Like the Long John and the éclair, the schnecken and the rugelach are pastries commonly mistaken for each other. While they’re both rolled yeast dough pastries with sweet glaze and fillings, they both hail from a very different origin. They’re both equally delicious, but they should be loved for their differences.
For us in Cincinnati, schnecken means the old buttery Christmas delicacy hand made at Virginia Bakery by the Thie family in Clifton. Virginia Bakery schnecken was so popular that they had a loyalty club, long before retail chains developed their barcoded demographic databases. You bought 12 loaves and got one free. Each Virginia schnecken contained two sticks of real butter. They used to say, “If you’re going to sin, sin right!” Now Busken owns the recipe and makes Virginia bakery schnecken at Christmas.
Schnecken is the German word for snail, which the rolled shape of the pastry resembles. It is a rich yeast dough enriched with eggs, sour cream, and tons of butter. Schnecken are rolled into a cylinder and sliced, becoming a flat spiral, whereas rugelach are formed from individual triangles of dough and rolled into a croissant shape
Schnecken was and is a popular breakfast treat in Germany and in many parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, where many bakers happened to be Jewish. In America it has even been elevated as a dinner dessert, served in the slab, warmed, with good applesauce and vanilla bean ice cream.
Schnecken are commonly found in Jewish immigrant communities in the United States (Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Cincinnati) or German immigrant communities in Southern Brazil (where they’re spelled xineques).
One of the most popular schnecken recipes comes from the German Jewish Bake Shop in Cincinnati, Ohio. The United Jewish Social Agencies opened the Bake Shop in 1929 to provide part-time employment for women. It became an instant success and institution in the Jewish community. Although shuttered in 1966, the schnecken recipe of the Bake Shop still remains a fond food memory for many Cincinnatians.
Schnecken is the grandfather of the American sticky bun or cinnamon bun. You would never smell that wonderful warm cinnamony aroma in American shopping malls care of Cinnabon, if it weren’t for the German immigrants who brought the schnecken recipe with them. But classic schnecken are more crispy than our ooey-gooey cinnamon rolls. They are washed in caramel syrup and baked open faced in a rectangular pan.
Rug in Slavic languages of Russian, Polish and Ukrainian means spiral. Rugelach is typically rolled in a spiral shape like a croissant. They are made without sour cream as the schnecken dough is. Instead the rugelach used cream cheese when the recipe was Americanized. I’m not sure why the change, because both sour cream and cream cheese are non-pareve or kosher.
While schnecken keeps its traditional fillings of cinnamon sugar and raisins, rugelach integrated other jammy fillings like raspberry and apricot. You’ d never catch a schnecken jam-filled. And, there’s a cookie version of the rugelach that is bite sized. So, whichever of the two is your preference, make sure you know which one you’re biting into!