friday feast: sondra gash, quite a cookie

#16 in the Poetry Potluck Series, celebrating National Poetry Month 2012.

If you give a poet a cookie, she will eat it, learn to make more, and then grow up to write a poem about it that millions of people will hear on the radio.

I’m talking about Sondra Gash’s, “Rugelah, 5 a.m.,” of course, which Garrison Keillor read on The Writer’s Almanac back in August 2010. Sondra’s poem made me hungry to learn more about this popular Jewish confection, which is enjoyed year round and often called “cream cheese cookies” here in the U.S.

Rugelach dough is commonly rolled into a circle, then sliced into pie wedges which are then rolled up to form crescent shapes (via S. Filson).

Depending upon whom you talk to, the Yiddish term”rugelach,” can be translated as “royal,” “little twists,” or “horns.” The practice of combining cream cheese or sour cream with fruit, nuts, jams, and spices to make cookies, cakes and other pastries is a central European tradition with ancient Middle Eastern roots.

We have to thank Eastern European immigrants for bringing the first rugelach recipes to this country. According to Joan Nathan (Jewish Cooking in America), “There is no other Jewish sweet that has gone more mainstream than rugelach.” Though I have yet to bake any myself, thus far I’ve been unable to resist these rich, flaky little crescents whenever they appear on a holiday cookie tray or in a bakery window: raspberry jam and dark chocolate! marzipan and walnuts! cinnamon, poppy seeds, apricot preserves, raisins! A bite of history that stays with you forever.

Take another bite of this Apricot-Pecan-Raisin Rugelach. Yum! (via S. Filson)

Though Sondra’s poem stands beautifully on its own, it’s actually one of 80 sequential poems from Silk Elegy (CavenKerry Press, 2002), a poignant narrative about the Bronsky family, early 20th century Jewish immigrants who fled Poland and settled in Paterson, NJ, the silk capital of the country and a center of radical unionism.

Sondra calls Silk Elegy “a blending of poetry and novella”; the poems are told in three alternating voices, mainly that of teenage daughter Faye, whose life is disrupted by her mother’s mental illness (the characters are based on Sondra’s mother and grandparents). I love the quiet ritual described in “Rugelah, 5 a.m.,” the intimate, dreamlike atmosphere, just these two in a world of their own baking before dawn, greeting a new day.

Black Cherry-Chocolate-Almond Rugelach via S. Filson.

Sondra: This poem was inspired by my grandmother.  On Friday afternoons, when I was a girl, I would stop by my Grandmother’s house on the way home from school to help her with her chores and as a reward she would send me home with a little carton of her rugelah.  My mother also made it and when I grew older I too, baked it.

RUGELAH, 5 a.m.
by Sondra Gash

The house is dark
and breathing deep
under the covers
when she comes to the sofa.

In our nightgowns
we tiptoe into the kitchen.
I’m barefoot,
she’s wearing slippers.

We lift bowls from the shelf,
soften cream cheese and butter,
roll dough into a circle,
spread blackberry jam

with the back of a spoon.
Flour dusts our fingers.
We work quickly, lightly —
it’s a dance — she leads,

I follow, together we lean
over the table,
our hands shaping ovals —
folding, pressing the edges.

As light sifts through the window
we slide the trays into the oven
and glide through the quiet
to wait for the rising.

Copyright © 2002 Sondra Gash (Silk Elegy, CavanKerry Press). All rights reserved.


Rugelach dough can also be rolled into a rectangle, formed into logs and then sliced into rounds before baking.


¼ lb butter
¼ lb cream cheese
1 cup flour
Mix and soften
Create two balls
Refrigerate for at least two hours.

Take out and allow to reach room temperature.
Roll out each ball – one at a time
Between two pieces of wax paper.
Roll out dough with a rolling pin
About ¼ of an inch thick.

Remove top piece of wax paper,
Spread apricot jam over dough.
Add raisins, chopped walnuts,
dash of cinnamon sugar,
Squeeze one slice of lemon over all.

Roll dough into a log
Repeat with second ball
Grease a cookie sheet
And bake at 350 degrees about 35 minutes
until lightly browned.

When cool cut into pieces  about 1 ½  inches each.



Sondra Gash is a recipient of fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts (for both fiction and poetry), the Corporation of Yaddo, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has been awarded a Puffin Foundation grant to conduct a series of creative writing workshops designed to help workers, teachers and others explore their lives and communicate the experience of the American worker. She has read and led a workshop at the Dodge Foundation in Waterloo, NJ and at other venues including a reading and workshop for teachers on immigrant experience at Ellis Island.

Silk Elegy, a collection of poems that tells the story of a young girl from an immigrant family disrupted by her mother’s mental illness, was chosen as a Finalist for the 2003 Paterson Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in the New York Times, Calyx, Paterson Literary Review, U. S. 1 Worksheets and the anthology, Washing Lines, a collection of poems.

Learn more about Silk Elegy in this interview.


Previously: Menu/Giveaway/Door PrizesApril Pulley SayreMary QuattlebaumHelen FrostLinda AshmanGail Gerwin, Martha Calderaro, Kathi Appelt, Robyn Hood Black, Charles Waters, Adele Kenny, Linda Baie, Lesa Medley, Leslie Muir, Margarita Engle.


Noodle-y Doodle-y Diane is hosting this week’s Poetry Friday Roundup at Random Noodling. Put on your bibs and check out the full menu of lip-smacking posts being laid out on the blogospheric table. And please give Diane a fork.


