If you want to make homemade Croatian strudel, you'll need an old-country recipe, a strong back and arms, skill developed through many years of trial and error, and a good hand-held hairdryer.
Yes, a hairdryer. Here's one instance where packing heat really pays off.
"We use it to dry the dough before we fill it," says Mary Horan, a parishioner of St. Joseph the Worker Croatian Church in Gary, Indiana.
A Time-Honored Tradition
Mary Prahovich Horan was born in Gary 87 years ago and learned all about Croatian cooking from her mother, Mary Prahovich.
"She taught me to cook from the time I was old enough to stand on a chair because she needed the help. She cared for me, my father, my two sisters, and up to 10 boarders at a time in our four-room house."
In those days, it was common for the whole family to sleep in one room and rent the other bedrooms to men who worked at the nearby steel mills. As soon as the day shift vacated their beds in the morning, the exhausted night crew tumbled into the still-warm quilts.
"These men had only one or two shirts, so my mother was washing clothes all the time. I don't know how she did it. She got up at 4 a.m., made breakfast, packed work lunches, and whipped up homemade bread."
But even with that hectic schedule, Horan's mother found time to pass on her culinary secrets to her daughter—strudels, nut rolls, cheese rolls, soups, stews, and homemade noodles, to name a few.
"The kitchen was the hub of our daily life. We did everything there because there was no other place to do it. We ate there, entertained, did our homework, washed clothes."
And on rare occasions, Horan's mother visited a neighborhood crony, Horan, and a friend would try their hand at strudel making.
"If the dough didn't turn out well, we'd hide it in the garbage. I'd hate for my mother to know how many batches we threw away. You know, every penny counted in those days. By the time I was 18, though, I was able to make a good strudel on my own."
A Dying Art
Strudel making is becoming a lost art, and even the ladies at St. Joseph the Worker Church have slowed up their fundraiser production. At its height, the women used 50 to 60 pounds of flour at one time.
A typical strudel-making session started at 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays. The ladies were divided into two teams -- the dough makers and the filling makers—and the ovens were fired up to 350 F.
"Everybody got a 3-pound piece of dough to knead. You have to knead until the air pockets are real small. If they're large, the dough will tear. So you knead and knead until you cut into the dough and see that the air pockets are small," Horan says. "Then we put it to rest in a warm oven while we prepared the tables."
The ladies placed white tablecloths on two 8-by-6-foot tables and dusted the cloths with flour. A piece of dough was placed on top and the gentle stretching began.
"We placed warm butter on the corners, stretched a little more, and let it rest. Then four or five of us began stretching, palm-side up. When the dough reached the end of the tables, we had to let it dry out a little or else the filling would poke holes in it. That's where the hairdryers came in," Horan says.
Then the dough was slathered with more butter and topped with apple or cheese filling. Two ladies used the ends of the tablecloth to flip the dough to form it in the traditional shape. The strudels were brushed with melted butter and baked for 35 to 45 minutes.
This went on all day—the stretching, drying, filling, baking, stretching, drying, filling, baking. When all the stretching was done and the last batch was drying, the ladies finally took a lunch break around 1 p.m., usually, baked strudel ends filled with cracklings or savory cheese.
Then it was back to finishing the strudels, cleaning up, and finally leaving around 3 p.m. It was a labor of love.