I came back home, after an hour spent at the local swimming pool, wearing just a light jacket, with slightly wet hair and bare ankles. In the parking lot, you could hear the crickets singing, and you could see the stars peeping through the pine trees.
I had on my skin the feeling of a balmy late summer evening, even though the calendar was well into October. We slept keeping our legs out of the blankets, the windows wide open, letting in the sounds of a restless countryside: the dogs were barking at the moon, the frogs croaking in the ditch along the road and the wolves howling in the woods. It was my absolute first time hearing the wolves: I was charmed and scared at the same time.
The next morning the sky was shrouded in fog and the wind was carrying the smell of rain.
Autumn had finally arrived. To confirm the news was not just the weather App, my most recent obsession, but the rain that after a few hours was tapping on the windows, the dogs sleeping on their pillows, the kitchen smelling of roasted pumpkin.
Finally, the weather outside matched my inner season. My cravings for a cosy home and a fireplace, the desire for hot soups and freshly pressed olive oil had found an answer in the first rainy day.
And I want to get busy in the kitchen, again and again, to bake wholemeal bread for breakfast, and pancakes on Sunday morning, and I want to eat them with ricotta and my spicy plum jam. I crave chocolate again – ok, to be honest that craving actually never disappeared, but I can finally use it in the biscotti I offer with an espresso during my cooking classes – and spicy desserts with nutmeg, vanilla and cinnamon.
I add these spices to the most common desserts. The simple gesture of baking with spices becomes an invocation ritual of autumn, the sweetest and most nostalgic season. And so, it wasn’t too long before I baked the first cinnamon apple strudel.
Celebrating the apple season. Apple strudel with raisins and pine nuts
For the third recipe of my celebration of the apple season, I wanted to close the menu with a classic, and I chose an apple strudel, spiced with cinnamon, with raisins and pine nuts. With the classics you can never go wrong, especially when they are linked to one of the first memories I have of Tommaso.
Everything began with a trip to the Alps, and an apple strudel…
Until a few year ago, I would always use store bought puff pastry to make the strudel, either sweet or savoury. And I had always eaten it made with that same greasy puff pastry, in restaurants or at friends’ houses. It took Tommaso, and our first holiday together as friends, to make me open my eyes to the real strudel dough.
There were five of us in the car, heading towards Trentino.
It was my first proper winter holiday in the snow, as a grown-up. The last time I had been in the mountains I was three years old, and the only memories I had of that vacation were a Lego box, a soup with a scrambled egg and Santa Claus on a sled.
I had met Tommaso ten days earlier, in a pizzeria in Florence, along with other people that are now among my best friends. They asked me if I wanted to join them to spend New Year’s Eve in the Alps. It seemed like a perfect way to celebrate the end of the first year as a freelancer, when I had allowed myself very few moments of leisure.
Throughout the journey Tommaso kept repeating that, as soon as we arrived, he wanted a slice of strudel and a hot chocolate. I wondered why he was craving a strudel, which in my experience was a rather boring dessert. Why not a Sacher torte, maybe with some whipped cream on the side?
The day after, sitting in a café with the snow outside, when I sank my fork in my first slice of properly made strudel, I found a light dough, a dense filling of apples, which almost melted in my mouth. And then pine nuts, raisins and a copious sprinkling of cinnamon. To finish, icing sugar, like a dusting of snow.
Along with a walk in a heavily snowed wood with the snowshoes, tobogganing at night, mulled wine and a new group of friends, that holiday in the Alps also gave me a new love for strudel.
The apple strudel
Today when I make a strudel – whether it is sweet or savoury – I almost always use this dough, with rare exceptions (as in this butternut squash and potato strudel, made with a quick and incredibly flaky butter dough). Made only with flour, water and extra virgin olive oil, the dough remains light and delicate. You can make it in just a few minutes and, after a night of rest in the fridge, it is also very easy to roll it out.
So, begin the day before or, at least, a few hours before, to give the dough the time to “relax”: you will see that it will be extremely easier to roll out, super thin, almost transparent.
This time I didn’t add breadcrumbs to the filling, as I wanted to enhance the taste of apples and their soft melt-in-your-mouth texture. Sometimes, though, I add a few tablespoons of breadcrumbs, and I cook them in a pan with butter and sugar.
And now, the recipe. Bake this apple strudel as a dessert to a seasonal meal, or for your next breakfast or afternoon snack.
For the strudel dough
- 120 g (1 cup) all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 60 g (1/4 cup) warm water
For the strudel
- 1.2 kg (2.65 lb) apples
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 100 g (1/2 cup) sugar
- 1 tablespoon pine nuts
- 2 tablespoons raisins
- ½ cup vinsanto, or any sweet wine
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- Icing sugar
- Begin with the strudel dough. Pour the flour on a pastry board, add the salt and the olive oil and then start kneading, gradually adding the warm water. Knead the dough until it is soft and smooth, then wrap it in plastic wrap and let it rest in the fridge until the next day.
- The next day, remove the dough from the fridge and, while it comes back to room temperature, prepare the filling.
- Soak the raisins in the vinsanto and preheat the oven to 180°C (360°F).
- Peel and core the apples, then cut them into thin slices. Collect the apples in a bowl and add the sugar, the pine nuts, the cinnamon (even more if you like iand the raisins, previously drained and squeezed.
- Now roll out the strudel dough with a dusting of flour in a wide and very thin sheet of about 50x30 cm. Move the dough with the help of a rolling pin onto a floured kitchen towel. Place the apple filling on half of the strudel dough, leaving a few centimetres from the edges. Close the edges on themselves to hold the filling inside, then wrap the strudel on itself, using the cloth.
- Gently transfer the strudel onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper, open side down, then dust it to remove the excess flour. Brush the strudel with a beaten egg.
- Bake the strudel for about 40 minutes, until golden.
- Serve it warm or cold, dusted with icing sugar, or with a scoop of ice cream or a drizzle of custard.
Serve the apple strudel with…
Today I’m giving you more options for an autumn menu. In the last two posts, I focused on apple-based ideas, but today I browsed through the market stalls, choosing porcini mushrooms for a risotto and beans and sausages for a hearty and comforting main course. To close the meal, the apple strudel, even if you do not need the excuse of a menu to bake a strudel, as at home it quickly disappears between breakfast and afternoon tea.
- Porcini mushroom risotto. This is how we usually make risotto at home, classic for us, heretic for the real tradition of risotto, let’s face it. No butter but good extra virgin olive oil, plus the risotto creaminess is due to an energetic stirring of the rice throughout the cooking, as to naturally massage the creamy starch out of the rice. If you prefer, you can still use butter instead of olive oil and add a knob of butter and a good handful of Parmigiano at the end, out of the stove, to cream the risotto.
- Sausage meatballs with stewed beans. Fagioli all’uccelletto are perhaps one of the most iconic dishes of Tuscan cuisine: it has beans and sausages, cooked together over a gentle heat until the beans become creamy and the sausages do not release fat and flavour. I turned sausages into meatballs, I added crushed fennel seeds, I cooked everything together, then I invited some friends over.
Apple and speck salad
As I told you before, I was going to share four recipes to celebrate the apple season. I began with a risotto with smoked trout and apples, then I shared pork tenderloin medallions wrapped in lard with apples and onions, and today, to close on a sweet note, an apple strudel.
So, where’s the fourth recipe? I made an apple salad, with speck, cheese and walnuts. We tried this salad in Trentino, at the Pineta Hotels, and since then we have already prepared it numerous times, both as an appetizer – I like to open the most challenging meals with something fresh and appetising – but also as a side dish to a lemony chicken breast.