It’s a mouth-watering recipe this week, for a Hungarian tour-de-force, flaky pastry strudel filled with sour cherries, and the inspired addition of a lemony cream cheese – a match made in heaven. Those Hungarian/Slovakian/Czech grandmothers (have I left anyone out?) really can bake!
And this recipe is pretty quick and easy. More of an assembly job, not too complicated, and sooo worth it.
This has been a strange January. First of all, I’m here and not in Australia. Second, this is usually the coldest, wettest month of the winter, and it’s been warm and sunny. The flowers think it’s spring, and who can blame them?
Then when the rain finally arrived, lots of visitors came too – old Australian friends, new Australian friends and colleagues, Mike Pence. And I guess you know who was the least fun...
Relations between Washington and the Palestinian Authority are at an all-time low, so US V-P Pence did not go to the West Bank nor meet any Palestinian officials on this visit. (In a pointed slight, President Mahmoud Abbas left for Europe when Pence arrived in Jerusalem.) Though he's a deeply religious Evangelical Christian, Pence was not even welcome in Bethlehem as a private visitor.
But Bethlehem was open to other tourists and pilgrims, so when my old uni friend Gina Elliott said she wanted to see the Church of the Nativity, off we went. We drove the back way, a short beautiful drive which in parts looks unchanged since the days of the bible.
When we reached Manger Square, the main square outside the Nativity Church, the Christmas decorations were still up, including this impressive nativity scene.
It has many elements, some quite confusing. Who's the guy lying on the roof, looking in? And what is that priest doing, holding an apparently reluctant boy, peering infrom the side? In this day and age, it has the wrong connotations…. So we did like it, but we definitely didn't understand it all.
The Church of the Nativity is built above the spot where it's believed Jesus was born. Like many significant churches here, it's shared by a number of Christian denominations – Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Armenian Apostolic and Syriac Orthodox.
There was an Armenian service underway when we arrived; those pointy black hoods are part of their traditional dress. As the sound of their chanting travelled throughout the Church, we felt like we'd been transported to another century.
The chanting was still very loud after we left the service. Was it amazing acoustics, or a second service? We followed the sound, which turned out to be coming from a small closed- off area. But it wasn't another noon prayer. Peering into a slit in the wood chip wall, we found -- an audio studio. They were pumping out a pre-recorded service! 'Camelot? It's only a model...'
Have a listen for yourself.
Beneath the Church is the holy site, the cave where Jesus is believed to have been born. This bothered Gina, who was brought up singing "Away in a manger..." So she pinned down a well-informed tour guide about why it’s a cave and not a manger. He explained that Jesus was born in a cave and then moved to a manger. Gina was not entirely convinced. But that was his best offer.
Roman Catholics are not as powerful as the Orthodox churches in these parts, so in the 1880’s the Catholics built a new addition to the Church off to the side of the original building, to give them more clout.
Then they split Jesus's birth cave, so it now has a Catholic side and an Orthodox side, with a wall in between. There is a door in the wall, which is only open once a year, on Christmas Eve. But you can look through this little peephole to see what they’re doing over on the Orthodox side. It felt like spying, but who could resist?
After such tiring tourism, it was time for lunch. Falafel and hummus of course.
Then we returned to Jerusalem and went to the Israel Museum, where we lucked out as there was a powerful exhibition from Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei.
Nothing was as it seemed. This floor is carpeted with pumpkin seeds which turn out to be made of porcelain. And the 3 portraits of Ai Wei Wei himself are made out of lego.
And after all that, we went home for some cherry strudel.
Sour cherries are a cousin of the sweet summer cherries we all know. They feature in many of the European Food is Love grandmothers’ dishes. We’ve made Agi Adler’s Sour Cherry soup (a traditional Hungarian starter) and Eva Grinston’s Chocolate, Walnut and Sour Cherry cake. It's Eva’s grandmother’s recipe, from her home in Bratislava, Slovakia, which has become the go-to birthday cake for all her grandchildren in Australia.
But despite making these dishes, and more, I’ve never seen them fresh. For me, sour cherries come in a jar; most often, from Poland or Bulgaria. And they’re pitted! I’m sure they would be even more delicious fresh, but it does have the advantage of making this strudel very easy to prepare.
Another thing that makes this strudel simple is buying frozen filo (phyllo) pastry! (It’s available in middle eastern shops, and these days in Australia, in most general supermarkets too.)
I know that the art is in making the pastry yourself, so thin that you can see through it (see this enticing article for a lesson in how to do it.) But the frozen pastry sheets do save an enormous amount of time, and once you find a brand you like, it is a very good substitute.
