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Showstopper Strudel

Pudding week was a rather exciting week under the tent in the 2012 season of The Great British Baking Show (Season 5 on PBS, The Beginnings on Netflix). The first two challenges—sponge puddings for the signature bake and queen of puddings for the technical—went off without much of a hitch, but the showstopper and the ending were full of surprises. [Spoiler alert!!]

Going in to the showstopper, Mary and Paul said that James, Ryan, John and Sarah-Jane were all in trouble. And then Sarah-Jane tried to teach Cathryn how to knead her strudel dough the way Paul had shown her, until Cathryn flicked it onto the floor and had to start over. And John cut his finger in the food processor. They bandaged him up and he put a glove on, but kneading his dough made it bleed even more, causing blood to seep out of the glove. (Watching this portion of the episode is not a good idea if you faint at the sight of blood!) As a result, he had to leave the tent and didn’t get to finish his strudel. (I won’t spoil the ending in case you haven’t watched it yet, but here’s a recap.)

Adding to the tension is watching the bakers stretch their pastry dough until it’s paper thin—so thin, in fact, that you can see the pattern of whatever is underneath. Sarah-Jane even commented that you should be able to read the Bible through your dough!

For my strudel stretching, I pulled out a vinyl tablecloth, hoping that would give my dough less of a chance to stick. It also has a very wild Hawaiian print, so there would be no doubt what I was seeing when my dough was thin enough.

I chose to make a savory strudel. (As much as I love sweets, they do tend to go to the waistline!) When I think of the thin, flaky pastry surrounding a strudel filling, it reminds me of one of my favorite hors d’oeuvres served at fancy cocktail parties: spanakopita triangles! So I decided to make a strudel with a very similar filling—the fresh flavors of sautéed spinach, leeks and onions seasoned with lemon zest, nutmeg, fresh basil, thyme and a little bit of dill. I also used a combination of feta, parmesan and ricotta cheese mixed with beaten eggs to bind it all together.

Although spanakopita is Greek, and strudel is German, the pastry dough they are made from is very similar. In fact, strudel may have descended from baklava, which is made with thin layers of phyllo (or filo or fillo) dough very much like the dough used to make strudel.

The recipe I used for the pastry came from the King Arthur Flour website, and it has an accompanying tutorial that offers a lot of helpful hints on making and working with strudel dough.

Rather than having you slap the dough around like Paul Hollywood does, this recipe calls for using the dough hook attachment of your mixer, which James pointed out in this GBBS episode is much more efficient for the amount of kneading required. Kneading is critical for this dough, as it creates long strands of protein that make the dough flexible enough to be stretched so thin. The other step that is important in producing a stretchy, pliable dough is resting. Although the bakers in the tent only had enough time to let their dough rest for half an hour, this recipe recommends resting it in the fridge overnight (or at least an hour) to allow the gluten to relax.

Once the dough is well-rested, prepare your work surface. You’ll need at least a 2-foot by 3-foot area (preferably a table that you can walk all the way around) covered with a clean tablecloth or flour sack towels. You’ll also want to have a small bowl of oil nearby to keep your hands lightly greased.

I started flattening the dough like I would if I were making a pizza. Once I had a fairly flat circle, I held it vertically and let gravity do some of the work, slowly turning it around and around so that it stretched fairly evenly all the way around. I didn’t want to tear the dough at this point, though, so once it got to be about pizza-sized I laid it back onto the tablecloth and began working on it there. Walking around the table, I stretched the dough a little at a time, trying to make it as close to a rectangle as possible. Slowly, slowly, it kept stretching thinner and thinner, till I really could see the tablecloth pattern through the dough!

While I didn’t end up with any holes or major tears, I learned a few things that I would do differently next time: (1) When stretching the dough, make sure to work from the center out. I felt that the center of my dough wasn’t as thin as the edges, so my strudel wasn’t as flaky as it could have been. (2) While it may be necessary to cut off the thicker edges of dough before baking, don’t do it until after you roll up the strudel. I cut my edges off first and then found it was harder to peel the edges off the tablecloth in order to roll it up. (3) Have your filling ready to go before you stretch the dough! Once stretched, the pastry will dry out very quickly, which will cause it to crack and even break. It’s best to use a chilled filling anyway, so have it ready to go and cooling in the fridge while you work the pastry.

Once my pastry was thin enough, I drizzled it with melted butter and sprinkled it with bread crumbs (to keep the layers from sticking together) and then piled my prepared filling along one end. With my husband helping, we carefully peeled the edge of the dough off of the tablecloth and started rolling. It took a bit of effort to keep it from tearing, but the author of the tutorial was very reassuring when she wrote: “Don’t worry if the dough does rip or tear—eventually, you’ll be rolling this strudel up and it will have many, many layers—any rips will be invisible in the end product.”

My filling recipe was cobbled together using several sources I found on the internet. Mostly, though, I combined what I thought were the best parts of this and this and added a few touches of my own. Fortunately, I could keep tasting it (before I added the raw eggs) until I got the seasonings just right for me. For that reason, I’ve left some of the seasoning quantities in my recipe as ranges, so you can season it to your own taste.

I like the way Elena Paravantes, writer and Greek nutritionist, describes authentic spanakopita: “The filling is not supposed to be salty but rather mild and almost sweet.” For that reason, she doesn’t use garlic, calling it an “intruder” in this particular dish. I would describe the flavor palette I was going for as fresh. Although I will confess to using frozen spinach for my strudel, I believe the lemon zest, fresh herbs and a dash of dill and nutmeg accomplished that freshness. There’s something about a hint of nutmeg that brings out the sweetness in spinach. 

