The secret to good rugelach
Smalls grew up in Georgetown County, South Carolina -- the same town where Michelle Obama’s father, Fraser C. Robinson III, grew up, he says, gesturing proudly to a framed picture of the Obamas hanging over the pastry case. After graduating from high school, he moved to Myrtle Beach and spent two years working in fast food, before moving to New York City with his brother and sister in 1962.
Two weeks into becoming a New Yorker, at the age of 20, he secured a job in the kitchen at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “I am the only guy who didn’t cry for the onion,” Smalls recalls. Moving up from vegetable prep, he started greasing pans in the bakery, which, back in the day, made strictly homemade goods for patients. “Everybody had a special thing they made,” Smalls says. “One guy made Danish, one guy made cinnamon buns, one guy made pies, one guy made pudding... We used to make them from scratch then, not like today.”
After practicing at home and shadowing his co-workers, Smalls ended up mastering all of the various kitchen jobs at the hospital. By the time he was ready to leave to start his own bakery, the South Carolina transplant with “no real cooking background” was the head pastry chef at a major hospital.
Smalls had never had rugelach -- a bite-sized Ashkenazi Jewish flaky pastry, swirled with fillings like chocolate or cinnamon sugar nuts -- until working at New York-Presbyterian (“they don’t have that in the South,” he says) but he fell in love with it immediately. In 1964, he saw a rugelach recipe in a newspaper and set it aside, only to find it again in the late ‘70s. Smalls began to play around with the recipe, adding and swapping out ingredients as he would with other recipes he learned at work.
“The recipe was there, but I changed it around, played with it, I added a lot do it, and I’m blessed it came out this way,” Smalls says. Some modifications included swapping out sour cream for cream cheese and using real butter instead of margarine. Smalls won’t share more of his baking secrets on the record, but he says the key is using high-quality ingredients, like his “special flour,” (he won’t say what it is), good walnuts, and pure apricot jam for filling, building on traditional fillings but with his own twist and emphasis on quality ingredients.
A bakery for local Harlemites and European tourists
In 1988, after perfecting the rugelach recipe, Smalls opened his first bakery -- Marion Smalls Bakery (named after his father) -- on Amsterdam Ave. The bakery quickly became known for the buttery, crumbly rugelach, attracting neighbors and a roster of celebrity fans, including Mike Tyson. Though Harlem had been a booming Jewish neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century, by the 1930s, most of the Jewish population had dispersed to The Bronx. By 1988, a crack epidemic had devastated the once culturally robust neighborhood and left countless Harlemites homeless. Even so, residents remained loyal, supporting local businesses and public spaces as best they could. As both a reminder of the neighborhood’s Jewish past and a symbol of the present-day mom-and-pop shop, Smalls’ bakery fell at the intersection of both Harlems.
Following two spine surgeries in the early ‘90s, Smalls was forced to close Marion Smalls Bakery. Shortly after recovering, however, he was ready to start again -- this time with Lee Lee’s “Rugelach By a Brother” on 118th St. Unfortunately, the bakery officially opened its doors on September 12, 2001, a day on which even baked goods couldn’t help heal a grieving city.
In the weeks following 9/11, business was slow. At the time, Smalls’ Harlem block was “just abandoned buildings and fields,” he recalls -- nothing like the specialty coffee shop and luxury condo-covered blocks that now surround Lee Lee’s. Affordable rent wooed Smalls into the less-than-prime real estate for his new bakery. After that, the rugelach gradually started selling, mostly to patients at the methadone clinic on the corner and people Smalls knew from working at the hospital. “The only thing that kept me going was the methadone clinic... [I] didn’t get much business at the beginning,” Smalls says.