The Little Pastry That Could: How Rugelach Became Israel's Go to Sweet

The crescent-shaped filled pastry made some tasty changes en route from Europe to the Middle East.

Vered Guttman

Origins of rugelach, the favorite Jewish pastry, date back to the Hungarian kifli, Austrian kipfel and Polish rogal. The crescent-shape filled pastry was originally made with yeast dough and filled with fruit jams, poppy seed paste or nuts. Today rugelach may be the most popular sweet pastry both in the American Jewish community and in Israel. But these are very different pastries.

Vered Guttman

There are many examples in Jewish history of dishes traveling across continents and countries while changing and adapting flavors and techniques. One such example would be the Sephardi Hamin, a Shabbat overnight stew of beans and meat that started in Spain and with the expulsion of Jews it evolved into adafina in Morocco and tshulent in Eastern Europe. A more recent example are the rugelach, which traveled east and west from Central Europe and ended as very different pastries, carrying the same name, in the U.S. and in Israel.

In America, as in America, bakers quickly came up with a short cut for the complex yeast dough rugelach, and by the 1940’s they were already making a yeast-less rich cream cheese dough, according to Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. The 1941 cookbook “The Jewish Home Beautiful,” says Marks, includes a recipe for rugelach made with yeast dough mixed with sour cream. “Here’ is a raised dough recipe minus the bogey of countless hours of rising and endless kneading,” say the authors. “The method is not traditional... but as long as the finished product is just like mother’s, does it matter?”

It did matter to many Hungarian and Polish Jews who moved to Israel and kept preparing the sweet pastry with all the kneading and rising and folding, making rugelach so popular in Israel, they are now sold in every supermarket and bakery across the country. Today, rugelach are the go to sweet for any gathering, be it a military conference, a Knesset meeting or Shabbat service in school.

Rugelach changed in two ways during their long life in Israel. The yeast dough became even more complex at some of the fancier bakeries began making a real laminated yeast dough, the same dough that is used for croissants, rich in layers of butter. As for the filling, it got the Middle Eastern turn and alongside the traditional chocolate, poppy seed or cinnamon fillings, halva rugelach have become a mainstream pastry.

The two version below include the all-time favorite Nutella rugelach, and a version similar to pain au chocolat. Both involve the kneading and folding of the laminated yeast dough, but contrary to what “The Jewish Home Beautiful” said in 1941, it does not take “countless hours”. And it’s definitely worth trying.

Pain-au-chocolat rugelach

I use chopped Valrhona chocolate for the filling. Use your favorite, even milk chocolate, but make sure it’s chocolate you like, because it will define the flavor of the rugelach.

As with regular croissants, these rugelach are best served fresh out of the oven. However, you can keep them for a couple of days in an air tight container or wrapped in plastic wrap and reheat for 3-4 minutes in 350 degrees before serving.

Yields about 35 rugelach
INGREDIENTS
For the dough:
¼ oz. (1 bags, 7 grams) dry active yeast
¼ cup warm water
¼ cup sugar
1 lb. all purpose flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
¾ cups warm milk
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1 tablespoons grated lemon zest
1½ teaspoons kosher salt

For the folding:
2½ sticks of butter (1¼ cups, 20 tablespoons) at room temperature

