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.