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Tale of Two Treats

Schnecken and rugelach, though often mistaken for each other and both delicious examples of Jewish baking, are pastries with distinct histories and routes to American popularity

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Apricot rugelach. (Laela Shallal)

As I traveled the country this fall on my book tour, people shared family recipes with me, as they often do. This time I noticed a theme: rugelach and schnecken, rolled and filled pastries. Rugelach and schnecken are the subject of much confusion in the world of Jewish baking. They are both treats made from the combination of cookie or yeast dough and are filled with different ingredients, like ground nuts, raisins, and jam. But their rich histories are quite different.

Schnecken—the word means snail in German—are made of a rich and sweet yeast dough enriched with egg, sour cream, and butter. The dough is pressed out in a large rectangle shape, sprinkled with sugar, cinnamon, raisins, and ground nuts, and rolled up like a jelly roll. Cut on the cross section, the roll is sliced, baked, and served open-side up in small coiled rounds. Schnecken were very popular as breakfast treats throughout Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where many bakers happened to be Jewish.

Schnecken are the predecessors to the American sticky bun, the sweet roll, the iconic rest-stop treat Cinnabon, and the delectable pecan roll that I used to eat at Drake’s in Ann Arbor, when I studied at the University of Michigan. The popular Settlement Cook Book documents the evolution of this pastry: The first edition of the cookbook, issued in 1901, includes a recipe for “Cinnamon Rolls or Schnecken”; the 1920 book contains two versions, the original and one for “Cold Water Schnecken“; but by the 1940s the Settlement Cook Book had edited the name of the treat down to simply “cinnamon rolls,” and still later editions find the same yeast dough appearing as pecan rolls baked in muffin pans.

Schnecken arrived in America with Germans and German Jews in the 19th century. One of the most popular schnecken recipes comes from the German Jewish Bake Shop in Cincinnati, Ohio. The United Jewish Social Agencies opened the Bake Shop in 1929 as a venue to provide part-time employment for women, and the place was an immediate success. “It takes them out of their homes temporarily and provides employment for which they are particularly fitted,” the American Israelite reported the year the Bake Shop opened. “Recipes made locally famous by Cincinnati housewives interested in the bakery are being utilized in the making of cakes, cookies and the like.” German Jews who settled in Cincinnati in the years prior to and during World War II often found employment at the Bake Shop and put their own spin on Old World recipes. Although the Bake Shop shuttered in 1966, its schnecken remains a fond memory for some Jewish Cincinnatians.

Classic schnecken are a bit crisper than American sticky buns. They are washed in caramel syrup and baked open-side up in a round or square baking pan. The best I ever tasted was at New York’s renowned William Greenberg Jr.’s bakery on Madison Avenue. Michael London, a former baker at Greenberg’s, now of Mrs. London’s Bakery in Saratoga Springs, New York, showed me how to make the recipe. Just thinking about his schnecken makes me hungry.

In Russia, Ukraine, and Poland, similar pastries were called rugelach. These were rolled in a circle like pie dough, cut in wedges, and then rolled up. Rug means spiral or crescent-shaped in Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish; a miniature spiral-shaped dough was, therefore, a rugelach. In Europe, rugelach were often made from a yeast dough free of sour cream to keep them pareve. Here in America, they are often made with cream cheese. I imagine that someone in the test kitchen of Joseph Kraft worked cream cheese into the cookie dough, thus creating the flaky and rich American version (and a Kraft marketer’s dream). One of the early recipes for cream-cheese dough appeared in The Perfect Hostess, written in 1950 by Mildred Knopf. Mrs. Knopf, the sister-in-law of publisher Alfred Knopf, credited Nela Rubinstein, the wife of the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, with her recipe.

The addition of cream cheese is not the only change that has been made to an old recipe. Stephanie Levine, from New Haven, Conn., who shared her grandmother Bessie’s schnecken recipe with me, explained that her grandmother always made schnecken (or were they rugelach?) filled with raisins and chopped walnuts and topped with cinnamon sugar. At her aunt’s urging, Ms. Levine added raspberry preserves to the filling. Finally, she replaced her grandmother’s filling with one of pecans and golden raisins. Lately I’ll find people who make the cookies with Craisins instead, thus continuing the evolution of an old family recipe.

