My mum is a sucker for apple strudel. Just mention those hallowed words and watch the mist come over her. She’s no fool with them either, dismissing several local offerings with authority. Having never put a toe anywhere in Germany until then (and this was the early nineties), it does beg the question – how on earth did she know what she was looking for?
Mum instinctively understood the finer nuances of the perfect Bavarian strudel. ”It’s NOT filo pastry as you know it!”, mum insisted on a recent phone call, “It was so incredibly fine you could see through it! And it had a slight crackle sound as you cut through, but didn’t shatter. The apples were never sliced but baked in chunks, holding shape but fork-tender and combined with cinnamon, plump raisins and walnuts. Sublime!”. The only establishment that satisfied her educated greed was The Bavaria Cafe, tucked, unassumingly, in a quiet street, in a quiet part of Abu Dhabi. Blink and you’d miss it. Mum would treat us there every few months, I’d order the strudel as well and my love of apple desserts blossomed.
Which is why I feel a bit sheepish with this post, like a child who is about to get chided. There’s no love-letter-thin home made pastry; I’ve used the abomination to a strudel that is pre-packaged filo pastry. The apples are replaced by pears, that too, sliced. A double misdemeanour. I also tossed aside the raisins and replaced walnuts with hazelnuts, blitzed with cocoa powder and icing sugar. The memory of my mother’s home baked, real-deal apple strudel hovers over me, remonstratingly, but the taste of my heathen take on her classic proves it’s worth breaking the rules a bit. Live life in the fast lane, that’s me.
It’s definitely not about reinventing the wheel. Pears, hazelnuts and chocolate are a classic combination. Put them together in any situation – cake, muffins, pudding – and they dance harmoniously. All my baking books brought up tarts and cakes but I was looking for a lighter affair. So after a couple of goes, and a few packets of filo pastries later, this one pushed all the right buttons. The chocolate hit comes from cocoa powder, which is blitzed together with toasted hazelnuts and icing sugar, bringing out a refined Nutella vibe. While baking, the thinly sliced pears give out their juices which run into the chocolate-nut mixture, creating a delicious sauce and keeping everything moist. Traditional strudels are basted with milk, cream or even sour cream several times towards the end of the cooking time, but I didn’t try that. I might do one day, when I’m gripped by strudel pastry making enthusiasm, but for now, my slovenly ways dictated that a brushing of butter was sufficient. And indeed, it was.
The end result was crackly, light pastry encasing sweet, soft, cinnamon perfumed pears in a nubbly hazelnut and chocolate sauce. A thick dusting of icing sugar just makes it all looks ravishingly pretty. While you can assemble the strudel a day in advance, it doesn’t cope well with being ignored after it’s out of the oven. Don’t hang about, serve this right after you get scoops of rich vanilla ice cream, the perfect partner, on the sides of the plates. By this time the sauce would have cooled down enough to not spill out in puddles when sliced. And slice thickly, this is no time for rationing.
I wonder if mum would approve?!
Pear, Chocolate and Hazelnut Strudel
(serves 6 generously)
If your pears are not quite ripe, you could cheat a bit by cooking them in a pan with a little water, on a low heat, until they start to turn translucent and get blurry edged. Drain and let it cool before proceeding as below.
450-475 grams, ripe pears
50gm skinned hazelnuts
80gm icing sugar
1 rounded tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
good pinch of fine salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
3 sheets of filo pastry measuring approx, 48 x 25 cms
50gm butter, melted
2 tbsp caster sugar
Extra Icing sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 170deg C and place a baking sheet into the oven.
Peel, core and slice the pears thinly. Add to a bowl filled with cold water and a good squeeze of lemon juice, to stop the pears turning brown. Set aside.
Toast the hazelnuts either in the oven at 180 deg C for 10 minutes or in an oiless frying pan, until a little golden in colour and you can start to get the smell of hazelnuts. If doing it in a pan, move the nuts around to stop it scorching. Place into a food processor along with the cocoa powder, 120 gm of icing sugar, salt and the cinnamon, if using. Blitz until it’s all finely chopped and you can see the mix starting to begin to stick to the edge of the bowl because of the oil in the nuts. Stop before it starts to clump together. Set aside.
Melt the butter and get a soft bristled pastry brush ready. Dampen a tea towel and set aside.
Unwrap three sheets of filo pastry. Take one sheet, carefully (doesn’t matter if it slightly rips in places) and place on a sheet of baking paper as long as the sheet of pastry. Cover the remaining filo pastry with the damp tea towel, so that it won’t dry as you work. Brush the single sheet lightly with the melted butter and sprinkle over a tablespoon of caster sugar. Take another sheet of pastry and place over the first buttered sheet. Butter lightly and sprinkling with the remaining caster sugar. Place the last sheet over and again, butter lightly. Leaving a 3 cm border around all the sides, evenly spread your chocolate and hazelnut rubble over the pastry, until it’s around half a centimetre thick*. You might not need all of the mix. . Drain the pears and blot with a clean kitchen towel. Spread them over the nut mix. It helps if you place the pears with the curved edge against the side you will be rolling from, ie, closest to you, as it rolls easier and prevents tears.
Brush the clear edges with butter. Fold in the long edge closest to you, over the fruit. Using the baking paper, start rolling the pastry loosley over the fruit, ensuring that you don’t roll it tightly, or it will tear as it expands on cooking. Tuck the side edges inwards as you roll the pastry. I got about one and a half turns. Make sure the seam lays at the bottom. Brush the pastry log lightly with butter. Carry it over to the oven and place on top of the preheated baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until it’s lightly golden. Don’t be too alarmed if there is a bit of juice leaking.
Take it out of the oven and leave it for 5-10 minutes, so that the juices can cool down and thicken a little. Sprinkle the golden strudel liberally with icing sugar and if you like, with some cocoa powder too. Cut into thick slices and serve warm with some good quality vanilla ice-cream.
It won’t last well. Best finish the lot!
* Any leftover Chocolate and Hazelnut mix can be stored in an airtight box in the fridge or freezer for use another time. Or, you can put the mix back into the food processor and add enough tepid milk and blitz to a smooth, spreadable consistency. Either spread on toast, or drop a small spoonful into the heart of some madeleines or enjoy it with just a spoon, like I did!