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Feature Wed Dec 10 2008

We Were Almost Contenders

Every home cook has a recipe she thinks belongs in a cookbook. For me, it's my Polish family's holiday cookie, rogaliki. Rogaliki are brandy-spiked, nut-filled pastries topped with a light coating of sugar-dusted meringue. They're not as well-known as kolacky, but in my opinion they're far superior and better-suited for holiday cookie trays because they have a longer shelf life.

So confident am I that these cookies are prize-winners, I entered them in the Chicago Tribune's holiday cookie contest. I've never felt more validated as a cook as the day I got the e-mail that they were selected as one of 16 finalists, edging out 164 other submissions.

Maybe one of the judges had nut allergies or was in a freak accident involving meringue and never got over it. Anyway, the rogaliki didn't make the final cut.

I'm over it (sort of.) Anyway, the lovely thing about writing for Drive-Thru is that I know you, dear reader, will value an heirloom family recipe. So here it is, accompanied by the essay I submitted to the Trib.


Baking 1,800 Christmas cookies in one day in a standard home kitchen takes commitment. It takes chutzpah. It takes 18 eggs, 24 cups of flour, four-and-a-half cups of sugar, and three pounds each of butter and pecans.

And, it takes my crazy Polish family.

It's (barely) controlled chaos every year when my Mom, four aunts, myself and my sister converge on my Aunt Stoney's kitchen one Saturday morning in early December to bake the family cookie: rogaliki.

Flour flies fast and furious. Emotions rise and fall as quickly as overbeaten egg whites. Kids and pets scurry underfoot, husbands are sent on missions for lunch and forgotten ingredients, and pot after pot of coffee is consumed (to wash down all of those "broken" cookies, naturally).

These aren't your basic drop cookie. Rogaliki are a traditional, Polish, nut-filled cookie shaped like a croissant or horseshoe. We top ours with sugar-coated whipped egg whites that give the cookie an irresistibly crispy coating to complement the rich, brandy-spiked nut filling and buttery pastry dough.

With so many elements in the cookie, all adjustable to taste - and so many sassy, related women in one kitchen - differences of opinion abound. One aunt likes her rogaliki bursting with nuts; another prefers a higher pastry-to-filling ratio. Some like a light golden crust, others leave their cookies in the oven a few minutes longer for a nice, brown bottom.

Despite the personal touches, the recipe has evolved little since Mom and her sisters learned it from their Mom. On the one hand, every year is the same. We've perfected the division of labor necessary for mass production. My Mom makes the dough one day ahead of time, Aunt MaryLee preps the filling, and Aunt Sue (wo)mans the oven. The kids' Play Dough skills are put to the test when we press them into service making right-sized balls of dough. Some of us excel at rolling out the dough balls to prep them for nuts; others were born to fill. I don't believe Aunt Cindy has ever abandoned her post as egg white topper.

What changes from year to year is what keeps us coming back for more. Some years, we laugh until we cry. Then there was the year everyone who wasn't experiencing "that time of the month" was suffering hot flashes. We're lucky we got out of there alive.

We don't have to make 1,800 cookies every year; but then what would we do with all of those coffee cans dutifully saved since 1984? Plus, these are very good cookies. And, the volume means we can share (selectively) with good friends and neighbors - and still have some leftovers to freeze, and pull out that first chilly day in September, when summertime and Christmastime seem equally far away.


For the dough:
1 cake of fresh yeast (2 oz.)
1 cup sour cream
3 egg yolks, beaten (reserve egg whites for topping)
1 tsp vanilla
4 cups all-purpose flour (sift after measuring)
1 tsp. salt
½ cup butter
½ cup lard

1. In a medium bowl, mix the sour cream, yeast, egg yolks and vanilla.
2. Sift the flour a second time, this time sifting in the salt.
3. In a large bowl, cut the butter and lard into the flour with a pastry cutter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
4. Add the sour cream mixture to the flour mixture and mix until combined. Avoid overmixing, which will lead to tough dough.
5. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

For the filling:

¾ cup sugar
1 ¾ lbs. pecans, very finely ground
1 Tblsp.vanilla
¼ cup brandy
½ cup milk
½ cup butter (one stick), melted

1. In a large bowl, mix the sugar and pecans together.
2. In a small bowl, mix melted butter, milk, brandy, and vanilla until thoroughly combined.
3. Add the milk mixture to the nut mixture and stir until well combined. It should be nice and spreadable; if not, add a bit more milk. The filling can be prepared a few days before assembling the cookie and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before assembling cookies.

Assemble rogaliki:
1. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Using your hands, roll bits of dough into balls about one inch in diameter. If the dough becomes sticky, put it back in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Likewise, store most of the dough balls in the refrigerator as you work.
2. On a table lightly dusted with powdered sugar, using a rolling pin, roll the dough balls into ovals until the dough is about 1/8th inch thin.
3. With a knife, spread about a half-inch of nut filling lengthwise across the top of the oval.
4. Roll the oval into a tube shape, being careful not to rip the dough. Bend the tube, seam-side down, into a horseshoe shape.

Top and bake the cookies:
1. Whip the three reserved egg whites in a glass bowl until soft peaks form. Put the whipped egg whites into one shallow bowl, and pour one cup of sugar into another shallow bowl.
2. Dip the top of the rogaliki into egg white, and then into the sugar.
3. Place cookie, topping-side up, onto a cookie sheet covered in parchment paper. Rogaliki can be placed closely together because they do not grow very much.
4. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.

Remove cookies from the pan immediately and cool completely on a wire rack. Rogaliki last for a couple of weeks in an airtight container, and they freeze beautifully.

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Gemma / December 12, 2008 1:07 PM

The Trib doesn't know what they are missing. I'm very happy you shared this. 1,800! That's amazing.

Martha / December 12, 2008 6:42 PM

I'll be making those for our upcoming open house.
What a great recipe!
Thanks for sharing.

Mary Ann / December 12, 2008 8:01 PM

You have to enter the contest again next year. Your essay was great and the cookies sound great too. I'm Polish but I've never had them. I can't wait to try them!

Chris Jones / December 29, 2008 7:44 AM

Mandy & Girls!!
on making it to the final 16!
There's always next year!!!
I enjoyed your essay--could just picture all the fun--need to have a camera rolling,too :)
hmmm...maybe we'll try to make these for New Year's! Wish me luck!

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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