Mrs. Knopf’s friend Maida Heatter, the pastry chef and author of the wonderful Maida Haetter’s Book of Great Desserts, popularized rugelach with her grandmother’s recipe, which was quite similar to Mrs. Rubenstein’s. Mrs. Heatter’s recipe is the inspiration for both the rugelach found in upscale bakeries and the mass-produced cookie that you’ll see at places like Costco.

It seems that on this side of the Atlantic, schnecken often loses the yeast and the sour cream and became more like rugelach. Sometimes the cookies seem to be only different in name. However, to borrow loosely from Shakespeare, a filled pastry by any other name would taste as sweet. If nothing else, the different names offer the perfect excuse to start the day with a schnecken and end it with a rugelach—what could be better than that?

My Mom’s Yeast Rugelach
Adapted from Linda Solomon

Dough
1 package active dry yeast
1 teaspoon plus 3 tablespoons sugar
3 cups all purpose flour
8 ounces butter or pareve margarine, melted
2 large eggs, well beaten

Fillings
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup sugar
1 cup apricot preserves
¼ cup golden raisins (optional)

1. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in ¼ cup warm water. Add 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Stir well and set aside for 5 to 10 minutes.

2. Sift the flour and remaining sugar into a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add the cooled butter or margarine. Add the eggs and yeast mixture. Mix together all ingredients thoroughly and form into a ball. Cover and put in the refrigerator overnight.

3. The next morning, remove the dough from the refrigerator and uncover for about 1 hour.

4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease 2 cookie sheets.

5. Divide the dough into 5 equal parts and mix the cinnamon and sugar. Cover a hard surface with the cinnamon and sugar. Flour the rolling pin and roll out each piece of dough into a 9-inch circle. Spread with some of the apricot preserves and sprinkle with the raisins. Cut into 10 wedges and roll each wedge from the wide end to the point. Curve to make a crescent, making sure the points are on the bottom.

5. Put the crescents on the cookie sheets. Bake until golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the cookie sheet immediately or they will stick. Rugelach freeze very well.

Yield: About 50 rugelach

Grandma Bessie Weinstein’s Schnecken
Adapted from Stephanie Levine

8 ounces cream cheese
8 ounces butter
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out dough
1 18-ounce jar apricot preserves
2 cups chopped walnuts
3 cups golden raisins
4 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

1. Mix the cream cheese and butter in an electric mixer or by hand. Add enough flour to form into a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let sit overnight in the refrigerator.

2. The next day, take the dough out of the refrigerator at least an hour before working. Separate the ball into 4 pieces. Put the apricot jam, walnuts, raisins, sugar, and cinnamon in separate bowls.

3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

4. Flour the surface and roll one piece of dough into a thin 8-by-12 rectangle. Spread the dough with 1/4 of the preserves and sprinkle with 1/3 of the nuts and raisins. Carefully roll the rectangle up until it is 12 inches long. Place seam side down on cookie sheet and liberally sprinkle with the cinnamon/sugar mixture. Repeat with the remaining 3 pieces of dough.

5. Bake logs for 30-40 minutes until slightly brown. When cool, cut with sharp knife into 2-inch pieces (any smaller and they will crumble) and serve.

Yield: About 5-6 dozen cookies

Note: You can freeze the uncooked logs and bake them (even) months later.

William Greenberg Jr.’s Schnecken
Adapted from Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook

Dough
¾ pound (3 sticks) salted butter, at room temperature
½ cup sugar
3 large egg yolks
1 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons (3 packages) active dry yeast
1 ½ teaspoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ½-6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

The Glaze and Filling
1 pound (4 sticks) salted butter
5 cups light brown sugar, loosely packed
2 cups roughly chopped pecans
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 cups raisins, soaked in warm water a few minutes and drained

1. Place the butter and sugar in an electric mixer fitted with the paddle and cream at low speed until smooth. Add the egg yolks, 1 at a time, then the sour cream, yeast, vinegar, and vanilla, mixing at medium speed for about 3 minutes, until well incorporated.

