I’m sure many Hungarians have a sweet memory of their grandmothers walking around the kitchen table and stretching briskly and routinely a strudel dough until the white table cloth appears under the wafer-thin dough.
Rétes, the Hungarian name of strudel comes from the word réteges, which means layered. Originally strudel used to be made by layering paper-thin sheets of dough with filling, similar to baklava, the Ottoman Empire’s famous dessert. It was baked in rick-shaped oven, dusted with powdered sugar and cut into squares. That pastry was named rétes-béles.
Many labour under the delusion that strudel has a Hungarian origin, but it’s more likely that we took it from the Turks when our country was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish origin is also supported by the fact that rétes-béles (layered strudel) was first mentioned in the chronicles of the 15-16th centuries. Strudel roll as we know it today appeared only in the 18th century.
Strudel became reasonably popular in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungarians, Czechs and Austrians ate it with relish, the latter has made a big name for apple strudel that is listed among the world’s 100 most famous dishes. Despite the Austrian fame in the 19th century confectioners from different parts of the world came to Hungary to learn the tricks of making a perfect strudel.
Many are afraid to make a strudel dough; therefore, recipes these days often cheat by using sheets of purchased phyllo dough or puff pastry. However, making a strudel dough from scratch is actually easier than it seems. A soft dough made with only a handful of ingredients that’s hand-stretched into a paper-thin sheet the size of a (large) tabletop.
Hand-stretched strudel is usually baked only for the holidays or special occasions because it’s very time consuming to prepare. The classic sweet fillings are apple, cottage cheese, poppy seeds, walnuts and sour cherries. Those who prefer salty foods can fill rétes with steamed cabbage, potatoes, spinach or meat.
The strudel my family has been baking for decades is based on a recipe that my grandmother learnt from one of her friends who lived in Ásványráró, a small settlement in Győr-Moson-Sopron county. The dough is divided into 7 equal parts that are rolled out into circles and layered with lard.
The amount of the apple and cottage cheese fillings I described supposed to be enough to fill the whole dough, but it depends on how thin you can stretch the dough and how many times you roll the strudel. Therefore, I recommend that you also keep a third kind of filling at hand in case apple and cottage cheese run out and you still have dough to fill.
For the dough:
- 420 g (~3 1/3 cups) flour
- 40 g (~1/4 cup) sugar
- 10 g (~3/4 tbsp) lard
- pinch of salt
- 1 egg
- 250 ml (~1 cup) milk
- 3-4 tbsp lard for spreading the dough
For the cottage cheese filling:
- 1 kg (~2 1/4 lbs) cottage cheese
- 2 egg yolks
- 200 g (~1 cup) sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 150 g (~1/3 lb) sour cream
- zest of 1 lemon
- pinch of salt
- 2 egg whites
- 400-500 g (~1 lb) pitted sour cherries
For the apple filling, use this recipe.
Size of the table: 160 x 80 cm / 63 x 31 1/2″
Place 3-4 tablespoons of lard in a small bowl and stir until airy and creamy. Set aside.
In a large bowl knead together flour, sugar, lard, salt, egg and milk by using dough hooks until well combined. The dough will be sticky, but don’t worry.
Turn it out on a floured surface, add approx. 10 grams (1 1/4 tbsp) of flour and knead into a smooth and pliable ball.
Divide the dough into 7 equal parts and form balls.
Roll out a dough ball into a 25 cm / 10 inch circle. Place it onto a floured pastry board or baking sheet and spread it with lard. Roll out the second the dough ball into a circle of the same size, put on top of the spread dough, and spread lard on this layer too. Repeat the kneading, layering and spreading process until dough balls run out. Spread lard on top of the 7th layer too. Cover the layered dough with a large pot or bowl and let it rest for 90 minutes.
Meanwhile prepare the cottage cheese filling (I made the apple filling the night before in order to let it cool completely). Combine cottage cheese, sour cream, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, salt and lemon zest, then gently fold in the whisked egg whites. Set aside.
Line 5-6 baking pans with parchment paper.
Cover a big table with a tablecloth, slightly flour it, then transfer the dough in the middle of the table.
Remove all jewels and start stretching the dough. Use your fingers and the back of your hands to stretch it carefully without tearing it until the dough sheet gets paper thin and covers almost the whole table.
Cut off thick ends. Now comes the filling. Sprinkle semolina or bread crumbs on the dough (they prevent it from getting soaked), spoon cottage cheese mixture in a row, then scatter cherries on the top. Roll the dough over the filling, starting at the filling-topped end, lifting the filling’s weight with the cloth. Roll it twice.
Cut the dough, then depending on the size of your baking pan cut the roll in 2 or 3 parts. Put the rolls in a baking pan. Repeat the process until the fillings run out. Place the strudels in the oven preheated to 200°C / 392°F and bake for 15-20 minutes.
If the fillings run out and you still have dough, you can use jam, ground walnuts, poppy seeds or steamed grated cabbage to make more strudel rolls. Furthermore, don’t forget to reroll pastry scraps and fill them or cut out scones.