When the holiday baking season starts, I immediately think of rich, buttery, chewy-flaky rugelach, and they are promptly placed at the very top of my baking list. I have been baking rugelach since 1988 and introduced them to my future in-laws, who promptly adopted them as a Christmas favorite that same year. In the coming months, I made several improvements to the recipe before honing it for good in 1990 as a young bride. Rugelach are my husband’s favorite cookie in the universe, so I had placed a high priority on perfecting this scrumptious holiday classic. In fact, I think he married me for my rugelach recipe! My hubby, Stefan, is Polish and it seems rather fitting that rugelach is his favorite cookie—it’s in his genes.
Rugelach (sometimes spelled “Rugalach”) are more than a holiday cookie. In fact, rugelach are pastry cookies (cookie pastries?) and should be considered an everyday treat—not reserved solely for special occasions. However, special occasions always seem to be the time of year when we devote our efforts to baking homemade rugelach due to albeit simple but somewhat time-consuming steps involved. Rugelach are Eastern European pastry cookies comprised of delicate tangy cream cheese dough filled with a variety of slightly sweet but lip-smacking fillings and have become a traditional Jewish favorite.
In fact, the name has origins from the Polish word “rogal” for croissant pastries which resemble horns. The Yiddish word “ruglach” carries the same meaning. Since the Polish language influenced Yiddish, the term probably originated in Polish, first, and was later translated into Yiddish. No one really knows which came first, so the debate continues. Still others, like Certified Master Pastry Chef and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, as well as author of several books including The Professional Pastry Chef and The Advanced Professional Pastry Chef, Chef Bo Friberg, contend that the word rugelach is derived from the Yiddish word “rugel,” which translates to “royal.”
Interestingly, the “ach” ending of the word “rugelach” specifies plural while the “el” in the center signifies petite. When put together, one Yiddish translation is “little twists,” which is so appropriate for this scrumptious pastry cookie of twisty goodness! In the end, however, the word “rugelach” stuck and the term is most definitely Yiddish.
Traditionally, rugelach are filled with a fruit jam, marmalade or preserves, sugar or brown sugar (or a blend of both), spices, and chopped nuts—even perhaps almond paste or marzipan—and dried fruit such as raisins, sultanas (golden raisins), dried cherries or cranberries, and currants, as well as other chopped dried fruits such as apricots, dates, and figs. Sometimes, poppy seed paste or prune butter (lekvar) are used as a filling in rugelach, making them similar to Hamantashen.
More recently, chocolate has found its way into rugelach filling such as with chocolate paste (made with melted chocolate, an egg or two, and powdered sugar for binding and sweetness) or simply chopped chocolate or mini chocolate morsels sprinkled over the filling. Chocolate paired with raspberry jam has been a favorite for the classic tart-berry and sweet-chocolate flavor combination heralded by chocolate lovers the world over—to include Dorie Greenspan’s recipe in her James Beard award-winning cookbook, Baking: From My Home to Yours.
However, the most popular preparation over the years has been to fill rugelach with apricot preserves, sugar, ground cinnamon, chopped nuts and, sometimes, golden raisins. This is probably due to the heritage and traditional prevalence of Polish cookies such as buttery Apricot Tea Cookies (thumbprints) and especially Polish Apricot-Filled Cookies (known as “kolaczki” or “kolacky”), which are pastry-cookies made with a cream cheese pastry. In the case of Kolacky, the cookies are fashioned into a bowtie or envelope shape from a square piece of cut pastry dough with the opposite corners overlapping in the center which are pinched to seal in the apricot filling.
Since the advent of rugelach, innovative bakers have been playing around in the kitchen to create their own rugelach twist to meet their dreams and expectations of the perfect rugelach pastry cookie. Bakers use either a cream cheese or sour cream pastry dough (sometimes using yeast for leavening as was the case with “butter horns” in earlier days) and then concoct different flavor combinations with filling ingredients. However, as Chef Bo says, “Good rugelach should be more chewy than flaky, so it is important not to make the dough too short.” I couldn’t agree more.
When I first found a recipe for rugelach, with a buttery cinnamon-sugar-nut filling with currants, in its classic horn shape for “walnut horns,” I knew I had to bake them immediately! And I did. Since I had baked Pecan Tassies (miniature pecan tarts) in my teen years as part of my holiday baking, and was familiar with the magic (read: buttery, tender flaky goodness) that happens when baking with cream cheese pastry, I thought to myself that rugelach must be some sort of a fancy rolled cookie version of the tasty pecan tarts. Well, I wasn’t far off!
