“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Mark Twain. The same applies to the difference between using frozen phyllo and making your own strudel dough. Making your own requires some patience, but the results are worth the effort. It’s fun, and absolutely amazing to stretch a simple mixture of flour, water, and oil into an enormous sheet of tissue-like pastry. The filling steams while sealed inside the flaky envelope and develops a texture unlike that of apple pie, which vents steam during baking. The vapor-thin layer upon layer of pastry crisp into an enclosure that defies description. As usual, these simple combinations are the ones that endure the centuries.
A note on apples: Use apples that will hold their shape during baking. I used a mixture of Northern Spy and Golden Russet for this strudel. The alternate name for the former is Northern Pie Apple, as the name implies they are the quintessential pie-apple. I used Golden Russets for a third of the apple mix because they are high in tannic acid and have a distinct flavor that spices up the filling. Most of these older varieties of apples are not readily available in big box supermarkets because their shapes are not uniform nor are they particularly pretty. The Northern Spy, while large can often be misshapen. The Golden Russets have a leathery skin that used to be esteemed for its keeping qualities. Modern refrigeration has eliminated the need for russet skinned apples.
Avoid apples such Macintosh for pies or strudel as they turn to mush when cooked. Other good baking apples are Jonathan, Rome Beauty, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Newton Pippin, Jonagold, Empire, Gravenstein, and Stayman Winesap. Seek out farmers markets, independent grocers, and food co-ops for an endless variety of apples you’ve never heard of. Try different mixes of apples to see what suits your tastes. Combinations of two, three, or four varieties will provide results with more varied and intense flavor profiles. Some pie apples may be too sour or acidic on their own, but if included as part of the mix will become the secret ingredient in the perfect dessert.
1 cup plus 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour (King Arthur)
1/3 cup hot water
2 Tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil
¼ tsp salt
6 Tbsp butter, melted
¼ cup raisins
2 Tbsp rum
2 Tbsp butter
½ cup fine dry bread crumbs
½ cup walnut pieces, toasted, and ground to the consistency of salt
2 lb pie apples, peeled, cored, thinly sliced
½ cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
Powdered sugar to dust strudel after baking
Measure rum into a small bowl and microwave for 20 seconds, add the raisins and steep for half an hour.
Carefully measure the flour by dipping a cup measure into the flour; level the flour with a metal spatula as a bartender would remove the excess head from a beer. Use the same method for measuring the tablespoon of flour. Dump the flour and salt into a sifter set over a bowl. It’s important to separate the individual grains of flour, and to remove any bits that may have solidified during storage. Add the oil and hot water—as hot as comes out of your tap. Knead into a smooth, silky dough. I have tried mixtures with less and less flour. These proportions are the best I have found. More flour, even a little more, will make the dough too dry; it will tear well before it is stretched thin enough. Less flour makes a dough too soft to be workable. Knead, in the bowl so you don’t have to add more flour for a solid 5 minutes. It will seem like a long time when you are working the dough, but it is necessary to develop the gluten. That is why hard, gluten-rich flour like King Arthur is essential for strudel dough. The elastic bands of gluten can be carefully pulled and stretched to create a sheet of pastry you can see through.
After kneading, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rest at room temperature for at least an hour. It’s okay to forget about it for a few hours. Spread a clean, cotton tablecloth on a large work surface such as a counter or table. Give the tablecloth a good dusting of flour. Pat the dough into a rectangle, use a rolling pin to roll it out into a rectangle—about 12 by 16 inches (30 by 40 cm).
Brush the dough with some more vegetable oil and let it rest for 10 minutes. This is a good time to start assembling the ingredients for the filling.
Remove any jewelry that might punch holes in the dough. Use the back of your hands and your knuckles to gently stretch the dough starting in the center and working outward to the edges. Try to maintain an even width and length. As the center becomes thin enough for you to see the pattern of the tablecloth through the dough, work on stretching the edges by grasping between your fingers and delicately stretching the dough.
If you develop a hole, don’t worry you can fix that later. The finished sheet of dough will be approximately 18 inches by 24 inches. If your dough measures less than this, that’s okay, it will still be great. Use a pair of scissors to trim the heavier crust around the edges. There is no avoiding this. If you have a hole you can use some of the trimming to patch the hole. Brush it with a little water and apply to the hole. Let the dough rest on the tablecloth while you finish assembling the ingredients.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter (30 g) in a skillet over medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs, stir to combine, and toast the crumbs, stirring occasionally until lightly browned. Remove from the heat and reserve.
Toast the walnuts in a skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Pour into a food processor and run until the nuts are the consistency of salt, reserve.
Stir the sugar and cinnamon together until evenly distributed. Add the sliced apples and toss until evenly coated, add the steeped raisins and stir together.
Assembling the strudel
Preheat oven to 375°F (190° C)
The dough should be situated so that one of the narrower edges of the rectangle is near the edge of the work surface. You will be rolling the strudel away from you so it is easiest to get it set up correctly before covering with the filling. Prepare your baking sheet by covering with a sheet of parchment paper.
Melt 6 tablespoons of butter. Use a pastry brush to give the dough a good coating of butter. Reserve enough butter to paint the outside of the strudel before baking, as well as the folded edges during assembly.
Arrange the apple filling in a cylinder shape along one of the shorter edges leaving about an inch (2.5 cm) of uncovered dough along the front edge. Hold your baking sheet against the edge so you know how long you can make the strudel. It won’t be much good if it’s too long for your baking sheet. Rearrange the apples as necessary.
Sprinkle the walnuts over the exposed portion of the dough. Then sprinkle the toasted breadcrumbs over the walnuts. As you roll the strudel, the walnuts and breadcrumbs will form a filling between the layers of dough. The breadcrumbs will absorb some of the liquid exuded from the apple filling and also provide a wonderful contrasting texture.
Fold the dough over the two ends of the filling and up the whole length of the dough. It can overlap by a couple of inches. Again, hold your baking sheet against the length of the strudel to make sure it will fit—it can always be wider, but not longer. Brush the top of the folded dough with some of the melted butter.
Use the tablecloth to maneuver the strudel. With two hands, grasp the tablecloth and roll the strudel away from you. After the first turn, work along the strudel to shape it and to make sure the filling is even along the length. Use the tablecloth to continue rolling it. When you get to the end, roll the strudel right onto a baking sheet that has been covered with parchment paper, seam-side down. Brush the strudel with the remaining melted butter.
Bake on the center shelf of a preheated oven for 1 hour. The strudel will emerge from the oven golden brown and fragrant of apples and cinnamon. Dust it liberally with powdered sugar. Do this by holding a wire sieve over the strudel and putting a spoonful of powdered sugar into it. Tap the side of the sieve (wire strainer) with the spoon as you move it over the length of the strudel. A cloud of powdered sugar will sift evenly through the wire sieve.
Grasp each side of the parchment paper to cradle the strudel as if it were in a hammock. Lift the strudel onto a serving platter. Slide the parchment paper from underneath the strudel. Let it rest for at least 15 minutes before slicing.