Featured Holiday Cookie: Rugelach
After much experimentation, butter cookies in the European tradition have dominated my holiday cookie list. Spritz cookies, shortbread, sugar cookies, Russian tea cakes, aka Mexican wedding cakes, all fall in this category. Varied with nuts, fillings, preserves, fruit peels, almond paste and the like, they are all in the butter cookie family. That means they have the same short and crisp texture so will play nicely together in your cookie gift tin or on your gift plate.
In Rose’s December 2017 Tea Travels blog, she gifts readers with a list of her favorite holiday cookies and some excellent recipes. I write about cookies in my December 2018 Cakes and Tea blog, adding some general cookie-baking advice, baking pantry ingredients, and packaging ideas. Like most folks, here at My Tea Planner, we love cookies, preferably with an accompanying cup of hot tea. A search from our home page brings up dozens of cookie recipes, many suitable for holiday baking.
This year, I’ve added an Eastern European classic cookie slash pastry with so many traditional fillings, rugelach. A staple in bakeries and Jewish delis, rugelach is the ultra rich and flaky rolled-like-a-crescent roll cookie that sports filling of grounds nuts, cinnamon sugar, dried fruit purees, or preserves. The dough includes cream cheese as well as lots of butter, making a luscious background for the various fillings.
Larger and heftier than typical cookies, rugelach are almost pastry-like in their density and delectableness. You may be tempted to eat more than one in a sitting because they are so heavenly, but it is probably best to stop at one, just saying. The recipe makes exactly 32 pieces making it easy to plan for gifting.
Special equipment: large mixing bowl, wooden spoon, plastic wrap or bee’s waxed cloth, small bowl, fork, rolling pin, pastry brush, large, sharp knife or pizza cutter, 2 baking sheets lined with parchment or silicone mat, cooling rack
Preheat oven in step #3 to 325 degrees F
- 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
- 8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
- 2 cups flour, plus more for rolling out dough
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 egg beaten with ½ teaspoon of water (egg wash*)
- Filling of choice
- Cinnamon sugar
- Powdered sugar
- In large mixing bowl, stir together butter and cream cheese until just combined. Add flour and salt and mix together just until dough looks mostly uniform; do not overmix.
- Pat dough into 2 equal sized disks and flatten to about 5 inches in diameter. Wrap in plastic wrap or bee’s waxed cloth and chill at least 4 hours or overnight. Use within 2 days. When ready to use, let dough rest on work surface for 20-30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In small bowl, mix egg and water together for egg wash, set aside. On heavily floured surface, roll out 1 disk to a circle about 12 inches in diameter or 1/8 inch thick. Trim edges if desired; I just tucked the ragged edges in when I rolled up the crescents.
- Brush egg wash about 1 inch around outer edge of circle. Spread filling of choice to within 1 inch of edge. Cut circle into 12 wedges, like a pizza. Starting from wide edge, roll up wedge, tucking point under roll. Place at least 1 inch apart on prepared baking sheet. Brush tops with egg wash. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, if desired. Repeat with remaining dough.
- Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, rotating pans from back to front and changing pans from top to bottom halfway through baking time. Tops should be well-browned, quite a bit darker than most butter cookies. Transfer to rack to cool. Sift powdered sugar over tops, if desired. Store in tightly sealed containers and eat or give promptly. Cookies freeze well, if tightly wrapped.
Poppy Seed-Prune Filling
Special equipment: small saucepan, wooden spoon, silicone spatula, food processor, coffee grinder, air-tight container such as a pint canning jar
Makes about 1 ¼ cups filling
- ½ cup pitted prunes
- 3 tablespoons brandy, rum, or water
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- ½ cup poppy seeds
- ½ cup milk
- 1/3 cup sugar
- In small saucepan, combine prunes, brandy, and 2 tablespoons sugar. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until prunes are softened and liquid is almost evaporated, about 6-8 minutes. Scrape prunes and any liquid into food processor bowl, set aside saucepan for heating the poppy seed mixture, no need to clean out pan.
- In coffee grinder, grind poppy seeds in batches, if necessary, until it is coarsely ground but not gummy. Place ground poppy seeds in the reserved saucepan. Add milk and 1/3 cup sugar and stir together.
- Cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until mixture thickens, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir to cool for about a minute.