The recipe I found was by none other than the veritable “First Lady of Desserts,” Maida Heatter, from her James Beard award-winning cookbook, Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies, published in 1977. Let me tell you, Maida’s recipe rocked my baking world! Her cream cheese pastry recipe performed flawlessly. (At the time, the only changes I made were to add sugar and use kosher salt.) And, her filling was truly extraordinary. Maida did not call for any classic fruit preserves. Instead, she called for 3 tablespoons of melted butter to be spread over the chilled and rolled dough in a manner similar to cinnamon rolls before sprinkling on the remaining filling ingredients.
After doing some research on this new-to-me rugelach cookie, I learned about the classic filling using fruit preserves along with sugar, spices, dried fruit, and nuts. Surely, I thought, the sticky-fruity-tartness yet mild sweetness of fruit preserves in the filling would create outstanding rugelach! And, so it went. I kept testing and retesting over the next year and that’s when it occurred to me to add honey versus butter or fruit preserves to the filling. Suddenly, a new version of rugelach was born.
Then, in 1990, just before my October wedding, I happened to be shopping at Hudson’s department store in my home state of Michigan. On my way out, on the upper level, as I breezed by the book department, there on a table, propped up in a display, I saw the most glorious book cover ever conceptualized by man. I was so drawn to it! The cover featured the traditional Christmas colors of red and green, a small photo of a woman in similar style to the iconic Betty Crocker in an oval frame, and the image on the cover was a beautiful mosaic of tempting holiday cookies of all sorts imaginable—even an ethereal snowflake seemingly falling down from above. There it was.
The cover read: “Rose’s Christmas Cookies by Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Cake Bible.” As I flipped through the pages on the way to checkout, I was transported to Christmases past, baking German-Hungarian family heirloom recipes with my Grandma Gigi. Having grown up admiring my mother’s copy of Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, baking from it during my pre-teen years (and dreaming of baking every single cookie recipe sandwiched between the covers!) and, later, after devouring Rose Levy Beranbaum’s award-winning cookbook, The Cake Bible, from 1988, I swear . . . I felt as if Rose had written this comprehensive and stunningly beautiful holiday cookie cookbook especially for me—and, just in time for my upcoming nuptials! In short, it was Rose’s recipe for rugelach in Rose’s Christmas Cookies, using Lora Brody’s recipe for cream cheese pastry, which had me adding vanilla extract to my rugelach dough. Pure genius! And, from Lora’s recipe, which calls for ¼ cup sugar, it confirmed that I was on track when I had added 2 tablespoons of sugar to my recipe for rugelach dough to achieve a tender and slightly sweet pastry. Later, when I saw that the esteemed Nancy Baggett had used honey in her filling recipe for rugelach, in her exceptional cookbook, The International Cookie Cookbook, published in 1988 (but, not added to my cookbook library until early 1991), I knew I was onto something wonderful—a new timeless classic.
Through Christmas 1996, I had always fashioned my rugelach into crescent shapes. It wasn’t until the fall of 1997 when I learned how to shape rugelach into roulades. Ever since, we have enjoyed them this way. Our thanks go out to the very talented Lisa Yockelson (if you do not know who she is, shame on you!) for her recipe for rugelach and contribution to Cook’s Illustrated magazine (the October 1997 issue to be precise) which included instructions along with helpful illustrations for shaping rugelach into roulades as well as crescents. Roulade-shaped rugelach are our absolute favorite. Why? With the roulade shape, you roll up in cinnamon roll fashion and then slice with a sharp knife and bake. Voila! Not only are the roulades simple to assemble, but they are like holding a heavenly, tiny rolled “finger pie” in your hand to savor alone. Most importantly, the several layers of delicate pastry in its rolled glory allow your teeth to crunch through each blissful tender-flaky layer upon first bite. Soon, the contrasting moist and tangy-sweet yet chewy filling flavors dance on your tongue. No matter your preference in shape, experiencing homemade rugelach is a gastronomic cookie-tasting sensation like no other!
In closing, when Bob’s Red Mill asked me to guest blog and provide a holiday recipe for December, I was honored. Knowing that I had an opportunity to share my recipe for rugelach, a gluten free variation of the original, to satisfy the cravings of the gluten free community for some tasty holiday rugelach, I jumped at the chance. I hope my Honey-Nut Rugelach recipe, with filling variations for Baklava, Cranberry Orange Pecan, and Chocolate Chip Cookie Rugelach, will become a holiday family favorite and perhaps new tradition. Yes, I believe for the first time ever, Baklava meets Rugelach in a published recipe. For me, it was a natural progression and an extension of my deep affection for yet another buttery, flaky, gooey-honey-sweet and nutty dessert, Baklava. From there, it was effortless to create the irresistible Cranberry Orange Pecan variety with a spicy flavor combination especially suitable for the winter holidays. And, since I simply adore chocolate chip cookies, I couldn’t resist creating a filling variation for Chocolate Chip Cookie Rugelach. From my kitchen to yours . . . Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas! ~Stacy
Gluten Free Honey-Nut Rugelach
The gluten free flour blend for this recipe incorporates less rice flour than ordinary blends and more protein flour with adequate starches to achieve ideal rugelach which should be more chewy than flaky.
