The Rugelach Roadmap: 4 Variations to Make Bubbe Kvell

[Photographs: Emily Dryden]

When I was growing up, rugelach were ever-present in my grandmother's kitchen, under a cake dome on the counter, right where we walked into the kitchen. There, she would stash homemade batches of the flaky nut- and jam-filled cookies, for "the kids." My grandmother's rugelach were legendary—she carried them to bake sales, ladies' lunches, and card parties. Long before I understood their deli-case ubiquity, I loved rugelach unabashedly.

As an adult, when I spied these treats in delis and bakeries, I barely recognized them. What were those spiral cookies? Where were the crescents? These were dry and cakey, the jams insipid, the nuts spare. So I began to make them at home, using my grandmother's recipe as a guideline and mixing together the simple ingredients. At the office get-togethers and holiday cookie swaps I'd tote them to, friends would ask, voices raised in surprise, "Is this rugelach?" And with one bite, they became converts to the real deal. I've developed a reputation now: When Hanukkah comes around, I'm expected to bring the sweet little crescent-shaped cookies to every gathering.

Back in the old country, primarily Northern Europe and the Slavic states, rugelach were made with a rich, eggy yeasted dough. When Ashkenazi Jews resettled in America, something remarkable happened: According to Joan Nathan in Jewish Cooking in America, rugelach began to be made with a cream cheese pastry. While this isn't confirmed, Nathan believes they were very likely influenced by a recipe from the Philadelphia Cream Cheese company.

While both versions are delicious, I'm especially fond of American-style rugelach, which take me back to my grandmother's kitchen. Here are some essential tips I've come to appreciate over the years, along with my go-to recipe and a few twists to inject new flavors into your holiday cookie routine.

The Filling

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Making rugelach isn't about following a rigid recipe; it's about seeing the cookie as an artist's palette for any number of flavors. While most Old World recipes combine sugar, nuts, dried fruit, and jam, usually scented with cinnamon, allspice, or nutmeg, I see no need to follow this religiously. The filling ingredients are flexible: Scent the dough to complement the nuts and fruit, and either sprinkle the cookies with sanding sugar before baking or finish them with a vanilla glaze once they've cooled. Here are some guidelines.

  • Don't overthink it. Use those jams lingering in the back of the refrigerator and a handful of whatever nuts are available, at a 2:1 ratio of jam to nuts. There are no bad combinations where good-quality jam and toasted nuts are concerned. Gather any filling ingredients that appeal, but before you twirl the rich filling into the dough, the nuts must be toasted—either in a dry skillet or on a baking sheet in a 350°F (180°C) oven for 10 to 12 minutes—and chopped fine, and jams should be puréed or chopped until they're smooth enough to spread in a thin, even layer.
  • Be bold. Nutella is a very good idea, as is almost any chocolate, caramel, or fruit spread. Grab a handful of toasted pecans, almond slivers, hazelnuts, macadamias, or cashews, or mix and match at will. Scent the filling with spices you like; cinnamon is de rigueur, but swap in cardamom, ginger, or mace for a touch of the exotic.
  • Try savory. I refuse to let my rugelach filling be constrained by sweet flavors alone. Go savory with onion jam, green olive tapenade, harissa, or any other jammy pastes (hello, 'nduja!), then add nuts and bread crumbs for texture.
  • Use the secret ingredient. Whatever flavors I use, I always turn to my grandmother's secret ingredient and top the filling with a scattering of fresh bread crumbs—it holds the jam and nuts in place.

The Dough

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Rugelach pastry is pie crust–adjacent—just flour and fats, without added liquid. Every time I gather the ingredients, I marvel at its simple ratio. Equal measures of butter, cream cheese, and flour by weight make a sturdy, silky dough that's easy to roll out. The high fat content, however, also means that it'll begin to smear under the rolling pin as it warms.

It can be made by hand or in a stand mixer, but I find the food processor to be the best tool for the job, first cutting the cold butter and cream cheese into small, pea-sized pieces, then whirring until the dough forms a ball. Weigh all the ingredients right into the food processor's work bowl, and the cleanup will be quick, too. While the base dough is rich and buttery, readily swinging from sweet to savory, it's possible to play with the flavoring by adding citrus zest, or browning and then chilling the butter.

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Rugelach come in two styles: spirals sliced from a roll and individually formed crescents. Though they may be slightly more labor-intensive to make, I stand firmly on the side of the crescent cookie, but I won't judge if you opt to slice your cookies from a roll, and my recipes will work well either way. Do decide in advance which style you'll be using, because how the cookies will be shaped informs how the dough will be formed: into an even five-inch disk or a smooth block of about three by four inches.

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Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, using a bench scraper to press and form a tight shape and tapping the edges on the counter to smooth—this will reduce cracking later, when the dough is rolled out. Lightly roll across the top of the dough, then flip it over and smooth the other side. Pro tip: Make several of these tidy packages at once, and put some in the freezer for later.

