Jack Fineman is the best baker at the Sieberling school in Ardmore, Ohio. Despite his family’s doubts, Jack dreams of the day he will be old enough to enter the Bakerstown Bonanza, a pastry-chef contest sponsored by the Farnsworth Baking Supply Company, Ardmore’s biggest employer. He envisions stunning his idol, Phineas Farnsworth III, the company’s owner, with an inventive dessert. Meanwhile, Jack’s new classmate, Jillian Mermelstein, has a baking history of her own. After the death of her loving, passionate pastry chef mother, she recently moved from Seattle to Ardmore, where she lives with her overworked father and spirited Grandma Rita. When Jillian brings a plate of homemade chocolate rugelach to the sixth-grade class holiday party, Jack is shocked. The cookies are all anyone can talk about. He wonders: who could have the chutzpah to outshine his artfully-presented basil butterscotch brownies arranged in the shape of a Star of David? Even worse, the rugelach is the best he’s ever eaten.
Filled with grief and preoccupied with memories of her past, attention is the last thing Jillian wants. But when Farnsworth announces a competition for Ardmore’s middle school bakers, Jack and Jillian are selected to team up to represent Sieberling. Jack is enticed by the opportunity for fame and for their winning dessert to appear on the cover of the Bonanza cookbook, while Jillian hopes half of the $150,000 prize will help solve her family’s financial troubles – – even though her reluctance to publicize her family’s story and fears of betraying her mother’s legacy cause her to fudge the truth on her contest application. Despite differing styles and clashing ideas, Jillian and Jack mix, stir, and bake their way into an efficient rapport. With special ingredients, and a trusty wooden spoon, Jillian and Jack set their sights on the prize. But things are not what they seem. When the contest is underway, the young bakers discover some unsettling surprises about the competition, unexpected family secrets, and hidden truths, all of which they encounter as they bake their way to becoming Bakerstown Bonanza winners.
The $150,000 Rugelach is filled with humorous details and characters who are clever even as they deal with deep, heartfelt emotions. Jillian’s reflections about her mom’s wisdom are particularly touching. The authors excel at layered depictions of the hardworking young protagonists and the adults in their lives, offering an entertaining journey that celebrates friendship, teamwork, and connections that span generations.