Wednesday, May 27, 2009

In Search of Lost Inspiration

I approach this blog not just as a record of what I bake, but a documentation of the complex networks of memory, ambition, skill, desire and the of love sweet and tasty treats. Our Western, first-world culture has come to view cooking and baking as merely an obstacle to the proper enjoyment of life, and not an integral component of the human experience. I'm contrarian in nature and wanted to explore not just the end result of baking, but the multilayered psychological process that transpires every time the oven is preheated and butter set on the counter to soften.

Each time I sit down to compose one of these posts, I try to embark on a journey that draws together the sometimes dissonant, often fragmentary nature of what it means to prepare one's own food. Regardless of what it is that I'm baking, I want to invest myself fully in the process, and find some means, however small, of expanding my consciousness.

Reader, I can't do that today. Try as I might, I could find no means of discussing this month's Daring Bakers challenge in a way I could find significant. I admit to being somewhat underwhelmed when the challenge was announced by our hosts, Linda of Make Life Sweeter, and Coco of Coco Cooks: traditional Apple Strudel. The recipe comes from rick Rodgers' Kaffeehaus - Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafes of Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

Maybe, to paraphrase Edmund in King Lear, the fault lies not in the strudel but ourselves. After all, strudel has a long and storied past, an exotic origin in the bakeries of Vienna, fond associations of coffee houses and intellectual discussion. Couldn't I muster some enthusiasm for this delicate, refined and esteemed pastry? Couldn't I use it as a springboard into a Proustian digression on childhood, on lost time? Couldn't I fabricate a memory of sitting at my grandparents' vinyl-topped table, eating strudel from a Jewish bakery as we played poker using the plastic bear bank full of pennies?


Strudel holds no place in my heart. It played no significant role in my youth, and even less so in the fullness of my maturity. I saw this month's challenge as an obligation I was honor-bound to meet, like giving every kid in my 4th grade elementary school class a Valentine, even the kid who chewed his sweatshirt collar, because I didn't want anyone to feel left out.

One aspect of the strudel-making process I did find intriguing, and, as it turned out, was actually kind of fun, involved taking the dough and stretching it out. Slowly, slowly coaxing it from a ball of dough into a sheet so thin, you can read through it. I covered the top of my kitchen table with parchment paper, dusted that with flour, and then circled the table in a slow reel, pulling the dough over my knuckles until it became fine, the kind of milky membrane over a newborn calf's eye.*

Rather than use the traditional apple filling, I decided to take my own advice and use what was seasonally available.
Since peaches are now beginning to show up in the market, they were my choice. Peeled and sliced, I tossed them with brown sugar, a bit of lemon juice, cornstarch for thickening, and nutmeg. Then onto the dough (which had been lightly brushed with butter and topped with toasted breadcrumbs - the bread being courtesy of Z., who looked justifiably appalled when I reached for commercial bread at the supermarket). I rolled it all up like Cleopatra in reverse, and into the oven it went.

Though I don't have a lot of experience with strudel, I'm pretty damn sure it's supposed to be crispy and flaky, a shattering of pastry encasing a tender filling. The top of my strudel seemed first. But after letting it cool (as the filling was molten right out of the oven and likely to turn into some variety of peach-flavored napalm), what I was left with was soggy and bland. The peaches themselves had a lovely, bright flavor that spoke of the incipient warmth of summer, but as for everything else.... I think the most appropriate word would be "meh."

Yes, reader, meh.

I don't doubt that the problem lay in my choice of fillings. Peaches are juicy, and I think that the very thing that makes them so delicious is what undermined the success of my strudel. After Z. and I ate a couple of slices (it may have been bland and meh, but it was still dessert), I bundled the whole thing up in the parchment paper in which it was baked, and escorted it to the trash.

If I was truly motivated, I might consider attempting the strudel again, but I've a whole library of cookbooks, a caloric allowance that I'd rather spend on something I really like, and a hunger not only for sweets, but for inspiration.

*I've actually never been an eyewitness to a calf being born, but I did read Lonesome Dove.


  1. How could anything that looks delish in the photo be, "meh"? Me thinks thou protest too much. And, do you still have the plastic bear bank full of pennies?

  2. I know exactly what you mean..."meh" was a great way to explain how I felt about my strudel. I thought it was fun to make (stretching the dough successfully) but overall, it wasn't flaky like it should have been. Great blog!

  3. Perhaps this is why cowboys go for cobbler, having seen the milky calf's eye and decided on a different direction for dessert.