As we dive deeper and deeper into beloved recipes from various cuisines, there’s one thing that has become abundantly clear to us: there is no such thing as a “clear origin” for any dish.
Rugelach – and its cousin, the croissant, for that matter – is a perfect example of this. The further you go back in time, the more you find that it’s not very different from a recipe developed halfway across the world.
That, to us, is the less appreciated beauty behind our everyday food.
Rugelach, Ashkenazim, Kipfel, and Cream Cheese
Rugelach nowadays is undoubtedly a recipe tied to Jewish cuisine, but it wasn’t necessarily always that way. You might even say, in fact, that the reason we have rugelach is because the Ashkenazim were in the right place at the right time.
The Rise of the Ashkenazim
We’ll start today’s journey in the 1st century AD in the original Jewish homeland, Judea. Until 63 BC, Judea had been an independent Jewish kingdom under the Hasmoneans, but it was an autonomy cut short by General Pompey and the incoming Roman Empire.
At the outset, the first century of Roman rule seems to have been pretty good for Judea. Opened to the a new world market, the local economy began to flourish, and Herod the Great, one of the most influential men in Jewish history, comes into power of the semi-autonomous kingdom.
The Roman-Jewish relationship begins to sour, however, around 66 AD. The Jews stage small rebellions against the Romans primarily on economic and administrative grounds, but this period sets off several centuries of continual marginalizing of the Jews. Judea will proceed to lose its sovereignty and become a fully controlled state of the Roman Empire. By the early 4th century, Emperor Constantine will convert to Christianity, make it the official religion of the Empire and persecute the Jews on religious grounds.
Still, as citizens of the Empire, the Jews are free to move within Roman territory, and many become citizens in other parts of the Empire. By the early 9th century as Charlemagne came to rule the Frankish Empire, he decreed religious tolerance for the Jews and full freedom to practice within his borders.
In an environment absent of religious persecution, Jewish merchants developed deep financial and commercial skills and an “economic Midas touch” that made them an invaluable component of the Frankish economy. By the end of the 11th century, Bishop Rudiger Huzmann invited Jews to migrate to the Germanic town of Speyer along the Rhine and enjoy special privileges and immunities, a move which is considered to be the beginnings of the Ashkenazim.
After several centuries of economic prosperity in Speyer and other Rhineland towns, various geopolitical events pushed the Ashkenazim – originally Jewish inhabitants of Germany – further eastward into the areas of Austria, Poland, Lithuania and Russia. It’s here that the Ashkenazi traditions would develop further, and Yiddish, an Eastern European-inspired variant of Hebrew, would be developed.
And, as it pertains to rugelach, it’s where the Ashkenazim would encounter the first creations of kipfel.
Kipfel: The Original Crescent
It’s funny to think that the croissant, which is nowadays considered to be typically French, didn’t start out as French at all!
The same can also be said for rugelach, as both of these pastries came from a common ancestor: kipfel.
There’s a lot of hearsay as to how and what the origins for kipfel are. It might have been invented following the Franks’ 8th century victory at the Battle of Tours. A more likely story – at least relative to the development of the croissant – brings us to 17th century Austria.
It begins with the Ottomans, who have marched to Austria and have begun to lay siege on the walled-in city of Austria. During the nighttimes, the Ottomans work on developing underground tunnels to bypass the walls and to attack the city from the inside. Their plans are foiled, however, by a group of Viennese bakers who wake early in the morning to begin their work. Hearing the Ottomans and their digging, the bakers alerted the authorities and foiled the attack.
Like we saw with the sachertorte, the Austrians – and particularly in Vienna – proved to be very adept bakers, and the creation of the crescent shaped kipfel was their way of commemorating the victory against the Muslim Ottomans.
Over time, the recipe for kipfel dispersed and its variants invented. The first croissant was made in 19th century France by a Viennese baker, meanwhile the Ashkenazis took the kipfel to create their own version: rugelach.
The Americans and their Cream Cheese
The recipe for rugelach took one greater leap in its evolution in the US, and it’s all thanks to cream cheese.
Originally, rugelach was made with a yeasty sour cream-based dough, and it was a very popular recipe brought by the Ashkenazi Jews to America (bagels, blintzes and pickled cucumbers being other great examples). By the 1950s, which coincided with the popularization of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, cookbooks began to substitute in cream cheese for sour cream into their rugelach recipes.
