Straight Talk from a Comfort Foodie: Strudel Makes the Woman
Strudel Makes the Woman
Grandpa Max loved butter cookies. He liked his Chivas Regal from a heavy cut-glass decanter, but the little butter cookies with coarse sugar sprinkles just had to come from a can.
His pleasures were simple born from a childhood of poverty, and his need for tidiness bordered on compulsion. Grandpa did all the ironing and packed all the suitcases, each layer of clothes sandwiched between tissue paper and sheets of plastic recycled from the dry cleaners. It was Grandpa Max who would stand in my bedroom like a soldier and teach me how to reassemble my dissheveld sheets and blanket into a proper bed. I had sleep in my eyes and my Barbie nightgown was twisted around me like a frenzied static sock. "Make ya' bed after ya' git oudda it, kiddo." he offered, dressed in his signature starched Van Hussen and perma-press pants. "This, not orange juice, is the way to start the morning." Then he'd show me how to get a brush through my tangled brown hair.
Grandma would have made him Scottish shortbread from scratch, but the man preferred store bought. When the pretzel-shaped contents, with their stiff little paper cups were spent, each container was reused to hold tea bags, Sweet 'n Low, or tiny packets of soy and duck sauce.
When my grandparents moved to Florida in the early 1970's, those blue cans with their little pictures of Dutch villages became the loving receptacles of Grandma's cookie care packages. Opening each lid revealed layers of Linzer tortes, rugelach, and strudel; each seperated by a piece of wax paper. Grandma did the baking. Grandpa did the packing. You never knew what would be inside. Half the fun of receiving one of these boxes, mailed immediatley after baking and marked no less than ten times with the word "fragile" , was eating your way through each delicious layer. I'd race to cut through all the tape and open the cardboard flaps just to catch that first wiff-a combination of her perfume and a myriad of cleaning products. At that moment I was transported right into their kitchen. I'd breathe deeply into the box and relive a time when my best friend lived down the block and being grown-up was the distant future. I was to immediately call Miami and report any breakage. Invariably there were a few. Grandma was shrewd and never took the blame for a recipe that went array. She just may have forgotten some intergral ingredient to bind the recipe, but, the drama of the crumbled cookies, fell on Max for not putting enough tissue paper in with the silver trays.
"Ma-ac," she'd start off, not even calling him by his correct name. "Ya' broke the cookies," yelling to be heard over the soundtrack of Flower Drum Song. Rather than continue his umpeeth solitaire game, he'd scramble to the kitchen to defend himself.
"Lily, wud are ya' tawking bout? Cus-ik-sin I wrapped 'em plenty".
I had one set of grandparents that spoke only Yiddish. These two spoke the worst Brooklyn venacular you could imagine. It was a home were teabags were teaballs, Indians lived on reservoirs, and everything to the front of the house was a stoop. When I came to spend the night, Grandma once said, "It's a good thing I have a cot, or I wouldn't know wheres to putchuz!" I always got to bed early at their house, 'cuz-ik-sin' I didn't want to catch Grandpa without his teeth in. Besides, at six in the morning, he'd be doing his unintended Spike Jones routine with the plates and silverware from the dishwarsher.
When these care packages still came on my birthday, even after I had had children of my own, I would devour all but one cookie, and there it would sit the entire year until the next batch. I just couldn't eat the last one until a new box arrived. There were definate seperation issues tied to those cookies. As long as I held on to one of Grandma's treats I was holding on to her, and that this would somehow tempt fate and keep her healthy till the next year.
The Wild Rose Inn Bed and Breakfast was open for buisness the year that Grandma, now widowed, turned eighty-eight. I had spent years as an itinerant tradeswoman buying, renovating, and selling my homes. This last purchase of a delapidated Victorian apartment house would be my finest work, and hopefully an end to my non-settled mode of living. I had shuffled my son, Austin, and Jake the dog, through six houses in six years. His toy chests were labeled moving boxes. I got Christmas cards from the storage company. To help make our situation more tolerable we got in the habit of writing a new and simple song for each house, and would sing it as we drove there.
