With Ashkenazi Jewish roots in Poland and Russia, combined with a real passion for baking (a claim to fame of mine was winning the Girl Scouts of America regional bake-off circa 1971, with my chocolate peppermint black-out cake –my last real moment of fame…), my culinary archives could hardly be complete without a good recipe for ruggelach. In truth, my Polish grandmother, an expert of all things culinary, who also owned and was the exclusive cook and baker for my grandparents’ grocery store in New York in their early years in America, passed away before I was born. My Russian grandmother probably never graced the interior of a kitchen for more than a perfunctory 28 minutes once a month, as needed, to concoct either her famed cottage cheese and peaches on melba toast (an original gourmet delight) or her chicken rolled in cornflake crumbs with peaches on top, literally the only real recipe she ever attempted and served (and served and served and served). My point? I unfortunately never learned to bake from either of my bubbehs.
So where did I learn this recipe? I learned it from the Jewish grandmother of my best friend when I was about 11 years old. My friend’s mother was a Jew from the Lower East Side, named Sedell. When she married an Italian Catholic man from a big family, she changed her name to Stella, and chose to forget her roots, becoming a maven of Italian cooking and Christmas, of Easter bread, and any and all things specifically non-kosher and unequivocally not Jewish. It was her mission to hide her roots, and I remember thinking so at the age of 11.
In any case, once every few months, my friend’s grandmother, Fanny, would pay a visit, and remind her granddaughter (and daughter) from whence they came, which happened to be from the same shtetls from which my mother’s Russian family originated. I cannot help but think that Fanny came bearing all things Jewish on her monthly jaunts to her “Italian” daughter’s home with the specific intention of reminding everyone in the house –especially her daughter, “Stella–” who they really were. She bore food straight out of their homeland, including chlupches (stuffed cabbage), heiseh borscht mit flanken (hot beet soup with rib meat), gehakteh leiber, chopped liver, challah, babka, chicken soup, blintzes and cholent (a slow-cooked stew of meat, potatoes, beans and barley, often a Shabbat delight). She came speaking Yiddish to all, including her goyish son-in-law, with whom she ironically had an affectionate and close relationship, and Fanny always, always came to cook. She cooked upstairs, since the classic Italian custom was to cook in the second kitchen in the basement, which was actually the only really functioning kitchen. But that one was hardly a kosher one, and the upstairs one was never used. So Fanny used it. Boy did she use it. And the day I learned how to make ruggelach –authentic and straight from the Eastern European Yiddisheh “kikh” –kitchen– it was from Fanny that I learned. My friend’s Jewish grandmother was my introduction to a Jewish kitchen; my mother was not a big baker, and had been raised by my Russian grandmother, who had not gotten much past the cottage cheese and peach delight or the chicken in crumbs with peaches –she must have had stock in Del Monte canned peaches. And I never forgot what Fanny taught me.
Ruggelach are a hallmark Eastern European Jewish treat. My apologies, Sephardim…your baking is often filled with rosewater, a completely foreign concept and taste to those of us of the other persuasion; being offered “ab-e-golab,” the Farsi equivalent of this flowery, liquid ingredient by my Persian in-laws, mixed in with cardamom and other Middle Eastern spices, has always made me think of a nourishing and fragrant skin balm, but definitively not something that I had any interest in eating. Ruggelach are essentially small pastries made with a cream cheese dough; yes, they are classically a dairy dessert item, although pareve cream cheese can be used, as well as margarine instead of butter, and the milk wash eliminated altogether…although the rich flavor will suffer a bit for these changes. My humble thought here? Best to be authentic, use the dairy items, and reserve the ruggelach for dairy or pareve meals. You will note my recommendations for different fillings and combinations thereof, including raisins, walnuts, pecans, cinnamon, chocolate and apricot or raspberry preserves.
These mini-delights are meant to be coupled with a strong cup of black tea, a glaisel tay, preferably in a glass, not a porcelain cup, if one is to be orthodox to the old Russian roots; sugar in the tea is optional, as the pastries are quite sweet, but if a sweet beverage is what you are after, and you want to remain authentic, you must forego the granulated version as a cone of sugar from which you can break off a “knip,” or “shtikel,” is the only way to go. Perhaps this is a common thread with our Sephardic brothers and sisters, as their famed “nah-bot,” or rock candy as we Westerners know it, is the only way that sugar is enjoyed.
The following is a classic recipe for ruggelach, or as my children have fondly come to call them, “ruggs.” Some of the ingredients can be varied, as indicated, per personal taste. Keep in mind that the ruggelach will be soft when you take them out of the oven, and harden slightly in the next 24 hours. If you allow them to bake until they are hard, the raisins will also be too hard, and the final pastries will turn more into something resembling an Italian “biscotti,” which might be desirable, but defies the traditional intent of these soft little delicacies.
– 8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
– 1/2-pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
– 1/4 cup granulated sugar plus 9 tablespoons
– 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
– 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
– 2 cups all-purpose flour
– 1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
– 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
– 3/4 cup raisins
– 1 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped (I like them chunky; it is a matter of taste!)
– 1/2 cup apricot or raspberry preserves (I like chocolate combined with raspberry, and apricot combined with raisins, but again, a matter of taste…)
– 1 cup chocolate chips, semi-sweet, or milk chocolate
– 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, for egg wash
- Pre-heat the over to 350 degrees, and set a rack into the middle of the oven. I have found that the top and bottom rack tend to burn the ruggelach. The middle bakes best, although that might be a peculiarity of my own oven!
- Cream the cheese and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until light. Add 1/4 cup granulated sugar, the salt, and vanilla. Gradually add the flour and mix until just combined. Dump the dough out onto a well-floured board and roll it into a ball. Cut the ball in quarters, wrap each piece in plastic, and refrigerate for 1 hour. (If you are in a hurry, you can skip the refrigeration part of this, but the dough may be slightly sticky to handle.
- To make the filling, combine 6 tablespoons of granulated sugar, the brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon.
- On a well-floured board (distribute the flour, but do not use too much of it, or you will have dry ruggelach –not good! Use a scant 1/8 cup on the surface if you can). Roll each ball of dough into rectangle, approximately 7 inches by 14 inches. Spread the dough with 2 tablespoons apricot or raspberry preserves and sprinkle with 1/2 cup of the filling.
- *(Here, I personally separate the fillings: I make two separate fillings one with raisins, walnuts and apricot preserves, and the other with chocolate, pecans, and raspberry preserves, although this is purely a personal taste. I either half the recipe for the dough and other filling (cinnamon and sugar) or, much more frequently (they are SO good!) double the whole recipe, and make half and half.
- Sprinkle the chocolate chips or raisins and the nuts of your choice. Press the filling lightly into the dough. Begin to loosen the near edge length of the rectangle from the surface, and roll away from you. Keep going until you have rolled the entire rectangle. Press down lightly on it. You will now have a long pastry, which you will cut into individual pieces, approximately 2 inches wide.
- Pinch the open ends closed as best you can. Brush the top of each section each rugg with the egg wash. Combine 3 tablespoons granulated sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon and roll each rug into the mixture.
- Place each pastry onto a baking sheet that has been lined with parchment paper (quicker clean-up, and less chance of burning the bottom of the rugelach with too much cooking spray or butter, although you can use the shortening, lightly sprayed or spread if you don’t have parchment paper). Chill for 30 minutes (you can skip this step in a pinch, although putting cooled ruggelach into the oven will cut down on over-spreading/over-baking).
- Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove to a wire rack and let cool.
- “Esen aun Gedenken!” …“Eat and remember!” as Fanny would have reminded us. Once tasted they are impossible to forget!