Helen's Hungarian Heritage Recipes

Helen's Hungarian Heritage Recipes
Chef Ilona Szabo Reveals The Secrets of Hungarian Cooking

Friday, December 3, 2010

Hungarian Retes – Strudels or Rétes Tészta

Hungarian Retes – Strudels  or Rétes Tészta
(Part I)

The pride of Hungarian cooks is definitely the Strudel - Rétes Tészta  (pronounced "RAY-tesh"). The dough is folded several times, creating several layers, hence the name. Rétes is the "King" of pastries in Central Europe. Hungarian Rétes is similar to the Vienna Strudel, except it is a bit thinner. Rétes is a Hungarian peasant cake and is used to be a part of every celebration feast in the Hungarian lowlands. Today, it is prepared all over Hungary!

There is a definite family resemblance between Strudel Dough and the Greek Phyllo. The Hungarians first adopted the incredibly thin strudel dough from the Turkish pastry Baklava. This famous dessert is a rich, sweet pastry made of layers of phyllo dough filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey. Also, Greeks use spinach as well to create their Spanakopita or spinach pie is a Greek savoury pastry in the burek family with a filling of chopped spinach, feta cheese.  It is not rolled the same as the strudel - rather folded neatly into a triangular parcel, but the dough preparation is identical. It is characteristic of the cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire and much of central and southwest Asia. Phyllo of Filo actually means "leaf" in Greek, but according to the food historians, it is of Turkish origin. Countless Turkish dishes have been adopted into Hungary from these people (after all – they did rule the land for 150 years.)  The flakey, flavourful, layered sheets of tissue-thin pastry are simply delicious and can be used in countless savoury and sweet recipes alike. Thank you Turkey!

And, while the German and Austrian varieties tend to be a little heavier and sweeter, Hungarian Strudel is much lighter and flavourful without being overly sugary.  An important note to make is that the traditional Austrian Strudel pastry is different from strudels served in other parts of the world and are often made from Puff Pastry.

“Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels”...taken from the Sound of Music is a very Austrian tradition. To many people, Apple Strudel is the most famous of all strudels as well as the most famous of all Austrian pastries; it has always been closely associated with Vienna in particular. However, we must clarify an important point right from the start - it is generally accepted that the dessert did not originate in Austria at all. So, the origins mystery of this fine pastry dough remains unsolved.

The warm, sugar-dusted strudel is often associated with cafés of central Europe. But even after close examination of each of those country’s’ strudel, not one is the same nor are the names consistent. In Hungary it is known as Rétes. In Slovenia as Strudel or Zavitek. Tthe Czechs and Slovaks call it Závin or štrúdl. In Romania it is known as Strudel and finally, the Croatians use a similar name and call it štrudla or Savijača.

History differs on exactly how this Hungarian strudel arrived in Vienna, but the general theory is this: with the departure of the Ottoman invaders (the Ottoman Empire at its height included Vienna), the now unemployed Turkish and Hungarian cooks took their skills and specialties (and certainly strudel was among them) to the kitchens of the Viennese aristocrats in the new Austro-Hungarian empire.

Although the origins of strudel still seem to be fuzzy and many countries would want to lay claim on this delightfully light and versatile pastry, we cannot say with certainly that we have zeroed in on the origins. The key piece of information is that recipes for strudel differ from country to country.  Now, a little research yields the following:  the oldest recipe found dates back to the late 1600’s, a handwritten one at that – and found in Vienna at the city library – The Wiener Stadtbibliothek. From this recipe, the pastry is believed to have its origins in the Byzantine Empire or Middle Eastern pastries. Some guess that the strudel entered Austrian kitchens via Bosnia and Croatia and thus is derived from Börek.  Börek (also called Burek and other variants) is a family of baked or fried filled pastries made of a thin flaky dough known as yufka (or phyllo). It is often filled with assorted cheeses- feta, sirene or kaşar. Others are filled with minced meat or vegetables. Now these are thought to have been invented in Central Asia by nomadic Turks, it became a popular element of Ottoman cuisine. (Ref: Wikipedia)

We may never solve the mystery fully, but let’s put the origins issues aside and let’s focus on the actual pastry itself – the structure, the creation, the ingredients – shall we?  The traditional Strudel pastry dough is very elastic. It is prepared from flour with a relatively high gluten content, egg, water and butter. The flour is often called by the same name – Strudel Flour (or hard flour). The dough is worked quite vigorously, then rested and finally rolled out and stretched by hand so thinly over a large table covered with a crisp white tea towel, that is resembles paper. I recall reading an anecdote quoting that “...it should be so thin that a newspaper can be read through it.” Legend has it that the Austrian Emperor's perfectionist cook decreed that it should be possible to read a love letter through it. After the dough has been fully stretched, melted butter or fine oil is then brushed across the surface carefully as not to tear the oversized thin sheet. The final preparation is the filling, which can range from sweet fillings like; apples and cherries and walnuts and poppy seeds to farmer’s cottage cheese plump with raisins to the savoury versions with combinations incorporating spinach, cabbage, pumpkin, sauerkraut and meat.  The filling is evenly dotted across the top layer; the dough is then carefully rolled with the help of the tea towel, brushed with more melted butter and then finally baked in the oven to a golden light brown.

The papery thin strudel dough is complemented by a variety of typically Hungarian fillings:
The Hungarians fill the papery thin strudel dough with; tart green apples, tiny black poppy seeds, crunchy walnuts, bright red cherries, ride pudding, sweet noodles, cabbage or farmers cottage or curd cheese dotted with plump raisins and whatever cake or bread crumbs are on hand. The number of different strudel fillings now-a-days, is almost limitless and includes both sweet and savoury fare. The savoury varieties are especially popular among eastern Europeans and in fact were a staple food for the majority at one time in places such as Hungary, Turkey and Greece.
Stay tuned for Part II - where we reveal the real strudel recipes.

For Exciting new Hungarian cooking and recipes -visit http://www.helenshungarianrecipes.com/

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