‘Rugelach’ is a Yiddish word that translates to ‘little twists’.
Fresh out of ovens, rugelach line the shelves at bakeries and food stalls in Jerusalem’s busy Mahane Yehuda Market. Filled with chocolate, poppy seeds and even halva, they look like mini croissants. The chocolate versions are so soft and tasty, they could put Parisian pain au chocolats to shame.
‘Rugelach’ is a Yiddish word that translates to ‘little twists’. One of Israel’s favourite pastries, the rugelach can be traced back to the Hungarian kifli, Austrian kipferin and Polish rogal. Some people believe that Austria was the birthplace of rugelach, where it was made to commemorate the expulsion of the Turks. Bakers in Austria celebrated the victory by baking crescent-shaped pastries called ‘kipferin’. The crescent shape was selected to represent the emblem of the Ottoman Empire, which the Turks used on their war flags, giving Austrians a reason to symbolically demolish their enemy. However, some historians believe that this is legend and not actual history. Others believe that cornulete, a Romanian pastry, could have been a more plausible origin for rugelach.
Rugelach was invented around the same time as the croissant, in 1683. Originally made with yeast dough and filled with fruit jams or poppy seed paste, the pastry is considered the most popular sweet treat both in Israel and within the American Jewish community. Rugelach, believed to have Ashkenazi roots, is an example of a Jewish dish that has travelled both eastward and westward from Central Europe and ended up in Israel and the US.
According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, American bakers invented a rugelach dough that used cream cheese instead of yeast. The resulting pastry is like little squares with various fillings. However, Hungarian and Polish Jews who moved to Israel continued to prepare the sweet pastry by using the traditional kneading, rising and folding methods that come with yeast dough. This popularised rugelach in Israel to such an extent that every bakery in the country sells them. However, rugelach came to be modified in two ways during the course of their existence in Israel. Some bakeries began to use a laminated yeast dough, with layers of butter, similar to that used for making croissants. Secondly, the filling was given a Middle Eastern spin with the use of halva.
Israeli rugelach are lighter and fluffier than their American counterparts. Today, they are the sweet treat of choice for important gatherings like Shabbat services held in schools. Besides this, they make a satisfying breakfast when accompanied by tea or coffee. Owing to their small size, it’s possible to eat multiple rugelach for one meal. They may be considered similar to babka, the braided cake that became a lockdown cooking trend. Babka and rugelach are similar in their use of chocolate and the fact that both were developed in Europe but have reached other places like the US, where they enjoy immense popularity.
Despite these similarities, rugelach remains distinct and commands a strong identity of its own. This is not hard to realise, when the smell of fresh, chocolaty rugelach wafts out of Jerusalem’s most popular bakeries.