When I visit Budapest, which used to be pretty much a yearly occurrence before Covid-19, my first culinary port of call is the Első Pesti Rétesház – the First Strudel House of Pest. There’s a dizzying array of mouth-watering strudels with many different fillings, both sweet and savoury, made on the premises in front of your eyes.
Strudel (rétes in Hungarian) came into the former Austro-Hungarian empire from Turkey – it’s the child of Turkish baklava – and I could have assigned it to any of dozen countries in the empire. But having already visited Vienna for Sachertorte, I’ll give the honour to Budapest: and anyway, it’s further east, so the Turks probably got there first.
My favourite strudel fillings at the Rétesház are meggyes (sour cherries) and túró (curd cheese made from soured milk), but I didn’t have access to the right ingredients for either of these when baking for this post, so I’ve gone for the classic apple filling as found both in Budapest and at Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna.
This is not a straightforward bake. Stretching strudel dough is a tricky business: the best tutorial I’ve found comes from the Lil Vienna website. This is my first attempt and as you’ll see from the photos, I got the dough pretty thin, but nowhere near the targeted perfect transparent rectangle big enough to fit all the filling. So I’ve suggested using about a third more dough than the quantities in the tutorial: you can probably reduce this as your strudel skills improve. (The Schönbrunn recipe, by the way, uses an egg in the dough, which I didn’t).
Making the strudel dough
- 120ml water
- 20g sunflower oil, plus more for coating the dough
- 4g lemon juice or vinegar
- 2g salt
- 200g strong white flour, plus plenty more for flouring surfaces
- Combine salt and flour
- Combine water, oil and lemon juice or vinegar and mix
- Combine the wet and dry mixes and mix until you have a smooth dough. If the dough is too sticky, add a modest amount more flour and work it in thoroughly, but don’t overdo it: you want the dough to be moist.
- Knead the dough for around 10 minutes (if by hand) or around 7 minutes (if using the dough hook on a stand mixer). Form the dough into a ball
- Put a bit of oil into a bowl; roll the dough to coat it completely with oil, cover the bowl and leave it for an hour at room temperature
The apple filling
- 170g raisins
- 20g rum (optional)
- 100g breadcrumbs
- 50g butter
- 140g sugar
- 10g ground cinnamon
- Around 900-1000g tart apples (I used Granny Smiths, American recipes tend to use MacIntosh)
- 20g lemon juice (around half a lemon)
- Mix the rum and raisins and leave to soak
- Mix the sugar and cinnamon and set aside
- Melt butter in a pan, add the breadcrumbs and cook over a medium flame, stirring frequently, until the breadcrumbs are golden brown but not burning. Set aside.
- Peel and core your apples, then slice each apple quarter into 4-5 slices.
- Mix the apples, raisins and cinnamon sugar (but NOT the breadcrumbs) in a large bowl.
Stretching the dough and putting it all together
- 50g butter, melted
- 1-2 tsp icing sugar
- Preheat oven to 190℃ fan. Identify a large, flat baking tray: typical would be around 40cm x 30cm. Either cut a piece of baking parchment to approximately the same size or identify a silicone baking mat of that size.
- Find a clear space of around 40cm x 100cm on a table or counter top and spread a tablecloth over it (or use an improvised alternative like a sheet); lightly spread flour over the tablecloth.
- Spread flour somewhat more generously over the board onto which you will roll your pastry: you’ll need a space of around 30cm x 30cm.
- Put your ball of dough in the middle of the board, and using a rolling pin, roll it out into as even and large a rectangle as you can manage.
- With both hands at one end, pick up the rectangle of dough and allow gravity to stretch it downwards. Working quickly, pass the dough around so that you’re holding a different edge all the time and the dough is stretching evenly across its whole area.
- Once you’ve stretched it as much as you dare without it tearing, spread the dough out on your floured tablecloth.
- Pull the dough from opposite sides to stretch it. Each time you put it down on the sheet, it will shrink back, but you should gradually be increasing its overall size. You know you’re done when the dough is nearly transparent: traditionally, the test was that you should be able to read a newspaper headline through it, which did not achieve (although I came close). You’re aiming for a length of around 100cm and a width slightly larger than the width of your baking tray.
- Spread melted butter over your dough.
- Spread the breadcrumb mixture over around one third of the rectangle of dough, around 2-3cm from one end and the sides. Spread the apple mixture on top.
- Fold three edges over in an attempt to stop the filling leaking out.
- Roll the strudel from the filled end, either by lifting the tablecloth as you roll or using your fingers.
- Finish by rolling the completed strudel onto your baking mat or parchment sheet; transfer this onto your baking tray. Brush the whole lot with more melted butter.
- Bake until golden, which should take around 30-40 minutes. Beware the photos: mine was slightly overbaked.
- Cool, dust generously with icing sugar and transfer to the dish or board that you will serve the strudel from.
- Cut into slices to serve, either on its own or accompanied by any of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, chantilly cream or crème fraiche. And, of course, coffee.
The whole “stretching strudel to paper thickness” process doesn’t actually take that long, but it’s fairly scary when you’re not used to it and it does generate laundry. But my result was palpably more authentic and had better texture and taste than using store-bought phyllo pastry, even though my first attempt had many imperfections: the stretched dough wasn’t thin enough, wasn’t an even rectangle and had several small tears. I’m sure that practice will make perfect and I’m not planning on going back to supermarket phyllo any time soon.