2. Replace the paddle with the dough hook and add the flour gradually, mixing at a low speed for about 10 minutes. The dough will be soft and slightly sticky. Remove it, dust with flour, and divide into 2 pieces. Press each piece into a rectangle about 2 inches thick. Cover each piece with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

3. The next day, cut 2 sticks of butter into 2-inch pieces and place them in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Add 1 ¼ cups of the light-brown sugar and process until smooth. Remove the mixture to a bowl. Repeat with the remaining butter and 1 ¼ cups more of the sugar. Spoon the creamed butter-sugar mixture into the bottoms of 24 3-inch or 48 2-inch muffin cups. Using a pastry brush or the back of a spoon, coat the inside of the cups completely with the butter mixture. At Greenberg’s, a pastry bag is used to do this.

4. Scatter the nuts generously over the butter-sugar mixture in the muffin cups and pat down gently.

5. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Roll each portion into an 8-by-13-inch rectangle about ¼ inch thick for the 3-inch cups and 1/8 inch thick for the 2-inch cups.

6. Sprinkle each sheet of dough with 1 ¼ cups light-brown sugar, 1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon, and 1 cup raisins. Press a rolling pin gently over the filling. Roll the dough up carefully and tightly from the long side.

7. Trim the ends of the rolls slightly and cut each into 12 slices, about 1 inch thick for the regular schnecken and ½ inch thick for the mini schnecken. Place in the muffin tins, cut side down, so that the swirls are face up. Press them down gently into the tins. Then let the schnecken rise, covered with plastic wrap, for 30 minutes.

8. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and bake the schnecken on the middle rack until golden, about 40 minutes, resting the tins on top of a cookie sheet in case there are spills. Remove them from the oven and immediately invert them onto waxed paper.

Yield: About two dozen

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I can taste my dad’s, Aunt Anna, bakery goods, and my mother-in-law’s, rugelach. Good memories.

What you call rugelach my family calls bilculah. Any insight as to where that word came from?

Marilyn says:

I remember the first time I heard the word Schnecken was when I was a child and my family attended a wedding at the Fountainbleu in Miami in about 1965. They served a pastry basket filled with the most delectable things including miniature schnecken that we couldn’t resist. Thanks for the great article and recalling that memory to me.

Steve Bachenheimer says:

As a boy and teenager in Chicago, I toiled in my father’s variety store, after school. It was all worth it because next door was a German bakery that sold Schnecken (10 cents) that I can still taste!

Our family makes rugelach with cottage cheese, not cream cheese, via a recipe that came directly from Lithuania after the war. It makes for extremely light, flakey dough. I’m making them today!

Lisa Kaiser says:

The world’s best schnecken was made by the Virginia Bakery on Clifton Avenue in Cincinnati by the Thie family. Virginia Bkery is also now closed. But I understand the Busken bakery in Cincinnati has the recipe from the Virginia bakery and will ship it. Yum!!!!

So where’s the recipe, dahlink?

Jenny, Please share with us your rugelach recipe with cottage cheese. I bet that the creamcheese dough came from that. I am going to Cincinnati in May and I will be sure and try the Busken bakery and their schnecken, Lisa. Jarad, where is your family from that they call rugelach bilulah. I have never heard of that one.
Joan Nathan

Joan, here’s the update from my mom:

“A bulke is a small roll. I’ve been spelling as bilkalah with “lah” meaning little as in mamalah, tatalah,etc. I remember buying bulke rolls at the Kosher Bakery in Lakewood, CA near Everett Wolpow’s Kosher Meat Market.”

Mystery solved, in part. Are you familiar with bulke rolls? She makes this pastry by rolling dough into a circle, cutting like a pizza, sprinkling choc. chips or raisins, and cinnamon sugar, rolling up like a snail, and more cinnamon sugar on top.

judith says:

They’re exactly the same.
No, they’re different.
Different? How different?
My family has debated the question for years. Many thanks for the edification.

