After three attempts, two days and one satisfying result, I can honestly say I know something today I didn’t know a week ago—well, make that, I know a lot of somethings, and they all have to do with one thing, the kind of thing that’s no small feat, especially when you’re a slow learner (hand raised!) and prone to catastrophe (why yes, that was me that put wax paper in the oven on attempt #1)—I now know how to make the perfect apple strudel. There are bigger accomplishments to be made in life than this, I know, but there are few I’d be more happy about and few I’d be more excited to share with you.
So here is the story.
You could say things began last Saturday, at an evening wedding on the lake, where all the tables in a big white tent in Michigan were topped by gorgeous, green apples and a certain beautiful bride insisted we take a whole basket home with us, because have you read her blog? she’s always generous like that and, our arms full while we walked to the car, we brainstormed what to do with them.
But in another way, you could say the story starts even earlier than that—decades earlier—in a small Maywood kitchen where my grandma liked to bake and in the house I grew up in, where my mom liked to make her recipes. I found the original version of this strudel, one in Grandma’s writing, one in Mom’s, tucked into an overflowing cookbook, the kind you have to hold carefully or papers start falling out, and although there were many [crucial! important! why-don’t-you-guys-write-this-stuff-down?] instructions missing, my third attempt at following it was a charm, particularly when I enlisted my mom’s trained eye for help.
Secret #1: With apple strudel, it’s all about technique. There are many things you can fudge on: slice the apples, dice the apples; add nuts and raisins to the filling or leave them out; make one strudel or make them two at a time (the way the women in my family liked to). But one thing you can’t alter is the way you roll out the dough and spread the filling in a compact, uniform mountain right in the center. It should be high and even and just in the center of the dough. This is key.
Secret #2: You don’t have to chill the dough. This is mind-blowing. I mean, the original instructions insist you refrigerate the dough, in wax paper, for eight hours or overnight, but: Mom has never done this, and now I’m just guessing Grandma didn’t either. I could launch into a long aside here about how home cooks really should write their recipes down accurately! for posterity! for struggling granddaughters! But I already whined about this to my mom, so I’ll just assume you all know this and we’ll move on.
Secret #3: You control the dough. I could have called this one, Use lots of flour or This is why you don’t have to chill it, but I like mentioning control because it emphasizes how the power is in your hands, literally. The dough will seem very sticky and elastic when you first work with it, but you are free (as free as can be!) to add flour to get stuck pieces off the parchment paper, to make the dough move around better, to just get it feeling the way you want. You’ll know when it’s the right amount because the dough will roll out easily and yet not stick uncontrollably. It’s magical.
Secret #4: It’s OK if it leaks in the oven. Listen, the pastry dough is thin (that’s what makes it all flaky and buttery and mmmm), and the filling is wet, so you may have some leakage. That’s totally fine. Use a rimmed baking sheet, and make a little parchment paper wall around the strudel if you want, rolling up the edges. It will still taste good.
All these secrets would mean nothing if it weren’t for the results: a long, golden strudel with flaky crust surrounding hot, apple-pie-like insides with nuts and raisins and gooey sweetness. Have it with hot coffee! Top it with vanilla ice cream! Eat it on its own! This is an apple strudel to be excited about. And I am.
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Makes one strudel (easily doubled to make two at a time!)
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1 cup unsifted white spelt flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup of cold water
1 egg, white and yolk separated
3 medium apples, washed and thinly sliced into little matchsticks, skin on
4 or 5 Tablespoons Sucanat (or some other sugar)
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped roasted hazelnuts (or any nut you like)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
+ a few (2 to 3) Tablespoons of butter for dotting on top
Optional: if your apples are more sour flavored, you may want to add extra raw sugar like I did, to taste. If your filling seems too watery, you may want to add a few extra Tablespoons of flour like I did; I think I added three.
1. Make the pastry: In a medium-sized bowl, cut butter into flour until the mixture is crumbly but not fine. Add salt. In a separate container, mix water and egg yolk; then add this liquid mix to the flour mixture, mixing with a fork. Once it’s combined, knead the dough right in the bowl for a couple seconds until the dough is smooth. At this point, you may refrigerate it in plastic wrap while you make the filling, or chill it for eight hours or overnight; or if you want to make the filling ahead of time, you can go ahead and use the dough right away for your strudel.
2. Make filling: Combine filling ingredients (except the butter) in a bowl, tossing well and adjusting cinnamon, sugar and/or flour to taste.
3. Make the strudel (*here’s the tricky part!): Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Set a long piece of parchment paper on the counter and flour it lightly. Set dough on top, and flour it lightly. Then place another piece of parchment on top of the dough. Roll the dough through that top layer of parchment. If the dough is sticking, add flour. If it’s too cold to work with, let it warm up. Keep in mind as you work, the bottom parchment will go right on the baking sheet, so if it gets too messy or whatever, you could start with a fresh one.
You want to roll the dough out as thinly as you can, longer in length than width. When it’s the way you want it, take off the top parchment and move the dough and its bottom parchment to a rimmed baking sheet you’ll stick in the oven. You can trim around the parchment to make it fit better, if you’d like.
Place the filling in a straight line along the long length of your dough. It’s like a mountain with no peaks, all uniform, tall with apple mixture and pressed together compactly (see picture above for a rough idea). Then carefully roll parchment on sides up and over dough, one side at a time, peeling parchment back from dough after you’ve set it. Then roll up the ends. You can gently press together the seams for extra hold.
Use a fork to make tiny openings along the sides of the strudel so air can release later. Brush egg white (remember the egg yolk from the pastry dough? Here’s how to use the other half of the egg!) all over the top.
Bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. When done, the strudel will be golden and fragrant.