This post is also being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share food-related posts (fiction/nonfiction/cookbook/movie reviews, recipes, photos, musings, etc.).



Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

66 thoughts on “friday feast: sondra gash, quite a cookie

  1. My first poetry encounter with Sondra was at one of her readings, where her “Rugeleh, 5 am” resonated. She has become inspiration, mentor and — most important — friend. What a tasty treat for the senses to start this morning! I think there’s some cream cheese in the fridge —


  2. I imagine that rugeleh at 5 a.m…. with a slight feeling of envy. Imagine giving someone that gift – the memory of making it, and the joy of eating it! Doubly sweet.


  3. I love the quiet morning dance “she leads, I follow.”. Now I really want some rugelach, of course! I wonder if my daughter will make some with me? I am definitely going to find this book! Thanks for telling me about it. 🙂


    1. Yes, you and your daughter should definitely make some — you’ll both have that wonderful memory to always share :).


  4. A wonderful poem by a wonderful poet! I can’t wait to try the recipe! Thank you Jama, and thank you, Sondra!


  5. Oh my, I love raspberry rugelach so much. I wish I had one right now to go with my coffee. I haven’t yet had the courage to try to make it gluten-free yet but boy do I miss it.
    I love the image of the house “breathing deep/ under the covers”. Thank you for sharing.


    1. I hope you’re able to find a good gluten free recipe to make it, Katya. As long as it doesn’t have to be dairy-free, it would probably work out well.


  6. OMG, I got so busy with the Round-Up, I forgot breakfast! The rugelach has me drooling. By the way, I like your choice of Mrs. Pattmore at Tabatha’s blog.


    1. Leslie, those were the lines that whispered to me as well! Thank you, Sondra – your book sounds like a wonderful follow-up to the immigrant story I just read A GOOD AMERICAN by Alex George. Jama, thanks for the lovely introduction. And hey, I bet Diane can manage just fine with her chopsticks. 🙂


  7. Another post to drool for. I’m struck with how many features in this series give us a taste of food, for sure, but such poignant descriptions of rich relationships underneath – and running through generations. Thank you, Sondra and Jama!

    (Leslie stole my favorite lines – I must have missed this on the Writers Almanac, and when I read here just now the last line literally took my breath away.)

    Can you pass me one of those tasty bites now?


    1. Have as much rugelach as you like, Robyn. The last line is definitely swoon-worthy. And it’s definitely been a theme here this month — it’s been wonderful tracing the roots of these recipes and hearing the family stories.


  8. Poetry potluck is definitely dangerous as swimsuit season approaches…must savor the words and look away from the recipes.

    **(chomps on ricecake)**

    Just kidding. i can’t bear ricecakes!


  9. Another yummy post! You never disappoint!

    I have never tasted rugelach but I must now that I have seen your photos, and read the poem…mmmmm



  10. The first stanza is so gentle; it’s the perfect invitation to come beside them and share the baking…

    I first had rugelach in Rhode Island; I had no idea where it came from, only that it was irresistible. And I thought from the flaky crust and the lovely rolled shape that it must be hard to make, but this recipe isn’t intimidating at all. Of course, if I’m lazy, there’s a bakery five minutes away that makes wonderful apricot ones. And chocolate ones. I go there to buy bread, but then wind up with rugelach, too. Sneaky things.


    1. Jealous that you have a nearby bakery selling these! The recipe calls for few ingredients (other than an unlimited variety of fillings according to personal preference), but I imagine the rolling and shaping could be tricky and might require a little practice, as well as extra time and patience. I think I would probably do the logs version, which sounds easier than trying to roll out a perfect circle to cut wedges.


  11. I am in awe of this poem, these pastries. The words in the poem create such a tiptoey feeling of secrecy, but the nice kind, the kind that makes good poems! And those pictures! Makes me want to run right out for a bite of rugelah, or something flaky at least. Thank you Jama and Sondra.


    1. The poem has a quiet, secretive tone — takes us right into that time before the rest of the world is awake. Magical!


  12. Like Sara, I thought rugelah must be difficult to make, but this recipe seems doable. That’s reassuring. And the poem is so lovely — it captures a particular quiet moment so perfectly.


  13. I love the poem! Both my grandmothers, my mother, all my aunts, and all the women of my generation make rugelah. Easy as can be. We tend to make the logs (I guess we’re lazy) and cut into bite-size bits.

    The poem makes me miss by grandmothers terribly.


  14. What an INTENSELY yummy post. I haven’t heard of rugelach, but now that I do, I hope I can find it here in Singapore. If I do, I would be sure to let you know. 🙂 I also love the early-morning, wake-up feel of the entire poem. Thanks for sharing this and those yummy-licious photographs.


  15. Oh my–can it really be that easy? If so, why am I not making these every week? Sondra’s poem captures perfectly that premorning feeling I know well when, particularly around the holidays, I’m in the kitchen in the dark making something yummy. The act becomes something ritual and reverent, which would be just work in the middle of the day!


  16. Ohhh the rugelach looks fabulous!!! The ;poem is so heartwarming and lovely. I thoroughly enjoyed your post!


  17. Thanks for introducing me to Sondra Gash and her special cookies. The poem was lovely. I like how she took the act of baking early in the morning into a way to remember and honor her mother and her heritage. Beautiful. I want to read more of her poetry.


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