My mother, although multi-talented, had an aversion to the kitchen and has often said that I learned to cook at an early age “out of self-defense.” When she made chicken à l'orange by smearing a chicken with powdered Tang, I quickly developed a necessary passion for creating tasty things to eat. Somewhere in the family photograph album is a picture of me at the stove, age ten, happily stirring marinara sauce.

I developed a lifelong fascination with food; good food. There was even a foray of working as a chef’s assistant at a French restaurant during my mid twenties, just for fun. I had always loved watching Julia Child and knew that Mastering the Art of French Cooking was to be revered. It wasn’t until I read her biography (long before the Julie & Julia movie) that I really became fascinated with her work. From that book, I decided to prepare her recipe for mayonnaise.

Upon tasting it, I wept. . . .

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Strudel Story

My friend, Jack, and I have known each other well over twenty years now. He had been born and raised in Chicago, the son of Slovenian and Polish parents.

When we met in Texas back in the late 80s, he'd often mention his Slovenian grandma's apple strudel. She made it the "old world" style where the dough is made from scratch and then stretched and stretched until it's paper-thin and covers an entire table surface. Apples, cinnamon, breadcrumbs and sugar are then strewn, the paper-thin dough is slathered with butter, it's rolled up and baked.

Occasionally when Jack would go home to Chicago, he'd return with one of Grandma's strudels wrapped in white butcher paper.

O-M-G, I'd never tasted anything quite like it. I was fascinated.

He said Grandma was truly an artist at this. Other family members never learned how to make it and now that Grandma was pushing 90, it might be a lost art in the family.

Chicago 1988: Jack and I went to Chicago to visit his dad and Grandma. I told Jack that I'd love to see Grandma in action and maybe learn how to make her wonderful strudel. He said that Grandma had a strict routine of getting up very early on Saturday mornings to make it, but if I was willing, she'd let me in on a little strudel action.

Well, the night before we stayed up very late drinking Old Style beer with Jack's dad who was quite a character. Great guy. Fun to be around. The Old Style flowed late into the evening.

Grandma reminded me (in her broken English) that she and I had a strudel appointment very early in the morning. Yeah yeah yeah. I was having fun with Jack and his dad.

6:00 am: Grandma rapped at my bedroom door. "You get up! It is time!" she announced, very loudly, in her Old-World accent. However my head was pounding with an Old-Style hangover. Still, I didn't want to miss the chance of seeing Grandma in action, so I roused to the occasion.

A five pound bag of Granny-Smith apples was assigned to me for peeling and slicing. And a big mug a of coffee.

"You vant breakfast?" she asked.

"No, thanks, I'm fine," I mumbled.

"You need breakfast," she replied.

"No, really, I don't. . .

"I make you breakfast."

Eggs and toast appeared. I soldiered on with the apples.

Grandma was in command of the kitchen. I watched as she dumped some flour in a bowl and I really wanted to get the measurements. After some gentle persuading, she did let me measure the ingredients which I wrote down on a yellow Post-it note. Melted butter, oil, water and an egg were added and then kneaded the dough into a ball.


She began hurling the dough against the top of the table. (I later learned that this is to get out any air bubbles). This 89-year old woman shook the whole kitchen with the force of it. If anyone was still asleep from the night of Old-Style, they'd surely be awake by now.

The ball of dough was placed in a buttered bowl and into a warm oven to rest.

"How long do you let it rest?" I queried.

"Vile I go get hair done" was her quick reply, and out the door she went.

Apparently, this was Grandma's routine. She made strudel on Saturday morning and got her hair done down the street.

About an hour later, a newly coiffed Grandma appeared, and continued on with the strudel.

She took the little ball of dough and began stretching it on the kitchen table that had a floured sheet across it. And stretching it. And strrrretching it. Then she was walking around the table, pulling the dough from all sides.

It was amazing. The dough began billowing across the table, so thin you could see her hands though it. She kept stretching it even more until it was hanging down the sides of the table, practically to the floor. It was truly amazing.

She took my apples which had been adequately sliced, mixed them with sugar, cinnamon, lots of buttered breadcrumbs and spread them in an even layer halfway across the paper-thin dough.

"Vee used to put it all de vay across, but vee change it," she said without looking up.

I smiled to myself as I pictured a panel of Slovenian grandmas, weighing the pros and cons of putting the apples all the way across or halfway across.

She finished the strudel by rolling it up, placing more butter on top and baking it.

In this day and age of ready-made this and instant-that, I could certainly see why none of her female offspring took the time to learn her trade. This was truly a labor of love and I felt as though I'd just witnessed something holy.

I didn't want to let this bit of artistry die out with her. I went back to Texas with my little Post-it note of ingredients and practiced. And practiced. And practiced.

And you know what? I got pretty good at it.

Chicago 2001: The house where Jack's grandma and his dad lived was passed on to Jack after they passed away and Jack had the place remodeled.

But here we are back in that same kitchen where Grandma taught me to make her strudel and now I'm the one making for the family.

Oh, and I still have the little yellow Post-it from 20 years ago. I have it clipped to my own grandmother's old little clipboard she got from the local grocery story where she'd keep phone messages. (Just to give you an idea how old her little clipboard is, click on the pic and notice the grocery store's phone number on it -- it has three digits!)

But this little clipboard along with the strudel recipe sits proudly in my kitchen. Such a treasure.

Click HERE to see the strudel making in action. (Be patient, it takes a while to load).

By the way, Jack called me recently and was wondering when I'd be able to make strudel again. So, here we go:

Begin rolling out the dough according to Grandma's recipe. (This is the only strudel dough recipe I've ever seen that calls for an egg in it.) Be sure to drape a clean sheet over the surface. You'll see why later.

 It helps if you have an extra pair of hands to hold portions of the dough as you begin stretching it. If not, I usually place a towel and a heavy bowl in the center of the dough to weigh it down and stretch it from all sides.
Keep stretching it by rubbing it from the underside:
And stretching.
Until you've stretched the dough all the way across the table. Grandma would keep stretching it until it hung far down the sides of the table, but that scares me.  I quit while I'm ahead.
Place a mixture of sliced apples, buttered breadcrumbs, cinnamon and sugar on one end:

Slather the dough with melted butter:
Sprinkle the remaining breadcrumb-butter mixture across the rest of the dough:
Use the sheet to roll it up:

Place on a baking pan, slather with butter and sugar and bake at 375. (I found these wonderful rectangular cast iron baking pans at a Mexican market a few years ago. They're perfect.)

The smell of freshly baked apple strudel is truly a glimpse of heaven.
My grandmother's old note pad along with the Post-it note from 1988 are still displayed it my kitchen:

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