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.
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.