I never actually had my grandmother’s strudel, but for years I was obsessed with it.
She died when I was 4, so I only know about it from my mom. But she tells me that my babina, or grandmother, would pull and coax a ball of dough on the back of her hands, until it stretched so thin that she could pull it over an entire ping-pong table covered with a floured tablecloth.
She made the strudel for my parents’ wedding, and two years later, my mom tried making it for their anniversary. But despite being an accomplished baker, mom’s dough turned out so badly that she threw it at the walls and on the floor in frustration.
For me, this strudel is less about the pastry and more about connecting to a time before politics forced my grandmother from her family and her country. It was a link to the past. As I started asking around and searching the Internet, I found it’s also a skill that’s slipping away.
While on a trip to Slovakia last summer to take a Slovak language course (another of the other things my mom didn’t teach me), I met 28-year-old Julia Vrablova. She was one of my instructors and, on a whim, I asked if she knew anyone who knew how to make tahana strudla, as the natives say.
“This recipe is kind of forgotten, because it’s not so easy to prepare a dough, so people buy it or they make something that reminds them of this kind of strudel, but it’s not pull strudel anymore,” she says.
But Julia casually said she could make it.
What? Everyone told me I’d have to track down an old babka[grandma] in a small village! I thought Julia was far too young! But she explained that although her family never made pulled strudel, she was obsessed with baking. She researched, found women who could make it, and then learned to do it herself.
The ingredients are simple: high-gluten flour, so the dough can get superstretchy; water, oil, salt and a little vinegar.
Julia kneads the dough, explaining that it has to be worked for at least 30 minutes (she sits on the floor to make it a little easier). It’s probably part of the reason why many buy frozen packets of phyllo dough instead.
Other pastry doughs, like for croissants or puff pastries, will get tough if the dough is overworked. But pulled strudel dough is just the opposite: It’s about activating the gluten, kneading it and often hitting it so the dough can be pulled into a thin layer without tearing.
Strudel means whirlpool or eddy in German. The pastries probably got that name because the dough sheets are rolled around poppy seeds or sour cherries and apples. It is a staple dish of the former countries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which at its height spanned well into Slovakia.
Julia carefully grabs a piece of dough and stretches a piece.
“I’m trying to find out if the dough is elastic enough, because it should be transparent as a paper, like paper for rolling cigarettes,” she says.
And some say you should be able to read a love letter or newspaper through it. The thinner the dough, the more delicate the taste.
But the idea of stretching glutenous dough wasn’t invented in this part of the world. It probably arrived when the Ottoman Empire stretched into this area. The Greeks have phyllo; the Balkans, borek; and here, that layered dough became strudel.
On a floured tablecloth, Julia rolls out the dough, then picks it up and starts stretching it on the backs of her hands, sort of like pizza dough.
“You can really play with the dough because it’s not sticky at all,” she says.
Then she places it back on the table and gently coaxes it until it’s thinner than a wafer. Never mind the tears; they’ll be rolled up in apples and poppy seeds and brushed with melted butter.
After about 45 minutes in the oven, the tops are golden brown and we cut up the rolled pastries. As we bite into the flaky layers, I finally know enough to start practicing the strudel my grandmother made — and hopefully I won’t end up throwing it at the walls.
- 3 2/3 cups (500 grams) bread flour
- 1 cup (250 ml) warm water
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 6 to 8 peeled and grated apples (I like Granny Smiths)
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup (90 grams) plain breadcrumbs
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- Zest of one lemon
- 1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter (for brushing) OR coconut oil
- Powdered sugar to taste
- In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine flour, water, oil, vinegar and salt. Mix for about 20 minutes on medium-low speed. Dough will change from a shaggy mass into a soft and pliable mass. Remove dough from mixer.
- Knead the dough for 30 to 40 minutes. When you start, the dough will be craggy, but keep kneading and working the dough until it's soft, smooth and pliable.
- Shape dough into a ball and place in a metal bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for about an hour. (You can also refrigerate it at this point and use it the next day.)
- While the dough is resting, peel and grate the apples on the coarse side of the grater. Place the apples in a sieve over a bowl and squeeze out as much juice as possible. Put the apples back in a bowl and add lemon juice and cinnamon and set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Take a square card table (I use one that is 33.5 inches square), cover with a cotton tablecloth and lightly coat with flour.
- Melt the stick of butter or coconut oil. Place the dough in the middle of the table, roll it out into a circle and then brush with butter or coconut oil. Then gently pick up the dough and start gently stretching it on the backs of closed fists, moving around the edge of the dough and letting gravity stretch it down.
- Then gently place the stretched dough back on the table, drip with more butter and slowly stretch the dough until it hangs over the edges of the table. Don't get discouraged by tears — they will be wrapped up in the apples.
- Once the dough is stretched, cut off the edges hanging over the edge. Then cover about a third of the area with bread crumbs, then the grated apples, and sprinkle the sugar on top.