This recipe comes from Elisabeth Weisz Prega, an American, and a daughter of Holocaust Survivors who worked as a caterer in Florida, and even she doesn’t expect you to make your own pastry!
So here is her fool-proof recipe. I have adapted it slightly, reducing sugar, as I usually do, and adding the cream cheese, inspired by the standout cheese and cherry strudel from the Gelato Bar in Bondi, Sydney.
That strudel is still something I look forward to whenever I go home.
Elisabeth’s Sour Cherry & Cheese Strudel
Makes 1 large strudel, or 2 smaller ones
- 700 g jar pitted sour cherries (365g clean weight.) NB: NOT cherry pie filling
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- 1 cup ground walnuts or almonds
- ½ cup sugar
- 6 layers filo pastry, de-frosted
- 90 g unsalted butter, melted
- Optional: 1 teaspoon vanilla essence, or 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 250 g / ½ lb farm cheese. You want a firm white curd cheese. Cottage or ricotta cheese are too soft! If you do use ricotta, place in a strainer to drain for a couple of hours first.
- 1 egg
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon semolina or breadcrumbs
- grated rind of ½ lemon
- Baking paper
- Baking tray
- Pastry brush
1. The day before: remove dough from freezer and put in the fridge. This way it will be ready to use when you want to bake.
2. Make your cheese filling. Using a spoon, mix all the ingredients together till smooth. Set aside. You will likely have some left over, which you can use for another dish. It makes a great pancake filling!
3. Melt butter, in a microwave or on a stove top, taking care not to burn. Set aside.
4. Mix breadcrumbs, sugar and ground nuts in one bowl.
5. Drain liquid form the cherries and put in a second larger bowl. (Save the drained cherry juice for another use. It is delicious too!)
6. Add 1 cup of the nut breadcrumb mix to the cherries. Add vanilla or cinnamon, if using. Stir carefully and set aside.
7. You should have 4 bowls. Melted butter, cheese mix, cherry mix and remaining nut/breadcrumb mix. Now you are ready to “compile”. Before you do, pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees F/ 200 degrees C. (Ten degrees less in a fan-forced oven.)
8. Take your filo sheets out of the fridge. You have to work relatively quickly, as they do tend to dry out. Cover the sheets you are not using with a damp dish towel. It’s easiest to work on a sheet of baking paper, laid out on the tray you plan to bake on. That way when you’re done layering, and folding, it can go straight into the oven.
9. Lay your first sheet of filo on the baking paper. Take a pastry brush, dip it into the melted butter, and dab a little here and there. You don’t want to oversaturate it, you just want something for the nuts to cling to. Sprinkle with about 1 tablespoon of the nut-breadcrumb mix. Place the next pastry sheet down on top of the one you’ve just done, and repeat. Continue till you’ve used all 6 sheets. Some sheets may break or tear, don’t worry, just keep going.
10. Once you’ve done all 6 layers with the butter and nuts, you’re ready to add the cherries and cheese. First cover with a layer of cherries, leaving a 1 cm space around the edges. Place the cheese on top in a thin layer. You will probably only need about half the cheese mix. Roll up along the long side, like you would a jelly roll. Place the strudel seam side down, tuck in the ends, dab the top with butter and sprinkle with 1-2 tablespoons nut mix.
11. Slide into pre-heated oven, bake for 25-35 minutes, depending how hot your oven is. Do not slice immediately. Wait for it to cool a little and filling to set. Serve with sieved icing sugar, or plain. Amazing. Will last about 2 days in the fridge.
PASTRY NOTE: If your filo sheets are large you can make one strudel with all the cherries and about half the cheese. If your filo sheets are smaller – say 35 cm in length - you may want to make 2 rolls, adding some more cherries, and finishing off the cheese.
VERDICT: Make this! Don’t be scared. It only takes about 15-20 minutes to prepare everything you need, and then 10 minutes to roll and fold. Naturally, Elisabeth would probably do the lot in 10 minutes. I've made it twice and was already much quicker the second time.
It’s great warm and it is hard to be disciplined enough to wait for it to cool enough so that you can easily slice it :-) It is also self-contained. Because of the cheese, you don't need cream or ice cream with it.
By the way, if you don’t have any cheese, you can always just make a cherry strudel using the same instructions, and simply leave out the cheese.
Those manufacturers who prepare the filo pastry for us deserve a blessing. Will see if there’s anyone in Bethlehem who can do something about it :-)