Friday, October 30, 2009


posted Mon, 01 Nov 2004

My cousin Becky, the one at the optometry school here, had a great idea: she wants to compile my grandmother’s recipes into a family cookbook. Her sister Robbie (also my cousin, of course) is an editor, so Robbie is putting everything together. Becky and Robbie put out the call for the family recipes last week. To no one’s surprise, almost everything received so far has been desserts.

I went online to see what traditional Slovak recipes looked like. I’ve always been grateful that it was my grandmother who was Slovak and my grandfather who was Norwegian and not the other way around just so I wouldn’t have to eat lutefisk. I have never had it but I have had the Portuguese version of salt cod, bacalao, and it was so awful that about a nanosecond after the first bite hit my tongue, I spit it out. Unfortunately, I was in a restaurant in Lisboa at the time, so the other patrons probably got a bad impression of Americans, but as much as I love my country, I was not willing to suffer bacalao. We all have our limits.

My grandmother makes things like apple strudel and poopaki and kolaches and rhubarb bars. These might not all be traditional Slovak foods, but they are good. The traditional Slovak recipes I saw on the web included delicacies like creamed gizzards (I promise I am not making up any of these), liver dumplings, and bacon fat and pickle juice (bacon fat and pickle juice together, that is). These recipes, along with a treatise I saw called “getting the most of your deer” made me realize I come from an ethnic group that is not used to having extra. My people Do Not Waste Food.

Becky and I had talked about apple strudel last week. She didn’t know how to make it. I have been practicing the art of strudel for the past twelve years, trying to learn my grandmother’s tricks. Yesterday, Becky came over so I could show her what I had figured out. I warned her that this would not be easy and that she should be prepared to practice, practice, practice until she got it right, darnit. There is a lot of blood, sweat and tears that goes into becoming a good baker and you have to be willing to make the sacrifice.

The finished product.

I had already made the dough. One of the tricks that even The Joy of Cooking doesn’t tell you is that you need to let the dough sit for several (my grandmother says three) hours to let the glutens relax. It stretches better if they are relaxed. You don’t want tense glutens.

Another thing the books don’t tell you is that putting the flour on a board and then making a well in the middle for the liquid is a bunch of baloney. The liquid always runs out! So even if they tell you to put the flour on a counter or a board (which Joy does not, but that is how my grandmother does it), ignore them and put it in a bowl, or else you will be scraping up egg and water from all over your kitchen counter.

We put a clean sheet on the table and anchored it with clothespins (Joy doesn’t tell you that, either.) You guys need to print this out for when you make apple strudel because I am giving you the straight skinny right here. We sprinkled flour on the sheet, then rolled out the dough, then stretched it. You are supposed to do it over your knuckles, but I am just not that patient. I pull with my fingers and patch the holes later.

We threw the apples and sugar (remember! If you are using the Splenda blend, you use only half the amount of sugar called for in the recipe!) and other stuff on the dough. Yes, you really need to use bread crumbs. If you don’t, all the juice from the apples runs out of the strudel and onto the pan and burns. Trust me.

The reason I use the Joy of Cooking recipe is that my grandmother has been making apple strudel for so many years that she doesn’t know how much flour or butter or salt she puts in it. She just knows when it’s right. I go with Joy for the measurements and with Grandma for technique.

Our strudel was delicious, although we decided we didn’t have enough apples for the dough, so we will have to do this again and get it right next time. Practice, practice, practice.

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