After rolling up my strudel, I brushed it with melted butter and tried decorating it with cutouts from the extra dough that I cut off the ends. In a panic, I feared I had cut off too much of the pastry at each end, so I tried to patch it. I didn’t want my filling oozing out while it baked. Most of my decorative leaves fell off during baking, and I did get some oozing anyway, but for the most part I was happy with the results. My pastry was thin and flaky, and it certainly tasted like spanakopita. Mission accomplished!

Three-Cheese Spanakopita Strudel

Credit for pastry: KingArthurFlour.com
Sources for filling: TheSpruceEats.com and HalfBakedHarvest.com

For the pastry:

  • 2½ c. unbleached bread flour
  • ½ t. salt
  • ¾ c. warm water
  • 2 large egg yolks, beaten
  • 2 t. vegetable oil, plus a little more for oiling the bowl
  • 1 t. white vinegar
    • For the filling:

      • 24 oz. frozen spinach, thawed and drained
      • 2-3 T. olive oil
      • ¾ c. diced onion
      • 1 leek, sliced thin
      • 2 T. fresh, chopped basil
      • 1-2 T. fresh thyme, stems removed
      • ¼-½ t. dried dill weed (or 2-3 T. fresh dill)
      • ½ t. nutmeg
      • ¼ t. salt
      • ¼ t. pepper
      • Zest of 1 lemon
      • 3 eggs
      • 8 oz. ricotta cheese
      • 4 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
      • ¼ c. shredded Parmesan cheese

        For assembly:

        • 5 T. melted butter, divided
        • ½ c. fine dry bread crumbs

          Directions

          1. Using an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix the flour and ½ t. salt on low speed to combine.
          2. In a container with a spout, whisk the water, egg yolks, oil, and vinegar together. While the mixer is still on low, add the combined liquids to the mixer bowl in a slow, steady stream. Mix on low speed for 10 minutes. At this point, the dough should have formed a ball around the dough hook, and should appear relatively smooth. It should be slightly tacky (not sticky) but not dry. (If it seems dry, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing for a full minute before checking the texture again.) If it’s not all sticking together in one ball, stop the mixer and scrape the dough off the dough hook.
          3. Raise the mixer speed to medium and continue to mix for 10 more minutes. Then transfer the dough to a medium-sized, oiled bowl, and turn the dough over a few times to coat it lightly with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for at least an hour but preferably overnight.
          4. Meanwhile, prepare the filling. After spinach is thawed and drained, wrap it in paper towels or cheesecloth (or a dish towel), and squeeze as much moisture out as possible. After squeezing, lay it out on more paper towels to let it dry out even more.
          5. While the spinach is drying, heat olive oil in a deep sauté or frying pan. Sauté the onions and leeks until tender. Remove from heat and stir in the herbs, spices and lemon zest. (Start with the smaller amounts of herbs; you can always add more later.)
          6. In a large mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then stir in the ricotta, followed by the feta and Parmesan cheeses.
          7. After giving the spinach one more squeeze with the paper towels, combine spinach with the sautéed onion mixture. Taste and add more seasonings, if desired. Then stir it into the cheese mixture. Refrigerate while stretching the dough.
          8. Once the dough has rested, it is ready to be stretched and filled. Prepare a flat work surface, at least 2 feet by 3 feet; a folding table, kitchen table or any surface you can walk all the way around will work—it makes the stretching process easier. Cover it with a tablecloth, oilcloth or flour sack towels.
          9. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Lightly oil your hands. The dough should feel lightly tacky but not sticky, and it should stretch easily. If you find the dough difficult to work with straight from the fridge, you can let it warm up at room temperature for about 15 minutes before beginning to stretch it.
          10. Start by stretching the dough a little like a pizza, trying to keep it rectangular as you work. Once the dough is too big to manage with your hands, lay it down on the covered table. Use closed fists or the backs of your hands (remove any jewelry) to stretch the dough. Put your hands under the dough at one corner, and gently work your fists outwards, working toward the edge of the table. Continue to do this, bit by bit, working around the dough to slowly stretch it out. The goal is to get it so thin you can see through it (if your tablecloth has a pattern, this is a good guideline). The dough is very strong, and you should be able to stretch it without major tearing. But don’t be alarmed if the dough rips a bit; you’ll be rolling it up, and the tears will get rolled up and hidden inside. Once the dough is stretched to the edge of the table, use your fingers to pull gently around the edges to make sure they aren’t too thick.
          11. To assemble the strudel, drizzle the stretched dough with 3-4 T. melted butter. (Don’t brush it on; you may tear the dough.) Then sprinkle on the bread crumbs. Pile the filling in a log shape at one of the short ends of the pastry.
          12. Gently lift the dough under the filling, and roll it up like a giant cigar. Use the tablecloth to help you; the less you handle the dough, the less likely it is to rip. Use scissors to cut any excess dough away from the ends of the strudel, and discard. (NOTE: Don’t cut away too much; you should have enough at each end that you can fold it over so the filling doesn’t ooze out.)
          13. Carefully lift up the rolled strudel, seam side down, and place it diagonally onto a parchment paper-lined 13″ x 18″ half-sheet pan. If it’s too long to fit, you can form it into a horseshoe shape instead. Brush with remaining melted butter, and score diagonal lines through the top layers of pastry dough (trying not to cut all the way through to the filling) every 1½ inches. Bake in a preheated 400°F oven for approximately 27-32 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking time to promote even browning. Remove from the oven and cool for at least 15 minutes before slicing.
          Next week: Sweet Buns

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