I am not a man easily given to shortcuts in the kitchen. Cake mixes and the like, I dismiss entirely. Not because I suspect that danger lurks in the preservatives listed on every box, but that the finished product always tastes awful to me. I eschew most concentrates and frozen food out of economic principles alone. The real food is usually less expensive and better, in my opinion.
So, it will probably come as a shock when I confess that I have been experimenting with store-bought strudel pastry for the past few weeks.
With my longtime cooking associate, Phillip Schulz, I recently spent 12 hours one day making strudel dough from scratch. The results--while not utterly dismal--were a far cry from what I remember emerging from my grandmother and cousin Rose's ovens.
My kitchen and dining room table, where the dough had to hang and be slowly stretched, resembled a snowy battle zone. Every stick of furniture and every utensil was covered with a fine film of white flour from the copious dustings required to powder my hands and the dough. Even my two cats had traces of dried flour on their whiskers for days afterward.
Time and Patience
I know that strudel-making requires time and patience, but for the moment I have put the acquisition of that special skill on hold, opting instead for the very best commercial dough I can buy on the market. To be honest, the store-bought strudel out-crisped my strudel attempts by a mile.
At the outset, I must state that even commercial strudel dough holds booby traps for a neophyte baker. Store-bought dough comes in rolled leaves that require deft stacking and rolling to achieve the gilded layers that most perfectly surround a filling. Look for packaged varieties that clearly state "strudel leaves," not "filo pastry," on the box. Try to buy fresh leaves, if possible. Frozen dough is often allowed to defrost on a supermarket shelf, and then refrozen, which causes the fragile leaves to shred or disintegrate when you attempt to separate them.
Working with strudel leaves requires serenity. So skip hard rock for Mozart on the stereo. Be sure to place a damp towel on a work table first, then cover it completely with sheets of wax paper upon which to place the strudel leaves. Carefully unroll the leaves from the package and proceed with the recipe instructions, brushing each leaf with melted butter and bread crumbs as directed.
I generally use four leaves to create a perfectly delicate superstructure, but more demanding pastry chefs use six leaves rather than four leaves to ensure extra crispness. If you choose to use six leaves, remember to sprinkle the extra leaves with melted butter and bread crumbs as well.
What follows are two unique savory strudels that Schulz and I recently devised for brunch, lunch or a party. Although not child's play, they are both manageable enough to prepare in advance, even in a small kitchen.
The following recipe is undoubtedly the quintessential strudel stuffing--even though it is borrowed from a bagel. What gives it fabulous savor is a good quality smoked salmon. Best choices are Nova Scotia or Scotch salmon. Make certain to allow the cream cheese to come to room temperature before whipping it, and use fresh dill. DILLED SMOKED SALMON AND CREAM CHEESE STRUDEL
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup whipping cream or half and half
1/2 teaspoon finely slivered lemon peel
4 strudel leaves
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon white bread crumbs
4 ounces thinly sliced smoked salmon
1 tablespoon chopped dill
Beat cream cheese with electric mixer until light. Slowly add cream. Stir in lemon peel and salt and pepper to taste.
Place 2 strudel leaves on wax paper over damp towel. (Long side should be parallel to edge of table.) Brush top sheet with melted butter. Sprinkle with bread crumbs. Add remaining 2 leaves dough. Brush top sheet with butter.
Using 2 knives, spread cream cheese mixture over bottom quarter of dough, leaving 1 inch all around edges. Cover cream cheese with smoked salmon. Sprinkle with dill.
With aid of towel, fold side edges of dough toward center just enough to cover filling by 1/2 inch. Brush edges with butter and press lightly so they do not unfold. With aid of towel, roll up dough away from you and onto lightly buttered baking sheet. Brush surface of dough with butter.
Bake at 375 degrees until crisp, about 25 minutes. Slide onto rack to cool. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Makes 4 to 6 main course servings.
An adaptation of an Austrian classic, this delicate, aromatic hors d'oeuvre is at its best when imported mushrooms (shiitake, pleurotes or cremini ) are its chief ingredient. If using a domestic mushroom variety, increase the amount to 1/2 pound and saute them without butter to rid them of any excess juices. BLACK FOREST SAVORY MUSHROOM STRUDEL
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 shallot, minced
1/4 pound imported mushrooms, chopped
1/4 pound thinly sliced Black Forest ham, chopped
1 egg white, lightly beaten