Strudel is one of a handful of classic Slovenian desserts. Slovenians certainly can’t claim it as unique. If anything, the dish is more closely associated with two neighboring countries, Austria and Hungary. Many food writers suggest the ultimate origins are in Turkey, where there is a long tradition of pastries made with paper-thin dough.
It is also one of the few ethnic dishes with a family connection. I used to watch my Slovenian American grandmother roll and stretch the dough for apple strudel on the wooden kitchen table in her bungalow in Cleveland. My own mother used to make strudel, she reminds me. But I had never made it myself.
Growing up, I was never a fan. As a child, I always preferred cakes to pies and pastries, especially if they contained fruit. It’s a texture thing, I always explain, when I get funny looks about my still-lingering fruit aversion.
I began to appreciate strudel on our trip to Eastern Europe six years ago. My husband and I sampled it all along the way: in Vienna, throughout the former Yugoslavia, and finally in Budapest. It was as common as apple pie in America. And it was all good.
Then, last Christmas, I made contact with a first cousin I hadn’t seen—or spoken to—in forty years. She turned out to have a part time job in her best friend’s family bakery in Cleveland, where the specialty is Hungarian strudel. We reminisced about our grandmother’s baking. My strudel-making cousin confessed that she had never made potica, the famed Slovenian nut roll that is a holiday tradition in my family. I was touched when she sent me some strudel as a Christmas gift. I sent her a potica in return.
Once I embarked on my year of Slovenian cooking, it seemed clear: strudel was in my future. Every time I made a savoury dish with store-bought phyllo, like burek or meat pita, I felt a twinge of guilt. The homemade dough was a challenge that any self-respecting Slovenian cook should take on, at least once.
I just needed to find the right moment. Like a big potluck or party, where I could contribute one of the desserts. That way, if it didn’t work out, it wouldn’t have much impact. And if it did, I would be sharing an elaborate dessert with a big enough audience to make it worthwhile.
The opportunity came in early September, at the neighborhood Labor Day picnic and potluck. Once again, we were hosting the event. What better time to make a labor-intensive dessert?
My vintage cookbooks all had multiple recipes for strudel. They offered minimal details, with the unspoken assumption that the reader already had a pretty good idea of how to make strudel. I found more help in several of my Jewish cookbooks. The best was In My Mother’s Kitchen, a memoir by noted food writer Mimi Sheraton. She made the tricky part—the stretching, rolling and shaping—much clearer.
In the end, I struck closely to the apple strudel recipe in my first Slovenian cookbook, Woman’s Glory: The Kitchen. My one creative touch was to add a sprinkle of cranberries, instead of the option of a handful of raisins or nuts they suggested.
The recipe seemed straightforward. Or at least the ingredients themselves did. The filling was simple and elemental, with each component layered separately, an approach that parallels my family potica recipe. No cooking, or even much mixing, beforehand. It sounded almost too simple.
The challenge, I assumed, would be in stretching the dough. I hadn’t quite realized until I did some research that the kneading itself requires a special touch.
The key to kneading is this: strudel dough needs to be worked hard, in order to develop the gluten. Otherwise, the dough won’t be strong and stretchy enough. It’s the complete opposite of the usual advice for pastries. Long kneading is essential. At least 15 minutes, although Mimi Sheraton suggests a half hour. She also uses bread flour, because of the higher gluten content.
Then there is a tradition I had never heard of before: Slamming the dough into the counter, sometimes from a height of a few feet. A number of sources allude to this. Mimi Sheration is quite specific: Slam it 110 times. Or, as Woman's Glory suggests: Don't be afraid to treat it rough.
I was surprised at the relative ease of stretching the dough. Yes, there were a few small tears. But I tried not to worry about them—or about the uneven shape of the finished product. I would be cutting off the edges anyway.
I checked the final dimensions of the rectangle against a detailed blog I found online, which started with a similar quantity of dough. Oh-oh. My final rectangle of dough was almost a third smaller (and therefore thicker) than the online version.
But for a first timer, I had done pretty well, I thought. My strudel looked quite presentable. The proof would be in the eating, of course.
For the outcome, as well as the recipe and step-by-step photos, read on!
(For a more "literary" account of working the dough, take a look at Slam Dance With Strudel, an essay I wrote on my old Red Room blog.)
Apple Cranberry Strudel
1-1/2 c. bread flour
1/4 t. salt
1 T. oil
5-8 T. warm water
Sift flour and salt. Make a well in the center and add oil and 5-6 T. water to start. Mix with a fork and then with hands to make a soft, sticky dough, adding more water of necessary. Knead on floured board for 15 to 30 minutes. You might want to consider slamming it onto the kitchen table a few dozen times, in between bouts of kneading. Or wait until the end, and do it all at once. At the end of all that kneading and slamming, you should have a nice firm piece of dough. Form it into a ball, coat with oil, cover and let sit for 30 minutes while you prepare the filling.
1/2 c. sugar
1 t. cinnamon
8 tart apples (I used Granny Smith)
1 T. lemon juice
5 T. bread crumbs
4 T. butter
1/3 c. dried cranberries (optional)
Peel and slice apples thinly. Mix with lemon juice. Set aside.
Mix sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.
Brown bread crumbs in butter in a small skillet.
For assembly: 5 additional T. melted butter, divided
Stretching the dough:
Cover table with a floured tablecloth or sheet. Roll dough into a 9 x 9 inch rectangle, rolling from the center outward. Spread with 1 T. melted butter. Then begin to stretch the dough, using the backs of your hands, walking round and round the table. If there are small tears or uneven edges, don’t worry too much. Just do your best to stretch dough as thinly as possible, pulling from the center out to the edges. Ideally, you should be able to read a newspaper through it. (I never managed that!) Aim for a 24 x 36 inch rectangle. (Mine was more like 18 x 24.) Cut off thick or uneven edges.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
You will be rolling up the strudel from the short end of the rectangle.
Cover half the dough with the filling ingredients, in the following order. Leave a 2 inch border on the edges.
—Browned bread crumbs
Fold the dough border at the short end over the bottom edge of the filling. Carefully roll up the dough, using the floured cloth to nudge it along. When the dough is rolled half way, so the the filling has been completely encased, spread remaining half of uncovered dough with 4 T. melted butter. Fold in the side edges, then roll up the remainder.
Place the strudel roll, seam side down, into a large rectangular pan that has been lined with parchment paper. Curve into a horseshoe shape. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Brush with butter and let cool.
Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving, if desired.
The verdict: This turned me into a strudel lover! It was delicious. Far beyond what I expected. The apple filling was perfect. Not too sweet and full of flavor. The tangy red cranberries provided a lovely counterpoint to the apples. The crust, while not quite like store-bought phyllo, was still thin and crisp.
I can't wait to try this again.
|Stretching the Dough; Ghost Hand|
|Filling, Ready to Roll|
|Ready to Eat|