One of the reasons I love writing about food is that ideas can come from anyone or anything I meet.
Childhood memories prompted me to make my mom’s favorite casserole and my grandfather’s favorite fudge. Neighbors, friends and even strangers encouraged me to experiment with new flavors. One of my students in a cooking class introduced me to the concept of pickled rhubarb, a concoction that never occurred to me but tasted surprisingly good.
The books also gave me recipe ideas. âDivine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,â for example, a favorite novel by former Charlemont librarian Bambi Miller, interested me in baking pecan pies. I steamed Christmas pudding in honor of “A Christmas Carol”.
And, as I wrote in this journal last month, I pay homage to Truman Capote’s short story âA Christmas Memoryâ every year by baking a fruit cake.
Fictitious revenue sources aren’t just printed. I was also inspired by films. When “Titanic” was nominated for Best Picture, I served North Atlantic salmon on a bed of iceberg lettuce for my Oscar night.
“Julie and Julia” encouraged me to create my own riff on Julia Child’s elegant Bourguignon beef. I served real English tea while watching “The King’s Speech”.
Last week I found a new source of fictitious recipes. My sister-in-law and I made strudel based on a movie I saw on (I blush to admit it) on the Hallmark Channel.
Branded films are one of my guilty pleasures. As a writer and sort of intellectual, I criticize them for their focus on young, heterosexual, and monoracial romance, as well as for their frequent factual errors. As a spectator, I am still sucked in by them. They are bursting with light and color. Their heroines often have glamorous and fun, if not unlikely, careers. The films solve everyone’s problems within two hours (including commercials).
Earlier this month, I watched âWinter in Vail,â a typical Hallmark offering. Her heroine, an event planner from Los Angeles, inherits a spacious cabin in Colorado and decides to move there in January to reinvent her life.
She quickly finds a community, a boyfriend, and a new focus for her party planning expertise: hosting an event called Strudelfest. The festival invigorates the city center and gives it the opportunity to show off her long-dormant pastry skills.
Like many Hallmark films, âWinter in Vailâ presents what one might kindly call implausibilities – or which could be badly termed gross factual errors.
First, when the heroine first arrives at her chalet, she is dismayed to find that there is no heating. There is running water, but it is only drinkable in a bathroom.
Anyone who has ever lived in a cold place in winter (this category doesn’t include the film’s writers, apparently) knows that an unheated house with running water ends up with frozen, often burst, pipes.
Second, the hero and heroine spend their first date sledding down a mountain at 5 p.m. The sky is strangely bright.
I know Vail, Colorado is located at a slightly lower latitude than my home in Hawley, Massachusetts. However, it is not far enough south to have radiant skies at 5 p.m. in January. Writers obviously know little about geography and astronomy.
Third, the heroine’s cabin is a mess when she arrives in town; it needs new flooring, new plumbing, better heat and fresh paint on all the walls. The hero (who is also his entrepreneur) manages to solve all these problems in a few days and makes him pay next to nothing.
The film’s writers have apparently never experienced real home renovations with a real contractor.
Despite these and other conflicts with the world as most of us know it, the film is compelling. The actors who embody the heroine and the hero, Lacey Chabert and Tyler Hines, are attractive and engage in fiction with gusto. And, naturally, as a food writer, I was captivated by the idea of ââa Strudelfest.
After seeing Chabert and Hines learning how to make strudel in the movie, I decided to try my hand at this classic Viennese pastry. I have long needed a Colorado-related recipe for a book I’m working on.
I quickly confirmed that the people of Colorado do make and eat strudel (the Hallmark Channel can’t always be trusted on such matters), and then got to work on my own mini-Strudelfest.
I called in my sister-in-law, Leigh, whose hands are lighter than mine in baking. I have adapted the dough recipe for King Arthur Flour’s strudel and filling from various sources.
Our strudel didn’t quite match that of the movie in terms of look. We (especially me) clearly need to work on our pastry skills. The end product was absolutely delicious, however.
For the dough:
2 1/2 cups sifted bread flour
1/2 teaspoon of salt
3/4 cup lukewarm water
2 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons of canola or other neutral oil
1 teaspoon of lemon juice
1/2 cup orange juice
1 cup of dried cranberries
3 large apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of salt
7 tablespoons melted butter, divided
1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs (if you don’t have any, hand crumble the bread into small pieces and pulverize them in a powerful blender or food processor; then toast the crumbs at 300 degrees until a little crisp, about 15 minutes)
For the icing:
1 1/2 cup icing sugar
about 2 to 3 tablespoons of orange juice
Start the day before you want to serve your strudel. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the flour and salt on low speed. In a liquid measuring cup, whisk together the water, egg yolks and oil; then stir in the lemon juice.
With the blender running, add the liquid to the dry ingredients in a slow, steady stream. Mix on low speed for 10 minutes. You may need to stop the mixer every now and then to rearrange your dough.
After 10 minutes the dough should have formed a relatively smooth ball around the dough hook. It should be slightly sticky, not sticky but not dry; if it looks dry, add more water, 1 tbsp at a time, stirring for a minute before checking the texture.
Increase blender speed to medium and continue blending for 10 more minutes. Transfer the dough to an oiled medium bowl and flip the dough several times to lightly coat it with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, take the dough out of the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for about an hour to avoid the cold. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Set up a table for your strudel preparation: a folding card table; a kitchen table; an island; or any small, flat area around which you can walk completely.
Place a tablecloth on the table and place a wooden board on it. Lightly flour the board. Gently roll out the dough on the board, aiming for a rectangle about 13 inches long and 10 inches wide. Lightly flour the tablecloth and oil your hands.
Using your fists rather than the tips of your fingers (i.e. the tops of your folded hands), stretch the dough up into the air, trying to keep it rectangular. When it becomes a little difficult to handle, place it on the lightly floured table.
Use your closed fists to stretch the dough one corner at a time, starting from the center. The goal is to get a dough so thin that you can see through it. Don’t worry if the dough tears; you will roll it up and the holes will be hidden inside.
Again, aim for a rectangle. The shorter sides of the rectangle should be about the length of your cookie sheet.
Once you’ve reached your desired size, gently pull on the edges of the dough to make sure they’re not too thick. If it’s too hard, cut the edges to have a more or less uniform thickness.
Prepare your garnish. Heat the orange juice to lukewarm and place the dried cranberries in the hot juice. Let them soften for a few minutes while you slice your apples.
In a bowl, combine the brown sugar, cinnamon, salt and three tablespoons of melted butter. Stir in the apple slices, then the drained cranberries.
To assemble the strudel, place the breadcrumbs on one half of the strudel (lengthwise), leaving about an inch of crust on three sides without crumbs. Cover the crumbled area with the apple mixture. Pour butter (do not spread it, it could tear the dough) on the other half of the dough.
Fold the extra strudel dough on all three sides over the filling, and start rolling gently at the end with the filling and keep rolling until you have a long roll ending in the butter.
Gently roll the strudel onto a sheet of parchment paper, seam side down and slide the parchment onto your baking sheet.
Bake strudel until golden, 25 to 30 minutes, returning to oven after 15 minutes.
Place the baking sheet with the strudel on a wire rack to cool for 30 minutes; then gently transfer it to a serving dish or plate and prepare the frosting.
To make the icing, whisk together the icing sugar and two tablespoons of orange juice. Add a little more juice as needed so the icing can run off but not runny. Pour it over the strudel and slice it. For 8 to 10 people.
Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook”, “Pulling Taffy” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb”. Visit his website, tinkycooks.com.