"We're going home to Willow, to put our head on a pillow. We'll meet Jakey on the street. Our little house just can't be beat".
I couldn't change the past. But I vowed to give Austin a home where he could mark his growing height on the threshold of his bedroom door.
The Wild Rose project took all the money I could beg or borrow to be overhauled into upscale accommodations, never knowing that this endeavor was truly "in-my-blood". I had lived in Woodstock for nearly twenty years and finally had a piece of property on "the Monopoly board", and, even though I had spent my teen-age years living on Cape Cod and working the coffe shop and running the switchboard of my dad's motel, I didn't realize that innkeeping was not for the domestically challenged. With the onslaught of guests came the reality of constant laundry, grocery shopping, and baking.
A genetic disposition to the occupation was welcome. When the grand opening came my family arrived from various parts of the country to help create a grand event: a huge Victorian lawn party complete with a chamber ensemble for guests that would come dressed in period costumes. We prepared cucumber tea sandwiches and trays of pretty petit-fours. When the work was done, over a cup of strong black tea and a plate of cookies, grandma shared with me hand-me-down stories of her grand parents inn and tavern in Russia.
In the days of the Russian czars Jewish innkeepers, unlike their gentile competitors in that profession, were compelled to pay exceptionally high taxes, plus additional big fees for the liquor permit, taxes so extremely high that it was utterly impossible for my distant relative to earn but a poor living with the full help and cooperation of his wife. This matriarch, to help out her husband, would bake delicious cakes and tasty rolls, only to attract the eyes and appetites of non-Jewish customers whose wives did not posses the skill or talent for flavorful baking.
Being that I was now a fifth-generation innkeeper I would have to turn in my tool belt for an apron, get into the kitchen, and learn the family recipe for making strudel. Beautiful Russian strudel filled with raisins, candied fruit, and homemade plum butter.
I come from a long resilient line of Jewish mothers, women that utilized homemaking and baking for gains in an era when women were scarce in professional kitchens.
My great-grandmother was known as Bubbe-a woman that stood only four and a half feet high and measured all of her ingredients with a "yarzeit" glass. (This is a glass that was once filled with candle wax and was lit on the anniversary of a relatives passing). In 1916, with six children and a husband that spent more time in other womans beds that his own, Bubbe owned and operated The Spencer Hotel of Saratoga Springs, New York. It was one of many Jewish boarding houses in that upper-crust town where Yiddish was spoken. I love hearing my grandma speak of the sumptuous furnishings, horse-hair stuffed sofas, and oriental carpets with the softest pile she had ever felt. Gamblers frequented the place and her father, Rueben, would dance the night away with their fashionable wives. One day she wandered into the attic of that mammoth rooming house and discovered an antique trunk filled with Victorian ball-gowns. The attic was eventually renovated with smaller guest rooms, rooms for jockeys at the famous Saratoga Race Track.
Boarders paid twenty five dollars a week, which included three meals a day. Friday night dinners were with matzo ball soup, homemade gefilte fish, and roasted chicken. Satuday afternoons featured Cholent, a thick bean concoction with tender beef, barley, and potatoes that was prepared in the hours prior to the start of the sabbath. The symbolic Cholent, a dish that required no preparation or stove top manipulation, making it therefore Kosher, was served with a side of cold stuffed derma. Sunday afternoons saw dairy kugel, potato blintzes, and fresh fruit. Bubbe's strudel was always the finishing touch of every meal served to her guests.
My own mother and grandmother share a relationship that revolves around food and the kitchen. To this day they still argue about who makes the best mondelbrot. Grandma claims their recipes for this Jewish biscotti are identical, but hers are cake-like (and crumble) where my mother's have more snap.
During World War II, when her husband earned fourteen dollars a week for the family doing electronic repairs, grandma ran a luncheonette out of a renovated tool shack at the Idylwild Airport (later to become JFK). When there was no one to look after my mother, she was tethered-literally-to her mother's apron strings by a rope. Grandma cooked breakfast and lunch for the pilots at what was then a little airport. Her menu was a bit more assimilated than that of her mothers. The breakfast speciality was "The Gashouse Egg", a piece of buttered white bread toast with an egg fried in the center cut-out, with a side of homefries. Add a cup of coffee and the bill came to fifty cents. Dessert carried the blood-line. Russian strudel was always the finishing touch. Wrapping it in a paper napkin, grandma would stuff a piece into the pocket of each of her most loyal patrons.
