Sweet Cheese and Fig Strudel
For centuries, strudel was considered the national dish of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it continues to maintain its powerful hold over Central European palates today. Enjoyed by the wealthy and humble classes alike, the process of hand stretching the dough to impossible thinness, then rolling it with sweet (apple, cherry, poppy seed) or savory (cabbage, mushroom, potato) fillings became a regional art form. According to Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, “The ultimate quality of a housewife’s culinary skills was judged by her ability to make strudel ausgezogen (pulled by hand).” Strudel traveled to America with German Jews in the mid-nineteenth century, where it became a staple at Jewish bakeries and restaurants.
Today, many strudel recipes, mine included, swap in store-bought phyllo for DIY dough. If you have the time and inclination to try your hand at making your own dough, go for it! But I find phyllo to be a worthy substitute. While not difficult to make, this dish takes a bit of advance planning. But the combination of cinnamon-perfumed cheese and wine-and-honey-poached figs encased in crackly, butter-rich phyllo makes it undeniably worth the effort. Serve the strudel as is or with a dollop of sour cream and an extra drizzle of honey.
- 1 cup ricotta cheese
- 3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¾ cup dried mission figs, stemmed and finely chopped
- ¼ cup black raisins
- 2 tablespoons honey
- ¼ cup orange juice
- ½ cup dry red wine
- ¾ cup unsalted butter
- 16 sheets thawed frozen phyllo dough
- Spoon the ricotta into the center of a clean dishtowel and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Transfer the ricotta to a bowl and stir in the cream cheese, egg yolk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and salt until smooth. Refrigerate until needed.
- Meanwhile, combine the figs, raisins, honey, orange juice and red wine in a small saucepan and set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then turn heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally and gently mashing the fruit with the back of a wooden spoon, until the figs are tender and liquid mostly evaporates, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool completely.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Melt the butter in a small pan set over low heat (or in the microwave). Lay a piece of parchment paper on a flat surface and place 1 piece of phyllo on top. (Cover the other phyllo pieces with a damp dishtowel so they do not dry out.) Using a pastry brush, brush the sheet of phyllo all over with a thin layer of melted butter. Top with another sheet of phyllo and brush with butter; continue this pattern until you have a stack of 8 sheets of buttered phyllo. Reserve the remaining 8 sheets of phyllo.
- Spoon half of the cheese mixture in a thick line along one of the short ends of the phyllo stack, leaving about ½ an inch of space along the edge. Layer half of the fig mixture on top of the cheese mixture. Use the parchment paper to help roll the dough around the filling, tucking the filling inside and ending up with a long, stuffed cylinder. Brush the top with more melted butter and carefully transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat the process with the remaining 8 sheets of phyllo and butter (you can briefly reheat the butter if it cools and congeals too much to brush), and the remaining cheese mixture and fig mixture.
- Bake strudels until golden, 20 to 30 minutes. Let cool to the touch, then use a serrated knife to cut into thick slices. Serve at room temperature.
- Reprinted with permission from Little Book of Jewish Appetizers by Leah Koenig (Chronicle Books, 2017).