Updated: Sep 25, 2020
I met Muriel Fleishman at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, in the 1990s. I was a graduate student and she was a secretary to one of my professors. We became friends. The fact that she was old enough to be my grandmother enhanced our friendship (I had always been close to my grandmothers). I liked her no-nonsense outspokenness, combined with kindness and generosity. If she liked you, she’d go to the ends of the earth for you. If she didn’t . . . well, let’s just say she wasn’t a pushover.
Muriel was a terrific cook in the American-Ashkenazic tradition. She once invited my husband and me to her house for a Rosh Hashana meal of homemade gefilte fish, from scratch – homemade, as in, she had de-boned the fish by hand and mixed it with the rest of the ingredients. It was excellent, and I am no fan of gefilte fish.
One day I went grocery shopping in Squirrel Hill, the Jewish section of Pittsburgh, and I bought rugelach cookies. They were spectacular. Since I was a baker, I wondered if I could make them at home. So, next time I saw Muriel, I asked her if she had a recipe for rugelach.
“Sure,” she said, tearing a piece of note paper off her desk pad. In thirty seconds she wrote down the recipe from memory in that A-plus cursive penmanship of hers.
“You have it memorized!” I exclaimed.
She shrugged as if it were no big deal. “I come from a family of professional bakers. We all know these recipes in our heads.”
I still have that slip of paper.
Fast-forward twenty-five years later. I dug out Muriel’s hand-written recipe and made them for a Sukkot party (Sukkot is a Jewish autumn festival). I used ricotta cheese instead of cottage cheese, and I really liked the texture and flavor. People loved these cookies — and this was a crowd that, unlike me, had grown up with them. Someone told me they tasted like those from his childhood. You can play with the combinations of cheese and fillings to make them your own signature cookie. No matter what combinations you decide on, they are bound to be unforgettable.
A few notes about the recipe.
Make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature.
Muriel’s recipe calls for margarine, but you can use butter. She calls for cottage cheese, but ricotta and cream cheese work well, too. My personal favorite is ricotta.
The reason for pressing the cottage cheese through a strainer is to reduce the size of the curds and allow the cheese to mix more easily. You can whirl it in a food processor or blender instead. Don’t over-process – a few seconds is enough.
The dough has no sugar in it. The sweetness comes from the filling.
Hand-mixing is a good idea – you don’t want to over-work this dough by machine mixing. A flexible plastic bowl scraper is very effective. As I mix, I like to chop and fold the ingredients together. If you use your hands to mix, wear disposable latex gloves so the dough doesn’t heat up too much.
The dough may be be extremely soft and sticky when it is first mixed, depending on how wet the cheese is, but it will firm up when chilled, and continue to firm when you roll it out on a well-floured countertop.
The filling can be whatever strikes your fancy. You can omit the nuts or chocolate chips, or include other dried fruit such as apricots or blueberries or dates. Just be sure it is chopped into small pieces, about the size of a raisin or smaller.
I recommend soaking very dry fruit in liquid (such as water or liqueur or fruit juice) for at least a few hours to hydrate it.
You can put jam inside the cookies, and brush some on top before baking. I prefer apricot jam because of the flavor and light golden color.
The raw cookies can be frozen until you’re ready to bake them. But you must defrost them before baking. Place frozen cookies on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, let defrost just until no longer frozen but still cool -- and bake as directed.
The cookies may leak butter during baking if the dough got too warm right before baking. Don’t worry. The butter-sugar-cinnamon crunch that is created on the baking sheet is delicious.
The dough must be refrigerated or frozen until cold, so plan accordingly. If you try to rush it and bake without chilling, the dough will be difficult to shape and it will leak a lot of butter.
8 ounces cottage cheese or ricotta cheese or cream cheese
4 ounces butter or margarine (if using unsalted butter, add a pinch of salt to the mixture)
2 cups (8.5 ounces) all-purpose bleached flour
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Total dough weight: about 14.5 ounces (410 grams).
Put the cottage cheese through a strainer, or whirl it in a food processor or blender to break up the curds. Add the butter (or margarine), flour, and vanilla. Mix with your hands. Refrigerate for several hours or up to 2 days.
On a well-floured counter, roll out half of the dough (about 7.25 ounces or 205 g) into a circle about 12 to 14 inches in diameter. Keep it well floured so it doesn’t stick. If the dough is still very sticky, it might absorb a lot of flour as you roll it, and this is fine. Cut into 12 wedges. Do the same with the second half of dough.
First Filling for the two dough circles:
The first filling is either butter or jam, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. The wet butter or jam helps the sugar to stick to the dough. I like at least a half a cup of cinnamon sugar on each dough circle, but you can add more if you like.
About 3 ounces melted butter or margarine, OR 6 ounces strained fruit jam such as apricot or apple, or whatever you like
1 cup cinnamon sugar (that’s 1 cup sugar plus a teaspoon or two of cinnamon)
Brush each dough circle with either melted butter or margarine, or jam. Sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar.
Second Filling for the two dough circles:
After you've spread butter or jam, plus cinnamon sugar on the dough circles, move on to the second filling. You'll need about a cup total of this filling. You don't have to use everything listed here. Mix it up according to what you like.
Dried fruit such as cherries, apricots, blueberries, raisins, or other dried fruit, chopped into small pieces if very large
At the base of each wedge (that is, the wide part on the perimeter of the circle), place about a teaspoon total of the mixture. If you try to cram in too much filling, it'll come out during baking.
Roll up each wedge into a crescent shape, starting with the wide base. You want to see the ridges after the cookie is rolled, like a croissant. You can brush the cookies with strained apricot preserves or a beaten egg (I prefer the preserves), and sprinkle with coarse sugar.
If the room is warm and the dough is getting soft, refrigerate or freeze the cookies until firm before baking, otherwise they'll leak butter when they bake.
Bake on a parchment-lined cookie sheet at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes, and then transfer to a cooling rack.
Store in an airtight container for about 2 days. Freeze for longer storage.