Like most people, COVID-19 put paid to any travel plans. Mine was to be a free-ranging year in Argentina, Newfoundland and Europe. I'd down robust reds and huge slabs of steak, freshly shucked oysters and... who knew what else?
Instead, I found myself flicking through old recipe books to recreate flavours from long-ago trips. There was a slow-cooked chicken biryani from India’s 'city of pearls' Hyderabad, tomato focaccia from Italy’s stiletto coastline Puglia; even some killer northern Thai curries.
It was on one of these forays that I came upon a scrap of paper tucked away in an old cookbook - the family strudel recipe, handwritten in Croatian and translated into English by my mother.
Instantly, it transported me to a sun-splashed kitchen in a small village outside of Samobor, near Croatia's capital of Zagreb. It was near my cousin's mechanic workshop and his family's home. And it was here my great-aunt Magda held sway, making the daily lunch strudel for the workers.
Strudel has its origins in Austria and Hungary and is said to be inspired by the baklava pastry of the Ottoman Empire brought into Hungary by the Turks. The first recorded recipe appears in the Austrian cookbook Koch Puech in 1696. But it wasn't until the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867 that its popularity grew, spreading across Western and Central Europe including Poland, Serbia and Italy. It was the Germans who named it strudel, meaning whirlpool.
I loved visiting the Hungarian Jewish cake shops in Bondi Beach in my teens, their shop windows glittering with sugar-dusted blueberry, sour cherry and apple strudel.
But nothing could compete with my baba's strudel, or the one by my Australian mum, who mastered Croatian within three months of meeting and falling in love with my dad. By the time I was born, she had moved on to perfecting the traditional Croatian dishes my father grew up with and loved.
I may have turned up my nose at the fish head soup served on Fridays in Lent, a dish so pungent, it would hit me in the nose on the walk home from school. Cabbage rolls and sauerkraut met the same whinging complaint. But give me apple strudel for dessert, and I'd shovel mouthfuls of any foreign-smelling-tasting-stuff with haste.
Nothing could compete with my baba or mum's strudel.
Unlike Austrian strudel, its dough made with egg, Croatian strudel has only four ingredients: flour, oil, salt and water. The rest is grunt work and patience, a strong back and deft hands.
It was Magda who taught me the tricks to making strudel. She spoke no English. I spoke very little Croatian. And yet we seemed to understand each other with vigorous head nods and smiles.
I'd sit in her kitchen for most of the morning, sunlight spilling across the flagstone tiles as she flogged the dough, kneading the sticky mess into something smooth and elastic.
It was Magda who taught me the value of a floured tablecloth and that size does matter, at least where tables and strudel are concerned. Importantly, she showed me how to get the dough super-stretchy using melted butter.
While the rest of Australia took to baking sourdough bread as the balm to lockdown blues, I looked to Croatian strudel. I'd mix the dough and wait, knead it then rest it, cover it in melted butter and leave it again. The rhythm to making strudel became like a meditation.
When it came time to stretch, I'd adopt Magda's technique. Reaching under the dough with the back of my hands, I pulled it back towards me on the crest of my knuckles.
It never fails to amaze me that these few simple steps can turn unleavened dough into something elastic. In no time at all, my dough would be as big as a sheet, tissue-thin and just as translucent. Gather an audience if you can as makes for an impressive display.
Magda would pile the fruit along one length, sprinkling it with sugar, cinnamon and breadcrumbs. Then with a practised move, take up two corners of the tablecloth and roll the strudel away and into a cylindrical roll. By midday, there would be enough strudel to feed an army.
Even now, I can see the sparkle of her blue eyes and taste the sweet comfort of her strudel. There was a different flavour every day. Some days, it was blueberry or blackberry; on other days, apricot, ricotta cheese or walnut. My favourite though was apple, and before I left, she wrote the recipe down for me.
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Photographs by Belinda Luksic
Magda's Croatian apple strudel (strudel od jabuka)
- 600 g (4 cups) plain flour, plus 1 extra cup for kneading
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- pinch salt
- 2 cups hot water
- 150 g butter, melted
10-12 Granny Smith Apples, peeled and grated, juice squeezed out
2-3 tbsp caster sugar, or to taste
2-3 tbsp cinnamon powder, or to taste
½-1 cup breadcrumbs
1. Preheat the oven to 180˚C
2. To make the pastry, mix 4 cups flour, oil, salt and water. Let stand for 10 minutes
3. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead in the remaining cup of plain flour, flogging and pounding the dough until smooth and elastic (this can take 10 or more minutes). Place in an oiled bowl, cover and rest for 30 minutes
4. On a floured tablecloth covering the dining table, roll the dough a rectangle measuring 30 cm x 18 cm. Brush with melted butter and rest for 10 minutes.
5. Stretch the dough from underneath with the backs of the hands and knuckles until it is paper-thin and covers the table. Be careful not to break the pastry.
6. Let dry for 10 minutes. Remove thick edges with a knife.
7. Peel and grate apples and squeeze out all moisture. Place a 15cm width of filling down one long edge of the dough. Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon to taste, top with breadcrumbs.
8. Lift the tablecloth at the filling edge and roll the dough away and into a cylinder shape. Wrap the strudel into a coil, place on a greased baking tray and brush with melted butter.
9. Bake for 20-30 minutes until golden brown. Cool on tray for 10 minutes.
10. Cut into pieces and dust with icing sugar. Serve with ice cream or cream.