Strudel is just not getting any attention anymore. Popular back in the early 20th century, today strudel has become the distant relative of the babka and rugelach, the third-cousin-twice-removed that rarely makes it to holiday celebrations. The reason we all should bring back the strudel is that it is a really simple dessert to make, and easy to bake in quantities to feed the big Rosh Hashanah crowds.
According to The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Wiley 2010), the nomads of Asia were the first people to roll out unleavened bread dough into thin sheets. The Ottomans added oil to the dough to stretch it further and then filled it, too. The Turks brought this dough, which we now call filo, to central Europe in the 15th century, where the Romanians and Hungarians varied the fillings. When Hungary became part of the Hapsburg Empire, the dessert was adopted by the Austrians, who renamed it strudel.
Early recipes go back to the 17th century in Austria and are also found in German cookbooks from the 1800s. There are stories of Jewish women back in the old country getting together for special occasions to stretch out the dough by hand onto long bed sheets. I have read that women in Greece still do this, but I would be hard pressed to find filo parties in the United States, though I would certainly be game to attend one.
Strudel fillings have varied over the years from savory onion and cabbage to sweet cherry and apple, depending on who is making them. European immigrants brought their recipes to America in the early 20th century, and strudel became popular in bakeries and restaurants.
Today in Jewish bakeries, it is hard to find a strudel made with hand-rolled-and-stretched dough. Although I have to admit that I have never made the dough myself, I will set it as a goal for the coming year. I am sure it is easier than making homemade croissant dough, which takes me all day. In the meantime, you can make delicious strudel using store-bought filo dough.
Strudel is typically made by layering rectangular sheets of filo brushed with oil or butter. The filling is then placed on one side and rolled into a log. I discovered the method in this recipe while perusing the English translation of a French pastry cookbook, Patisserie: Mastering the Fundamentals of French Pastry (Rizzoli 2013). The tart method takes a little more time than the rolls, but the presentation is more impressive.
For another variation on strudel, check out my second book, The Holiday Kosher Baker (Sterling 2013) where I have a recipe for apricot and berry strudel. That recipe, which combines both dried and fresh fruit, was an effort to modernize the old-fashioned recipe and thereby inspire people to bring back the strudel!