Sandi B says:

Joan:
Found a recipe on Epicurious for cottage cheese rugelach:
Here is the link:
http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Cottage-Cheese-Rugelach-with-Walnuts-1575

Jarad, Of course I know that! There are all sorts of funny names for small sweet rolls, rolled in chocolate. Like your bulke there is a delicious Kuchenbuchen. Check out my Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen, It is a small piece of babka dough, rolled in a ball and rolled in cocoa and sugar, then baked. Some of these names are fond regional ditties like Kuchen buchem which mean nothing.
Sandi, the cottage cheese rugelach were a dairy precurser to cream cheese rugelach. Funny that the recipe calls for cottage cheese and margarine instead of butter! The recipe probably dates from the beginning of the use of margarine, a amodern alternative to butter.
Joan

I grew up in Philadelphia where we also had great bakeries. Bulkes are what are commonly referred to as Kaiser rolls. They’re crispier on the outside and soft on the inside as opposed to the ones commonly sold in supermarket bakeries. Philly also has always been famous for it’s cinnamon rolls — I always assumed they came from PA Dutch Country residents because of their influence in the area (German style).

I’m wondering in the rugeleh recipe with cottage cheese can use butter instead of margarine. I prefer baking with butter as a matter of taste. I have a recipe which I think is from Ladies Home Journal for rugeleh which uses cold butter and cream cheese and is rolled into a pie shape and made the way the photo appears. It calls for raspberry or apricot filling w/pecans, a little cinnamon and sugar. It comes out really light and people love it, but I would like to try cottage cheese as a variety.

Thanks for a wonderful article and some insight on other Jewish areas of the country.

Marcia G. says:

I’ve never seen a rugelach recipe — or tasted rugelach — like my grandmother’s. She used a combination of butter, pot cheese and heavy cream for her dough. Perhaps pot cheese was the precursor in her village in czarist Russia for the cottage cheese that was the precursor of cream cheese. Unable to find pot cheese, I’ve successfully substituted dry curd farmer cheese. Also, the only filling she ever used was sugar, cinnamon, ground walnuts and almonds, white raisins, and her homemade pineapple preserves. And, she schmeered the dough with a mixture of melted butter and peanut oil. We’ve never been able to figure out how she developed her recipes (e.g. one of her varieties of knishes was filled with mashed chickpeas, and she used a type of strudel dough treated like phyllo sheets). When she was first married, she operated an inn that catered to itinerant salesmen, and our guess is that in her quest to please her clientel she discovered ingredients and cooking methods from places far from her native rural Kiev that she incorporated into the traditional dishes she learned from her mother.

Merlee says:

What I want to find is a recipe for TAIGLACH. My bubby made these honey-soaked balls especially for Yom Kippur, to break your fast with something sweet.

They were small, think golf-ball size, rolled up balls of dough. They were heavily sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, and had a filling of crushed nuts and raisins. Then they were baked, and came out VERY hard. Break a tooth hard. She then put them in a clean jar, and filled the jar to the top with honey. She set the jar aside for months, and when it was opened, the balls had soaked up some of the honey and would fall apart in your mouth!

We ate them with a spoon because it could get messy.

Unfortunately, my mother never learned to bake any Jewish delights, so all the recipes were lost. Sigh!

My grandmother, who hailed from Koleshvar in what is now Romania (Cluj), made a version of this pastry that was not too sweet. The emphasis was on the texture of the dough. I recall helping her make it and eating it. It was called neither schnecken nor rugulach, but rather (phonetically) churiken. Anybody out there whose family made a similar treat? Btw, Grandma catered to our love of sugar by sprinkling powdered sugar on them, but made sure to tell me that, in our family, sweet pastry was for children. Thanks for the article and the revival of that taste in my mouth it produced!

Re: Taiglach. My bubbe used to make this, too, but it was different. The dough balls were stacked in a cone/pyramid shape, with bits of nuts and maraschino cherries piled in as well. Then the whole thing was drizzled with honey, so everything stuck together. Never put in a jar – never fall apart in the mouth – it just stayed break a tooth hard – but it was delicious.
I’ve seen recipes in Jewish cookbooks – I’m sure you can find one online, but never the honey in a jar version.