- Scrape poppy seed mixture into food processor bowl with prunes and process until smooth, scraping down sides as needed. Store filling in air-tight container (I use a pint canning jar) and store in fridge, up to a week. Filling may be used between cake layers, if thinned down to spreadable consistency with brandy or water.
In recent history, Trader Joe’s for years carried slab apricots, but they’ve since disappeared from the shelves. In their place, hard-though-puffy, under-ripe dried apricots sometimes labeled Turkish apricots, have been showing up as the only choice. I tested the apricot filling recipe with these imposters, and they never became softer, no matter how long the apricots were boiled in the syrup. It tasted okay but when pureed, lacked the velvety texture of better dried apricots. Looking closely at the photos of the spread-out filling, you can see that it is still chunky though food processed longer than normal. If you go to the farmer’s market or go to the farm for your summer fresh apricots, definitely buy dried apricots from the farmer, if they offer them. I get fresh and dried apricots from Bremmer’s Farm in Arbuckle, California, (they are on yelp and facebook) during the short fresh apricot season, two or three weeks around Father’s Day each year. This year, I got my lug of over-ripe apricots to make into jam but neglected to stock up on their dried apricots. Look for the precious slab apricots at fancier markets or online, if you are shopping after apricot season is over. Let’s cross our fingers that Trader Joe’s will shape up and get them back on the shelves. I’m also going to make a plea to my cooks and bakers to make fresh apricot jam, as the flavor is incomparable to store bought. You’ll be so happy in winter when you make the effort in June!
In doing my apricot research I stumbled across a fantastic website For the Love of Apricots, written by Lisa Newman. Her blog post about The Valley of the Heart’s Delight will fill you in on all things old Santa Clara Valley and of course, all things apricot. She even has a map of west coast apricot orchards where folks can buy apricots in season. She grew up in the Saratoga foothills, literally watching the valley turn from acres of fruit orchards to ugly buildings. She is a champion of local agriculture and actually wrote a whole book on apricot recipes. I tried to purchase a copy but ye ole PayPal is not cooperating at this time. As suggested, I will try again. Lisa, we salute you!
Special equipment: medium saucepan or 1 quart microwave-safe bowl, wooden spoon, silicone spatula, food processor, air-tight container such as a pint canning jar
Makes about 1 1/2 cups filling
- 1 cup (packed) dried apricots, preferably “slab” apricots, if you can find them
- ½ cup water
- ½ cup sugar
- In medium saucepan or microwave-safe bowl, stir together apricots, water, and sugar.
- Cook over medium heat or microwave at full power, stirring occasionally, until apricots are rehydrated and puffy and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for about 5 minutes.
- Scape apricots and any liquid into food processor and process until smooth, scraping down sides as needed. Store filling in air-tight container (I use a pint canning jar) and store in fridge, up to a week. Filling may be used between cake layers, if thinned down to spreadable consistency with brandy or water.
Nancy Baggett’s Cranberry Cherry Filling
Special equipment: food processor, small saucepan, wooden spoon, silicone scaper, air-tight container such as a pint canning jar
Makes about 1 cup
- Generous ¾ cup of dried, sweetened cranberries, about 3 ounces
- Generous 1/3 cup cherry jam or preserves
- 1 ½ tablespoons sugar
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
In a food processor, process the cranberries, jam or preserves, and sugar until coarsely pureed, Transfer the mixture to a small, heavy saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until it just comes to a boil; immediately remove from the heat. Let stand until cooled slightly. Stir in the almond extract. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour, or until well chilled, or freeze for 30 minutes to speed chilling. (The filling may be refrigerated for up to 4 days; return to room temperature and stir before using.)
Variation: replace dried cranberries with dried cherries for an all-cherry filling.
*A note to avoid cross contamination with egg wash and fillings
If you plan to keep your leftover filling in the fridge for later use, use two separate utensils: one spoon for dolloping the filling into the center of the rolled-out dough, and another spoon or spreader for spreading out the filling where it will come into contact with the egg wash. In other words, you want to keep any egg out of your filling.
Holiday Cookie Bibliography
- Baggett, Nancy. The All-American Cookie Book. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001
- Clark, David E. ed. Sunset Cookies. Lane Publishing, 1986
- Greenspan, Dorie. Baking with Julia. William Morrow and Company, 1996
- Stewart, Martha. Martha Stewart’s Cookies. Clarkson Potter, 2008
- Walter, Carole. Great Cookies. Clarkson Potter, 2003