by Katherine Hafner
The smell of cinnamon fills the kitchen at Yorgo’s Bageldashery as Sara Kruger works on what looks like a pizza. She rolls out dough into a big circle, coats it with red raspberry jelly and tops it with a healthy amount of cinnamon, walnuts and either currants or chocolate chips. Then she cuts the dough into slices like one would a pie and rolls up each one.
Not as ceremonial as hamantaschen, less snooty than the croissant, rugelach is the pastry’s everyman. And it’s great at Yorgo’s – if you can get one before they sell out.
“I know the recipe by heart,” says Kruger, a 57-year-old nurse and Norfolk native. “I’ve never written it down.” But she was not the original maker of Yorgo’s rugelach. Susan Kaplan brought the recipe – learned from Bon Appetit – from Texas and made it for the bageldashery for years. Kruger started out assisting and eventually took over. Now more than a decade later the pastries have developed a cultish following.
“They’ll last about two days,” says Jennifer Brooks, Yorgo’s manager. “People love it.”
Contemporary Jewish-American rugelach descends from an ancient Middle Eastern tradition of cooking with cream cheese. Kruger uses a 2-to-1 ratio of butter to cream cheese, adding cinnamon, sugar and flour. Bake them for 20 minutes – she always turns them around and adds two minutes – sprinkle with powdered sugar, and voila! “It’s not brain surgery,” she says.
Maybe not, but people love the results. One woman calls every weekend to check if they’re in, Brooks says. (On this afternoon, Kruger was making an extra two dozen just for her.)
Kruger was between jobs when she first took up the gig. Since then she’s gone through nursing school and now works as a nurse at a senior advocacy company and part-time at a hospice.
Through it all, even when her father got sick and passed away, she kept making the rugelach. “It’s really meditative and I work through my stuff if it’s bothering me, which is nice,” she says. “It is kind of mindless, but in a good way.”
Kruger grew up in Norfolk a bike ride away from where she now lives off Granby Street south of Wards Corner. She still belongs to the same temple. She went to Granby High School and sometimes worked at her uncle’s Burger Chef restaurant as a “salad girl.” She’s cooked as long as she can remember – growing up with her mother, then professionally, then teaching her own children. “My mom kind of used baking to teach me basic math, with measuring and all that. I did it with my kids, too.”
She attended pastry school at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. She chose sweets over cooking more generally “because they were more fun,” and because she found the top-chef world a bit too competitive.
After school she landed at Colonial Williamsburg, making desserts for a time. When she got married and had four kids, Kruger says, the commute became too difficult. She now basically makes her own schedule for the rugelach, stopping in at the shop for a couple hours about once a week. Most times it’s early, as bagel-making goes on hectically around her. Sometimes she comes in after the store’s closed.
Yorgo’s owner Greg Peterman says he’s tried rugelach in New York delis and believes Kruger’s is superior. “When people come in, they see we have rugelach and their order changes,” adding up to a dozen at a time, he says. “It’s kind of crazy.”
The gig is no small commitment. Kruger says she even “tried to quit” a couple of times but decided to keep going. The baking can be a refuge from the serious nature of her day job.
“I love my job, but I really like this,” she says. “I feel comfortable here. I look forward to it. … I kind of can’t believe I’ve been doing it so long.”