Fran Fine says:

re: Taiglach – Someone in the South African Jewish community should be able to provide a recipe for this. Fabulous sticky and hard confection/cookie and a big mess to make because of the syrup/sugar/honey liquid. The dough is either made into a small knot or a ball shape and then boiled in syrup flavored with ginger for about an hour. It is then placed on a wet board and sometimes sprinkled with chopped nuts. Taiglach can be filled with dates or chopped dried fruit before boiling.
My aunts made this and I wish I had the actual recipe.

I love this conversation. Thanks to all for sharing such precious details and memories.

I love this conversation too. You are on to something, Fran, about teiglach and the South African JEwish community. I often go there for old Lithuanian Jewish recipes. Maybe I’ll write a future article on Teiglach. Keep your comments coming. That is what fuels food writing!

I also know “Zemel” which falls closer to the Schnecken category of yeast dough with sour cream, coming from my Russian/Lithuanian family tradition via the Catskill Mountain “boarding house” just north of New York City. Find more on family recipe traditions in Linda Berzok’s Storied Dishes: What Our Family Recipes Tell Us About Who We Are and Where We’ve Been, Praeger, 2010.

Barb Kleyman says:

Joan, nice article as always. My father taught us how to make Taiglach for Rosh Hasannah. I have the recipe and will post it later today.
This makes me want to go down and make Schnecken instead of getting my work done!

Beatrice Fink says:

Hello Joan,

I read all of the above with much interest.

I’m sure you already know this, but (re taiglach/teiglach) “Teig” is the German word for dough.

Best,
Beatrice

I remember eating my Mom’s Yeast Rugelach ,all the family gathered ,happy and united after
our son had his bar-mitzvah .He had still his kippaand tallit on; happy and proud. The good old days

Thom-Shap says:

I’m delighted to have stumbled over this discussion. I was just having a conversation with my husband about what the difference between Schnecken and Rugelah was. It turns out, I think my great-grandmother (also Bessie, BTW) was calling her rugelah “scheneken” all along. Her recipe calls for cottage cheese and “Spry” which was a competitor with Crisco. She spread the dough with raspberry jam, chopped nuts, and coconut (which was the ingredient that kept me from liking them in my youth,) then sprinkled the tops with cinnamon sugar.

I can taste my grandmother’s zemel (2 types- cinnamon and raisin; and, cheese and golden raisin). She hailed from a family of grain millers in Vilna Guberniya. The cinnamon and raisin was rolled, had sugar and cinnamon glaze, was harder within a couple of hours out of the oven and was my father’s favorite. Mine was the cheese- pot cheese mixed with sugar, cinnamon, plumped golden raisins served as the filling. It was an envelope of dough. When baked, the upper layer of dough rose away from the filling and formed a perfect arc about a 1/4 to 1/2 high. Best thing I ever ate.

I’ve said that least 2739462 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Susan J Schwartz says:

my grandma sarah was from a town on the russia/poland border. she made a yeast treat in the shape of a horn that she called kichel – definitely NO dairy – and no preserves…just sugar,cinamon and raisins. the dough was firm enough that we would eat them by unrolling them – not flaky pastry. i have NEVER seen or made a recipe that tasted like hers.

Teens would be the the majority of concerned people in the culture with regards to weight and body image.

disqus_oevTcfK1Z8 says:

Believe it or not…no, this is not a Ripley story. But the best rugelach is now produced in Santa Fe, NM by Herb Schon, the original baker of Grandma’s Recipe Rugelach in NYC.
Schon retired to Santa Fe after selling his bakery but the passion still burned and he’s back to baking four of Grandma’s favorites often described in the media as “the best” or “Among the Best.”.

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Tale of Two Treats

Schnecken and rugelach, though often mistaken for each other and both delicious examples of Jewish baking, are pastries with distinct histories and routes to American popularity

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