Keep the dough cold, and roll it on a cold surface, if possible. Formed cookies that are too warm before baking lose their shape in the oven, so, for the best results, be sure to return the cookies to the refrigerator or freezer until firm, about 20 minutes at least, before baking.

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Accept the fact that making rugelach is a little messy, and you'll be just fine. There's always a smear of jam, a scattering of nuts, and a floury, sticky countertop afterward. Sure, jam oozes out during the forming and baking stages, but that's part of this cookie's charm.

The Assembly

For Crescent Cookies

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If you're making crescent cookies, roll out disks and use the tip of a sharp paring knife to trace around a dinner plate for a smooth outer edge. For a fancy ruffled edge, you can also use a fluted pastry wheel. Before spreading the filling, loosen the dough from the counter using an offset spatula, to avoid any sticking when you're rolling up the crescents.

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Then divide the circle of filling-topped dough into 16 segments, and roll each cookie up, starting at the short side of the wedge and firmly pressing on the pointy end to finish.

For Sliced Cookies

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To form a roll, begin by trimming the dough to a clean rectangle, about four by 12 inches. Add the filling, then spiral the dough along the 12-inch side, turning it at least four times. Place the trimmed dough on a piece of plastic wrap, and use the wrap to help roll up the spiral. Wrap tightly and roll lightly on the countertop to seal.

If you're slicing cookies from a roll, follow this advice from Executive Pastry Chef Alex Levin of the Schlow Restaurant Group: "Think of the isosceles trapezoid." This super-smart technique makes very attractive sliced rugelach; each cookie has a chubby base to rest on and won't be as likely to tip over in the oven. Levin suggests two chilling sessions, once before slicing, and again after slicing and before baking.

To Finish

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Line a baking sheet with parchment, and stack it on a second baking sheet. Rugelach do not spread when they bake, so they can be placed an inch apart without worry. Bake at 375°F (190°C) for about 25 minutes, or until deeply golden brown.

The double baking sheet is my little secret. For years, I very slightly burned the bottoms of my rugelach, just the way my grandmother always did—honestly, I thought that was the way they were supposed to be. (I still like them deeply caramelized on the bottom, but that's a personal decision.) Then a very smart food stylist asked if I meant for them to be burned. Hmm. It was then that I adopted the double-baking-sheet method, which tempers the heat on the bottoms of the cookies. This way, what emerges from the oven are toasty-brown, caramelized-but-not-incinerated rugelach.

Let the rugelach cool before tasting or serving them; that jam is hot! The pastry is tender when warm, so the cookie is likely to fall to pieces right out of the oven, but once it cools, it's a sturdy little cookie.

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I encourage bringing rugelach to the holiday cookie swap or office party. Stored in tins, with layers separated by wax paper, the cookies keep for three weeks, and they're hardy enough to mail across the country and carry across town without a single regret. Keep formed, frozen, unbaked rugelach in zip-top bags and bake them off in the toaster oven one at a time, if you can't be trusted with a full complement of cookies.

Here are four ways to get your rugale on (yes, that's the singular, just in case you were wondering!).

Classic Rugelach

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Those impostors in the deli case wish they were these cookies. Filled with walnuts, honey, and spices, they pair just as perfectly with a snifter of brandy as with a glass of milk.

Raspberry-Almond Rugelach With Orange-Scented Dough

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A whisper of orange zest in the dough zings in contrast with the jammy filling studded with nuts. You can substitute any jam, nut, or citrus here—this recipe is like a roadmap to rugelach. Start with rich, flaky cream cheese dough; add the citrus zest; and wrap it around the filling. This is less about the spices and more about the jam, so select a good spread, and be stingy while spreading it. Just a scant half cup will do the trick.

Nutella Rugelach With Peanuts and Vanilla Glaze

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All the flavors of the classic Tin Roof sundae (or a Drumstick from the ice cream truck, if you prefer). Browned butter stands in for caramel in the flaky pastry, which is wrapped around salty peanuts and a swipe of Nutella. The vanilla glaze ties all the flavors up in a bow, but don't even think about drizzling it on until the cookie has completely cooled.

Everything-Bagel Rugelach With Onion Jam

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Who says rugelach have to be sweet? The dough easily switches teams when introduced to this savory onion jam—sultry and sticky and rich. The onion jam cooks low and slow until the rough, sweet, tangy flavors mellow. (My jam recipe makes more than what's needed for the cookies, and that's a good thing.) Sprinkle the tops of the cookies with everything-bagel seasoning—that delightful mixture of poppy, caraway, and sesame seeds; dehydrated onion and garlic; and salt—for the ideal accessory for a cheese platter or a delicious snack with a cocktail.

So forget those sad store-bought specimens—homemade rugelach were my grandmother's ace in the hole at every occasion, and now they'll be yours. Whether sweet or savory, these are a nosh for the season.