Eventually, the non-yeast cream-cheese version of the recipe supplanted the original as the American standard for rugelach.
About the Recipe
Before we get into the inevitable debate of to cream cheese or not to cream cheese – for that is the question – let’s first take a look at the name rugelach itself to give us a clue into the pastry itself.
In Yiddish, the suffix ach indicates a plural, while the syllable el serves as the diminutive. The word rog – a Yiddish word derived from the Polish róg – means something close to “horn” in English. And so, our goal with rugelach is to create little horns… and plenty of them.
As to how to make these little twists, we’ll start with the dough.
The Rugelach Dough
There are two main schools of thought when it comes to rugelach (at least here in the US). One camp calls for cream cheese in the recipe, while the other half leaves it out like it traditionally was.
If you go more the more traditional route – provided you don’t go pareve with your recipe – you’ll end up using either sour cream or milk in the dough. Even if you go pareve and opt to go dairy free, the process of making the dough is still the same. You’ll combine all your ingredients into either a stand mixer, a food processor or even into a regular mixing bowl. You’ll combine the ingredients together until they create a soft, clumpy and somewhat sticky dough.
Before doing any baking, you’ll want the dough to sit for at least one hour in cooler temperatures, so wrap it in plastic wrap as you tend to your filling.
The Filling and Bringing it All Together
One of the beauties of rugelach is that there’s an infinite number of ways you can make the filling. Some will use chocolate, while others will use jams and preserves. Sometimes raisins are added, when other times it’s just crushed nuts that give that extra texture. No matter what you choose to do, though, just make sure that the filling is either cold (but still easily spreadable) or at room temperature when it comes time to fill your rugelach. You don’t want it melting the dough!
To create the rolled twist shape of the rugelach, you’ll start by taking your freshly cooled dough out of the fridge and laying it on a well-floured surface. Because the dough can be so incredibly fickle – especially as it begins to heat up – we have a little “pro tip” (in our recipe below) to share with you to ensure consistently good results. Roll the dough out to around 1/8″ thickness, then use the bottom of a cake pan to cut out the shape of a circle.
From there, you’ll take your filling and spread it evenly and smoothly across the surface area of your circular dough. You’ll want to leave at least 1/2″ of give between the circle’s edge and the edge of your filling, since you’ll want some dough to cook together as the pastry base of your rugelach.
When you have your pastry spread finely across the dough, use a pastry cutter or a knife to cut out 8 symmetrical “pizza slices” from your rugelach dough to roll in. Take one of your “slices,” and starting from the “crust” roll inwards until you’ve rolled to the tip of the dough.
Place your rolled rugelach on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, bake in the oven for 25 minutes, then enjoy!
Our Take on the Recipe
When it comes to authoritative figures on the rugelach recipe, there’s a plethora of sources to choose from. While Joan Nathan and her Jewish Holiday Cookbook is perhaps the most recognizable in the US, we opted to go another route with our reference recipe. Instead, we chose to base our own version of rugelach off the recipe from Tori Avey, herself an incredibly knowledgable blogger and writer on Jewish cuisine.
Still, as we always do, we made some of our own adjustments to the recipe to match our own preferences. For starters, we scaled the proportions of the recipe way back. Instead of making 40-60 rugelach like the original suggests, now you can safely expect to make anywhere between 18-24.
For the filling, we made our own mashup of some of our favorite looking fillings. We combine chocolate, raisins, crush walnuts, cinnamon and more. The end result left us with a filling that was slightly thicker than usual, but there was so much depth to the taste that we couldn’t pass up.
For the dough, we made some interesting adjustments to the ingredients added. Per usual, we swapped out regular sugar for coconut sugar. We also added in a dash of vanilla extract, which we thought gave a nice, subtle but uplifting flavor to the rugelach. For the flour, we used a super fine cake flour from Bob’s Red Mill, which we’ve really come to enjoy when it comes to baking more delicate items.
Finally, we swapped out both sour cream and cream cheese for an interesting new ingredient: Greek yogurt cream cheese. While we understand the inherent limitations of making a cream cheese-based recipe healthier, this gave us a helpful alternative to doing just that while still serving the same function as regular cream cheese.
No matter what you end up choosing to do with your rugelach, though, you seriously can’t go wrong. It makes for a perfect holiday treat just as much as it does as a fun year-round dessert.
What filling would you put in your rugelach? Comment below!Print