In countries like Austria, Germany, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, the benchmark of a fine konditorei, or confectionery shop, is its apple strudel. The flaky, buttery, fruit-and-nut-filled roulades are in high demand and come under intense scrutiny. To be the very best, the strudel (which means whirlpool in German, thanks to its distinctive rolled shape) must be made from scratch, which means hand-stretching soft dough into a paper-thin sheet the size of a tabletop. A layer of butter-toasted breadcrumbs is scattered over the pastry to separate the layers and absorb moisture from the apples, and then the dough is rolled around the fruit filling and promptly baked. Strudel in a good konditorei is baked off fresh throughout the day so it can be served warm and flaky, never soggy. Served mit schlagobers (with a big dollop of fluffy whipped cream), it’s one of the sweet glories of Austro-Hungarian cuisine.
Get the recipe: Apple Strudel
Say “no” to phyllo
You may have eaten (or even made) strudel using store-bought phyllo dough—I certainly have. But once I learned how much fun it is to “pull a strudel,” as they say in Vienna and Prague, and how flaky and light the resulting strudel is compared to one made with phyllo, I never looked back. It’s no more difficult than making an apple pie, and stretching the silky dough into a paper-thin sheet is easier than you might think.
Success lies in the setup
First, use unbleached all-purpose flour to make the dough; it has a higher protein (and therefore, gluten) content than bleached. Gluten is a good thing for strudel dough because it helps the dough stretch easily; using the right flour, as well as vigorously kneading and then resting the dough, will develop a strong gluten structure that can be pulled and stretched into gossamer thin.
Second, you need a table, countertop, or other work surface that you can access from at least 3 sides; a sturdy 3-foot card table is perfect, but any surface that’s big enough to hold a 2×3-foot sheet of dough will work. I’ve even used the end of my kitchen island with great results.
With those two requirements fulfilled, the dough will do most of the work for you, stretching easily across the table as you marvel at how thin it can become. Read through the dos and don’ts before you get started, and then enjoy the feeling of pride when you tell your friends and family that you made that gorgeous strudel from scratch with your own two hands.
Strudel dos and don’ts
Do make the apple filling before you stretch the dough. The dough dries out quickly, so you need your filling ready to go.
Do cover your work surface with a patterned cotton or polyester tablecloth, and rub flour into the cloth before stretching the dough on it. The flour keeps the dough from sticking, and the cloth’s pattern helps you gauge thickness.
Don’t wear bulky rings, bracelets, or a watch while stretching the dough; they could tear it. Even shirtsleeves can tear the dough, so if you’re wearing long sleeves, push them up past your elbows.
Do let gravity work for you. Let the thicker dough around the perimeter of the work surface act as an anchor as it hangs over the edge.
Do use a soft silicone pastry brush or your hands to spread melted butter on the dough. A natural bristle brush could tear it.
Don’t use fine dried breadcrumbs. Coarse fresh breadcrumbs (ground in a food processor from day-old, crusty bread) will absorb excess moisture from the filling better than their finer, drier counterparts, and retain their texture after baking, too.
Do serve the strudel while it’s still warm, if you can, and always on the same day.
Don’t microwave strudel to reheat it, or the pastry will soften and become soggy. Use a 350°F oven instead, which will warm and crisp the strudel in about 10 minutes.