- To roll, lift up one edge of the tablecloth to help the dough roll around the ingredients. I like to brush each roll with butter. Once it's all rolled up, fold under the edges and place it into a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- You'll have to make the roll into an "S" shape so it will fit into the pan. Brush the top with butter and bake for 45 to 60 minutes or until it's golden brown on top. Serve warm, sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Part of an ongoing series on unique holiday dishes
To celebrate the new year, for as long as I can remember, my mom has baked a cake called punch torte, a tradition started in her family back in the former Czechoslovakia.
“At midnight, we pour champagne and had a toast to New Year’s and then we hugged and kissed each other, drank our champagne, and then we ate cold cuts, potato salad, and then after that we had the cake with a little bit of coffee,” my mother remembers.
It’s a pink-glazed sponge cake with layers soaked in a rum and citrus syrup. It all starts out with 16 eggs. Yes, 16.
“Eight eggs for the basic dough and then 8 eggs for dough [that] we divide in half. Half of it we make pink and half we put a cocoa in it and we make it brown,” my mom says.
You start by separating the yolks from the whites, mixing three different cake batters: one white, one pink, one brown.
The tradition of serving up this pink-glazed torte goes back to my great-grandmother’s kitchen in the early 1900s. She ran a restaurant in the next town over, but at home she made all sorts of extravagant creations without the help of modern machinery.
“She’d make this very similar, but she would blend it and beat it all by hand,” my mother says.
My mother learned to make this cake as a young girl. She was born during World War II and food was scarce, but my family was fortunate enough to have a sprawling garden. So, the 16 eggs were a luxury they could afford.
“We had chickens and we had goats for milk during the war when they were bombing the town, and so we were able to eat them and enjoy it,” she remembers.
Some of the other ingredients weren’t so easy to come by. The cake soaks in a citrus rum punch, which calls for the juice of one lemon and one orange. Finding citrus in this former communist country required both patience and connections.
“If we got one lemon for a tea, we had to stand in line for two, three hours, and if there was news that in a little vegetable store there would be lemons next day, somebody secretly told somebody and then everybody spread it between their friends, and then everybody lined up in front of the store and waited for the lemons,” she remembers.
Once the lemons and oranges were acquired, they were squeezed into a cooked-sugar syrup. The pink and chocolate cakes were cut into concentric rings and reassembled to look like bull’s-eyes. The layers were stacked on top of each other and the syrup spooned over top. Then came a 24-hour wait.
The next day, the cake was glazed with a pink lemon frosting. In the 1940s and ’50s, food dyes were not available, but my great-grandmother had a stash hidden away.
“A lot of the stuff my grandmother had left from the hotel and restaurants we had, and we were so excited to see that lovely pink cake,” she says.
For me, the bubblegum-colored frosting isn’t the best part of this cake. It’s when you cut into it. Thanks to those concentric circles, a dazzling checkerboard appears in each slice. It’s best enjoyed with a glass of champagne.
- 16 eggs
- 16 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 16 tablespoons powdered sugar
- 2 packets of vanillin sugar (Dr. Oetker is good)
- 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa, sifted
- 5 to 10 drops red food coloring
- 8 1/2 tablespoons (125 milliliters) water
- 2/3 cups (120 grams) granulated sugar
- 1 cup (320 grams) red currant or raspberry jelly
- 1/2 cup (120 milliliters) rum
- 1 lemon
- 1 orange
- 3 1/3 cups (400 grams) sifted powdered sugar
- 2 egg whites (an egg white is about 35 grams, about 2 tablespoons)
- 4 tablespoons lemon juice
- 10 to 20 drops red food coloring
- Grease three 9-inch spring-form pans and line with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Separate 8 of the eggs. Put the whites in a bowl with one packet of vanillin sugar. Put the yolks in a stand mixer with 8 tablespoons of powdered sugar. Cream egg yolks with sugar until pale yellow. Beat egg whites and vanillin sugar with a hand mixer until peaks form. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the yolk batter. Gradually sprinkle 8 tablespoons of the flour into the mixture as you fold the egg batters together. Once the two batters are incorporated, put the mixture into one of the spring-form pans. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, until it's a light golden brown or a toothpick comes out clean from the center of the cake. Remove from oven, cool and remove from pan. The cake will shrink a little as it cools.
- Now, repeat the previous steps with the rest of the sponge cake ingredients. Take the remaining 8 eggs and separate the yolks from the whites. Cream the 8 tablespoons of powdered sugar with the yolks and beat the whites with the remaining packet of vanillin sugar. Fold the batters together, gradually adding the remaining 8 tablespoons of flour. Now, split the batter in half into two separate mixing bowls. In one bowl, sift a tablespoon of cocoa and fold it in. In the second bowl, drop in the red food coloring and fold it in. Pour each batter into a separate spring-form pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove cakes from oven, cool and remove cakes from pan.
- Boil the water and sugar together in a saucepan. Do not mix or stir. Cook until the mixture forms clear threads when a drop is pulled away with a spoon. The temperature will be 215 to 235 degrees. Take off stove and mix in 1/2 cup (160 grams) of the jelly. When it's cooled to room temperature, sieve in the juice of the lemon and orange and add the rum. Set aside.