who made them for Passover meals: containing no flour, macaroons were an ideal Passover treat.
Soon, macaroons were intensely popular with Jewish cooks, and not only on Passover. Macaroons spread throughout Jewish communities. When cooks were unable to afford almonds, which can be expensive and difficult to find, other nuts such as walnuts and hazelnuts were substituted instead. In the late 1800s, American cooks particularly embraced shredded coconut, which was readily available, as a base for their macaroons. The rise of kosher for Passover packaged food made by companies such as Streit’s and Manischewitz accelerated the trend towards substituting coconut for almonds in macaroons, as they created delicious coconut-based packaged pastries.
Here is traditional Sephardi-style recipe for almond macaroons:
- 3 cups (15 ounces) almonds
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 egg whites
- Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
Blanch almonds in boiling water for 2 minutes. Remove, drain and peel. When cool, grind in a food processor.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper and set aside. In a medium-size bowl mix the ground almonds, sugar and egg whites. Drop from a teaspoon onto the cookie sheets, leaving 1/2 inch between macaroons. Bake 12 to 15 minutes, or until lightly brown. Dust with confectioners' sugar when cool.