Let’s get a good description of “Rugelach.” (My definition, which is “ A delicious, rich cookie-pastry, even more scrumptious if raspberry jam is involved,” probably won’t cut it so let’s move on,) According to noted Jewish cuisine cookbook author, Joan Nathan, Rugelach are crescent-shaped cookies, originating in Europe. They’ve become one of the most mainstream Jewish desserts.
As with so many other foods, recipes for Rugelach have been tweaked over the years. When made in Europe, sour cream was often used. But with the popularity of Philadelphia brand Cream Cheese in this country, Rugelach became associated with a cream cheese dough.
While the dough is quite tasty, I think the real appeal of Rugelach is the filling.
Southfield, Michigan-based Culinary Combo Bakery offers the more traditional flavors– Apricot, Raspberry, and Chocolate—along with Apricot Walnut Raisin, Cinnamon, and in the fall, Apple. And this bakery has also experimented with slightly more exotic flavors—Cranberry and Raspberry Nutella. Here’s what a Culinary Combo Bakery owner had to say about the inspiration for some of the different flavors: “Honestly, we get bored, and we say, ‘let’s try something new.’ Sometimes it works out great, like our newest flavor, Cinnamon. But other times it’s a miss and we have to go back to the drawing board.”
Motti Margalit, owner of Pariser’s Bakery in Baltimore, Maryland, bakes two types of rugelach: a New York style, which is flaky, and an Israeli style which is yeast-based. A variety of flavors are on the line-up: Chocolate; Cinnamon; Cinnamon Raisin; and Raspberry. When I asked about one of his more unusual flavors, Date, (the other is Fig), Motti explained that a friend’s mother in Israel baked Date Cookies. And in fact, he imports the Date spread as it’s not available in this country. Motti said he’ll hold off adding to his Rugelach line-up since it can be difficult to obtain supplies now.
While we might not associate Rugelach with the state of Texas, these treats are popular menu items for Kenny & Ziggy’s, a Houston-based deli. As Ziggy Gruber expected, his early Jewish customers were familiar with them. But he was surprised at how many Houstonians knew exactly what they were, even to the point of making comparisons with other Rugelach they sampled. Interestingly, sales of the different flavors are seasonal. Chocolate is more popular in winter months, Raspberry in the spring and summer, and Apricot in the spring and fall. While Kenny & Ziggy’s sells roughly equal amounts of these varieties, since Apricot is favored by Rugelach traditionalists, it might have a slight edge.
Think only Jewish bakers create Rugelach? Think again. Alvin Lee Small, known as Mr. Lee, is an African American baker and owner of Lee Lee’s Baked Goods in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. He was a baker at a New York hospital and began tweaking a Rugelach recipe, convinced he could improve on it.
Why should chocolate sandwich cookies have all the fun? Yep, that’s right. Rugelach has joined the ice cream party. Brooklyn-based Ample Hills Creamery combines pieces of Court Street Grocers’ Raspberry Rugelach with a cream cheese ice cream. Sadly, this flavor, Festival of Lights, is only available around the Chanukah holiday—and its distribution is limited to Ample Hills’ scoop shops. Another Rugelach-ice cream combo can be found at Lee Lee’s Baked Goods. Mr. Small adds his rugelach to vanilla ice cream that he crafts from scratch with farm-fresh milk.
So, is Rugelach a cookie? A small pastry? Hmm, as long as we enjoy them, does it really matter?