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Perfect Rugelach

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

perfect-rugelach

Rugelach is not a Jewish baked good; it’s a baked GREAT.

— Yoni Levi

Is it by design or mere coincidence that the most luscious foods begin with the letter R? There are raclette and Roquefort, raspberries and ramps, ratatouille and roast beef, ravioli and risotto, rum cake, and (of course) rugelach.

Rugelach, an Ashkenazi Jewish pastry, has many spellings, and even more “perfect” recipes. The name “rugelach” (or rugelakh, rugalach, ruggalach, roggelach, rogelach) is a Yiddish word for “little twists.” Originally they were made with yeasted dough. Here's my mom's (almost famous) recipe.

Mom's Traditional "Almost Famous" Rugelach

Ingredients for Dough

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 package (2¼ teaspoons) dry yeast
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ¼ cup buttermilk (heat gently in a small saucepan on the stove until barely warm, 120-130°F)
  • ¼ cup melted butter

Instructions

  1. In a large mixing bowl, combine 2 cups of the flour, sugar, yeast, and salt. Stir in the buttermilk and melted butter. Mix in enough of the remaining flour to make a soft dough.
  2. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead for a few minutes until smooth and elastic. Place in a greased bowl; cover with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place for about 30 minutes. When the dough is ready two fingers poked into the side will leave an indentation.
  3. Punch down dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface, divide into four equal portions, and shape each into a smooth ball.
  4. Roll each dough ball, one at a time, into a thin 11-inch circle.
  5. Spread about 3 tablespoons of the nut filling on each circle. Cut each circle into 12 equal wedges—pretend that you’re cutting a pizza.
  6. Roll each wedge up jellyroll fashion from wide end to tip (as if you are making a croissant).
  7. Arrange the rolls on a baking sheet, lined with parchment paper.
  8. Cover with plastic wrap or a clean towel, and let rise for about 20 minutes.
  9. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F.
  10. Bake the rugelach for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool completely before serving.

Ingredients for Nut Filling

  • 1¾ cups ground walnuts
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ cup milk
  • ¼ cup butter
  • 1 egg yolk from a large egg, beaten
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Instructions for Nut Filling

  1. in a mixing bowl stir together the ground walnuts, sugar, cinnamon and cocoa. Set aside.
  2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the milk and butter to a simmer. (Be careful, milk scorches easily and can boil over).
  3. Pour the liquid over the nut/sugar mixture. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and mix thoroughly. Allow to stand at room temperature until ready to be spread on the dough. (If the mixture becomes too thick to spread, add a small amount of warm milk.)

But When They Came to America

Rugelach changed. Perhaps it was the influence of the Philadelphia cream cheese company, maybe it was the quest for the streamlining of a labor-intensive task, but the traditional yeast dough was pushed aside in favor of a quicker, flakier cream cheese rich dough.

Source: Jewish Cooking in America, Joan Nathan [Alfred A. Knopf:New York] 1998 (p. 351-2)

One of the early cream-cheese doughs appeared in "The Perfect Hostess", written in 1950 by Mildred Knopf. Mrs. Knopf, the sister-in-law of Alfred Knopf the publisher, says that the recipe came from Nela Rubenstein, the wife of pianist Arthur Rubenstein. It was Mrs. Knopf's friend Maida Heatter who put rugelach on the culinary map with Mrs. Heatter's grandmother's recipe. It is the most sought after of all Mrs. Heatter's recipes and is the rugelach most often found in upscale bakeries.

— Joan Nathan

The following is an adaptation of Maida Heatter's cream cheese rugelach recipe. I have updated the list of ingredients and the instructions. Mrs. Heatter used an electric mixer to form her dough; I suggest adding one egg yolk and using a food processor which, I think, results in a flakier dough.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 egg yolk from a large egg

Instructions for Making the Dough

  1. Place the flour and the salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times to combine.
  2. Cut the butter and the softened cream cheese into cubes. Drop into the bowl of the food processor. Pulse 10 to 12 minutes to form coarse crumbs. Add the egg yolk and process a few more pulses until dough forms.
  3. Remove the dough from the bowl of the food processor. (Be careful with handling that blade—it's sharp!)
  4. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface. It will be in clumps, not one cohesive mass. Gently squeeze/knead the dough several times to form it into a ball. Cut into 3 equal-sized pieces, shape each piece into a flat disc. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or as long as 3 days.

Instructions for Shaping the Rugelach

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Remove the rugelach dough from the refrigerator. Unwrap one piece at a time. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to a circle about 1/8-inch thick.
  3. Cover each circle of dough with the filling of your choice (suggestions below) and then cut each circle into 8 equal wedges (as though you are slicing a pizza).
  4. Roll up each wedge from the wide side to the tip, forming a roll that looks like a croissant.
  5. Place the rolls on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. You should be able to get 18 on a baking sheet. Bake 25-30 minutes or until rugelach are golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Makes 24.

Rugelach filled with Nutella and dusted with powdered sugar

Rugelach filled with Nutella and dusted with powdered sugar

© 2019 Linda Lum

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