For the Cream Cheese Pastry:
- ¾ cup (3 oz) Bob’s Red Mill® ‘Sweet’ White Sorghum Flour
- ½ cup (2.75 oz) Bob’s Red Mill® Sweet White Rice Flour
- ½ cup (3 oz) Bob’s Red Mill® Potato Starch
- ½ cup (2 oz) Bob’s Red Mill® Tapioca Flour
- 1¼ tsp Bob’s Red Mill® Xanthan Gum
- ¼ tsp Baking Powder
- 1 cup (2 sticks) Unsalted Butter, slightly softened
- 1 (8-oz) package Cream Cheese, slightly softened
- 2 Tbsp Granulated Sugar
- 1 tsp Pure Vanilla Extract
- ¼ tsp Kosher Salt
- Gluten-free Flour Blend for rolling dough (See Tips below for flour blend recipe.)
For the Honey-Nut Filling:
- 1¼ cups finely chopped Walnuts (or pecans)
- ¾ cup firmly packed Light Brown Sugar
- 1½ tsp ground Cinnamon
- 3 Tbsp Honey
For the Cinnamon-Sugar Topping:
- 2 Tbsp Light Cream (half and half) or Whole Milk
- 2 Tbsp Granulated Sugar
- ½ tsp ground Cinnamon
Prepare the Pastry: In a medium bowl, whisk together flours, xanthan gum, and baking powder; set aside. Using an electric stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream together butter and cream cheese. Beat in sugar, vanilla and salt; mix until well combined. Add flour mixture in two batches beating just until incorporated. Scrape dough onto sheet of plastic wrap using rubber spatula; divide into 4 equal portions. Shape each portion of dough by patting out into either small 5-inch disks (for crescents) or small 4- by 6-inch rectangles (for roulades). Wrap each piece of dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight.
Prepare the Filling & Topping: In a medium bowl, combine walnuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Add honey and stir to incorporate using a fork and finishing with your fingers; set aside. Pour cream or milk into a small prep bowl or cup; set aside. In a small prep bowl or cup, combine sugar and cinnamon; set aside.
Arrange rack in lower third of oven and preheat oven to 350°F. Line insulated baking sheets with parchment; set aside. Alternatively, place a half baking sheet atop another and line with parchment. Using insulated baking sheets will prevent these delicate pastry cookies from overbrowning on the bottom.
To Shape Rugelach into Crescents: Remove dough from refrigerator and allow it to soften slightly on counter top for 12 to 15 minutes so it becomes pliable for rolling. On lightly floured surface, and working with 1 disk of dough at a time, with a floured rolling pin roll each disk into a circle measuring 10 inches in diameter and about ⅛-inch thick. Rotate dough often while rolling and add extra flour to surface as necessary to prevent sticking. With a sharp knife or pizza wheel, cut each circle into 8 pie-shaped wedges. Sprinkle ¼ of filling evenly onto wedges; press down gently on filling. Starting with rounded edge, roll each wedge of dough jelly-roll fashion toward the point, tucking point under, and form into crescent shape by bending. Use a pastry brush to whisk away excess flour from dough as you roll. Place crescents 1½ inches apart on prepared baking sheets.
To Shape Rugelach into Roulades: Remove dough from refrigerator and allow it to soften slightly on counter top for 12 to 15 minutes so it becomes pliable for rolling. On lightly floured surface, and working with 1 rectangle of dough at a time, with a floured rolling pin roll each piece of dough into a rectangle measuring about 10- by 8-inches and ⅛-inch thick. Lift dough often while rolling and add extra flour to surface as necessary to prevent sticking. Sprinkle ¼ of filling evenly onto rectangle to within ¼-inch of edges; press down gently on filling. Starting from long side, roll dough tightly into a cylinder and place seam side down. Use a pastry brush to whisk away excess flour from dough as you roll.
Using a sharp paring knife, slice ends of cylinder to create neat, flush ends and discard scraps. With paring knife, slice each cylinder into eight 1-inch thick roulades. This step is made easier by first scoring (marking lightly with paring knife) the cylinder’s midpoint, again and again between each section, until 8 sections are scored; slice through markings for 8 even roulades. Place roulades 1½ inches apart on prepared baking sheets seam side down.
