It’s easy to forget, with all the snow and holiday hoopla, just how much of winter is still yet to come after the new year. The French use Epiphany as an excuse to keep eating sweets throughout the month of January, in the form of the galette des rois. And I think they’re right. Gloomy January days are no time to give up the pleasures of rich, buttery doughs baked to an appealing golden brown or sweet, nutty fillings. Besides, Philly cream cheese has finally arrived in France! I think we should celebrate with some rugelah.
You might spell it another way (I most often see “rugelach”), but orthography aside, this is really a wonderful little pastry. Crumbly cream cheese dough, sticky fruit and nuts, and ridiculously easy to make. Rugelah come from the Eastern European Jewish baking tradition, and I first learned to bake them in a Jewish-owned, European-style bakery in Dallas, of all places. The ones we made there were filled with walnuts, which I can’t eat, so I had to sate myself with the incredible smell of roasted flour and caramelized jam when I pulled them out of the (enormous) oven every night.
One Thanksgiving the chef took pity on me and let me use the filling for the pecan rings in the rugelah so I could finally taste them. My nose had not let me down – they were fantastic. Since then, I’ve had to make my own walnut-free version at home from time to time.
I’d been despairing that I would never be able to make them in France, lacking the cream cheese that is key to the flavor and texture of the dough, when a wise friend with a cheesecake-loving husband told me that she got good results with Kiri. Kiri is, as far as I can tell, a snacking cheese for children – at least based on the packages I found. Well, I really wanted some rugelah, so I went ahead and unwrapped the individual squares and made my dough. I’m pleased to tell you that it worked, but now that we have real Philly cream cheese in Paris, I don’t have to fuss around with those little foil packets anymore.
When I used to make these for the bakery, I rolled the dough out on a sheeter until it was the length of my entire workbench – a little over two meters. I would get 30 or 40 pastries out of that one long roll. At home I make smaller batches, for the equally important reasons of counter space limitations and desire to continue fitting into my jeans.
In addition to being completely scrumptious, rugelah are also really fun to make. When else to you get to cover your entire kitchen counter with powdered sugar? (Strangely enough, it keeps the dough from sticking as well as providing sweetness to the sugarless dough.) And then smear jam around, and recklessly sprinkle sugar, cinnamon, and nuts all over? Yes, it’s a mess – I had to wipe my counter down three times before the stickiness abated – but I promise you’ll be having fun. And that winter gloom will be gone before you know it.
This is an old favorite from my first baking job. I’ve changed it a little, using pecans instead of walnuts (to which I am allergic) and homemade apple butter in the filling, although you could use just about any jam-and-nut combination that strikes your fancy. The main thing is to cook them until they’re deeply browned all the way through. The flavor and texture are incomparable.
For the dough:
3.4 oz / 96 g unsalted butter
3.4 oz / 96 g cream cheese
Pinch of fine sea salt
3.1 oz / 88 g all-purpose flour
1. Combine the butter, cream cheese, and salt until smooth. If you have a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, more power to you. I do it by hand with a wooden spoon. In either case, it helps to let the butter soften a bit before attempting this.
2. Add the flour and stir until evenly incorporated. Pat the dough into a rectangular shape, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill until firm, at least 1 hour. (The dough can be made several days in advance.)
For the filling:
½ cup / 2.3 oz / 65 g pecans, or other desired nuts
3 Tbsp. / 1.5 oz. / 42 g sugar
A big pinch of ground cinnamon
Pinch of fine sea salt
¼ to 1/3 cup / 60 to 80 ml apple butter, or other jam of choice
1. Grind the nuts, sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a food processor until relatively uniform. (Some bigger chunks of nut are encouraged.) Alternatively, chop the nuts as finely as you have the patience for and combine them with the sugar, salt, and cinnamon.
To assemble and bake the rugelah:
All of the above components, plus powdered sugar
- Preheat the oven to 375 F / 190 C.
- Sift powdered sugar in a thick layer over your workspace in a long line, about 2½ feet / 75 cm by 6 inches / 16 cm. Unwrap the dough and place it on top of the sugar. Roll it out into a long rectangle, about the dimensions of the sugar.
- Spread the dough with a thin layer of apple butter and sprinkle the nuts evenly over the jam.
- Roll up the dough lengthwise into a long log. Cut pieces about 1½ inches / 4 cm long. Slash each piece decoratively.
- Place the rugelah on a parchment lined baking sheet, spaced about 1½ inches / 4 cm apart.
- Bake for 15 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 350 F / 175 C and continue baking until deep golden brown all the way through, another 15 minutes or so. The jam will have leaked out a bit and started to caramelize on the sides of the pastries, and they will smell absolutely amazing.
- Let cool, and sprinkle with more powdered sugar before serving.
Makes about a dozen, plus a couple of ugly ends for snacking or quality control purposes.
Originally published on Croque-Camille.