When I was a little girl, there were a few things my father would make in the kitchen. We would go peach picking in Niagara every summer and those turned into frozen peaches that we would eat all winter long reminding us the summer was always within reach. We would go strawberry, raspberry, apricot, blueberry and plum picking and he would make jam. The plum jam was always my favourite. Apricot was always his favourite. We grew vegetables in our backyard too but for me, it was always about the fruit and even better, fruit with sugar!
Then, as the summer fruit disappeared, it was apple season. Always fresh from the farm, my dad would come home and make apple strudel. It was never one. He would make at least three of them, wrap them in tin foil and store them in the freezer for when company would come over or a special occasion. They were never opened for just any reason.
Several months ago, while my father was at St John’s Rehab, locked away from all of us, we were standing outside of the window at the back of the hospital and through the class I asked, “Is there anything you want to eat?” and he answered back, “apple strudel”, emphatically. This may seem like no big deal but this was the clearest thing my father had said in some time. So I decided to make it.
I had no recipe. I had only my memories. Memories of standing at the kitchen counter which my father aptly named the peninsula rather than the island because it was attached. He would stand on one side (near the oven) and I would stand (first on a chair and later on the ground) on the other side. I would wear one of the many aprons my grandmother had sewn. They were half aprons which never made sense to me since everything dropped on my shirt so why not cover that part too? Daddy would tie the apron that was meant for my waist around my chest. I would lift my arms up high and turn around and he would tie it under my arms so my clothes wouldn’t get messed.
He would peel the apples and I would marvel at how he could do it with such precision. As he peeled them in long snaky ribbons of sweet apple peel, I would gobble them up just as quickly. He would say, “NO WASTE!” and I felt that my eating was doing him a favour. Less mess meant mommy would let us do it again. He would slice them thinly, throw them in a bowl with raisins, cinnamon, white sugar, and brown sugar — more brown than white. Then he would put in a touch of brandy to add some flavour, or so he said. We would wash our hands throughout the process. He was a doctor after all and hand cleaning was not a new practice for me with Covid. We were always told to wash our hands all the time.
Once everything was in the bowl, with our clean hands, we would move the ingredients through our hands as he said this was the best way to mix it. Then came the phyllo dough. Paper thin sheets of white dough wrapped in wax paper. He would pull it out gently and place it down a few sheets at a time. A bowl of melted butter at the side with a baking brush ready to paint the dough one stroke at a time. You had to have a light touch so as not to rip the fragile sheets.
Then came my favourite part. As daddy would peel the dough and place it down, I would brush the butter and he would help me and then came the secret ingredient! It wasn’t really a secret, at least I don’t think it was, but each time we would put a new layer of dough, brush the dough he would say in a booming voice…
“NOW’S THE TIME FOR THE SECRET INGREDIENT!”
What was it? Corn flakes! I would reach my little hands into the cereal box and crunch the flakes into tiny pieces and sprinkle it over the melted butter paint while he directed me to add a little more here, and don’t forget there and make sure it is evenly spread all over the sheet.
After about 4–6 layers, we would put the filling. You place the filling in the centre of the dough and pile it in a line still leaving room at the edges to tuck the ends in.
This required bigger hands so that was his job and as he rolled the dough around the delicious apple filling, he would tuck the sides and concentrate which I always knew was a grown up job because not only was I merely a spectator at this point, but he was also whistling which was a sure sign he was not only concentrating, but happy. I would just watch and he would let me pat it closed when he was done.
When I did this for the first time alone, back in April I think when he first asked for it, I remembered everything except the temperature and time. I called my dear friend BJ Barone, who happens to be a pastry chef and he said, 375–400 for 30 minutes.
Prior to putting the strudel in the oven, you give a few more brushes of butter so that the dough will get crispy and browned.
Once it has cooled you dust with icing sugar.
Then, on Friday, for Rosh Hashanah, the first Rosh Hashanah in my life when I would not be spending the holiday with my family at my parents’ house, I made the recipe with my daughter, Rachel, and this time, she got to do the secret ingredient. And while she crumpled the secret ingredient in her little hands, I told her the story of me, and my dad, and the apple strudel and although I mourn and long for the times when I would bake with my dad, I know that when I take these moments, and share these stories, I honour the memory of him while he loses his.
My mom delivered a piece of strudel to him. He called me, with her help of course, to say it was good.
And it was.