As a young girl, my mother got to watch Bubble Lena bake strudel many times for the reason that after Bubbe was widowed, she would live with each of her six children for a three-month stay. Like most of the coveted family recipes, their secrets were withheld until matrimony.
My mom and dad began married life in a small ground floor apartment in a two-family house in Brooklyn. One day grandma decided it was her daughters turn to learn the family recipe and offered a hands-on strudel-baking lesson. My mother watched as the dough was worked until paper thin. The filling wasn't difficult, but the dough required a certain expertise. The crucial part was in the initial preparation; the dough needed to be pounded and stretched. As they were slapping it against the kitchen table to work it the ladies worked up a sweat. They continued to bang it around until they were almost done. They were waiting for the dough to gain its elasticity when all of a sudden there was a loud knock at the door. My mom wiped the moisture from her face and opened the door to find the landlady, who lived upstairs, looking impatient and frustrated. With her hands on her hips, she expressed wonder at how her tenants could possibly be cold ?still. She had turned the heat up several times. My mom was puzzled. What she didn't know was the standard rule of two-family living: If you need more heat, rap hard on the pipes. My mother and grandmother still laugh about that till this day.
I've come to realize that innkeeping and baking cookies go hand-in-hand. The arresting aroma of the freshly baked stuff can not be replaced by vanilla scented potpouri. When my guests follow the wafting scent up the stairs to my kitchen, like Bugs Bunny following the scent of a carrot, I know I've reached their core. When melting chocolate hangs from their lip all pretenses are dropped and they are, once again, at home.
I've pilfored the family vault to aquire recipes. No matter the diet trend, low-carb or no-carb, the cookies get polished off. On the rare occasions when I have the pleasure of baking with both my mother and grandmother, I sit the "girls" in my kitchen with five pounds of flour and, like the millers daughter in a fairy tale, tell them they can't leave the room until it is all spun into strudel-gold, strudel that is now the finishing touch of the meals I serve to my guests.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Prepare the filling by combine all ingredients in a large bowl, set aside.
In another large bowl, mix the flour, salt and sugar. Make a well in the center.
Into a medium sized bowl, mix the oil, water and eggs ? pour this mixture into the well of the dry ingredients.
Mix the dough either by hand or with an elctric mixer using a bread hook until it is well combined. Remove the dough to a lightly floured surface and aggresively knead for almost 10 minutes.
Have no mercy on the dough and bang it against the surface several times. Dough must be smooth, shiny and elastic. Flour a bowl and set dough to rest, covered, for half an hour.
Cut into four potions. Knead each portion before rolling. Roll the dough half way and start to strech by placing your hands under the dough and pulling gently until it is thin. The shape should be a long rectangle approximatley 10" wide by 18" long.
Oil the dough lightly by brushing with a small amount of vegetable oil. Place ½ cup additional finely chopped walnuts on dough, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar.
Add filling ingredients along the width of the dough. Roll up the dough, being sure to tuck in the end edges as you go. Place roll seam side down on a lightly greased cookie sheet.
Score roll every two inches ? making deep cuts, but not enough to go through the entire roll. Flatten lightly by hand.
Bake at 350 degrees for ½ hour, or until golden brown.
1 1/2 lbs. (about 9 fresh lg.) plums, sliced and pitted
In heavy kettle stir plums and 1/2 cup sugar over lowest heat. When juices flow, bring to boil; cook 5 minutes or until fruit is tender.
Pour into blender. Chop on low speed, 2 seconds. Return to kettle; add remaining sugar and spices. Bring to boil. Reduce heat, yet maintain active bubbling; cook 5-10 minutes, stirring frequently. Test for doneness -- mixture will "sheet" from spoon. Ladle at once into hot sterilized screw top jars leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Seal with clean, dry, metal lids. Makes 3 1/2 pints.
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