Bake the Rugelach: For both crescent and roulade-shaped rugelach, brush tops of unbaked pastry cookies with cream or milk and generously sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar. Bake for 22 minutes or until golden brown and filling bubbles. Cool on wire racks. Carefully remove cookies using a small metal cookie spatula and trim any overflowed filling using a paring knife. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely and store in airtight containers. Rugelach can be stored at room temperature for up to 5 days.
Yield: Makes 32 pastry cookies
Traditional Rugelach: For the dough, replace all gluten free flours with 2 cups (9 ounces) all-purpose flour using dip and sweep method for measuring; omit xanthan gum and baking powder.
Baklava Rugelach: For the filling, replace finely chopped walnuts (or pecans) with mixture of finely chopped almonds, pistachios and walnuts to equal 1¼ cups. (Use all walnuts if preferred.) Add 2 teaspoons very finely grated lemon zest, ⅛ teaspoon ground cloves and ⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg.
Cranberry Orange Pecan Rugelach: For the filling, use pecans in place of walnuts and add 2 teaspoons very finely grated orange zest and ⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg. If desired, for spicier filling, also add ⅛ teaspoon each ground ginger and cloves. Sprinkle ¼ cup dried cranberries which have been finely chopped over filling on each piece of rolled out dough before shaping rugelach. You will need a total of 1 cup dried cranberries for entire recipe.
Chocolate Chip Cookie Rugelach: For the filling, omit cinnamon (cinnamon will be in the topping) and add 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract and ¼ teaspoon kosher salt. Sprinkle ¼ cup mini chocolate morsels over filling on each piece of rolled out dough before shaping rugelach. You will need a total of 1 cup mini chocolate morsels for entire recipe.
Gluten-Free Flour Blend for Rolling Dough: When rolling out gluten-free cookie dough, such as for this recipe, I like to use a blend of equal parts by volume sorghum, sweet white rice and tapioca flours. Prepare 1 cup using ⅓ cup each to keep on hand as needed.
How to Measure Gluten-Free Flours for this Recipe: This tip is provided for bakers who do not own a kitchen scale and will be measuring flour by volume rather than by weight. When measuring Bob’s Red Mill® gluten-free flours for this recipe, I used the method of spooning the flour into the dry measuring cup and leveling off the top with the straight edge of a metal icing spatula. (The straight edge of a knife from a flatware set can be used as well.) Use a sheet of wax paper as a liner on your work surface to measure flour so that the excess can easily be funneled back into flour bag or container.
To Make Rugelach Successfully: Be sure to brush away excess flour from dough when rolling to ensure tender rugelach and prevent dry, tough rugelach. Always start with a clean surface each time rolling more dough by brushing away excess flour and filling between batches. Use a metal dough cutter to help start the rolling process to form the cylinder for roulade-shaped rugelach. Use insulated baking sheets to prevent rugelach from overbrowning. And, if using raisins, dried cranberries or similar, plump them first if they are too dry.
To Prepare Rugelach Dough in Advance: Rugelach dough can be prepared in advance much to the delight of busy holiday bakers. Wrap well in plastic wrap and store in refrigerator for up to 2 days. Also, the dough can be frozen for up to 1 month. To freeze dough, enclose plastic-wrapped dough in heavy duty zip-top freezer bags. Simply thaw in the refrigerator while still wrapped in plastic.
To Freeze Baked Rugelach: These pastry-cookies freeze extremely well in heavy duty zip-top freezer bags for up to 2 months. Be sure to expel as much air as possible. For layering cookies inside freezer bags, divide with sheets of wax paper as the wax paper will protect appearance of cookies as well as absorb excess moisture.
Article, recipes, headnotes and photographs Copyright © 2012 Stacy Bryce. All rights reserved.
Stacy Bryce is a recipe developer and member of the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals). Her latest passion is developing gluten-free recipes after sending a friend who is Italian, and a recently diagnosed celiac, four varieties of gluten-free biscotti as a Christmas gift last year. Her friend’s response touched her deeply and she vowed to share gluten-free versions of her original recipes whenever possible via her new blog. You can visit Stacy’s blog at WickedGoodKitchen.com and follow her on Twitter.
These recipes were developed and shared with Bob’s Red Mill to support the food pantry of Saint Vincent De Paul Center, Hamilton County, Indiana, for those in need and on a special diet. Bob’s Red Mill has agreed to send a few cases of certified gluten-free old-fashioned rolled oats to the pantry on behalf of Stacy, Wicked Good Kitchen and Bob’s Red Mill.
Article, recipes, headnotes and photographs Copyright © 2012 Stacy Bryce. All rights reserved.