Painful pastries day 1: Traditional apfelstrudel

Day 0

Like many of my pastry adventures, this one started with an episode of the Great British Bakeoff. It was specifically noted that “making strudel pastry is incredibly time consuming and difficult and even the experts just buy it from the store.” 

Well. I just knew I had to give it a shot.

I decided to make a traditional apple strudel, minus raisins because I despise raisins in baked goods. The goal was to make something as tender, juicy, and tasty as the apfelstrudel I ate in Vienna, from the chain Aida. (As chains go, the strudel was shockingly delicious. Or, I just have poor touristy taste in pastries).

“Strudel” means “whirlpool” in German, which is indicative of how this pastry is made. I always thought strudel pastry was made similarly to puff pastry, where you layer butter and dough to create beautiful layers. It turns out that you actually make strudel pastry by stretching out a lean dough until it is EXTREMELY thin, filling it with whatever goes inside, and then rolling it up whirlpool-style to create flaky layers.  The hard part is, of course, stretching out the dough thin enough that you can read a newspaper through it. 

The process

I use this recipe from King Arthur Baking for the pastry:

And modify this recipe for the filling:

I begin the night before, mixing the dough together in my stand mixer. The goal is to make a stretchy dough where the gluten strands are relaxed, supple, yet strong and able to be stretched thinly without breaking. There are a couple ways this recipe helps achieve that:

  • bread flour – higher protein content means more gluten
  • lemon juice – the acid relaxes the gluten and makes the dough supple
  • overnight rest – resting helps the dough relax and naturally strengthens the gluten

The dough is super wet at first, but eventually becomes tacky and supple. 

In the morning, I make the filling. One key component is breadcrumbs, which seems like a weird addition to a sweet dessert, but is actually crucial for soaking up any excess moisture. Moisture is the enemy of your strudel, as it will create a claggy and unappetizing dough clod instead of flaky and crispy pastry.

Rather than grating apples, I slice them thinly and let them sit so that some water seeps out. 

Then it’s time for the real challenge – stretching out the pastry dough. It’s surprisingly easy because the dough honestly feels like silly putty. I start by stretching it between my hands. When it gets too unwieldy, I plop it on the table and begin gently pulling out the edges. When there are thicker spots in the center, I slip my fists under the dough and gently pull out with my knuckles to make sure not to puncture the dough.

Once the dough is rolled out supremely thinly (and I feel quite proud of myself), I layer on melted butter, bread crumbs, and spiced apple slices. 

And then I realize I made a HUGE mistake. Because the pastry is sitting straight on the table, it’s stuck. I use a lot of flour and a bench scraper to slowly peel and roll the pastry and regret all of my life choices.

Once it’s rolled it’s incredibly unattractive so I add some decorations, wiggle it onto a baking sheet, and pop it in the oven.

The results

Well, it turned out okay. Because of the rolling issue, I had a thick clod of pastry at the center of the strudel, which was chewy and unappetizing. I also found the filling to be a little bland.

However, my boyfriend absolutely loved it and ate the whole thing in about a day. 

What went well

  • Fairly distinct layers of pastry
  • Looked recognizably like a strudel
  • Overall enjoyable to eat

What could be improved

  • Pastry was a little tough – maybe I overhandled it?
  • Filling was bland
  • Soggy dough clod in the middle

What I would do differently

  • 100% line the table with a floured tablecloth before stretching out the pastry
  • More breadcrumbs to soak up moisture
  • Try grating the apples to see if that helps with texture
  • Adding more melted butter 

Would I make strudel again? Maybe, if I felt the need to practice delicate pastry making skills. I’m still dreaming of that strudel I ate in Vienna, and I definitely didn’t do justice to it with my attempt.

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