Look, I almost threw in the towel on this one. There once there was a time when I did not understand American rugelach. To review, Israeli rugelach are made with a yeasted dough and sealed with a sugar syrup glaze. These are, as far as I'm concerned, the Platonic Form of rugelach and anything else, derivative. But so many people tell me that the one Jewish thing they bake is rugelach, American rugelach with tons of cream cheese and butter in the dough, bits of love and goodness and humanity rolled up into little crescents. How can you deny a thing like that? So on went the trials and tribulation.
I'm here to tell you that cream cheese dough can be a miserable dough to work with, tearing when it's too cold, sticking to everything like a tentacled creature when it's too warm, and very, very persnickety about coming to the exact right temperature that will allow you to roll it without teaching your children how to curse like little sailors. But I'm also here to tell you that I've cracked the American cream cheese rugelach code and that with a few secrets, six to be exact, making these beloved cookies is doable and curse-free.
The Process of making rugelach
How to make rugelach dough
I prefer making rugelach in the food processor, though you can also mix it in a stand mixer or using a hand mixer. After creaming together the butter and cream cheese, you add the sugar, vanilla, and finally, bring it together with the flour. The dough should begin to clump together in the food processor, but it'll still be in moist crumbs. Turn it out onto your work surface, pat it together, and it'll be ready for its long chill in the fridge.
Making the chocolate schmear filling
This is hand down the most delicious chocolate filling I've ever tasted, adapted from Shannon Sarna's wonderful recipe in Modern Jewish Baker. Made with both melted chocolate and cocoa, it's got the full flavor and texture package. After creaming together the butter and sugar, you pour the melted chocolate in, followed by cocoa powder and optionally but warmly recommended cinnamon.
I should add, this chocolate schmear has broader implications for your dessert making, happy to be a part of your babkas, your sweet buns, pretty much anything that would be better with a luscious, full-bodied chocolate filling. For a parve (dairy-free/vegan) version, I bet coconut oil would be great here, but I haven't tried it out yet.
Assembling the cookies
The classic rugelach shape is made by rolling out the dough into a circle, slathering on the filling, and cutting it into eights, pizza-style. Each triangle then gets rolled up from the outer edge to the point. I like the look of pointing the edges down into a crescent shape, but this aesthetic choice is the chef's.
The (six) commandments of making rugelach
The first commandment of making rugelach is: Thou shalt soften the dairy.
In the beginning, when rugelach have only just begun to dance in your conscious thoughts, that is when you take out your brick of cream cheese and your worrying large amount of butter and plunk it down on your countertop. Then you walk away and try not to think about rugelach for roughly an hour.
The second commandment of making rugelach is: Thou shalt chill the dough for a long, long time.
Like, longer than you think is humanly possible to wait for rugelach. Yes, these things are little primadonnas, but there's a reason they get away with it. (That reason is meltingly soft and flaky pastry.) Don't even think of chilling for less than two hours, and overnight is better.
The third commandment of making rugelach is: Thou shalt generously flour everything in sight and then knead the cold dough by hand before rolling it out.
Go ahead, pour, like an entire cup of flour over your work surface, your rolling pin, your hands, and especially all over both sides of the disc of (well chilled, see the second commandment) dough you've just pulled out of the fridge. Then you're going to take the cold disc of dough in your exceedingly floured hands and knead it two or three times, just enough to soften it up and make it supple. Then, and only then, will you roll it out over the metric ton of flour blanketing your countertop. And thou shalt not curse, for thou shalt see that the dough will roll out smoothly and not stick to anything.
The fourth commandment of making rugelach is: Thou shalt spread on the filling before cutting the dough into triangles.
That's cinnamon raisin filling pictured above; my recipe for that is here.
It's tempting to divide the dough before spreading the filling on it, but, if you're successfully navigated the rough waters of the third commandment, the filling should adhere nicely to the surface of the cookie. It should cut cleanly with the filling on. (If not, use your bench scraper to deposit the lost filling back on the rugelach. No one ever said a messy rugelach was going to kill them, right?)
The fifth commandment of making rugelach is: Thou shalt freeze the rugelach for 10 minutes before baking them.
You've made it this far. You've probably relinquished any dream of having rugelach ready anytime this century and this seems like the worst idea you've ever had. But you're not going give up now, not you, you fighter. You're going to place your beautifully non-sticky, filled-with-goodness crescents of love on a cookie sheet and freeze those babies for ten whole minutes (or more).
The sixth and final commandment of making rugleach is: Thou shalt not skipeth the egg wash.
You can bargain; you can deny. But you cannot, I repeat, cannot skip the final exhausting step in this saga. You must crack the egg and beat it with a little cream or milk, and you must brush it dutifully over the tops of your crescents, for lo, without such attention, your little primadonnas will not develop the telltale golden upper crust which any self-respecting rugelach must possess.
And that, my friends, is how we do rugelach. Go forth, prosper, be fruitful, have no need of cursing, fill your rugelach with whatsoever your heart desires (chocolate filling included in the recipe below), and know, with smug satisfaction, that even those of us who once were scoffers now do declare the wonders of cream cheese pastry.
Classic Chocolate Rugelach (dairy)
For the dough:
- 1 package cream cheese, softened - 8 oz / 225 g - the kind that comes in a brick
- 1 cup butter, softened - 225 g
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- ⅛ tsp salt - omit if your butter is salted
For the filling:
- 6 oz semisweet chocolate - 170 g
- ¾ cup butter - 150 g (1 ½ sticks)
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ⅓ cup cocoa powder
- ¼ tsp cinnamon - optional but recommended
- pinch kosher salt - if using unsalted butter
For the egg wash:
- 1 egg
- 1 Tbsp cream or milk
Make the dough:
- In a food processor, pulse together the softened cream cheese and butter until well-combined and creamy. You will need to stop and scrape down the sides of the work bowl once or twice.
- Add the sugar and vanilla (and salt, if using) and pulse to combine.
- Add the flour to the work bowl and pulse until just combined. The dough should be in moist crumbs, beginning to clump together.
- Turn out the dough onto your work surface and pat into a round disc. Divide the round into four parts. Form each piece in a disc shape and wrap in cling wrap.
- Chill the dough in the refrigerator for 4 hours or more.
Make the filling:
- Melt the chocolate, in a double boiler or the microwave (in 2 30-second intervals). Set aside to cool slightly.
- Cream the butter with the sugar until smooth, light, and creamy, 2-3 minutes. Add in the melted chocolate, cocoa powder, and cinnamon and salt, if using. Beat to combine.
Shape the cookies:
- Remove one round of dough from the refrigerator. Flour your work surface, rolling pin, and hands very well.
- Using your hands, knead the dough once or twice to soften it. It will become supple and workable and should not tear when you roll it out.
- Roll the dough into a circle about 10" / 25cm in diameter and about ¼" / 6mm thick.
- Spread ¼ of the chocolate filling over the circle, almost to the edges.
- Using a pizza cutter or knife, cut the dough into quarters. Cut each quarter in half, forming eighths.
- Separate a triangle of dough from the circle. Roll from the outer edge to the point. Bend the ends of the roll into a crescent shape and place on a liner sheet pan. Repeat with remaining triangles.
- Repeat with each of the remaining three portions of dough.
Bake the cookies:
- Place the shaped cookies on the sheet pan in the freezer while you preheat the oven to 350°F / 180°C, 10-20 minutes.
- Just before baking, remove the cookies from the freezer. Brush with egg wash using a pastry brush and bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden and risen in flakey layers.