Can Any NYC Rugelach Stand Up to My Grandma’s?

A personal tasting expedition of NYC's finest rugelach.

If you come from a New York-centric, Ashkenazi Jewish family like mine, then it’s likely you have a favorite rugelach recipe or bakery from which to procure the sweet treat.

I grew up with my Grandma Sylvia’s beloved rugelach, plus many anticipated trips to Zabar’s. Growing up, rugelach was part of the cookie landscape of my childhood, right alongside the Oreos and Chips Ahoy.

Rugelach, however, have a far more storied past than most supermarket cookies. Let’s start with the name: One supposed root, “rog,” means “twist” in Yiddish, which would make the English translation “little twist.” However, “róg” in Polish means “corner” or “horn.” In fact, there’s a horn-shaped Polish pastry called rogale, pronounced like rugele — coincidence? Another interpretation is that the root isn’t “rog” but “rugel,” meaning “royal” in Yiddish. I do believe these cookies are worthy of a regal past.

Traditionally, rugelach were made from a kneaded yeast dough, making preparation far more labor intensive than how most rugelach are made today. The resulting texture of such a dough resembles more closely a croissant or other European-style pastry. The denser rugelach we’re familiar with today come from dough containing cream cheese or sour cream, though this variety didn’t come to be until Jews were in the United States. Reportedly, this change happened thanks to the invention and success of cream cheese. In 1928, Kraft acquired Philadelphia Cream Cheese; the following decade, the company introduced a yeast-free, cream cheese-based dough that was advertised as a time- and energy-saver. Though it’s unclear who exactly kicked off the trend of yeast-free rugelach, in 1939 the rich, soft rugelach we know and love started to appear in Jewish bakeries, and soon pareve (non-dairy) rugelach came to the kosher scene, too.

My grandma’s rugelach are squarely placed in the American, new-school variety. However, she rolled them small and tight, so once baked they’re crunchy through and through, almost like biscotti. She and my mom sprinkle them with chocolate shavings or cinnamon, chopped pecans, and raisins. But I must admit, my tastes err on the indulgent side, and crunchy rugelach don’t hit the spot as much as the chewy, melt-in-your-mouth kind.

As a lifetime rugelach eater and lover, I wanted to expand my tastes beyond Zabar’s and my grandma’s recipe. If New York is a rugelach hub, where can one find the best rugelach? What even constitutes the best rugelach? The purpose of this mission was to shed light on how some more prominent rugelach (Bread’s, Russ & Daughters) stand up against other sorts, how flavors vary from pareve to dairy, and trying everything from Manhattan’s trend-setting bakeries to Hasidic Brooklyn.

 

Erica’s Rugelach & Baking Co.

These jumbo rugelach are fully loaded. I sampled the apricot-raspberry variety. The cookie is flaky and buttery, and they’re compact little rolls rather than croissant-shaped. And the flavor! These rugs have a spiced, complex brightness that make the insides taste like fresh pie filling. They also get extra points for presentation because they come in a cute tin.

(718) 965-3657

 

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Zabar’s

As I’ve confessed, these are a longtime favorite of mine. I sampled chocolate and cinnamon-raisin-pecan. These confections have a nice crisp outside but quickly give way to the soft, chewy layers wrapping toward the center. They have a nice flaky dough, but the filling does all the heavy lifting — as it should be, in my opinion.

2245 Broadway
New York, NY 10024
(212) 787-2000
Neighborhood: Upper West Side

Lee Lee’s

The shop’s slogan is “Rugelach by a Brother,” referring to Alvin Lee Smalls, who has baked and sold rugelach in Harlem since 1964. It was love at first sight with these rugelach. They look superbly homemade (because they are), as in they don’t look identical as other mass-produced cookies do. This cozy shop sells other treats, but their rugelach are famed, and with good reason. The raspberry rugelach were warm and fresh, dusted with cinnamon. The apricot had a crispy exterior with a pleasantly tart filling. The chocolate toyed with expectations: They sit on the tray drizzled with chocolate, apparently waiting to give you a sugar stomachache. But instead of cloying sweetness, there was a surprising hint of marzipan. I asked the woman at the cashier (Lee Lee’s wife, it turns out) if he uses marzipan, and with a smile she replied, “He may, as well as other ingredients.” Lee Lee has many tricks up his sleeve, all of them flawless.

283 West 118th St.
New York, NY 10026
(917) 493-6633
Neighborhood: Harlem

William Greenberg Desserts

Not my favorites. The apple-stuffed one was bland and doughy, sort of like a low-salt apple pie or strudel, but not nearly as flavorful as Erica’s. (Not that there’s anything wrong with pie or strudel — it’s just that I came for rugelach.) They also offer chocolate and raspberry varieties that aren’t as doughy as the apple. My father, however, had a damning critique: “These are like goyishe rugelach.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but I won’t be returning for their rugelach any time soon.

1100 Madison Ave
New York, NY 10028
(212) 861-1340
Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Eli’s Night Shift

Eli Zabar (yes, of that Zabar family) struck out to create his own franchise. Eli’s Night Shift, a diner just a few blocks down from Eli’s Market, sells longer rugelach that resemble egg rolls. Crystallized sugar glints on the glazed exterior. Apricot was light and flaky and not at all saccharine. Raisin was sweeter, but chocolate was weak without a cocoa aftertaste.

