Once a year, I find myself rolling out dough in my parents’ kitchen. Baking was not a common occurrence in my house growing up (in fact, I was quite old when I discovered that cookie mix does not always come in a box), so the scene of my hands covered with flour and my dad’s sticky from raisins always strikes me as a bit odd. And yet, once a year, around Hanukkah time, we dutifully dig up great-great Aunt Edith’s rugelach recipe and roll up our sleeves because – well, it’s tradition.
Rugelach (pronounced ROO-geh-lach, though I tend to say ‘arugula’ without the initial ‘a’), is a rolled cookie filled with fruit, nuts, or other sweets with roots in Eastern Europe. There is some debate over whether its true ancestor is the Austrian kipfel, the Polish rogal, or any number of other European rolled pastries. What is clear is that the Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of Eastern European descent) adapted one or many of these pastries, gave it a Yiddish name, and brought it with them in their travels, primarily to Israel and the U.S.
While the rugelach you can find in Israel today has a lot in common with its European ancestors, the version we are more familiar with in North America is more like a distant cousin. This is largely due not to some natural cultural evolution, but to… (wait for it)… the American commercialization of cream cheese. The availability of spreadable cheese made possible a simpler alternative to time-consuming yeast-based doughs. The recipe for the delicious cream cheese dough that I make with my dad every year is likely, at most, a few generations old.
Whether or not I’m making the rugelach of my ancestors (and whether or not I make it at the traditional time of year – it’s not just a Hanukkah cookie!), I make rugelach every year to feel close to my family, to connect with the Jewish people, to celebrate a holiday, and to keep tradition alive. And, of course, because it tastes so good. Without further ado, great-great Aunt Edith’s rugelach recipe:
Rugelach (Butter Horns)
Yield: 3 to 6 dozen
Bake at 375°F
½ lb. butter or margarine
½ lb. cream cheese, regular square
2-3 cups flour
½ cup light (golden) raisins
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
2 cups granulated sugar
1 tsp. (or more) cinnamon
½ cup (or more) melted margarine or butter
- Cream butter and cream cheese. Beat until well-blended
- Add the eggs and beat in one at a time.
- Add flour gradually, folding it in when the dough can be worked with the hands, kneading with the hands until it can be rolled out. Add only as much flour as needed to make a workable dough. Shape into a ball and chill overnight or at least 2 hours (can be kept in the freezer for 2 weeks).
- Chop the raisins – at least cut in half. Chop the walnuts and combine with the sugar and cinnamon and blend. Set this mixture aside until needed.
- Divide the dough into 6 or 8 equal portions.
- Roll out one portion at a time, into a circle. (Circle should be fairly thin – about the size of a pie pan.) Leave the rest in the refrigerator until needed.
- Brush each circle with a little melted margarine. Sprinkle with part of the walnut mixture. Cut the circle into 6 or 8 pie-shaped wedges, according to the size you want. Roll from the large end to the tip. If you intend to make a crescent shape, you’ll need a couple of large baking sheets. Grease them with margarine. Place crescents on baking sheet. Brush the crescent with melted margarine.
- Bake 15 to 30 minutes, or until browned and cooked through.
Rachel Eisman is a 27-year-old esteemed baker, but only on one day a year and only with one specific recipe. The rest of the time, she lives in New York with her new husband and works as a management consultant.