It’s been a year since I took my first-ever baking class at our local world-famous food emporium, and since then I’ve slowly but surely expanded my doughy horizons.
I made my own challah during the holidays at my parents’ house, with fancy chocolate chips and dried cranberries mixed in.
My entire family acted like there was an astronaut in the kitchen. At one point, my dad wandered in and yelled “She’s kneading! Just like on TV! Someone take a picture!”
Then my sister asked, “What would happen if you ate yeast? Would it bubble up in your stomach?” I said I had no idea. She said, “If you give me fifty bucks I’ll eat some yeast.”
My first attempt was decent, but my second was overproofed and I had to start over, and my ambitious plan of baking a dozen challahs to give as gifts to all our friends had to be scaled down to “Here’s two loaves for everyone to split,” but the results got good reviews.
Over the spring, I got into baking this Tunisian Orange and Olive Oil cake, from a recipe by the aforementioned food emporium, and I made so many of them that I experimented with swapping out the oranges for lemons (look out Bake-Off).
My summer bakes were even more ambitious. Stella’s mom gave me a German checkerboard cake pan from the ’70s (it was made in West Germany!). Fortunately, Stella speaks German, so she translated the directions and stopped me from putting it in the dishwasher. I baked three-layer checkerboard cakes in honor of the World Cup and the Fourth of July.
I made a red velvet/yellow cake combo for the Brazil/Mexico game with homemade green frosting to give each country’s flag colors equal representation.
Then Stella and my sister decorated it and let’s just say they will not be assisting me with my Bake-Off audition.
On Saturday, Stella joined me for my latest baking class: “Noodling about Strudeling.”
The description for the class really reached for the stars: “Remember when you were little and the gym teacher pulled out a compact plastic bundle and magically unfurled it into a huge parachute that the whole class could fit under?”
Stella and I said “HELL YES!” because we went to hippie school, where every day was parachute day.
“Well, you’ll have that experience all over again when we take a grapefruit size piece of strudel dough and stretch it out to cover a 24 square foot table! It’s just about the most fun you can have making food!”
Seriously, this food emporium has some good copywriters.
We were super pumped. Stella’s mom is from Germany, and she’s taught Stella all their family recipes, but they’ve never attempted strudel. Stella’s Oma back in Germany, a certified badass who is still going strong at 97, has never made strudel either. Strudel is really, really hard.
My hero and yours, Mary Berry, even says so—strudel is the only dough she buys rather than makes on her own. In fact, when the contestants made strudel on Bake-Off, one guy nearly sliced his finger off on the kitchen mixer and had to leave the competition to go to the hospital. Strudel is not playing around.
We entered the baking class to the sound of Cher’s “Believe.”
“I’m loving this already,” said Stella.
“Strudel” means “vortex” because you can stuff anything in there. Fruit, vegetables, meats, as long as you’ve got the time and space to stretch out dough to lengths that no other dough can go.
Someone asked if strudel can be made gluten free, and the instructor tried not to laugh.
“No, that would be impossible,” she said, for very sound scientific reasons. To get paper-thin strudel dough, you need gluten—and lots of it—because gluten is what gives dough the ability to stretch in the first place.
“Challenge accepted,” whispered Stella.
Strudel dough is so precise that we were told that if we poured just a smidgen too much of water, we would have to start over.
“You will know if it’s not exact,” said our instructor. “The dough will tell you so.”
She also told us to add in the eggs one at a time instead of cracking both at once.
“Uh-oh, you added the eggs together,” said Stella. “Oh no, I did too!”
“We’ve been here five minutes and we’ve already messed up the eggs!” I said.
“I didn’t even realize I was copying you,” she said. “Just like piano lessons.”
This is our relationship in a nutshell.
In order to develop the gluten and get it to the point that it can stretch from a ball of dough to this . . and then this . . . you have to smack it around.
Our instructor demonstrated a technique called “The Beaver Slap” and I will be happy to invest in the first lesbian bar that copyrights that name.
The Beaver Slap is basically a yo-yo toss combined with a flyswatter whack, only with a giant wad of dough that can easily fly out of your hand and into someone else’s head.
