A while ago, Sigrid asked her readers to share a grandmother’s recipe for an apple cake or pie. Adding the link, I realized it was quite a while ago, much longer than what I intended; on the other hand, this is just the best period ever for making apple cakes. I actually have two of those recipes that are part of my tradition; they both are recipes my mother regularly made for me. One of them is a simple, moist apple cake, perfect for dunking in milk. I think the recipe comes from my grandmother, but who knows where she took it.
The other recipe is a more challenging and ‘grown up’ dessert: strudel di mele. Strudel is a thin layer of dough rolled with something in it; it can be savoury, or more often sweet. Most people are accustomed to the variety made with puff pastry, quite greasy and sugary, which I don’t particularly like. The original has a thinner, less fat dough, quite common in the (also) German-speaking part of Italy and in Austria. In the regions where Austria met the Balkans, like Slovenia, an even thinner version is wide-spread, with almost no fat in it: actually, given that Wikipedia traces the origin of strudel to Levantine pastries like baklava, this is probably the most faithful version. The recipe we use in my family definitely belongs to the latter group; it comes straight from a lady who ran from the occupied Istria to Italy at some point. She was Italian – or rather, she spoke Italian as a first language, but her hair was blonde, almost white, and her eyes were blue; I’m not sure whether she would have considered herself being Italian, since these otherwise straightforward adjectives can be quite unaccurate and very dangerous when applied to some sensitive parts of the world. Her granddaughter is my mom’s best friend. She too is blond, in a way very few Italians are.
The recipe is quite intriguing. It basically contains no fat and barely any sugar (probably the original had a bit more butter in it, but my mother always tweaks recipes in one direction, and to me, this is strudel). It is surely the most intensely apple-y of all apple pies or cakes I have ever tasted. I remember I liked it even when I was a child, but it is by no means a kid’s dessert. And yet, my mother makes it quite often, and after I rediscovered it, I am already planning the next one (as soon as my knee allows, actually). It is beautiful in its rustic appearance, it is very light – so perfect for finishing off a challenging dinner – and if you choose the right apples it can taste stunning, especially served warm, with the slightly crunchy and thin pastry on the outside, the slightly softer wraps of dough on the inside, encasing soft, sweet apples, little raisins bursting with juice and crunchy pine nuts.
Now, the choice of the right apple: I think there is one main guide here, and it is, they need to be flavourful. The apples are left to macerate with a little sugar for quite a while, so that they lose some of their humidity and get a more intense, slightly ‘dried apple’ edge to their flavour. Both very sweet and slightly tart apples can work, but I’d avoid too tart an apple since the recipe has very little sugar in it. It is better to avoid cooking apples that fall off completely while cooking, like Bramley, because they will probably make the pastry soggy. In Italy we always used renette, a cooking apple variety of slightly tart flavour; in the UK I used russet apples initially because they look like renette, but then because I quite like their flavour, although they are sweeter than renette. Apple variety is incredible, there is so many of them – it looks like my greengrocer comes out with a new variety every time I visit it (last time it was crab apples – so cute! I hope to get to cook with them before they disappear).
The other tricky bit is the pastry. It is not very difficult to work it thinly, actually, so thinly that you can read through it as recommended, but it is quite difficult not to make it break at all once wrapped or while cooking. Even my mother has the occasional tear, after many years of experience. I think we can probably live with it, but you still want to be careful to avoid major tears, that could cause disaster. So stick to the instructions if you want to try it: once you get your hand to it, it is actually quite easy and comes toegher in a flash. The only lengthy bit is slicing all those apples.
160 g plain, all-purpose flour
1/ 2 teaspoon salt
20 g butter
2 teaspoons sugar
Warm water, about 80 ml
5-6 medium apples (about 1.3 kilos)
2 tablespoons raisins or currant
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1 tablespoon bread crumbs
sugar, 1-2 tablespoons
a little extra sugar, brown is particularly nice
Optional for serving: icing sugar, whipped cream, ice cream
At least 4 hours in advance, prepare the apples; it is better if you can leave them longer, overnight or even for 24 hours, in a cold place (like a cellar). Peel, core and splice them quite thinly. Sprinkle with 1 to 2 tablespoons of sugar, depending on how sweet the apples are. Mix occasionally, taking care not to break them. After a few hours the apples will have developed quite a bit of liquid. Drain it off and soak the raisins in it.
Make the pastry: melt the butter using a little pan. Don’t wash the pan afterwards, but keep it there. Mix flour, sugar and salt. Add egg, melted butter and some of the warm water. Mix with a fork until more or less uniform. Add a bit more water than what you think you need. The dough should be very soft and a little tacky, but definitely solid. Work it for about five minutes on a lightly floured surface, until silk smooth.
Let it rest at least half an hour, wrapped in cling film or a wet towel. It must not dry out.
Have an oven plate ready with some non stick baking parchment on it. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Take the pan where you have melted the butter and add a tablespoon of breadcrumbs to it. Let them lightly toast over medium heat. Have a clean, large kitchen towel ready as well; lightly dust it with flour. Start rolling the dough in a rectangle on a lightly floured surface, making sure it never sticks to the surface. It is okay if it is slightly oval in shape. Before too thin to handle, transfer to the kitchen towel. Keep stretching the dough using your rolling pin until as thin as you can without breaking it (it will easily go down to 1-2 mm). An alternative technique is to stretch it using the back of your knuckles, but it is a bit tricky.
Once the pastry is rolled, sprinkle the breadcrumbs on it, then arrange the apples on a thin layer on it. Make sure you leave any apple juice behind, and keep it; don’t squeeze the apple slices at all. The slices can superimpose but they should have no big lumps, that may break the dough. Drain the raisins (don’t squeeze) and scatter them on top; add also pine nuts. Start rolling the strudel on the longest side, using the kitchen towel to help. Make sure the pastry does not stick to the towel; if it does carefully remove it and try patching the hole gently (the dough is still quite elastic). Remember: better to live with a small tear than risking a huge one (as they say in Veneto: ‘peso il tacon del buso’, that is, the patch is worse than the hole). Once you have a long roll, squeeze the ends a bit together and fold them so they are sealed, then using the towel transfer it to the baking sheet, seam side down. Bend it slightly to give it a slight crescent shape if it is too long, but you can also keep it straight.
Brush some of the apple water on top of the strudel to prevent breaking. Sprinkle with a bit of granulated, or brown, sugar. Cook in the oven at 180 for about 40-50 minutes. If it is coloring too fast lower the oven. Now and again brush the top with a little apple water to give it a nice glaze and prevent breaking.
Serve warm with a dusting of icing sugar if you like. Cream, ice cream or clotted cream on the side make for a richer dessert.