As an avid reader, it’s no surprise that Ruth Rosenthal would be a member of a book club. She enjoys reading, meeting new people and appreciates the social camaraderie of it all. It’s been an activity she has enjoyed since before her two boys were born. Pair this concept with her love for food and it only made sense that she would find herself joining a cookbook club.
Each month, the group would select a new cookbook and author to focus on. A spreadsheet would circulate amongst the members, giving each person an opportunity to sign up to prepare one or two recipes from the selected book. Members would then come together, typically at someone’s house, and share the dishes they prepared and discuss why they opted for that specific recipe, how they liked the dish and what, if anything, they would do differently when preparing it the next time.
It was through this group that Ruth was introduced to Sri, the founder of Heirloom, in 2021. Additionally, it happened at the same time she decided to retire from teaching. “I was looking for a project and had some tutoring lined up and was doing some consulting,” recalls Ruth. “This was a great opportunity; the timing just coincided.”
Creating an Heirloom
Similar to most home cooks, Ruth had compiled a mass of recipes from years of cooking. From torn out magazine recipes stored in a binder to handwritten recipe cards stored in a little wooden box. She even had a digital file of dishes compiled in online archives.
“Some of them are family recipes that have been passed down,” notes Ruth. “But, some are just recipes that I had found somewhere along the way and then I had made them over and over again. Others were relatively new. I had a variety.”
With Sri’s guidance, Ruth started thinking about her chapters and how to best group her recipes. Trying to mimic what she had seen in other published cookbooks, Ruth set out to organize her collection of recipes in traditional course blocks – appetizers, soups, salads, mains and desserts. However, something was amiss.
“I realized that my recipes weren’t really falling into those categories and I had to look at them and think about them differently,” says Ruth. “I started thinking about how I cooked them, when I prepared them.”
As Ruth stepped back, she realized the recipes she made revolved around key events and moments in her life. She had specific recipes for Thanksgiving and other holidays, recipes that she would prepare during the summertime and ones reserved for the colder months of fall and winter. Family recipes were a must and she wasn’t going to pass up incorporating some desserts either. She even included dishes she made during a time period she was involved in an exercise program that focused on nutritionally-rich recipes.
“Clearly, there is a table of contents, but why I did it that way might not be as clear,” jokes Ruth. “This is sort of how it worked for me.”
When it came time to name her cookbook, Ruth hit a roadblock. She recalls trying to incorporate her name into the title and considered calling the book “Ruthie’s Recipes'' or “Cooking with Ruth.” She immediately nixed both ideas.
It wasn’t until she was out with her husband and sons that the title came to light. While discussing the book, her oldest son Joel asked her a few questions that prompted Ruth to really think about the purpose of her cookbook. “He said, ‘Mom, what is the point of your cookbook? What are you trying to accomplish?’” recalls Ruth. “I told him I really wanted to find my Grandma Mary’s rugelach recipe and he said ‘That’s your title!’”
In Search of ‘Grandma Cookies’
Originally from New York, Ruth’s parents had moved to California so her father could help with the family business. They lived in Los Angeles until the passing of her mother. Ruth was eight years old at the time.
Despite losing her mother at a young age, Ruth still feels she had a very good childhood and recalls aunts, uncles, cousins and friends embracing them during this time. Her Grandma Mary also ended up moving in with the family to help Ruth’s father with the kids.
Even though her grandma lived with them for a short time, Ruth remembers that she always created delicious dishes from scratch. “She would make her own egg noodles to put in chicken noodle soup,” says Ruth. “She would even make her own gefilte fish. Everything she did was created by her, from basic ingredients."
After Ruth’s grandma returned back to New York, she continued to make delicious treats for the family and would periodically mail them packages filled with an assortment of goodies, including her home baked cookies. Back then there were no second-day or overnight delivery options, so by the time the packages made their trek from New York to California, the cookies were always a bit hard.
The family was always excited to receive a gift of “grandma cookies” – a loving phrase they would use over the years to describe the log-shaped bites, with nuts and raisins rolled into the layers. When it came time to eat them, Ruth would dunk them into milk to soften them slightly. Her brother, on the other hand, remembers pulling them apart and picking out the raisins before stuffing the cookies into his mouth.
It wasn’t until Ruth was in her mid-20s that she would learn the actual name of the delicious cookies she grew up eating. “I went to an event and someone said ‘you have to try the rugelach,’” says Ruth. “I looked at the cookies and said to them ‘those aren’t rugelach, those are grandma cookies!’”
Unfortunately, Grandma Mary’s rugelach was never written down and no one in her family ever knew the recipe. Ruth would have to resort to research. As she started exploring recipes, she realized that there are actually two styles to rugelach – one that looks like a crescent roll with the tapered ends and the other that looks more like a rectangular or square log. The latter was a match for “grandma cookies.”
Replicating the recipe took a little bit longer. Ruth started by interviewing her brother and her cousins, asking them what they remembered about the cookies from their childhood. She needed all the details including what they thought was inside of them, what they felt like and how they tasted.
“I tried maybe six to eight different recipes,” says Ruth. “Everytime I would make them, I had everyone try them.”
Joel, Ruth’s son, also reminded his mother that she would need to leave the cookies out for about two weeks to mimic the time frame it took the cookies to travel from state to state. It was the best way to ensure the same experience from their childhood.
Finally, Ruth settled on a recipe that she felt was as close as she could get to her grandma’s rugelach. They had found it – a recipe recreated from a place of remembrance.
Ruth’s heirloom book, In Search of Rugelach: A Family Trust of Recipes, is more than a book of just recipes. It’s a keepsake dedicated to the memories of the past, highlighting photos of family and friends, the stories explaining the significance behind each dish and the personal relationships formed over the years.
The infamous “grandma cookies” recipe can be found in a section entitled “family recipes throughout the generations” located in the back of the book. And if there are any doubts as to whether these are her grandma’s rugelach, Ruth made sure to add a disclaimer to note, “If it is not exactly that, then it’s close enough and will now become Ruthie’s rugelach for the next generations.”