On Tuesday afternoon, New Waterloo corporate pastry chef Amanda Rockman was rolling out dough lightly, a motion she says mimics how a cat curls up its back, for rugelach, a flaky, croissantlike roll stuffed with something sweet, such as chocolate or jam.
"I make mine a little thinner," Amanda’s mom, Lusia Rockman, called out.
Amanda glanced up and smiled. See? This is the sort of Jedi mind trick voodoo only moms can do. The comment was not a critique or a suggestion, but it wasn’t not a critique or a suggestion.
It’s all in good fun though. Lusia said Amanda’s rugelach is twice as good as hers, and later, Amanda would ask for her mom’s help getting a food processor to work.
I was in Amanda and her husband Nick Taylor’s kitchen to see how an Austin-based pastry chef puts together her annual Hanukkah party when she’s off the clock, and to learn why she keeps throwing it. She was showing me how to make rugelach with five hours to go until her guests, a bit of a who’s who of Austin’s dining scene and her family, arrived.
The Hanukkah party was scheduled almost a week before the holiday begins on Dec. 22 because Amanda will be in Montana working for most of the eight-day celebration. Tuesday happened to be the day that worked best for everyone’s busy schedules, too.
Party prep meant more rugelach needed to be baked, a spritz had to be swirled in a punch bowl, noodle kugel was to be mixed and popped in the oven, and Nick had a prime rib to attend to when he got home later.
Amanda used a ruler to measure out triangle slices of the soft, pudgy dough. She brushed melted butter onto the slices, which looked like a line of like small, naked pizzas, on a bright white kitchen island in the Southeast Austin home she shares with her husband, who is a Torchy’s Tacos managing partner.
A row of clear containers — with small chocolate bars, homemade strawberry-raspberry jam, walnuts and currants, raw sugar, an egg wash and raisins — were within reaching distance from the dough for filling and coating.
Like her mom, Amanda is methodical and meticulous. Lusia used to sit at the family’s kitchen island in Houston and write out a cooking prep list in perfect cursive on long pieces of paper. Amanda on Tuesday brought out sheets of typed notes — ingredients, measurements and timing. She stood over the kitchen island while her mom sat in a dining chair she turned toward the kitchen so she could watch.
Amanda’s mother-in-law, Lynn Gingras-Taylor, was there, too. She told me about the desserts Amanda has made, jokingly pointing to her stomach to show just how delicious they were.
When Amanda first decided to throw a Hanukkah party in 2015, she had recently left her life in Chicago for a job in Austin — getting South Congress Hotel running — that sometimes had her sleeping at work. She and Nick married that November.
Maybe it was tradition, or because she was getting older, but Amanda needed to do something Jewish.
"I feel like maybe I’m mourning the loss, I’m getting real deep now, of maybe my kitchen family. Maybe just trying to find it somewhere else," she said. She no longer has an everyday team, she said. "You kind of mourn the loss of having that kind of connection. So this is kind of nice to be able to have that."
Depending on where you grew up in Texas, being Jewish here can be lonely. Amanda outsourced her Jewish experiences to summer camp in Bruceville or at youth group or through a Hanukkah party in the town over.
"So I remember two days before Hanukkah (in 2015) I was like, ‘We’re going to throw a Hanukkah party!’ And my husband is a white boy from Iowa, not Jewish, and he was like, ‘OK!’" Amanda said. "I texted all my friends and I was like, ‘Hanukkah party, blah, blah, blah.’ I remember making potato latkes; I bought so many potatoes. I made so many. I was like, ‘What am I doing?’"
Now, Amanda’s Jewish experiences include Laura Sawicki’s potato latkes. Laura, the pastry chef at Launderette and Fresa’s, was in charge of the latkes on Tuesday, and Oseyo chef Mike Diaz was supposed to handle the vegetables.
Only one of those dishes made it to the table, and let’s just say the latkes were perfectly crispy and crunchy and salty and good with sour cream or Laura’s homemade applesauce.
"Rockman calls them silver dollar," Sawicki said of the latkes’ small, flat and thin circular shape. "I call them, ‘They fry faster!’"
Bette Midler and Regina Spektor songs played as the guests arrived. The playlist was determined using the same rule the party lives by — you have to be a little Jewish.
Nick’s brother, Zach Taylor, and his girlfriend, Lily Wood, were still allowed to come to the party, even after a mix-up in which Lily thought she was Jewish but then her mom told her she wasn’t and so all of a sudden, she had no way of getting into the party. It was a whole thing.
Nick’s prime rib filled up the kitchen with rosemary and garlic smells. Since the meat took a little longer than expected, when everyone lined up to eat around 8 p.m., the party felt nice and worn in.
Everyone filled up white plates with gold rims with light brown latkes, cream-colored noodle kugel with spots of raisins, and a dark brown but also slightly red prime rib. A lovely, brown, starchy meal, everyone teased, recalling the missing vegetables.
