There is something wonderfully homey and decadent about traditional rugelach. They seem to draw people, as if by magnets, and that first bite is downright addictive. For those who grew up eating them, the taste is a literal memory. But the appeal is universal.
One of my friends calls them “shame cookies,” because the first time I brought some into the office for him, he was eating them so quickly I protested a bit, because they do take some time to make. So he started calling them “shame cookies.” Because they’re so good you can’t stop at just one. Or two. Or ten.
I don’t remember my mother making rugelach growing up. I do remember occasionally getting some from my grandmother, although she usually sent chocolate chip cookies. [My grandparents lived on the other coast, and sent boxes out a couple of times a year with odds and ends, and cookies. The cookies were always packed in either Quaker oatmeal cardboard canisters or Royal Danish butter cookie tins. Apparently one of their neighbors ate a lot of butter cookies and would give her the tins. It was always such a treat to crack the tin open. The chocolate chip cookies remain a bit of a mystery to this day. They were incredibly thin and crispy, with bumps showing you where the chocolate was, and I remember always tasting a hint of mint (which I love), even though I know she used a standard generic recipe. Some alchemy of her kitchen and oven, I guess, but they were very much unique.]
My freshman year of college, a family friend sent me a container of rugelach, which was such a wonderful surprise. And while they were good, they weren’t like my grandmother’s. Hers were small, with a very flaky crust, while my grandmothers were a little larger, with a “sturdier” crust. Sometime after that, I looked for recipes, trying to recreate that ideal rugelach. The first recipe I tried was a bit of a disaster – it had you put the sugar-cinnamon-nut-raisin filling on top of the dough and roll up. Which sounds simple, until you remember that is a dry filling. With nothing to hold it in place, the filling fell out all over just from rolling and putting them on the baking sheet.
Many recipes call for jam, usually apricot, to be spread on the dough to keep the filling in place. But the traditional rugelach I grew up with didn’t taste of fruit, just of filling, so that wasn’t what I wanted. Then I found a recipe with a genius trick – pour melted butter over the filling to make a paste. Voila!
Yes, they can take a bit of time. But every bit of time is totally worth that first bite. And the second, and third, and fourth. And “cleaning up” the oozed filling, while a bit tedious, makes them look a lot nicer, and gives you a bit of a snack while you work.
Using electric mixer, beat butter and cheese in large bowl until light. Add sugar; beat until fluffy. Mix in flour and salt. Gather dough into ball, making sure everything is incorporated. Divide dough into 8 pieces, as equally as possible. Roll each piece into a ball, flatten into a disk, and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to several days. If it's been refrigerated for a day or longer, you may need to let it sit on the counter for a few minutes before rolling so it's not too stiff.
Mix 3/4 cup sugar, raisins, walnuts, cinnamon and allspice in small bowl to blend. Pour the melted butter over the top, starting with the small amount, and mix in. You want a paste-like consistency. If it seems a little dry and difficult to spread, add a little more melted butter. The filling, both before and after adding the butter, can be refrigerated pretty indefinitely without any loss of quality. It is recommended to make a second batch of filling, as I find the quantity above isn't enough to make it through all the dough. Or, use your favorite jam instead of the filling to finish up the cookies.
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F.
Place 1 dough disk on floured work surface (keep remaining 7 dough disks refrigerated). Roll out dough to 8-inch round, or until the dough is pretty thin but not too thin. Try to keep it pretty round, but don't worry about making it perfect - you can adjust your cuts to compensate for any distortion in the dough shape, and when each piece is rolled up, no one will ever know.
Using a spoon, spread the filling in a thin, uniform layer across the dough. Leave a narrow border around the edge. Cut round into 8 wedges. If there is a raisin or walnut at the tip, move it somewhere else. Starting at wide end of each wedge, roll up tightly and completely to tip. Place cookies, tip pointing down, on parchment paper-covered baking sheet and form into crescents. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. If the filling becomes hard to spread, put the bowl back in the microwave for 30 seconds to warm the butter back up.
Bake until golden, 10-20 minutes, depending on your oven. You want them to be a pale color, not too brown. Set the baking sheet on a cooling surface for a few minutes, until the cookies start to firm up but are still warm. If some of the filling has oozed out the sides, you can easily “clean it” up by using fingers to remove it from the warm cookies. If you try when they’re cool, it will destroy the cookie.
Store in an airtight container for up to a week, or freeze for longer storage.
Note: You can chop the raisins and walnuts by hand or in a food processor. You are looking for pretty small pieces, so they won't stick out too much. My trick for chopping raisins is to measure out my sugar for the filling, and sprinkle it over the raisins as I cut. Every couple of chops (or pulses), I sprinkle a little more sugar. That way, the sugar binds to the cut edge of the raisin and keeps it from sticking to everything. You may not need all the butter in the filling, you just need enough to make the filling spreadable without making it too buttery. I would start with 4-6 tablespoons, and only add the rest if you can't easily spread the filling.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 8-ounce package Neufchâtel cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2-3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup (3-1/2 ounces) dried raisins, finely chopped (see note)
2/3 cup (2-3/4 ounces) toasted walnuts, finely chopped (see note)
1/4 - 1/2 cup (1/2 to 1 stick) unsalted butter, melted (see note)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice