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The Strudel: why Slavic grandmothers shouldn’t write cookbooks

I grew up with my grandparents in a very traditional household. This meant that along with a roast chicken with potatoes every Sunday, my grandmother would also make her famous strudel (it was even more famous when it wasn’t slightly burned, but she claimed that leaving it a few minutes in longer made the mixture of apple juices, sugar and cinnamon caramelize better and give it a special aroma). If she had extra time or if she was in an especially good mood, she would also make the cheese strudel, and I was chased away from the bowl with its filling more times than I can remember. If I close my eyes I can still remember the taste of fresh cheese, eggs and sugar all whisked together and just waiting to be spread over the paper-thin dough she would first roll and then stretch out on her fingertips.

I have, since then, attempted to make my own pastry several times, and I could never get it as good and as thin as she used to, but then again, she had decades of practice.

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As I travelled Europe, the one thing that always made me feel at home was the Strudel. It matters little how you write or pronounce it in different regions, it is always the same thing- paper thin pastry filled with apples, or cheese, or various other fruits.

How my grandma used to make strudel

The Strudel has a long and venerable history. It seems it came to the Slavic and Austro-Hungarian parts of Europe through the Ottoman empire, where it is prepared and filled differently, but even though there are some similarities, it never seemed the least bit like the mostly savoury rolls I’ve often eaten at our next door neighbour’s house, where the mother and grandmother still sported the traditional cross tattoos on their hands. The strudel has been a distinct pastry since the 18th century, and even though there are now many variations of it, the apple variety remains perhaps the most famous one. I still have my grandmother’s recipe for it, and I am attaching it here, for all the good it will do you, and me.

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“You take about three handfuls of flour, add a bit of salt and a few drops of oil. Add some water and work it into a dough. You’ll know it’s done when it no longer sticks to your fingers. Let it rest for a part of the morning.  After that roll it out, spread some oil over it and work it from underneath, taking care not to let it rip. “Easier said than done, grandma!

“For the apple filling: Take a few apples, peel them and grate them in a bowl, then set aside.  Once you rolled the dough out, sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on it, then add apples. You have to squeeze the juice out of the apples before or your strudel will be too soggy. Roll it up and lay lengthwise in an oiled tray. Bake until golden.

For the cheese filling: You take a sieve full of fresh cheese, add 3 eggs and a bit of cream. Add sugar until it is sweet, and stir it all together. Put on half of prepared dough and roll up. Bake until golden brown.”

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I am sure that this recipe is more than enough for anyone experienced in the kitchen, and even though I consider myself a pretty good cook by now, I never manged to really figure out exactly how her recipe is supposed to be measured. All this is, of course despite the fact that I have watched her do it the entirety of my childhood and even helped out a bit when I was older, chatting in the kitchen with her on Sunday mornings, with the door open and the semi-feral cats sitting on the stoop sunning themselves.

Perhaps you will have better luck than I did, or you will share your own recipes with me in the comments, so I can finally recreate the most famous dish of my childhood!

What do you think?

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