Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Oh, holiday baking at last. I am so happy to spend my afternoon with you after all of this time.

This is my grandmother's ruggala recipe. This is the version that she typed out on her typewriter when she was a teacher in New Jersey, before she moved up to the Berkshires and started a vegetarian Bed and Breakfast. She mimeographed it and had it at the ready for when friends would say,
"Oh, Shirl, you must give me the recipe."

I never asked for a copy. I was fourteen when my grandmother died in a car accident, and I had no interest in ever learning how to make ruggala.

Little did I know.

This copy was tucked into a cookbook that I ended up with- I don't know where it came from,
but now I claim it for my own.

I think about my grandmother taking the time to type out this recipe, her quiet cussing over the ink spots, the stained folder in which she kept the copies. For every baker, there is at least one recipe that belongs to them, one that merits the joining of that recipe with their very own name.
These are Shirley's ruggala.

The last time I spoke to my grandmother, I was sarcastic and sour, I was very fourteen. She was more of a mother to me than a grandmother, and in the years before she died, she bore the brunt of my early teens. I remember that conversation so clearly. She and my grandfather stopped by and stood lingering awkwardly in the darkened kitchen for a few minutes, just to check in on my mother and I. I think that we were watching a movie, and I remember thinking that I just wanted them to go away. I probably said no more than five words to them that night, and for years it tortured me. I felt like the relationship was over, and nothing could change the last time we spoke.

A recipe, however, holds some magic in it. I find that rolling out the ruggala, I cannot make Shirley's ruggala without Shirley. I go back to the paper that she copied so many years ago, checking to see to what temperature I need to preheat the oven (350), and how much jam I should spread on the discs ("not so much as it will ooze out while baking"), and I have to tell you that the kitchen feels a little...fuller, like a large breasted, slightly insecure, blue-eyed, wonderfully lovely Pagan Jewish woman with quite a sense of humor is dictating the recipe to me.

Ruggala are a messy business. There is no reason to make a single batch when you could double the recipe, and before you know it, there is sugar and cinnamon on the floor, crunching under your slippers. There is jam on your nose, but it's okay. Your circles of dough might not be really circular. Some of them might roll up funny, and you'll have to give special care to your shaping on those. In the end, through all their faults, they will all look beautiful, and they will taste even better.

Shirley made hundreds of these every year. She rolled and rolled, baked them up, and then filled bags for the freezer. These ruggala, like most things, will be best for the day or two after they are made, but after that, freeze them and take them out for a party. They lose a touch of their flake, but none of their flavor.

Shirley's Ruggala (in her own words, with occasional commentary from me)

(note: these little Jewish pastries are spelled many different ways, but as far as I can tell, this is not one of them. But this is how my Grandmother spelled it, so ruggala it is)

3 cups flour
1 package dry yeast
1/2 pound butter
3 egg yolks
1/2 pint sour cream

Mix flour and dry yeast together and cut in butter until butter is about the size of large peas.

Mix egg yolks with sour cream in another bowl and add to first mixture. Blend in thoroughly. Gather together the dough and form a flattened circle with it.

Chill overnight, or longer of shorter, as convenient. (wonderfully specific, isn't she?)

Divide into 8 parts (as you would cut a pie). Roll each part (keep the remaining pieces in the refrigerator else they will be too soft to work with) over the following mixture.

1 1/4 cups chopped nuts- walnuts or pecans
1 cup sugar (I used 3/4 cup)
cinnamon, to taste (I used 1 1/2 tablespoons)

(she adds here... note: you may vary this to suit your own taste, i.e. add more nuts, sugar, etc.)

Spread some of this mixture on a pastry sheet (I used a silpat here, but you could also tape a length of parchment to the counter and that would work too) and roll, with rolling pin one part of the dough. Turn and roll again so that it will not stick. Do not use flour, but use enough of the nut mixture so the dough will not stick.

(just to clarify here, she tells us to use the nut and sugar mixture as we would normally use flour when rolling- this way the mixture gets rolled into the dough)

Roll into a circle about 6-7 inches in diameter and shape the circle not only with the rolling pin, but with your fingers. Try to get as round a circle as you can, without spending too much time handling it. Cut this circle into eight parts, spread your favorite jam or jelly (not too much as it will ooze out while baking). Roll each part from the outside of the circle on towards the center, the wide part to the narrow. Tuck under the narrow end so that it is closed fairly tightly. Shape into crescents.

Use tin foil (I used parchment) on your baking tins as this makes cleaning up much easier. It is not necessary to leave too much room between tge oastries as they do not rise much. Do not grease pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes, or until the tops are nicely lightly browned and flaky. You might find it might need a little more or less baking time- go by the color and flakiness you desire.

Take them off the tin foil with a metal spatula IMMEDIATELY else you will not be able to remove them. Turn them out onto wax paper, upside down, so that the bottoms are exposed to air and are able to dry out. They are very stick from the jam and need to dry thoroughly before you put them away- if not, they will all stick together.

One recipe makes 64 ruggala- eight parts, each one divided into eight parts. The ruggala freeze very successfully in a tightly covered container.


  1. very nice! it brought tears to my eyes. Your words and Shirley's Ruggala ring so true in so many ways.
    Thank you

  2. Alana, i love this post. It brought tears to my eye's too.. I can so clearly picture your grandmother looking over your shoulder as you made this recipe. I'm sure she would be very proud of you. I will definelty make these one of these days.. Wish me luck as i attempt to make a gingerbread house tomorrow which we will demolish for dessert on Christmas Day! Happy Holidays!-k

  3. Oh, so perfect for today. And now I miss my grandmother, and her shortbread. Happy Christmas to you, and yours, and thanks again for keeping up your lovely, lovely writing.

  4. This is beyond fabulous: your writing, your photos, the recipe. Neither of my Jewish grandmothers cooked—which I now realize is something I've been trying to make up for for most of my life—so, though I have some of my mom's recipes, I'm always looking for recipes with a longer lineage. And in a delightful synchronicity, my mother's mother's name is Shirly (no e). Anyway, I'm adopting Shirley's Ruggala, if you don't mind.

    Ruggala is the singular, by the way; more than one—and who can eat just one?—are ruggalach; and since they're Yiddish words, they'd properly be spelled with Hebrew letters, so I'd say she can transliterate them into Roman script however she wants. And Google tells me that some significant number of other people have spelled it the same way. But if you add "rugelach" to your labels, more people might find this recipe and your story, which would be, in my not so humble opinion, a very good thing.

    Thanks again, Alana. Say hi to Joey for me, please.

    Michael Schneider

  5. Thank you Michael, both for your sentiments and your grammar. You may certainly adopt Shirley's ruggala, whether it be one of them or many. She would be honored, I'm sure...

  6. Hi Alana,

    Well you inspired me! Today was a "ruggala" day. I made grandma's date puree last night - chopped about 1 1/2 c. of dates and simmered them for about 15 minutes, covered, with a little apple cider. Then, I mashed them with a potato masher. I filled 1 batch of the ruggala with that and the second batch with peach preserves - like the old days! As I baked, I thought of the small kitchen growing up and mom making soooooo many ruggala to give as holiday gifts to all our family friends. I have some gifts to give this evening and in upcoming weeks, so I decided to indulge my memories and make ruggala! Thanks for inspiring me last month.

    Send big hugs to Joey and the girls!

    Love, Cindy