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
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
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
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
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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