Apple strudel is a classic dessert from Eastern Europe. The German word strudel literally means "whirlpool," and it refers to the technique and effect of rolling up of a generous fruit filling in a paper thin unleavened dough. Since landing in Berlin a few weeks ago, I've been sampling apple strudel whenever I can.
Strudel dough has a reputation for being difficult. After kneading an un-yeasted dough of flour, water, and oil (or butter), it is rolled out and stretched until so thin you can read a newspaper through it. The challenge is in achieving an even, thin dough without any holes. Most folks prefer to skip the anxiety of making a strudel dough, so recipes these days often cheat by rolling the apples up in sheets of purchased phyllo dough, or even puff pastry. Now don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with taking a shortcut, especially when the end result is perfectly tasty. But wouldn't you like to know how it's really done?
I certainly did, so I pulled out my old pastry books, found the largest pieces of clean fabric I could muster, and took a deep breath. I hadn't made a strudel dough since the time I did it in pastry school, and that was many years ago. Luckily, it turns out making strudel is like riding a bike. Learn how to do it once, and you'll know how to do it forever. And the good news is that it isn't just easy, it's fun (how many pastries do you roll up with a giant cloth?), and the reward is a delicate and buttery pastry that's the real deal.
Here's how I got there.
Step 1: Mix and Knead the Dough
Strudel dough is a simple dough of flour, water, and a small amount of fat (in this case, vegetable oil). I found that two and half cups of flour, three tablespoons of oil, and 10 to 12 tablespoons of water (along with a little salt) was the right ratio. In order for the dough to have enough elasticity for it to stretch into a continuous paper thin sheet, you need to develop gluten. Gluten forms when proteins in the flour align themselves into a network of long strands. These strands enable the dough to be stretched, like a piece of soft bubble gum, without breaking.
Kneading helps create this gluten, though overkneading can cause it to become too tight, making it more difficult to stretch out the dough later on. I like to mix by hand for about five minutes to avoid running the risk of overkneading in a stand mixer.
To knead, place the dough on a work surface. Lift up one end of the dough toward you and then push it back into the dough. You can do this with your fingers or the heel of your hand.
Give the dough a quarter turn and repeat. No need to be rough or harsh. Once you've kneaded it about 5 minutes, coat lightly with oil, set it in a bowl, cover, and let it rest for one hour. This allows the gluten network to relax, making it easier to stretch out the dough later on.
Step 2: Roll out the Dough
Before stretching, roll out the dough on a floured board into a roughly 10- by 12-inch rectangle. This will help start the shape of the final dough, since you want to end up with a rectangle in the end. Next, cover a table with a very large clean cloth. I emphasize clean here—you don't want any surprises in your strudel.
In the center of the table, carefully tilt the board and then flip it over so that the dough lands on the cloth. If you don't want to flip, you can also nudge it off by shimmying one end of the dough onto the cloth and then pulling the board out from under it.
Step 3: Stretch the Dough
Now the fun part. Starting from the center, reach under the dough and begin to gently pull out towards the edge. Think of it as if you were making a giant pizza. Since it's soft, the dough should stretch easily into shape. You can use your fingertips to pull, or reach into the dough with the top of your hand to then pull it out in larger swatches.
Keep in mind that you want to end up with a rectangle of about 30- by 20-inches. You're aiming for even thickness, and if any holes develop, simply patch them up.
Step 4: Check the Thickness
If you can read through it, give yourself a pat on the back. You've just made the perfect paper-thin dough that's ready for rolling. Using kitchen shears, trim off the thick edges around the perimeter.
Step 5: Assemble the Strude
Give the strudel dough a thin coat of butter and sprinkle it with toasted ground hazelnuts for added flavor and texture. Next, I spread a layer of toasted bread crumbs onto the dough. This will help to contain juices that come out of the apples as they cook.
Finally, I lay out my fruit filling, which I make with about two pounds of cubed baking apples, a half cup of raisins, five teaspoons of lemon juice and a teaspoon of lemon zest, along with 3/4 cup of sugar, a pinch of cinnamon, and a pinch of salt. Pile that filling onto the bottom portion of the dough in a narrow row that's about eight inches above the bottom edge and ends about three inches shy of either side.
Hint here: Mix the apple filling just before adding it to the dough. If you mix the filling in advance, the sugar will cause the apples to leach liquid, which will make it much messier to roll up. The buttery bread crumbs absorb the juices from the apples as the strudel bakes.
Step 6: Roll up the Strudel
Carefully lift up the end of dough by using the fabric. Bring it over the apples to cover.
Continue to roll up the strudel by lifting up the fabric. Avoid handling the strudel directly, as it's too delicate to manipulate. Let the fabric do the work. About halfway through, tuck in the sides like a burrito and continue to roll until it's all rolled up.
Step 7: Roll onto Parchment, Butter, and Bake
Even rolled up, the strudel is very delicate to handle. I learned this the hard way.
To transfer it easily to the pan, roll the strudel onto a piece of parchment paper and then just transfer the parchment to a baking dish. If your strudel does not fit perfectly in the pan, that's okay! Just curve the strudel to fit—once it's sliced, nobody will know the difference.
Brush the strudel with butter, sprinkle it with a little more sugar, then bake by starting in a 425°F oven for 20 minutes, and finishing in a 350°F oven until the pastry is golden and the apples are soft.
Serve the strudel warm with fresh whipped cream, vanilla sauce, or both.