Pulling up to the driveway of Helga Jaques’ Renton home I was excited to learn a new recipe for the holidays.
Her house is reminiscent of a Chalet in the Swiss Alps in a sea of modern construction. Instead of overhanging eaves made of wood, the house is adorned with a latticed network of connecting grapevines. This year, Helga and her husband of over 50 years turned 120 pounds of their home grown grapes into Verjus, a kind of cooking vinegar.
Yes, it just so happens that we have a real life Austrian grandmother on the hills of the Renton Highlands.
So when I had the opportunity to learn how to make Helga’s homemade, old-fashioned Apfelstrudel that’s rolled up and filled with tart Granny Smith apples, I was like, “Ja!”
The thing I love to do more than anything over the holidays is to bake with my family and I was excited to learn how to make Apple Strudel with my kids.
Austria is situated in central Europe, bordered by Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. German is the national language.
I have always wanted to travel to Europe, and hanging out with Helga feels like the next best thing: She is literally everything that my not-well-traveled romantic American mind conjures up when fantasizing about the European sensibility: intelligent, easy going, less pretentious, artistic, fun, outgoing, open and knowledgeable about eating great foods that are harmoniously paired with spirits, without all the guilt.
Helga’s kitchen has all the elements I love: a mixture of old and new cooking equipment that is both efficient, homey and approachable. Her house is dressed in art, as she is an accomplished artist, and the view from the kitchen window is of her expansive backyard garden.
“There is an Austrian way to roll dough, Carolyn,” Helga said, as I rolled up my long sleeves to get to work and learn. The Austrian way to roll dough was taught to Helga by her grandmother, Hermione, whom she says was tough but fair, ideal qualities for making a great Austrian strudel, which is a simple recipe of flour, water, salt and butter.
But every cook knows that making simple ingredients sing is the hardest thing to do.
And judging by Helga’s hovering as I liberally doused flour on the marble countertop, I could sense i was about to learn the “right way” to roll the strudel dough, as taught to Helga by her grandmother.
“Not too much flour, Carolyn,” Helga said in a lovely accent that sounded German, but softer. The Austrian accent is lighter and when Helga speaks it’s rhythmic, as if she’s talking and singing at the same time, especially as she says, “Excellent, Carolyn!”
Suddenly I felt like I was in my grandmother’s kitchen. There is something about the way a grandmother teaches you things that you want to learn to do it the “right” way, which of course is their way.
You want to earn their praise. And Helga’s praise and charm warmed my heart ,alongside the nip of Austrian raspberry schnapps that we toasted with, of course.
Helga showed me how to slap the dough across her marble counter top and then while we waited for the dough to rise in the oven for an hour it was fun to talk “shop”: Our love of cruising thrift stores for kitchen gadgets, cutlery and pans and when to use baking powder versus baking soda, both are leaveners, but they are chemically different.
When a recipe calls for baking soda, it usually calls for some type of acid like buttermilk, brown sugar, yogurt, lemon juice, vinegar, cream of tartar, molasses, applesauce, natural cocoa powder or honey.
Since baking powder already contains an acid to neutralize its baking soda, it is most often used when a recipe does not call for an additional acidic ingredient.
Helga explained to me that in a pinch you can add a little lemon juice to milk if you need buttermilk.
As the rising time was nearly complete the conversation turned to how to properly “season” your cast iron pan with oil, which we were using to melt a stick of butter.
Helga let me pour in the bread crumbs. The scent of butter and toasting bread was heady.
According to Helga, a cast iron pan is really great for browning things, such as the bread crumbs we would add to the apple filling.
After the dough had risen, we rolled it out into a circle and Helga transferred it to a round table, where she showed me how to pull out the dough gently from the center. I followed her around the table as we put our hands to the center and gently pulled the dough to the edge of Helga’s grandmother’s table cloth.
The job wasn’t complete until we had achieved a paper-thin fineness through which we could read a newspaper.
Helga encouraged me to fling on the sugar, cinnamon, browned bread crumbs, raisins and apples. Then, using her grandmother’s table cloth, I watched her expertly roll the dough into a gorgeous layered log.
When the Apple Strudel was baking we chatted some more about life.
“Thank you for teaching me how to make apple strudel,” I said to Helga.
“Of course, Carolyn, strudel is a traditional thing you want to pass on to kids,” she said. “It’s a bit tricky, and better to have someone show it to you in person.”
The other day I was scrolling through Facebook and paused on a headline that said there was now a service available that would rent a mom to you for $40 an hour. She would teach you to sew, listen, help you buy groceries and make a meal.
I shared the link and made a snarky comment on my Facebook page about how today we are so technically advanced that we can now put a price on a mother’s love.
But then I was reminded of the soft, silkiness of Helga’s grandmother’s table cloth and how fortunate I was to have fingered the pale pink date “1910” cross-stitched into the edge of the worn cloth. What a gift it was to have spent that evening learning this recipe and story from Helga that I will this holiday season pass on to my children.
And the truth is, if you have a mother’s love in your life, it is truly priceless.
This holiday season I highly recommend finding someone to teach you a new recipe.