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.