Filling that isn’t gummy or leaky
Tender apples that don’t collapse
Flaky pastry with no flyaways
Bottom crust that’s tender, not tough
In the world of pastries, apple strudel seems unassuming. It’s not over-the-top buttery or sweet. It’s not loaded with a rich filling. Yet its marriage of flaky pastry and just-sweet-enough raisin-studded apples is perfect: ideal for dessert, with afternoon coffee, or even for breakfast. No wonder it’s an everyday favorite all over central Europe.
And yet making strudel, at least the traditional way, is not at all simple. To create the swirl of delicate pastry that defines it (strudel means “whirlpool” or “eddy” in German), you start by stretching a piece of dough the size of a brick until it measures well over 4 feet long and 4 feet wide and is so thin you can read a newspaper through it. You brush it with butter and then pile a mixture of chopped apples, sugar, spice, raisins, and toasted bread crumbs (to absorb exuded juice) along one edge. The sides are folded over, and then it’s ever-so-carefully rolled up, transferred to a baking sheet, and baked.
The dough is such an ordeal (and requires so much counter space) that rarely does anyone other than a professional baker make strudel this way anymore. The modern approach is to swap in a stack of store-bought phyllo sheets. Yet after making a few of these “simpler” recipes, I discovered that these versions are still rife with problems. Brushing each sheet with butter (both for flavor and to make the sheets more pliable) and rolling up the strudel without ripping the pastry was tricky. Plus, the bottom crusts all came out dense and tough, while the top was a mess of flyaway sheets that flaked off as soon as I started slicing (if not before). The fillings weren’t so great either. Many had collapsed, leaving a gaping void between the filling and the top of the pastry, and they all had a gummy, pasty texture and muted apple flavor. And despite the bread crumbs, sweet juice still leaked out, gluing the pastry to the pan. I wanted to come up with a phyllo-based strudel recipe that was easy to make, had a flavorful and tender apple filling that stayed put, and featured a crust that held together but was still flaky.
First, I needed a filling. I quickly settled on Golden Delicious apples since they are easy to find and hold their shape when cooked. After cutting the apples into ½-inch pieces (1¾ pounds of apples seemed about right for six servings), I tossed them with sugar, cinnamon, ground ginger, and some lemon zest and juice. Since I suspected that the bread crumbs were responsible for dulling the flavor and creating the pasty texture, I decided to leave them out. I had a parcooking technique in mind that I hoped would not only eliminate excess liquid (and thus the need for bread crumbs) but also keep the filling from collapsing.
We’ve found that parcooking apples briefly can set off an enzymatic reaction that causes the pectin in the fruit to set, meaning the fruit will hold its shape when it continues cooking at higher temperatures. A couple of minutes in the microwave warmed the apples just enough. They also exuded about ⅓ cup of liquid, which I drained off and reserved before stirring in the raisins. I wrapped this simple filling up in a stack of phyllo, placed it seam side down on a baking sheet, and baked it in a 375-degree oven until it was golden.
On the upside, the apples were now tender yet still held their shape—no collapsed filling. But clearly I hadn’t drained off enough of the apples’ juice, which had seeped through, caramelized in the hot oven, and glued the strudel to the pan.
Instead of turning to the usual freshly toasted bread crumbs to soak up the juice, I decided to reach for panko. Commercially dried panko bread crumbs are drier than homemade, which meant I could use less of them and soak up a comparable amount of liquid (we avoid regular commercial bread crumbs in the test kitchen since they are too fine and dusty). After a few tests, I found that just 1½ tablespoons of panko stirred into the parcooked apples was all my filling needed to effectively contain the juice. And best of all, the filling tasted bright and appley—no dull flavor or pasty texture. It was time to deal with the pastry.
In the Fold
Phyllo can be intimidating to work with, but a few tips that we’ve come up with in the past helped make it easier out of the gate. I also made an immediate change to the strudel’s assembly. Rolling the phyllo around all that filling and getting it onto the baking sheet was cumbersome and tricky. Instead, I’d divide it up and make two smaller strudels.
First, I decided to tackle the layers of tough, dense phyllo on the bottom of the strudel. Some recipes call for as many as 11 sheets of phyllo, and while flakiness is a goal, I had to wonder if more was necessarily better. The weight of the filling seemed to be compressing the layers on the strudel’s bottom, making them tough. Maybe using fewer sheets would give me a more delicate, tender base? Indeed, going down to seven sheets made a noticeable difference. But it wasn’t perfect.
Fixing a Sad Strudel
Gummy, pasty filling
Solution: We drain off some of the liquid before wrapping the filling in phyllo. We also use panko instead of toasted fresh bread crumbs; because they are drier, we can use less of them for the same effect.
Thick, tough bottom
Solution: We use fewer sheets of phyllo overall and arrange the seam on top, where it won’t compress and toughen from the filling’s weight.
Solution: Sprinkling confectioners’ sugar between the layers helps fuse them together. We slice the strudel while it’s warm, before the sheets have crisped up.
Solution: We parcook the apples briefly, which causes an enzymatic reaction that “sets” the pectin in the fruit, allowing the slices to hold their shape even after further cooking.
By rolling the strudels like logs and placing them seam side down, I’d created areas with overlapping layers of phyllo on the undersides of the strudels—there were 14 sheets where the edges overlapped rather than just seven. What if I put the seam on the top, where toughness wasn’t an issue? For the next strudel, I placed the filling on the phyllo stack, folded the sides up over the filling, and then folded the top and bottom up and over, much like folding a letter. To seal the seam, I brushed the dough with some of the sticky apple liquid that had been released in the microwave (and while I was at it, I also brushed the liquid over the entire surface to help the strudels brown). I transferred the strudels to a baking sheet and popped them into the oven. Finally, the undersides were perfect: crisp on the exterior yet tender and easy to get a fork through. Plus, this method was much easier, with less risk of tearing since I didn’t have to manipulate the strudels so much.
On to the messy top layers. To keep them from shattering everywhere, I came up with a two-pronged solution. First, I lightly “glued” the sheets together by sprinkling each one with confectioners’ sugar after brushing it with butter. In the heat of the oven, the sugar melted and sealed the sheets together just enough to keep them from flying apart. And second, as soon as the strudel was out of the oven, I transferred it to a cutting board and sliced it after just a few minutes. When hot, the pastry was softer and thus less prone to shattering; once cooled, it crisped up beautifully.
At last, I had a simpler strudel that was so good, I could see myself enjoying it on a regular basis.