For the fillings:
½ lb. chopped bittersweet chocolate or mini chocolate chips

To top:
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon sugar

DIRECTIONS
1. To make the dough pour ¼ cup warm water into a small bowl, add ½ teaspoon sugar and the dry yeast, stir until the yeast dissolves completely and let stand at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes until it foams.
2. Put the flour and the rest of the sugar in a bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook and mix briefly. Add the yeast mixture and mix slowly. With the mixer running slow add eggs, milk, butter, lemon zest and salt. Stop the mixer and scrape the side until all the ingredients are incorporated into the dough. Run the mixer for 5 minutes on low, remove dough from bowl, loosely wrap in plastic and put in the fridge for an hour.
3. Lightly flour a working surface and a rolling pin. Roll dough into 10” by 16” rectangle with the long side next to you. Spread 2½ sticks butter on the right two thirds of the dough. Fold the left side dough toward the center then the right side dough to cover, creating a three layers of dough. Rotate the dough, roll it again to 10” by 16”, repeat the folding process. loosely wrap in plastic and put in the fridge for another hour.
4. Remove dough from fridge again and repeat the rolling and folding two more times. Wrap the dough and keep in the fridge for an hour or overnight.
5. Lightly flour a surface and a rolling pin. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Divide dough into two. Roll half the dough into a 32” by 6” rectangle. Using a sharp knife, cut dough into 6” long triangles with 2” base. You’ll have about 18 triangles. Sprinkle half the chocolate on the bottom 2/3 of the triangles and roll them into croissant shape, starting at the 2” base, stretching the base with your fingers as you roll. Transfer rugelach to baking sheet, arranging them 2” apart. Cover with damp towel and let stand for 40 minutes. Repeat with second half of dough.
6. Oven to 350 degrees. Gently brush rugelach with a lightly beaten egg and sprinkle with a little sugar. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes. Serve warm. Store as directed above.

Israeli Nutella rugelach

Nutella is the most common giandoja spread, but not necessarily the best one. Use any favorite hazelnut-chocolate spread, or any other spread you prefer, including peanut butter chocolate or almond chocolate.

As with regular croissants, these rugelach are best served fesh out of the oven. However, you can keep them for a couple of days in an air tight container or wrapped in plastic wrap and reheat for 3-4 minutes in 350 degrees before serving.

Yields about 35 rugelach
INGREDIENTS
For the dough:
¼ oz. (1 bags, 7 grams) dry active yeast
¼ cup warm water
¼ cup sugar
1 lb. all purpose flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
¾ cups warm milk
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1 tablespoons grated lemon zest
1½ teaspoons kosher salt

For the folding:
2½ sticks of butter (1¼ cups, 20 tablespoons) at room temperature
1 cup sugar
½ cup cocoa powder (such as Valrhona)

For the fillings:
1 lb. Nutella spread

To top:
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon sugar

DIRECTIONS
1. To make the dough pour ¼ cup warm water into a small bowl, add ½ teaspoon sugar and the dry yeast, stir until the yeast dissolves completely and let stand at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes until it foams.
2. Put the flour and the rest of the sugar in a bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook and mix briefly. Add the yeast mixture and mix slowly. With the mixer running slow add eggs, milk, butter, lemon zest and salt. Stop the mixer and scrape the side until all the ingredients are incorporated into the dough. Run the mixer for 5 minutes on low, remove dough from bowl, loosely wrap in plastic and put in the fridge for an hour.
3. In a bowl of a stand mixer with dough hook put the filling ingredients and mix to combine.
4. Lightly flour a working surface and a rolling pin. Roll dough into 10” by 16” rectangle with the long side next to you. Spread the filling on the right two thirds of the dough. Fold the left side dough toward the center then the right side dough to cover, creating a three layers of dough. Rotate the dough, roll it again to 10” by 16”, repeat the folding process. loosely wrap in plastic and put in the fridge for another hour.
5. Remove dough from fridge again and repeat the rolling and folding two more times. Wrap the dough and keep in the fridge for an hour or overnight.
6. Lightly flour a surface and a rolling pin. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Divide dough into two. Roll half the dough into a 16” by 12” rectangle. Spread half the Nutella on the dough, leaving ¼ inch around. Fold dough in half from the long base (you’ll get a 16” by 6” rectangle) and gently roll again to 30” by 6”.
7. Using a sharp knife, cut dough into 6” long triangles with 2” base. You’ll have about 18 trianglesRoll them into croissant shape, starting at the 2” base, stretching the base with your fingers as you roll. Transfer rugelach to baking sheet, arranging them 2” apart. Cover with damp towel and let stand for 40 minutes. Repeat with second half of dough.
8. Oven to 350 degrees. Gently brush rugelach with a lightly beaten egg and sprinkle with a little sugar. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes. Serve warm. Store as directed above.