There are many ways to make a flaky pastry dough, from the coarsely chopped butter of American-style pie crust to the meticulously rolled and folded layers of puff pastry. One of the most demanding approaches is typified by strudel or phyllo dough, rolled to a paperlike thinness and then layered around a filling for strudels or appetizers. The layers are typically brushed with melted butter -- or less commonly, oil -- which helps create the pastry's characteristically light, crisp texture.
The Canonical Dough
Traditional strudel is made with a simple dough, composed mainly of flour and water with small amounts of oil and salt. After a lengthy rest, to relax its strands of gluten protein, the dough is carefully rolled and stretched until it's large enough to cover a whole table and thin enough to see through. The thick edges are carefully trimmed off, then the whole sheet of pastry is brushed with melted butter and rolled around the filling to make several layers of dough. Modern bakers typically use phyllo dough as a quicker and easier substitute. Phyllo is packaged in rectangular sheets, which are buttered and stacked to make large or small strudels in a similar fashion.
A Sorry Sight
If you forget to butter your strudel dough, or if you leave it out deliberately to cut some calories, the end result will be very disappointing. The layers of dough will tend to stick together in a thick and doughy layer, without attaining their traditional crisp texture. If your filling is an especially juicy one, the steam rising from the fruit or cheese might even cause the pastry to become soggy and pasty. It's a discouraging outcome, especially if you've gone to the trouble of making your own dough from scratch.
What the Butter Does
The butter lining your strudel dough -- whether traditional or phyllo -- is there for more than its flavor. The butterfat acts as a moisture barrier, protecting the paper-thin sheets of pastry from being moistened by the steam. Instead, steam generated by the small amount of water in your butter serves to lift and separate the sheets of dough. The hot vapor escapes through seams in the dough, and the well-separated leaves of pastry have ample opportunity to become crisp. The butter also aids browning, giving the finished strudel a richly golden appearance.
Tips and Techniques
You can't make a strudel without fat, but you can change the kind of fat. Instead of melted butter, you can brush or spray the dough with a lighter oil such as avocado oil, grapeseed oil or even neutral-tasting extra light olive oil. It won't brown the pastry as well as butter, or give it as rich a flavor, but your filling should be flavorful enough to make up the difference. To keep the layers of dough extra-crisp, sprinkle a small handful of breadcrumbs, cake crumbs or crushed nuts over the oil or butter after each layer. The fine crumbs also help keep the leaves of dough apart, ensuring a crisp and flaky strudel.
- The Professional Pastry Chef; Bo Friberg
- Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts From the Classic Cafes of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague; Rick Rodgers
- Photo Credit Eising/Photodisc/Getty Images