For this recipe I’ll make a quick trip back home again, if only down the memory lane. I’m about eleven, standing in Mom’s red and white kitchen and watching in awe as she takes off her wedding ring, slides her hands under a sheet of rolled-out dough and starts stretching it gently with her fingers. She walks around the big kitchen table and pulls the dough slowly and carefully, until it is paper-thin – so thin, you can actually see through it. Magic. Then, when the sheet of dough is as big as the table, she scatters apples, raisins, and nuts all over, gives them a generous dusting of sugar and cinnamon, and starts rolling. Again, slowly, carefully, so she wouldn’t tear the delicate structure of the dough. And when she’s done, there is this freakishly long curved snake of filled dough ready to go into the oven. The kitchen is warm, and smells of baked apples, caramelized sugar, and cinnamon. Home.
Mom is quite the baker. Ever since I was little, she has tried to pass the mastery on to me (as a responsible Mother, she had to – what would my potential Mother-in-law think of her, if she wouldn’t teach me how to cook?!) I was eleven and was just starting to think that maybe boys weren’t as repulsive and horrible as I previously thought, yet I was already having nightmares about imaginary mothers-in-law that were watching my every step in the kitchen. As it was, standing side by side with Mom at the kitchen counter, I was never fast enough or neat enough. After about 10 minutes of cooking school, she always ordered me out of the kitchen saying it would be better if she did it herself. She knew her stuff, but not everyone is cut out to be a teacher 🙂
I still learned a lot just by watching her. She loved playing with food and feeding people. Still does. Nobody within a mile of her kitchen is ever hungry. (Hunger is a four-letter word at Mom’s. Not allowed, under any circumstance.) I don’t remember her ever weighing anything, yet her cakes always come out of the oven airy and perfect. She cooks by throwing a little bit of this and a little bit of that into the pot, and yet we are always licking our plates.
Looking back at my growing up days, and after many years in my own kitchen, I now think that maybe those grams and ounces aren’t all that important after all. And even though Mom and I had to cancel our cooking lessons when I got older so we wouldn’t risk killing each other, I’m quite certain she managed to teach me what’s most important: She taught me that food is a language – language of love that everybody understands and responds to. It brings people together, and tells them everything they need to hear. Even if the cook might have trouble finding words sometimes. Pulled strudel – made with either apples, sweet farmer’s cheese or poppy-seed and cherry filling – used to be a staple dessert in all the countries of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even though making it is not that hard, it is time-consuming, and not many people make it at home these days. The simple dough made of high-gluten flour, butter, egg, water, pinch of salt, and a splash of vinegar needs to rest under a preheated pan, and then it is rolled out, pulled and stretched until it’s extra-thin. It takes some practice to learn to stretch the dough with the back of your hands, but the process is actually very therapeutic: you can’t rush it, it forces you to slow down and take your time. And the smell and taste of freshly baked strudel is the best therapy there is, that’s for sure. Give it a try on a beautiful spring afternoon such as we in the Pacific Northwest were blessed with today. Nothing says “home” like the aroma of baked apples and cinnamon coming from the oven!
Mom’s Pulled Apple Strudel
(makes 1 big strudel or 2 smaller strudel pastries)
- 300 g (10 oz.) high-gluten (bread) flour
- pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
- 100 – 125 ml (around ½ cup) lukewarm water
- 1500 g (55 oz.) Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and grated
- 80 g (3 oz.) plain breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 100 g (3.5 oz.) finely chopped walnuts/pecans
- 100 g (3.5 oz.) raisins/currants/dried cranberries
- 150 g (5 oz.) white sugar
- 9 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- Preheat the oven to 375 °F (190 °C). Butter a large (15×11 inch) baking sheet. Preheat a small (2 qt./1.9 l) pan by boiling some water in it. Pour out the water and let the pan dry.
- To make the dough: Place flour, salt, and butter in the bowl of your food processor, fitted with an S-blade. Pulse to combine. With the food processor still running, add an egg, vinegar, and as much water until the dough pulls away from the sides and forms a ball. Continue mixing for another minute or two to activate the gluten. Place the dough ball on a wooden block, cover it with the preheated pan, and let it rest for 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, make the filling: Toast breadcrumbs with 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon of brown sugar, stirring constantly. Set aside and let cool.
- Press out the juice from the apples. Combine the apples with the lemon juice to prevent them from browning, and set them aside.
- To make the strudel: On a floured surface, roll the dough into a 12 x 12 inch (30 x 30 cm) square. Transfer the rolled-out dough onto a tablecloth dusted with flour.
- Lift the dough from the work surface, and start gently stretching it with the back of your hands. Move your hands constantly and pull the dough with your fingers, working from the center to the edges, until the dough is paper-thin. (If the dough tears in some place, don’t try to repair the tear. Small tears are OK and won’t harm the strudel).
- Cut off the thicker edges of the dough, discard.
- Drizzle the dough with 4 tablespoons of melted butter. Sprinkle the dough with cooled toasted breadcrumbs, leaving the edges clear. Cover the dough evenly with apples, sprinkle with raisins, chopped nuts, lemon zest, sugar, and cinnamon. Drizzle with remaining 4 tablespoons of butter.
- Fold the empty edges of the dough over the filling. Roll the strudel up, and transfer it onto the buttered baking sheet seam side down. Tuck the edges on both sides under. Brush the strudel with melted butter.
- Bake for about 20 minutes. Turn baking sheet around, brush the pastry with egg wash, and continue baking for about 20 minutes more until golden brown.
- Let cool before slicing. Dust with powdered sugar to serve.
Alternatively, you can make 2 smaller pastries instead of one long strudel (the smaller pastries will be easier to transfer and position on a baking sheet.) Just divide the dough ball in half, and keep one half under the hot pan while working with the other. Roll the dough thinly, and pull/stretch it until very thin. Use only half of the ingredients for the filling, and after transferring the first strudel onto a baking sheet, make the other one in the same way.