By Jason Bell
On a shady side street in South Harlem, my grandmother's rugelach met its match. At Lee Lee's Baked Goods, Alvin Lee Smalls serves "Rugelach by a Brother"-flaky crescents available with either apricot or chocolate filling. Mr. Lee has been making rugelach for 48 years, and experience shows in each carefully curled pastry. Just a few blocks away, the Harlem food revolution is in full swing: Levain Bakery opened its doors this spring, selling downtown pastries to young professionals living uptown. But Lee Lee's exudes a quiet confidence. There is simply no substitute for soulful rugelach and well-weathered walls.
Except for a momentary shut down in 2010-a nearby medical center closed, stemming Mr. Lee's daily tide of fans-Lee Lee's has occupied this spot on 118th street for nine years. "In 2001, when I came in it was all empty," Mr. Lee says. The neighborhood now bustles with new development and new customers, but Mr. Lee's recipe is the same. What makes his rugelach more delicious than the supermarket variety? "Better butter, better cream cheese," Mr. Lee explains. Unlike the usual homemade stuff, Mr. Lee's rugelach isn't doughy in the slightest. There's a secret to balancing luscious filling and crumbly pastry, but Mr. Lee isn't telling.
Rugelach seems like an oxymoron in Harlem, where the vernacular runs more collard greens than kasha varnishkes. In his seminal travel guide The Food of France, Waverley Root outlines European culinary regions by cooking fat. If Harlem is about lard and ham hock, then Williamsburg puts on the schmaltz. Yet, Mr. Lee's rugelach transcends cultural and geographic borders-his formula is traditional, his technique sound, his fat of choice pure butter. An ardent devotee of Jewish baking-check out the selection of Danishes in the glass case-Mr. Lee practices the art of hand-rolled rugelach. Even those pastries most associated with so-called "Jewishness", like rugelach, are the product of transnational and transcultural synthesis. In fact, rugelach is an American invention! Gil Marks describes in his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food how "rugelach is actually a mid-twentieth century American adaptation of European baking, the crescent-shaped kipfel." The word rugelach didn't even appear until 1941. Sour cream is the conventional dairy component, and cream cheese is an entirely American addition.
"A lot of the old places are gone," Mr. Lee laments. Down on the Lower East Side, Kosher bakeries are more memory than reality. So Mr. Lee keeps the Jewish baking tradition alive in Harlem, where he eschews factory-produced doughs and industrial-grade fillings. Good ingredients, good heart, good rugelach-like my grandmother, Mr. Lee puts his soul into every pastry. A single bite brings a sticky smile to my face, reminding me that baking is blind to religion.