“Don’t be afraid to treat it rough.”
Treat me rough, baby. It sounded like a bad country western tune.
But it’s not a song.
This line appears in an apple strudel recipe in Woman’s Glory: The Kitchen, a 1950s cookbook published by the Slovenian Women’s Union of America. Last December, that yellowing antique cookbook launched my year-long ethnic roots cooking project.
Strudel is a staple in the Slovenian American kitchen. In Central and Eastern Europe, it as common—and essential—as American apple pie.
Even though my grandmother made strudel, I had never made it myself.
I wouldn’t call it my favorite Slovenian dish. That honor belongs to potica, a honey-drenched, nut-filled yeast bread. But any Slovenian cook worth her klobase knows how to stretch strudel dough, so I had to give it a try.
I picked an auspicious occasion: the neighborhood Labor Day potluck. I expected that this venture would involve some serious work. Little did I know.
Strudel dough is similar to phyllo dough. These days, most home cooks buy it ready-made. I was already intimidated by the challenge of stretching the dough so thin that you could read a newspaper through it.
But I discovered there was a whole other step I’d known nothing about.
To create those delicate sheets of dough, as fragile as parchment, the dough needs to be strong enough to withstand stretching. That means developing the gluten. There are a few ways to do this. High gluten bread flour. Long, vigorous kneading. And every so often, a good slamming.
As in: Flinging the ball of dough from a height of several feet onto the kitchen counter.
There are different approaches to slamming. Some cooks like to alternate short stretches of kneading with a few slams. Others wait until the the kneading is completed and then do a final grand slam. The food writer Mimi Sheraton recommends a total of 110 flings.
Dough slamming was a challenge. First, I had to give myself permission. Throwing food isn’t exactly in my repertoire.
Then I had to reckon with my bad aim. The ball of dough kept missing the the board and landing on the counter. Once it bounced off the board and almost landed on the kitchen floor.
Finally, I began to get into the rhythm. I liked the heft of the dough in my hand, as I raised it up over my shoulder. Slam. How did this feel, I wondered, to my grandmother? Liberating, maybe. Slam. Slam. I felt sad, thinking of her, and all those other working class ethnic women. They lives were so constrained. Slam. Slam. Treated rough by their men and by life itself. Slam. Slam. Slam.
After all that slamming, I felt drained. But also relaxed. Prepared for the next step. Stretching the dough. So different, but equally hypnotic.
I had covered the wooden table in our kitchen with a floured cloth. Just like my grandmother, in her little bungalow on Cleveland’s east side. In the center, I placed the ball of dough.
I rolled the ball of dough into a rectangle. As directed, I made a fist and used the backs of my hands to stretch the dough, working from the center to the periphery.
It was a slow, measured dance. Reach, lift, pull, and release. Circle to the left. Repeat.
I watched my ghostly hands, moving beneath the expanding circle of translucent dough. It felt as though they belonged to someone else. Like gliding my hands across a Ouija Board.
Had I done this before?
Suddenly, it happened. Once more, I felt transported.
I sensed another presence in the room.
To read more about my strudel adventure, including a recipe and photos, go to my Slovenian Roots Quest blog, here.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders