Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Daring Bakers Challenge: You Say Filo I say Strudel!

The May 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.

This challenge was truly all about technique. The hosts specified that the only mandatory component of the challenge is to make the strudel dough. We could choose any filling – savory or sweet -- that we wanted although the hosts very kindly provided us with a recipe for an apple filling.

A strudel is a type of pastry made up of many layers of dough that has been stretched very thin then spread with a filling. The filling can be sweet or savory. Strudel is most often associated with German or Austrian baked goods but it is also related to Middle Eastern and Greek pastries such as baklava.

The word strudel means vortex or whirlpool in German. According to the website, this refers to the method of rolling the dough around the filling.

The art of making strudel dough from scratch is pretty much a lost art. Most bakers – professional or dedicated home bakers, usually pick a good quality commercial filo (or phyllo) dough and focus their expertise and creativity on the filling.

The image I have of making strudel dough is of grandmotherly European women with lots of time on their hands stretching and pulling the dough then carefully lifting and rolling it over the filling.

I have never had much luck manipulating the commercial filo dough but it had never occurred to me to make my own.

I did use the strudel dough recipe provided by our hosts as required but I was curious as to what my many other baking books had to say on the topic.

I turned to my cookbook-laden shelves and started pulling down books.

I thought it was amusing how many of the books had recipes for strudel dough and offered detailed instructions with color photos outlining in great detail how to make strudel dough but then their recipes specified filo dough!

As the wonderful book, Best-Ever Pastry Cookbook by Catherine Atkinson put it, “This classic apple strudel recipe is usually made with a strudel dough, which is wonderful, but can be tricky and time-consuming, especially for a novice. Filo pastry makes a good shortcut.”

Oh my. I was definitely a novice at this!
But the basic strudel dough recipe is very simple: flour, salt, water, vegetable oil and cider vinegar. How hard could this be?

The best description of strudel dough and tips for making it came from a book published in 1984 by well-known author Susan Purdy called, As Easy As Pie.

The author gives the reader a delightful description of how she was taught to make strudel dough the “correct” way by (of course) a very old woman born in Yugoslavia and now living in Florida. From this woman, Nada Gerovac, the author learns the secrets of making strudel dough and shares them with her readers.

From Gerovac we learn several tricks to making perfect strudel:
“In order to transform a ball of kneaded unleavened dough into a large translucent tissue, you must have an elastic dough, one that will willingly stretch, not a short, flaky dough such as you would use for a piecrust.”

What does that mean? The flour needs to have a high gluten content to permit the necessary stretching to get the dough as thin as possible.

Ok, I decided to use bread flour for its high gluten content.

Second tip from Purdy’s source, ”remember the importance of “resting” the dough. Kneading dough develops the elasticity of the protein strands, or gluten, in the flour. Resting gives the strands time to lose their tautness, like a stretched elastic band returning to its original shape. Once relaxed the dough can be stretched again. “

Ok, the dough needs to rest 30-90 minutes – the longer it rests the easier the dough will be to stretch.

The third secret is to oil the dough when you let the dough rest. Put it in an oiled bowl and then put a tablespoon or two over the dough ball and wrap tightly.

Well, I was ready to give this old-world art a try!

The dough was simple to put together. I used my stand-mixer then finished kneading the dough for a few minutes by hand. I put it in the oiled bowl, put oil on top of the dough and wrapped it tightly.

I hadn’t spent much time figuring out my filling yet so I decided to see what Purdy had to offer since she had already been so helpful.

Although apple strudel is the classic filling, it just seemed like a treat for October and not for springtime. I decided to go with a cherry-filling recipe offered by Purdy that combined sweet bing cherries and tart cherries.

All the tips from Purdy’s cookbook were helpful but remember the cookbook that said making strudel dough from scratch was tricky and time-consuming? Well,
the biggest challenge was in stretching the dough.

I was aiming for 2 feet by 3 feet. But how in the world was this very tiny ball of dough going to be stretched to these dimensions?

The trick is to first cover a large work surface with a cloth tablecloth. Yes, I thought that was strange as well but that is the gold standard for making strudel from scratch.

Several of the cookbooks I referred to advised using a tablecloth with a pattern on it so that when you saw the pattern through your dough, you knew the dough was thin enough!

So, since I didn't own a tablecloth, off I went to my local Macy’s store to find a cheap tablecloth. I was helped by Victor Mota who as it turned out was really a chef. He had spent quite a lot of time creating pastries and so knew a thing or two about strudel. His opinion, “why would you want to make it from scratch? Just buy filo dough.”

Very funny. He did manage to find me a tablecloth with a lovely design on it (and it was cheap, thanks Victor)

I put the dough ball down on the lovely printed tablecloth that was now covered with flour. I used the rolling pin to roll it out as much as possible before I started stretching it.

I then picked up the dough and placed both my closed fists palms down under the center. I slowly moved my fists apart – almost like I was spinning pizza dough. The center started to look translucent.

Now for the actual stretching! With the backs of my hands I reached under the dough and spread my hands slowly apart as I raised them up – this allowed the dough to lift and stretch. I was lucky; no holes appeared that would need to be patched.

I didn’t quite make it to 2 feet by 3 feet – more like 2 feet by 2.5 feet but close enough.

I then spread the filling as directed on the dough.

Here is where the tablecloth is really needed – I lifted the cloth high to allow the dough to roll over onto itself. I did this over and over until I had a nice log about 5 inches wide by 2 inches thick. Probably a bit out of proportion but not bad for my first attempt!

After it baked, it needs to be cut into slices immediately so that the steam doesn’t make the dough soggy. It was just the right balance of crispy dough and lightly sweet filling.

Yes it was time-consuming but guess what – not nearly as hard as using filo dough! I was amazed, this was easier than working with filo that had to be thawed and constantly dried out and ripped.

So I think I might actually make strudel again – especially since I have the lovely printed tablecloth.


  1. What a lovely looking strudel - and great idea with the filling :) Congrats!

  2. Looks amazing! YUM. :) I love your idea for the sounds really delicious.

  3. I love the combo of cherries, and your strudel came out aesthetically perfect, as did the photos! Great job!

  4. Great job on this month's challenge!

  5. Looks great! you did a fantastic job...and such great comments on your post.