In pastry school, you spend a lot of time learning how to master the basics for lots and lots of classic pastries and desserts. There is a strong French influence for obvious reasons but there’s also a nod to American, Italian and Eastern European classics. The emphasis is on understanding how ingredients work together and how to coax the most flavor out of a multitude of various combinations of flour, butter, sugar, salt, eggs, cream, etc. If you get through your program with your nerves still in tact and pursue good internships and jobs under talented chefs, you can go on to develop some of your own ideas for fun and pleasure. It’s a long haul but incredibly interesting if you can keep your wits about you in a very exacting and demanding environment.
A strudel is a roll of layered pastry usually filled with apples that comes to us from 18th century Vienna. It can be made with puff pastry but is traditionally made with a dough of a simple mixture of flour, water, oil and salt that's rolled out and stretched on a floured tablecloth until it’s ultra thin. We made this in pastry school and it was divine. But I must say it took patience and a couple of us to get the job done.
When I wrote my cookbook, my goal was to take some of the world’s great pastry traditions and make them new again by incorporating fresh ingredients and juxtaposing elements from different cultures. I love what happens when you take advantage of all the world has to offer and I’ve taken that approach again here today.
I’ve chosen a simpler path for this strudel by using phyllo. It's filled with a pastry cream thickened with semolina and fresh cherries simmered with cinnamon and orange zest and a touch of balsamic. Phyllo is a Greek term that translates as “leaf” and is also used for Middle Eastern pastries. Semolina is an ingredient in puddings and desserts throughout Northern, Central and Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Northern Africa. Since it’s also used to make pasta, it can easily be purchased in most bulk food groceries.
In this wonderful co-mingling of cultures, the result is an ultra crisp and creamy pastry that is full of the season’s most delicious cherries, a whirlwind tour of just about every corner of the world.
- I staged this over a few days, preparing the cherries 3 days ahead (the longer they sit, the better the flavors have a chance to meld and mellow and the better they taste). I made the cream a day ahead and assembled and baked the strudel the third day.
- If you can’t find semolina for the cream, use 2 tablespoons flour or 1 tablespoon cornstarch.
- When you’re ready to use the pastry cream, don’t stir it more than once or twice. Over stirring will cause the starch cells to break down and rupture and it will be runny.
- Butter is what makes this pastry flavorful and crisp but too much can make it greasy. Brush each sheet of phyllo with a very thin coating of butter using a pastry brush, then brush the finished strudels for browning just before placing in the oven.
- Drain off the syrup when placing the cherries on top of the cream. Use it to flavor drinks, oatmeal or yogurt.
- The cookie crumbs are there to absorb any excess moisture. Use plain shortbread or almonds cookies and make fine crumbs in your food processor. Or use the more traditional bread crumbs.
- A few tips for working with phyllo:
1) Phyllo is usually found in the frozen food section of your market. Let it thaw at least 24 hours in your refrigerator without opening the package. Trying to hurry the thawing process at room temperature will result in phyllo that has too much moisture and will be gummy. Also, if you try to work with it when it’s too cold, it will crack. Phyllo thawed in the package will keep in your refrigerator for a few days.
2) Have all your ingredients ready before you open the phyllo packaging. Set up your work area so your phyllo, melted butter and fillings are in close proximity.
3) Remove the phyllo from the packaging and unfold it on a clean dry towel. Cover it immediately with the protective wrapping that comes in the package and then top that with another clean dry towel. The sheets are very thin and they will dry out and become brittle quickly if they make contact with air even for just a minute or so. So cover them completely after you remove each sheet. Although some recommend covering with a moistened towel, I find that only tends to render the phyllo a bit gummy.
4) Keep your hands dry.
5) Don’t worry if a sheet tears. Just patch it with the piece that broke off. It doesn’t matter much because the sheets are layered.
6) Remove the 12 sheets needed for this recipe and then immediately re-wrap any unused phyllo tightly in the same protective packaging it comes with and refrigerate immediately. It will keep for a few days.
- Slashing the top of each roll before baking helps to let steam escape and also makes it easier to cut and serve without shattering the crispy pastry.
- This pastry is best enjoyed when eaten the same day.
- If you’d like to experiment with the more traditional strudel dough, here’s a recipe and instructions for Austrian Apple Strudel.
Cherry & Cream Phyllo Strudel
Makes two 11” x 3” rolls for 12 servings
2 1/4 lbs fresh cherries
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (2 3/4 oz) sugar, to taste
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 oz) water
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
zest of 1/2 orange
1 tablespoon (9 grams) cornstarch
1 tablespoon (1/2 oz) water
1 tablespoon (1/2 oz) lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 cup (8 oz) milk
zest of 1/2 small lemon
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) sugar
2 tablespoons semolina
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 oz (2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
5 oz (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted
12 phyllo sheets
1/4 cup cookie crumbs
2 tablespoons (26 grams) sugar
powdered sugar, for dusting
For the cherries, stem and pit them and place in a saucepan. Add the sugar, water, cinnamon and orange zest and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the fruit is beginning to soften and the juices are flowing. Taste and adjust for sugar. Combine the cornstarch with 1 tablespoon of water until there are no lumps and add to the cherries. Cook, stirring continuously, for about 3 – 4 minutes until the juices have thickened a bit. Take off the heat and add the lemon juice, vanilla and balsamic. Cool. Place in an airtight container and chill until ready to use.
For the pastry cream, combine milk and lemon zest in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Whisk together egg yolks, sugar and semolina until thoroughly blended and lightened in color. Add about a third of the hot milk to the yolk mixture, whisking constantly to avoiding scrambling the eggs. Add the remaining milk to the yolk mixture and whisk thoroughly. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and cook on medium heat, stirring constantly until thickened, about 3 –4 minutes. Take off the heat and add vanilla. Cut the butter into small pieces and add to the custard, whisking together to blend. Pour into a bowl, press a piece of plastic into the surface and set aside to cool. Chill until ready to use.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silpat.
Melt the butter and place near your work area along with a pastry brush. Combine 2 T sugar with a pinch of cinnamon and place nearby. Place cookie crumbs, pastry cream and cherries nearby.
Take the phyllo dough from the package and place it on top of a dry towel on a clean dry work surface. Unfold it carefully and immediately cover it with the protective sheet that comes in the package and then top that with another dry towel. Make sure the entire surface of all the sheets is covered so that none of the phyllo is exposed to the air.
Fold back the towel on top of the phyllo and remove one sheet and place in your work area. Immediately cover the stack of phyllo again so that no sheets are exposed to the air.
Using a pastry brush, lightly coat the phyllo sheet with a thin layer of butter. Repeat this process with 5 additional phyllo sheets until there are 6 layers of phyllo, finishing the top layer with a light brush of butter.
Sprinkle half the cookie crumbs evenly over the phyllo along with half the cinnamon sugar. Dollop half the pastry cream in a row along the short end, leaving a 2” border at the bottom and the sides of the phyllo. Using a slotted spoon to drain, place half the cherries on top of the cream in a neat 2 1/2” – 3” wide pile. Fold in the long sides of the pastry and then the bottom and roll over once. Brush the top sides of the phyllo that have been folded up and over with butter. Slowly and carefully roll the pastry up to enclose the filling. Brush the edge with butter to seal. It will measure about 11” x 3”. Place on the baking sheet seam side down and brush the top with butter. Repeat this process for the second roll. Using a serrated knife, cut 5 slashes on the top of each roll.
Bake until the strudels are golden brown, about 25 – 30 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through. Remove to a wire rack to cool. Dust with powdered sugar and serve.