Much like Potica, Strudel is something that strikes fear in the hearts of many home cooks. At first glance, strudel seems utterly complicated with its impossibly thin, flaky pastry layers. While it’s easy to eat strudel — actually, really easy to polish off a piece in mere seconds — it has the look of something very complicated and time-consuming. Everyone seems to know someone who makes (or used to make) strudel, but not many people have tried it themselves. Or they have tried it once, and remember nothing but a lost afternoon of seemingly endless labor and disappointing results.
Well, as far as I’m concerned, the main difference between people who make good strudel and people who don’t (or think they can’t), is something that you will not find in a cookbook or YouTube video. You can maybe find it in a kitchen supply store, but you may even have better luck at your local Goodwill.
The secret to really great strudel?
Well, not just any tablecloth. Leave the solid-colored tablecloths on the shelf! Forget about polyester blends! For this special purpose, you will need a 100% cotton tablecloth with a design printed on it. It doesn’t need to be pretty, it just need to be printed.
Growing up, and well into early adulthood, I specifically remember the tablecloth that was used in my Grandma’s – and later moved to my aunt’s – kitchen. It was white and printed with cherries in red and green, and over time it was worn threadbare from decades of rolling dough. The key for any recipe requiring a thin dough (like, ahem, strudel!) was to roll the dough thin enough so you could see the cherries through it. Many of these older recipes (and newer ones too!) don’t specify a thickness, they just indicated to roll a dough until it is “thin.” It turns out that “thin” is just a way of saying, “until you can see the print on the tablecloth through it.”
Although the cherry tablecloth long ago went on to fabric heaven, we used this same technique with a different 100% cotton, printed tablecloth. I have two photos – a before and after – that show you how this works:
You can certainly buy brand new 100% cotton tablecloths in the store, but it’s challenging to find printed ones. It’s probably nicer (and possibly cheaper!) if you can get an old one that’s nice and soft — either from a family member or a thrift store. It will be a worthwhile investment if you plan to be rolling any dough! (and so much easier to clean than a counter or tabletop!)
The dough recipe below, just like the one I shared for Potica a few months ago, is from a class taught by John Stuchal that my aunt and grandmother took in the 1990s. The recipe makes six strudel, but I have included the directions for freezing them below in case you’d like to save some for later. This spring, my aunt, cousin and I made 6 strudels — apple, apple-cheese, raspberry, and raspberry-cheese. The filling combinations are just about endless and I doubt it’s possible to make a bad choice. There are too many possible fillings to print them all here, so I leave that choice up to you!
The main steps are pictured above — rolling the dough thin, filling it, carefully rolling it up (another place where your tablecloth is essential!), and admiring the finished product straight from the oven! (to reduce the ooze that you see in our raspberry strudel, wait until it is completely cool before slicing it… it’s a worthwhile test of your willpower)
STRUDEL DOUGH (makes 6 strudel)
edited for clarity, with comments from our experience
- 4 cups all purpose flour
- 1-1/2 cups butter
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 cup white vinegar
- 4 large eggs, beaten
- sugar (for sprinkling on dough… approx 1 cup)
- breadcrumbs (again, for sprinkling… about 1 cup)
- 2 stick (1 cup) melted butter
Coarsely cut together the flour and butter as you would for pie dough. Beat together the eggs and water, then stir in the white vinegar. Pour the liquid mixture into the flour-butter mixture and mix only until a ball forms. Do not over-mix or knead! Divide the dough into 6 balls, wrapping each separately in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or for as long as 3 days.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll each ball out on a well-floured, natural fiber cloth to a 1/16 inch thickness (thin enough to see through), several inches wider than your baking sheet. Brush the rolled-out dough with melted butter, and sprinkle lightly with bread crumbs and sugar (see picture above – we sprinkled very lightly).
Spoon or spread the filling along the edge of the rolled-out dough that is closest to you, leaving 2-3 inches from the edge and a 3″ space on either side (this is so you have dough to fold under, which will help prevent the filling from coming out the sides during baking). Use the cloth to lift the strudel, starting with the end closest to the filling. Use both hands to slowly lift the cloth and roll the strudel like a jelly roll (you can see this a little bit in the second picture above). Fold the ends underneath and place on your baking sheet, seam side down (I recommend using a spatula to help you transfer it – we found this step especially tricky, even working as a team, because the strudel is pretty floppy at this point). Bake for 45-60 minutes, until golden brown.*
*Watch carefully as it bakes! I’d start checking around 30 minutes because baking times can vary greatly depending on your oven and the size of your strudel.
FREEZING INSTRUCTIONS FOR STRUDEL
After the strudel has been rolled up jelly-roll style to the end of the cloth, proceed as follows:
Cover a baking sheet with plastic wrap. Transfer your strudel to the pan and brush it with melted butter (the butter is not necessary if you are going to freeze it for less than 2 weeks). It is possible to fit 2 or 3 strudels on each pan side by side, to save room in the freezer. Transfer the strudel immediately to the freezer, uncovered. *The sooner you can get it in the freezer, the better, since this will reduce the chance of your filling leaking.
It will take about 24 hours for your strudel to freeze completely. Once frozen, wrap each strudel separately in plastic wrap, then a second time in foil. Be sure to label each strudel for the type of filling it contains! These double-wrapped strudels can be safely frozen for at least 4 months.
To bake a frozen strudel place it directly in a 425 degree oven on a baking sheet, and bake for 45-60 minutes, until golden brown (again, watch it carefully!)