189 East 79th St.
New York, NY 10075
(212) 879-7160
Neighborhood: Upper East Side

 

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Orwashers Bakery

Unfortunately, Orwashers was out of rugelach the day I visited, which may speak to their popularity. However, I sampled rugelach by one of their student bakers, and it was delightful. It was tiny and tightly coiled. This crunchy, nutty, lemony version had a tangy taste that was a refreshing change from doughy, bland rugelach with a vague sweetness. Be sure to visit in the coming months and years; this student baker is going to be a supernova.

308 East 78th St
New York, NY 10075
(212) 288-6569
Neighborhood: locations on Upper East Side and Upper West Side

Andre’s Bakery (aka Budapest Café)

Price-wise, this bakery offered the cheapest rugelach in Manhattan: $1 apiece. I suggest you take the largest bill you have in your wallet and spend the whole thing on Andre’s rugelach. The mixed-nut rugelach are buttery and crisp with a bright, fruity flavor. Chocolate comes with a crunch.

1631 2nd Ave
New York, NY 10028
(212) 327-1105

 

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Breads Bakery

This Israeli-owned bakery is most widely known for their acclaimed babka (which I admit I bought two while there), but its rugelach did not quite do it for me. The Breads’ rugelach are made with their laminated dough, and thus have a completely different texture than the melt-in-your-mouth buttery texture of many classic NYC rugelach.

18 East 16th St
New York, NY 10003
(212) 633-2253
Neighborhood: Union Square

Moishe’s Bake Shop

These traditional rugelach come in raspberry, raisin, and chocolate. Oh, and they are pareve too. They have crunchy, flaky outsides and a pleasantly chewy center, and the dough has a subtle lemon taste to it. At this point in the game I got the sense that dairy rugelach appeal to me more than pareve or yeast-dough.

115 2nd Ave
New York, NY 10003
(212) 505-8555
Neighborhood: Lower East Side

 

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Russ & Daughters

This renowned bakery smelled intoxicating — a mixture of sweet baked goods and smoked fish. Their chocolate rugelach had a smoky aftertaste, but a sticky, gluey texture. Hardened chocolate peeked out from the swirly sides. The raspberry came with a pleasant, popping tartness, but felt a bit dense after the fact.

179 East Houston St.
New York, NY 10002
(212) 475-4880
Neighborhood: locations on Lower East Side and Upper East Side

Gombo’s Heimishe Bakery

These light, sticky rugs come in plain, chocolate, and cinnamon. The plain rugelach had a sheen and a lemony finish. The chocolate were soft and chewy, but dry. The cinnamon had a warm, spicy flavor, and its glaze added crunch. These rugs succeeded in a conventional way, but didn’t stand out.

328 Kingston Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11213
(718) 771-7701
Neighborhood: Crown Heights

Isaac’s Bake Shop

These rugelach, which come in classic chocolate and cinnamon, were so warm and doughy their taste reminded me of freshly-baked donuts. The doughiness was pleasant and didn’t make the rugelach seem like they lacked character, but really added to the charm!

1419 Ave J
Brooklyn, NY 11230
(718) 377-9291
Neighborhood: Midwood

Weiss Bakery

These chocolate and cinnamon rugelach came topped with powdered sugar, which was a first in my extensive rugelach tasting. Both were light and flaky, crunchy without being hard. Their composition, plus the powdered sugar, put them closer to a cannoli shell.

5011 13th Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11219
(718) 438-0407
Neighborhood: Borough Park

Shloimy’s Heimishe Bakery

This neighborhood favorite in Brooklyn sells a large quantity of rugelach. Their pareve rugelach were swirled and had a croissant look, while their dairy had more discrete layers. Shloimy’s offers chocolate, cinnamon, and plain. Their dairy chocolate cookie takes the cake, thanks to its epic proportions of butter that contribute to a rich flavor and a satisfying crunch.

5104 12th Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11219
(718) 633-2209

Strauss Bakery

A likeness of Bubby Strauss greets passersby from the windows, and guards the small, sticky treats inside. These petite rugelach are soft and more like pastries than cookies. The cinnamon’s sweetness creates a taste more akin to a cinnamon bun, while with chocolate the dough’s flavor dominates.

5115 13th Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11219
(718) 851-7728

 

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Shelsky’s of Brooklyn

This shop gets a special mention for a few reasons. They have quirky flavors such as apple-salted caramel and ginger-clementine (named after the owner’s daughters, Ginger and Clementine). If ginger rugelach seems off to you, give this a shot. It was memorable and successful by texture and taste. The chocolate had a surprising, delightful berry ring to it. The gregarious shopkeepers are good for a chat, and if you have a moment you can browse one owner’s bar mitzvah photo album from 1992, which is prominently displayed by the rugs.

141 Court St.
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(718) 855-8817
Neighborhood: Cobble Hill

Oneg Heimishe Bakery

Here, you will find the Godzilla of rugelach. I’m talking rugelach twice the size of my palm. The size was more impressive than the taste; they came up dry and bland.

188 Lee Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 797-0971
Neighborhood: Williamsburg

 

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