On Bake-Off, someone’s dough took actual flight across the room before a magnificent crash landing, resulting in the immortal line, “I can’t serve Mary Berry green carpet!”
“Don’t forget to duck,” said our instructor.
We were advised to take off our watches and rings. Stella and I were nervous, but we cheered each other on. You don’t survive twenty-two piano recitals together without some coping skills.
“Good connect on that one!” I said as Stella’s dough thunked against the table. We were told to do fifty Beaver Slaps in a row! “You’ve got this!”
Strudel! It’s not for the faint of heart!
So as with my brioche class, the dough we made in class was for taking home and baking later, with one of the many recipes we were so kindly provided. For the strudels we were making in class, dough had already been prepared by the pros, and we would work in teams to make that super-dough into FOUR individual strudels—two savory, two sweet. All we had to do was stretch the dough over our tables, then fill, roll, and bake.
On Bake-Off (this was my favorite episode!), someone said that strudel dough should be so thin that you’re only good to go once you can read a newspaper through the dough. But you can’t tear it! If you tear it, you can make a bandage out of your extra dough. And there is a lot of extra dough. Our instructor said extra strudel dough was ideal for making noodles.
“Ooh, we should take a noodle-making class,” said Stella. “Oh my god, I forgot about my thumb ring!”
“You’re still wearing your thumb ring?” I said.
“It could’ve flown off during the Beaver Slap!”
It was time to stretch. Our giant ball of dough needed a lot of work to make it paper-thin. We had to walk our fingers underneath the dough and manually pull it apart without tearing it or jabbing through with our nails.
It took some time and we had to patch a couple of holes, but we did it. Our dough was so stretched out that we used pizza cutter to trim the edges—and we had enough left for an entire new strudel. Stella wrapped it up to take home.
We brushed the entirety of the dough with melted butter, then we lined up our savory fillings at one end of the dough—asparagus and Parmesan cheese. We were just about to brush the asparagus with even more butter and then roll it up when the instructor gently pointed out that we had forgotten to lay down the base of bread crumbs.
Bread crumbs absorb the extra moisture that’s expelled by the fillings when they bake. On Bake-Off (I watched it live and then watched it again right away!), several people had “strudel hemorrhages” because their fillings started leaking in the oven and burst out of the pastry, Alien-style.
And then there was the guy who put on a latex glove because he’d cut his finger and then before he knew it the entire glove had filled with blood and oh my god it was such a ride.
“How could we forget the bread crumbs?!” we said, scrambling to toss bread crumbs over the entire length of the dough like we were trying to feed a colony of starving ducks.
We spread our sweet fillings—apricot preserves and farm cheese—without any issues. With fruit fillings, you want to be careful and put in only preserves or pie fillings that won’t release too much liquid in the oven, or use fruits that hold less water, like apples.
People on Bake-Off made the mistake of using other fruits like strawberries and the end result looked like a strudel massacre.
Next came rolling the strudel, which requires coordinating both the cloth and the dough at an increasing speed and without losing any of your fillings in the process.
“You just have to commit to it,” said the instructor.
Stella told herself, “Don’t panic!”
“That’s our story right there,” I said.
“That’ll be on the gravestones!” she said, and then she rolled that strudel like a champ.
“See? You were born to strudel!” I said. “It’s in your blood!”
“And I didn’t lose my thumb ring!”
We sent off our strudels to bake, and enjoyed slices of the demo strudels fresh out of the oven. Stella ate my asparagus slice. “I know you don’t like asparagus,” she said.
She’s been helping herself to food I don’t like since preschool. It’s such a relief.
“You know, we did cooking classes together in kindergarten,” she said. “Even though we’re adults, we’re just building on the same skills. And we still can’t follow directions.”
We clinked forks to our success.
“The gluten break starts tomorrow,” she sighed.
“We still have to bake our other dough,” I said.
“The gluten break starts Monday.”
I made apple strudel at my parent’s house to take full advantage of their kitchen island. When I said I’d stretch my dough to cover the entire thing, my dad thought I was kidding. My mom filmed me on her phone with the intensity of someone documenting the moon landing. And my sister immediately requested multiple strudels for the holidays.