Up until about six months ago, I thought of rugelach as the factory-produced, Fig Newtonish, dry-as-yesterday’s-toast-looking cookies often seen gathering dust in supermarket “bakery” sections. It never occurred to me to actually eat one.
Enter Mindy Segal, author of Cookie Love, and the folks at Seattle’s Book Larder who hosted an evening that forced this particular cookie lover to completely rethink rugelach. I admit, I was skeptical when I heard which cookies we’d be sampling. But then I heard the magic words “strawberry rhubarb.” As in rugelach filled with homemade strawberry-rhubarb jam. “Ok,” I thought, “how bad could it be?”
I came home on a sugar high (copy of said cookbook in tow) and asked my boyfriend, “Have you ever had rugelach? It’s my new favorite thing! I never imagined it could be so good!”
He said, “Yeah, it’s a little bitter, but I like it in some things.”
Ok, admittedly this cookie’s name sounds like a certain leafy green, but when have I ever gushed about any vegetable whatsoever? To avoid further confusion, I now call them “pie cookies”—to me, rugelach taste like a generous portion of pie crust without all that pesky filling.
With a bit of Googling, I’ve been able to ascertain that rugelach are a traditional Jewish treat made in the shape of a crescent—the name means “little twists” in Yiddish. An alternate form of rugelach is rolled into a log and cut into slices before or after baking (apparently, these are the aforementioned variety I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding).
In addition to the different shapes, rugelach dough falls into two camps: a yeasted version (which may or may not include sour cream) and an Americanized version made with cream cheese. And just to confuse matters more, some of the cream cheese dough recipes (such as Dorie Greenspan’s ) call for cutting the cream cheese and butter into flour as in a classic pie dough, while others call for beating the cream cheese and butter together, then adding flour. Since the only kind I’d ever tried—Mindy Segal’s recipe—used the latter method, that’s the one I chose to follow on my maiden rugelach-making voyage.
For a dessert that involves rolling out dough, rugelach were surprisingly simple, thanks in part to Segal’s creative use of parchment paper (which I’ll describe in the recipe that follows).
I filled my first pie cookies with store-bought strawberry-rhubarb jam, which will do in a pinch. My second batch made with homemade vanilla plum jam tasted even better, despite the slapdash look caused by hurriedly rolling and shaping cookies in the midst of Seattle’s summer heat wave. Maybe there’s a practical reason that rugelach are thought of as holiday cookies—cooler kitchen temperatures.
Now that fall has officially arrived, I’m eager to test more rugelach flavors. I filled my most recent batch with Nutella, which I liked better than both of the previous versions combined. I’m looking forward to experimenting with chocolate, nuts, cookie butter or maybe all of the above. One day when I’m feeling overly ambitious, I’ll try to recreate Segal’s rugelach made with homemade hot fudge and a hazelnut cocoa nib streusel. Even an expert baker and the magic of cookbook photography can’t elevate that particular variety beyond a decidedly rustic look, so I won’t be surprised if my version gets passed over at the next potluck. No worries—more for me!
A Few Rugelach Tips Learned the Hard Way
- Some cookie doughs can be rolled out with powdered sugar instead of flour; this is not one of them. The sugar made the dough soft, sticky and ultimately unroll-able. I switched back to flour and the dough became much more manageable.
- This dough is like Fonzie—it likes to be cool. I’d go so far as to suggest popping the rolled-out dough in the freezer for 20 minutes before filling and shaping.
- There is such a thing as too much filling—who knew? The recipe calls for a thin layer of jam. If you go ahead and finish off the jar in the mistaken notion that more is better, the filling will ooze out and burn before the cookies are baked.
- Resist the urge to overbake (admittedly, this is a tough one for me) or the jam may transition into fruit leather territory, which may wreak havoc on dental work.
- Don’t cut Nutella-filled dough with a deeply grooved pastry cutter. Sure, it looks pretty, but the Nutella must be forcibly removed from each tiny groove. However, this would make a great project to occupy the small hands of a kitchen “helper.”
What’s your favorite rugelach filling? Got any secrets for success? Please share!