Tuesday’s Hanukkah party felt more grown-up than before, Nick and Laura told me. Both of Nick’s parents were at the party for the first time after moving to Austin from Iowa in January. Amanda’s mom was there, and the group sat in orderly fashion at a long brown table in between the kitchen and living room.
The first iteration of the Hanukkah bash was the wildest one.
"We took all of our wine glasses — this is such a dumb story — and then we put it in the middle and were spinning the dreidel, breaking the glasses. It was rowdy. It was so rowdy," Amanda said.
There was still room for a little rowdiness, though. In a bit of pre-Hanukkah spirit, the group stood around a menorah to light a candle before dinner. Laura laughed her way through a prayer, not sure if she was saying it correctly, and the guests cheered her on.
"Notice how loud Jews are?" Lusia asked me at one point during dinner, where I somehow ended up at the head of the table, opposite Amanda.
As I took bites of the creamiest, sweetest noodle kugel I’ve ever had, Laura told us about "dybbuk," the Yiddish ghost who hides your belongings. If a sweater you swore you left on a chair goes missing and randomly appears days later, that’s dybbuk. The other side of the table was talking about the various small crimes they committed as children that I promised I wouldn’t connect to names.
The only time the table quieted was during the first bites of food, when just forks and knives clanked.
"We’re building a tradition that I never had, even living in New York. I’d go to my family’s house, but I never did that with friends," Laura said. "I did Thanksgiving with friends and Christmas with friends, but I never did Hanukkah with friends."
I can’t say the dinner party was different from the gatherings I’ve experienced with my friends or family or different from your experiences with friends and family. Being in a warm house eating good food with people you love is the best part of a tradition like Amanda’s.
Maybe it’s eating Chinese food on Christmas Day or getting together for dinner before your friend goes out of town for a month. Maybe you decide to learn some Beyoncé choreography after dinner, but no matter the scenario, it’s about the food and the family of it all.
A rabbi once told me that synagogues are like lighthouses — if you’re far from home or feeling lost, there’s always one around to guide or carry you.
I don’t think lighthouses have to be religious spaces. A lighthouse can be your friend’s kitchen where her mom and mother-in-law putter around a row of dough, asking each other how that sprinkling of cinnamon sugar looks, or if this piece needs to be rolled out more.
It’s laughing through confessions of teenage shoplifting and a sting involving missing baby Jesus figures and Yiddish ghosts who hide your sweaters.
It’s Amanda telling Laura to arrive at 6 p.m., even though the party starts at 6:30, because she’s always behind. It’s Laura being late anyway but carrying in a red dish full of latkes.
For Lusia, Amanda’s party is how family tradition continues.
"It’s change of guard. It’s nice to say, ’Take over now,’ you know what I mean? I’m 70 years old, and I’ve been doing it for a long time," Lusia said. "It’s kind of nice to see that she’s keeping the tradition, and that’s what its all about, isn’t it?"
This festive Hanukkah drink is, at its core, simple to make, but you can spiff it up by adding dehydrated orange slices. Slice a navel orange into thin rounds, dip in simple syrup and dust with cinnamon before dehydrating for about 3 days. Serve each drink with a dried orange slice on top.
2 ounces Manischewitz wine
1 ounce Aperol
3 ounces prosecco
Orange chip, for garnish (optional)
Combine in a mixer and then pour into two Champagne flutes. Serves 2.
— Adapted from a recipe by Amanda Rockman
Momma Rockman's Rugelach
This dough requires chilling overnight, so plan ahead. You'll also need to keep the dough cold while you work with it, so leave room in the fridge. Save some of the cinnamon sugar mixture for sprinkling on the rugelach before baking.
For the dough:
2 1/2 cups butter, room temperature
2 1/2 cups cream cheese, room temperature
1 teaspoon kosher salt
6 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
For the filling:
1 3/4 cup currants
2 3/4 cups toasted walnuts, chopped
For the cinnamon sugar mix:
3 cups sugar
2 tablespoons Vietnamese cinnamon
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 egg, whisked and mixed with 2 tablespoons water
Use a handheld or stand mixer to cream together the butter, cream cheese and salt until it is light and fluffy. Add the flour and mix to combine. Allow to chill overnight.
When ready to prepare the rugelach, roll out dough into a rectangle that is about 1/4 inch thick. Chill dough for 15 minutes and then cut into triangles with two sides that measure 7 inches and a short side that measures 4 inches. Chill for another 15 minutes.
Mix together the sugar and cinnamon and set aside. After the dough has chilled again, brush with melted butter and then sprinkle with cinnamon sugar mix. Sprinkle chopped walnuts and currants and then roll each triangle like a croissant. Place in the fridge for 15 minutes before baking.
Heat oven to 325 degrees. Brush the rugelach with egg wash. Sprinkle with additional cinnamon sugar. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes, checking every 8-12 minutes. Serves 8 to 10.
— Adapted from a recipe by Amanda Rockman