I have an associate who is an American living in England, in Norfolk. She’s been there a long time and seems very happy there. The basis of our friendship is comparing notes on food and cookery, and one of our running dialogues is about how Jewish cooking gets bastardized by mainstream media outlets. We spent a long time discussing how the Great British Bake-Off treated babka, for example. And then she recently posted to Facebook a link to a recipe in Better Homes & Gardens, a magazine I only see when I’m at a doctor’s office. It was for something they called “Snickerdoodle Croissant Cookies.”
E. took one look at this and wrote on Facebook, “No, they are rugelach. I know it’s hard to pronounce, but at least give credit.” She is, of course, absolutely correct. These are rugelach. Not the kind I’d make, mind you — all my rugelach work is in the chocolate format — but they are undeniably rugelach. The cream cheese dough. The rolling out and twirling into little triangles. Etc. etc. These are rugelach.
I was as disgusted as E. was and commented in support of her post. When E expressed surprise at how many snickerdoodle recipes BH&G has on their website, I observed, “Well, a lot of people like snickerdoodles.” I added, “I think of them as a WASP cooky. Like, “We’ll make cookies, okay, but we’ll make sure they don’t taste TOO good.” “ This comment garnered an amusing number of “likes” and it got me thinking, “Maybe they really ARE a WASP cooky.” So I Googled “snickerdoodle” and one of the first sites I landed on opened with this paragraph of text:
“To me, Snickerdoodles are the quintessential Christmas cookie. [“Aha. There you go,” I thought.] Nope, they are altogether the quintessential cookie. Not chocolate chip cookies. Not oatmeal. And for heaven’s sake, not fussy decorated cookies. It seems there are a lot of people with this sort of reverent endearment for snickerdoodles. So what exactly is it that makes them so special?”
This is someone named Sommer, by the way, writing at The Pioneer Woman’s website. We all know that The Pioneer Woman is very popular; this post wouldn’t be up there unless it was felt that this snickerdoodle thing would resonate with a large audience.
So I read Sommer’s paean to the snicker doodle and then I read the list of ingredients for the cookies. It goes like this: Flour; sugar; butter; cream of Tartar; baking soda; salt; eggs; cinnamon. Assembly is the usual system — you cream the butter and sugar together, you add the eggs, you blend them in. Then you take the dry ingredients, holding back some of the sugar and the cinnamon, and you add those to the mixing bowl. You make little balls of dough with your hands, roll them in the cinnamon and sugar, and bake.
And what you wind up with is the Official State Cooky of Connecticut, I am sorry to say — the most abstemious cooky recipe I can think of, off the top of my head. An almost ascetic cooky.
“But shortbread!” you’re saying. “Shortbread has an even shorter list of ingredients.”
It does. It’s true. But the sheer quantity of sugar and butter involved in shortbread makes it so much more decadent than the snickerdoodle. E., over in Norfolk, and I were in agreement about this.
The snickerdoodle, we agreed, is among the most goyische cookies ever. Possibly the holder of the First Place Prize for Most Goyische Cooky. (There’s probably some orange-flavored spice cooky that would technically win first place except that no American bakes them at home, and they’re either imported from Germany or baked exclusively by a handful of small bakeries in Minnesota.) I admit that my notions regarding snicker doodles are colored by my primary association with them: my husband likes snicker doodles and has fond memories of his mother making them. So I associate them with Gentile mothers who now and then feel pressed to bake something vaguely sweet.
I posted on Facebook. “Who of you love snickerdoodle cookies? Like, if someone asks you what your favorite cooky is — it’s your BIRTHDAY and you can have ANY COOKY YOU WANT — do you want snickerdoodles?” Out of a fairly long run of comments, with (as of this writing) 23 people responding, only three people said they were their favorite cooky; one person said, “yes, they’re my favorite if my mom makes them”; and the overwhelming majority of commenters — an extreme minority of which were Jewish, by the way — said, basically, “meh.” Like, “I’ll eat them if they’re in front of me and there’s no other cookie option, but whatever.” One woman remarked, “They’re such a Mom cookie.” That rang some bells with me: they ARE a mom cooky. To me the snickerdoodle does convey that sense of “I have to do SOMEthing, here, I’ll do THIS” — that tired, harried woman who has to bake something for the PTA bake sale and knows she can’t get away with just chucking a bag of Chips Ahoy cookies onto a tray. It does not convey, to me, any kind of familial or holiday warmth. Between the “plain” vibe and the “spice cooky” vibe, it is so stern, to me. There’s no luxury in a snickerdoodle, there’s no treat in it at all. It’s a “doing the best I can” kind of cooky. And worst of all, it calls for Cream of Tartar, a substance that almost no one keeps around the house*, so it’s actually a pain in the ass to make. That’s the kind of cooky that doesn’t speak to me at all.
Rugelach, by contrast: rugelach is rich; it is warm; it is homey (even if it’s not made at home: the hands-on attention required to make rugelach makes serving even bakery rugelach an act of love: no one pretends that it’s a snap to make rugelach). Rugelach are, in a way, the exact opposite of snickerdoodles. It’s obvious that a plate of rugelach is gemutlich. I suppose there are people for whom the snickerdoodle also conveys that feeling, but I am 100% sure: those are people who grew up without rugelach.
And I am sad for those people.
If readers want to provide me with a list of cookies even less treat-like than the snickerdoodle, please feel free to post a comment.
*Yes, I keep Cream of Tartar around the house, but I’m not a normal person.