They’re red, they smell like roses, and they come in boxes of a dozen. But the thousands of boxes of fluffy goodness arriving on doorstops across America this week are not your grandmother’s rugelach: they’re an invention of an Israeli restaurateur who hoped to join forces with a Turkish chef, and tweaked a tired pastry to honor a pagan-inspired holiday in America.
The red, gooey “roselach” are the invention of Breads Bakery, an Israeli-inspired bakery with four branches in New York City. They are filled with marzipan instead of chocolate spread and sprinkled with raspberries.
Gadi Peleg, the owner of Breads Bakery, and one of his bakers, Edan Leshnick, had hoped to work with famous Turkish chef Nusret Gökçe, nicknamed Salt Bae, to develop the fusion of two beloved Jewish and Turkish desserts for a New York food and wine festival. The idea was to find a way to marry rugelach, a rolled pastry traditionally filled with gooey chocolate spread inside, and lokum, also called Turkish delight, a sweet and gelatinous roll made of sugar, starch, and rosewater.
When the time to roll out the roselach approached, Gökçe didn’t make it to the festival. “Even though the event didn’t work out, the rugelach tasted like the essence of roses, and I realized there was something bigger here,” said Peleg, who also owns two other Mediterranean restaurants in New York City, Lamalo and Nur.
While the roselach are a strictly Valentines-only treat, Peleg’s traditional chocolate take sell like, well, hot cakes.
“People have been eating rugelach for too long in New York in cheap packages with lots of preservatives,” Peleg added. He said that aside from high-quality ingredients, the only “secret” to the pastry’s success is small batches of rugelach pulled straight out of the oven multiple times a day, served to customers while still warm.
Peleg said Breads likes to put modern twists on Jewish and Israeli bakery favorites, such as hamantaschen cookies during the Purim holiday. The bakery offers the sweet cookies, also known as Haman’s ears, with traditional fillings such as apricot, poppy, and chocolate. But their savory hamentaschen are more surprising, in flavors that include roasted beet or potato and caramelized leeks.
Peleg, a huge Etgar Keret fan, convinced the famed Israeli author to write an original short story for the bakery, which they print and wrap around a carrot cake they call “Keret cake.”
In New York City since the mid-1980s, Peleg opened the first Breads in 2013 and has since opened three other locations. His businesses have dovetailed with the meteoric rise of fine Israeli food offerings in New York City, such as Eyal Shani’s HaSalon and Miznon, and Einat Admony’s Balaboosta.
Peleg traces the explosion of roasted cauliflowers and finely-chopped Israeli salads on the streets of New York to a simple thing: Americans finally got better vegetables.
“When I moved here in the mid-1980s, my mom came to visit, and she went to the A&P supermarket and bought some tomatoes and cucumbers and onions, and they were the most beautiful tomatoes and cucumbers I’d ever seen,” Peleg recalled during the morning rush at the Breads Union Square location, where he has offices upstairs. “But then we ate it, and it tasted like nothing.”
In the intervening decades, there has been a rise in the popularity and accessibility of farmers markets, as well as a greater understanding and awareness in America of the joys of the high-quality, locally grown vegetables that Israelis have always taken for granted.
“American produce quality has increased so that now we can recreate Israeli food here,” said Peleg. “We’re just half a block from a farmer’s market, and the Persian cucumbers we get here are just as good as in Israel.”
Peleg added that the world has become smaller and shipping times have decreased. Israeli staples, such as the five gallon buckets of tahini that were previously challenging to obtain abroad, are now readily available.
In addition to baked goods, all of Peleg’s restaurants offer Israeli-style “salatim,” or mezze plates filled with vibrant salads and spreads.
“The thing about Israeli food is that it’s all about the produce, there’s no fancy techniques, and there’s nothing to hide behind,” Peleg added.
This is the third year Breads has offered the roselach, which are packaged in white boxes of a dozen and shipped across the country. Peleg said he fills thousands of orders during the period leading up to Valentine’s Day, which this year is on Friday.
The dozen roses theme lends itself well to baked goods, Peleg noted, with pastries often coming in a “baker’s dozen.” The bakery also offers more traditional Valentine’s Day gifts, including marzipan fruit hearts, chocolate truffles, a sourdough heart baguette, and a heart-shaped chocolate challah with chocolate chips. But the roselach are among the bakery’s most popular offerings for the holiday.
“I thought it would be cool to offer a rose alternative, something that you can buy that’s consumable,” Peleg said. After all, a rugelach by any other name would taste as sweet.