The Providence Journal
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) After a 28-year career as a schoolteacher, entrepreneur Karen Griffin decided to spend her later years re-creating her Jewish grandmother’s cherished recipe for rugelach. Hence her bakery’s name: “Just Like Nana’s.”
If you love your work, you never work a day in your life. There’s a reason that saying has withstood the test of time. The reason is that it’s true. Just look at Karen Griffin.
At age 72, Griffin is operating a bakery in an old Pawtucket mill that’s been repurposed to house a brewery, a distillery, a diner, an art gallery and, down a long hallway through the back of the sprawling complex, the commercial kitchen in which she routinely rolls hundreds of rugelach.
The self-described “serial entrepreneur” started her business in 2016 at Hope & Main, a culinary incubator in Warren, before relocating two years ago to 560 Mineral Spring Ave., where she also runs a food truck Thursday through Saturday.
Ask Griffin how she got here, and you’ll hear a long and winding story that belongs perhaps in a feel-good film or a travelogue. It involves a 28-year career as a Providence schoolteacher that ended in retirement, followed by Griffin meeting her English husband on a cruise through the Mediterranean. The two moved temporarily to the U.K., and then to Kentucky, before Griffin was called back to her Rhode Island roots and a desire to spend her later years re-creating her Jewish grandmother’s cherished recipe. Hence her bakery’s name: Just Like Nana’s.
While ideas of what makes an authentic rugelach are fairly uniform, theories around its origins are not. According to New York City’s Museum at Eldridge Street, housed in a historic synagogue on the Lower East Side, some believe the pastry originated in Austria, while others believe it may have been inspired by German or Romanian desserts. The museum credits Ashkenazic Jews for spreading the recipe, noting that the first instructions came presumably from Hungary, Russia, Poland, Yugoslavia and their neighbors.
But, like many recipes that eventually arrived in the U.S., it’s been altered to suit different tastes.
As Griffin puts it, “The kind of rugelach I make you don’t get anywhere anymore.”
For starters, it’s made with sour cream, not cream cheese, and Griffin opts for a sturdier dough than the paper-thin phyllo that is sometimes used by those who prefer a flaky and perhaps less authentic treat.
Not being Jewish, I am in no position to judge. To establish a basis for comparison, I had planned to grab some rugelach at Zabar’s during a recent trip back to my former stomping grounds in New York City.
However, an intense feast of sturgeon, bagels and latkes at Barney Greengrass derailed my plans, as further munching would have likely resulted in physical illness.
But here’s the thing: When someone has been making the same thing since they were 13, chances are they know what they’re doing.
So, when I tell you that my first bite of Griffin’s cinnamon-sugar-sprinkled apricot rugelach was like a warm hug, it’s not the opinion of an expert, but a recipe that has been in use for more than half a century can’t be wrong.
Rugelach isn’t all Griffin makes. She is also mixing up scone flavors, from cinnamon to Cheddar and herb, along with biscotti, a holiday rugelach wreath and a paint-your-own cookie, complete with edible colors and a brush.
If you ever try rugelach from Griffin’s kitchen, don’t ask for the recipe. Aside from her subtle hints about sour cream, non-flaky dough and coconut oil, the rest is a family secret.
But if you’d like to pretend you can achieve the perfect bite, you can opt for Griffin’s frozen “I-make-it-you-bake-it” pastries.
My freezer has more than a few.
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