Rhubarb-Tarragon Strudel (Or, How I Went into Labour)

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It wasn’t the plan, but I was reading a food magazine when my contractions started. Here’s the thing. Every pregnant woman has a “birth plan” in her head, even if she won’t admit it. Mine was more like a “birth fantasy”, if you will. A fantasy that, statistically speaking, would NEVER HAPPEN. Kind of like a “winning the lottery” fantasy, the one where you take all your friends to the Maldives for a month before a luxury safari in Tanzania followed by buying your dream home in the south of France. There was a better chance of all of that happening than there was of my birth fantasy coming true: power walking around Quidi Vidi lake on a warm March afternoon to induce labour, breathing and pushing an hour later at the hospital to “Bad Girls” by M.I.A. followed by a surprisingly quick and drug-free childbirth.

I know. I was that pregnant lady. I was even annoying to myself.

The reality. Me on the sofa reading a food magazine and my contractions starting 2 minutes apart. Barking orders at Justin and my mom to “GET MY FLIP FLOPS OUT OF MY GYM BAG AND PUT THEM IN THE HOSPITAL BAG I NEED MY FLIP FLOPS.” Driving to the hospital thinking “WTF who does this without drugs.” Hobbling across the parking lot holding onto Justin while repeating, “I’m definitely getting the epidural.” Not in the door two minutes screaming at the nurses, “get me the epidural” etc. etc. Which, by the way, along with finally getting an ice cream maker, was the best decision of my life.

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I will obviously spare you the rest of the details because this is a food blog, even though women love telling their delivery stories because COME ON how could you not, look at what you just did, sister! But I recently had a go at the recipe I guess you could say induced my labour. I was looking at a picture of this exact strudel when my contractions started, which is kind of cool. And that, my friends is the weirdest sentence I have ever written.

So if any of you happen to be pregnant, I share with you all my best wishes for a quick and painless delivery, complete with all the drugs and pineapple popsicles you can handle (no seriously, get the epidural, if your kid’s head is as big as mine’s is, you’ll need one).

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Rhubarb-Tarragon Strudel (from the April 2016 edition of Food Network Magazine)

For the compote:

2 sprigs tarragon
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 pound rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (I used 4 cups)

For the strudel:

6 oz cream cheese (I used one standard 226g package)
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for topping
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped
7 sheets frozen phyllo dough, thawed
1 1/4 sticks (10 tbsp) unsalted butter, clarified*
2 tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
1 tbsp granulated sugar, plus more for topping

*To clarify butter (prevents strudel from getting soggy), melt it over medium-low heat until the milk solids separate and rise to the top, 3 to 5 minutes. Let cool, then skim off the white foam and discard. Spoon the remaining clear butter into a bowl, and discard the solids left at the bottom of the pan.

1. Make the compote: Combine the tarragon sprigs, granulated sugar and 1 3/4 cups water in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil and stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the rhubarb, reduce the heat to low and cook until softened but not falling apart, about 3 minutes. Strain the rhubarb over a bowl, reserving the liquid (keep the rhubarb in the strainer to drain completely while assembling the strudel).

2. Make the strudel: Preheat the oven to 425°F. Pulse the cream cheese, confectioners’ sugar, flour and vanilla seeds in a food processor until just combined.

3. Lay out 1 phyllo sheet on a clean dry surface (keep remaining phyllo covered with a slightly damp kitchen towel). Brush lightly with the clarified butter and sprinkle with 1 tsp of chopped tarragon and 1/2 tsp granulated sugar. Layer another sheet of phyllo on top with more butter, tarragon and granulated sugar. Repeat the layering with the remaining phyllo; do not top the final sheet. Cut the stack of phyllo in half crosswise. Reserve the remaining clarified butter (about 1 tbsp).

4. Put each phyllo on a piece of parchment paper that’s slightly larger than the stack. Position the stacks with the long sides facing you. Divide the cream cheese mixture between the stacks, spreading it in a 2-inch-wide strip along the edge closest to you; leave a 1-inch border at the bottom and the sides. Spoon the rhubarb pieces over the cream cheese filling. Starting from the side closest to you, use the parchment to lift the phyllo and roll tightly around the filling to make two logs; arrange seam-side down. Transfer the strudels (on the parchment) to a baking sheet.

5. Brush the strudels with the reserved clarified butter and sprinkle generously with granulated sugar. Bake until golden brown and crisp, 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, bring the reserved rhubarb liquid to a boil in a saucepan. reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until syrupy, about 15 minutes.

6. Let the strudels cool 10 minutes on the baking sheet. Slide the strudels (on the parchment) onto a rack; let cool 45 minutes. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar and drizzle with the rhubarb syrup.

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Here’s what went wrong, because that’s what happens sometimes with recipes (and birth plans ha). I chucked the rhubarb in with the water and sugar before reading the recipe and realizing I had to bring the sugar water to a boil before adding the rhubarb. No biggie, I don’t think it made much of a difference. But I did overcook the rhubarb, it really does only take 3 minutes because it cooks again in the oven. I’m not sure about that whole “don’t top the final phyllo sheet” business…when I tried to spread on the thick cream cheese mixture the top layer started to rip because it was dry. So I’d say top the last layer if you have enough. Which I didn’t, so brushing the completed strudels was done with regular microwave-melted butter because who’s going to clarify another batch when you’ve been at this three hours? I had to read the fourth step about a dozen times before I could work my brain around it. I may have had to google “crosswise” and found this handy dandy article which was very helpful except I was cutting phyllo and not brussels sprouts. And what if my phyllo was turned the other way around around, hmmm? What would happen then, Food Network? It’s safe to say I’ll never work at NASA. Anyway. Cut your phyllo down the long side.

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I need to bake desserts in my awful oven at around 225°F, so it took closer to an hour instead of 20 minutes. Keep that in mind if you have an infuriatingly hot oven like mine, because the bottom of the strudel will darken quickly and the rest will be soggy. And I left off the icing sugar because really, you don’t need it with sugar sprinkled on top and then syrup.

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The biggest almost-disaster was not realizing how tall my kid is. There were two of us on duty and I still almost lost the nearly-completed phyllo layers from the kitchen table in the five seconds there wasn’t a set of eyes on Jude the Destroyer.

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I won’t lie, this one was a bit of an effort. I haven’t attempted a recipe this herculean since long before baby was born. And it’s not exactly the kind of thing you can throw together while simultaneously trying to keep a toddler from eating things out of the garbage can. But even with all the mistakes, it was beautiful. Definitely the kind of dessert you can afford to mess up a little and call it rustic. I love weird sweet-herby dessert combinations, but cut back on the tarragon if you’re scared, or leave it out completely (but don’t, it’s so lovely and licorice-y). This recipe makes such an obscene amount of strudel we had to give a chunk away, ate it three nights in a row for dessert, and still had some left to put in the freezer. And that worked out too, warmed low and slow in the oven a couple of weeks later. Imagine dying for something sweet some night and thinking there’s nothing in the house and then remembering there’s something in your freezer that’s flaky and made with cream cheese and rhubarb. That moment of realization alone was worth the three hours of strudel construction. With a cup of decaf Tetley before bedtime? Come on. Or similarly, make it a few weeks in advance of some dinner party you’re hosting. You can defrost it before everyone arrives, and they’ll show up with sweet strudel smells wafting out the front door to greet them. Everyone’s impressed with what you’ve just accomplished and no one’s the wiser. Hey, kind of like getting the epidural and not telling anybody afterwards! Either way, you end up with a great dessert/baby.

Happy cooking, badasses.

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