When we declare that we are going on a diet, all we can think about is pizza and ice cream. So you shouldn’t be surprised that when we contemplate fasting on Yom Kippur, we imagine diving into a fish tray – and finishing up with something sweet. This year, we have rugelach and schnecken on our minds.
We joke that when we were writing our Dictionary of Jewish Words, we came up with the definition of Torah in 10 minutes, but we pondered the difference between rugelach and schnecken for hours. We did enough research to write the definitions. We declared that these two pastries are similar – but not exactly the same. Cousins, you might say.
Since then, we’ve been in delis where they label any bite-sized cinnamon sugar pastry a rugelach and in others that call them schnecken. When we do our book talk and ask our audiences – filled with bubbies that love to bake and everyone else who loves to nosh – to tell us the difference between the two pastries, they are stymied. They happily share bits of information like,“You should taste my sister’s cinnamon rugelach” or “My husband hates it when I put nuts in the schnecken,” but no one can tell us exactly what makes the two noshes different.
A few weeks ago, we decided to revisit the debate. (After all, someone had to take on this delicious investigation.) We did our due diligence by closely examining (and tasting) as many rugelach and schnecken as humanly possible.
It must have been bashert that we came upon a car decorated with photographs of schnecken. We knew it was schnecken, not rugelach, because the words “The Schnecken Lady” were printed beneath the photos. The Word Mavens decided to give The Schnecken Lady a call, hoping she could referee the controversy.
Myrna Freedman lives in Northeast Philadelphia and provides her home-baked schnecken to stores all over the region. She told us that she’s been baking schnecken since 1977; she uses her Aunt Minnie Eisman’s traditional recipe, which has cinnamon sugar, walnuts, raisin and orange marmalade (this makes the pastries sticky). She also makes novel versions, including Nutella, lemon curd, and chocolate raspberry.
Myrna declined to take sides. “Call it what you want to. The ingredients are basically the same. It depends on where you live, what your family calls it – some people say kigel and others say kugel – and how you cut it. In New York, everything’s a rugelach.”
Thanks, Myrna, but you’ve clearly taken a side – schnecken is emblazoned on your van, business card, website and bakery boxes.
Clearly, we needed to do more research. We’re old school, so we turned to our cookbook collection for clarity, hoping to find out whether it’s the dough, the shape or the fillings that distinguish these two sweets.
THE DOUGH: Schnecken dough is usually composed of butter, flour, egg yolks and yeast. We learned that kuchen (German for cake) is a precursor to schnecken; the yeast-containing dough can be used for cinnamon buns and coffee cakes. This might give us a clue as to why schnecken is sometimes gooey – like a cinnamon bun.
Back in the day in Europe, schnecken dough and rugelach dough were similar. When these pastries both came to America, someone had the bright idea to add cream cheese to rugelach. In fact, venerable cookbook author Joan Nathan calls rugelach “cream cheese cookies.”
At Lipkin’s, a kosher bakery in Northeast Philadelphia that been in business for four-generations, the bakery lady behind the counter told us, “Of course, Mitch [Lipkin] puts cream cheese in the dough.” At Lipkin’s – which sells chocolate, raspberry and cinnamon sugar varieties – they call them rugelach. “I’ve never heard the word schnecken,” the clerk told us.
THE SHAPE: New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton is the author of From My Mother’s Kitchen and a member of the tribe. She calls schnecken “cinnamon nut snails.” That’s a good choice because the word schnecken comes from the Yiddish word for snail. To get that snail shape, you roll out the dough into a rectangle, spread the filling on top, roll it up jellyroll style, cut it into small slices, and bake.
What’s the shape of rugelach? In an essay in Tablet, Joan Nathan wrote, “Rug means spiral or crescent-shaped in Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish; a miniature spiral-shaped dough was, therefore, a rugelach.
To get the crescent shape, you roll out the dough into a circle, cut it into pie-shaped wedges, spread the filling on each wedge and, beginning at the wide edge, roll it up to the point, like a crescent roll.
We checked out Green’s Rugelach Chocolate Original from the supermarket. It comes in a plastic bag and has enough preservatives to last a month on the counter. We were pleased to see, however, that Green’s got the shape right. Their rugelach are parve so they left out the cream cheese.
THE FILLINGS: The basic filling for either is a combination of sugar, cinnamon and nuts. Raisins are the next most popular add-in. Then there’s chocolate and apricot jam. After that, the sky’s the limit, like the Schnecken Lady’s Nutella or Abe Fisher’s newfangled savory version filled chicken and schmaltz or salmon, boursin and kimmel seeds.
Abe isn’t our uncle; it’s a new Philadelphia restaurant featuring “food of the Jewish diaspora.” The Israel-born manager brought these savory pastries to our table in place of bread. “Have some rugelach,” he announced. We asked him why they weren’t called schnecken; he told us he had never heard that word. They were delicious.
So it seems that what you call this nosh depends on where your ancestors came from. Since schnecken is a German word, unless you are a direct descendant of German Jews you probably didn’t grow up with schnecken. The vast majority of American Jews are children of immigrants from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine, where rugelach ruled.
For a final opinion, we turn one last time to Joan Nathan to weigh in on the great schnecken/rugelach debate. She talked about cream cheese vs. yeast, spirals vs. snails and how the best schnecken are sticky like a cinnamon bun. Her conclusion: “Sometimes the pastries seem to only be different in name. 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?”
That’s good advice, Joan. So when we place the order for our break-fast fish trays, we’ll order a pound of each. Assorted, but throw a few more chocolate ones in the box.