I’ve heard the phrase “As American as baseball and apple pie” many times as a child, watching old black-and-white American movies and enjoying translated comics that ended up in Politikin Zabavnik, my favorite magazine that came out on Fridays. I was not familiar with baseball and as far as I was concerned, Americans were more than welcome to call that mysterious and foreign game their own. But apple pie was another matter completely.
I am Serbian through and through, with some spicy and adventurous Hungarian blood thrown in by known sources, and possibly some dark, unpredictable, hedonistic Turkish genes that sneaked in unrecognized and illegitimate during centuries of Ottoman occupation. But American I am not, and neither was the apple pie that I grew up with.
It would not occur to me or any of my friends to steal a freshly baked pie cooling on the window-sill like Dennis the Menace frequently did to Mrs. Wilson. And it seemed absolutely absurd to throw a baked pie into someone’s face like I saw in so many silent movies. I innocently concluded that the American apple pies were not as respected as ours and that American mothers and grandmothers did not really care if their desserts were stolen, thrown, or destroyed in any of the savage and thoughtless ways Hollywood showed us. At times I even considered the possibility that an American apple pie was prepared for anything else but eating. But the apple pie that came out of the orange and brown kitchen of my childhood was something different.
Come September, Serbian hills show off branches laden with plums, pears, and apples, and yards and cellars fill up with crates of the abundant fruit. Fragile plums are turned into slivovitz, the potent plum brandy that cannot be replicated in an industrial facility. Dainty pears are preserved in sweet syrup and sturdy and resilient apples are stored throughout the cold months. Often snubbed by us as too prolific and passed by in favor of more exotic bananas and pineapple, they still unselfishly permeated the dewy cellars with their fragrance, masking the musky smell of wine barrels.
The apple pie was not a special dessert made for holidays and celebrations. It was an everyday sweet dish made for the family and relatives who visited so often that they were not considered guests. It was not meant to impress, but to satisfy and offer comfort. And in the late afternoons of early Fall, when we would return from school after the afternoon shift, chasing the last rays of sun and catching the first subtle hints of northern winds, the smell of apples and cinnamon greeting us at the door made us forget all our worries.
As the powder sugar flecked our hands and our teeth bit into flaky, crispy phyllo dough on the way to still warm and soft sweet apples in the middle, we regaled Mother with stories of friends and enemies, of tests gone bad, of teachers proud and disdainful, of secret crushes and annoying pursuers. Our day would be wrapped in the pastry that melted in our mouths and soft, fragrant essence of the fruit that made us feel safe, warm, and loved.
September meeting of our Food Bloggers LA group celebrated Fall fruit, apples and pears. Even though the temperatures in Southern California have been in triple digits for weeks, I was ready to shift gears and start thinking of more robust and heartier dishes. In the end, I decided to make a Serbian apple pie, eager to share comforting smells of my childhood with my friends.
SERBIAN APPLE PIE OR APPLE STRUDEL
- 1 pound (500g) phyllo dough
- ½ cup water
- ½ cup sunflower oil
- 3 lbs apples (about 6 large, crisp apples, like Gala, Braeburn or Honeycrisp), peeled and grated (large holes)
- 8 tsp granulated sugar (or more, if your apples are tart)
- 4 Tbsp cream of wheat (farina)
- 4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 2 tsp vanilla sugar (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400F.
Lightly oil a rimmed cookie sheet (it should be as long as a sheet of phylo)
Unwrap the phyllo sheets and place them on your counter.
Divide them in four piles (the number of sheets differs depending on the manufacturer).
Each pile will make one roll.
Mix water and oil in a small bowl.
Spread one sheet of phylo in front of you, keeping the rest covered with a damp, clean kitchen towel.
Sprinkle with water and oil.
Place another sheet of phyllo on top and sprinkle with water and oil.
Repeat the process until you have four phyllo sheets on top of each other.
Spread ¼ of the apples all over the top sheet, leaving 1 inch border along the longer sides.
Sprinkle with 2 tsp sugar, 1 Tbsp farina, 1 tsp cinnamon, and 1/2 tsp vanilla sugar.
Roll all four sheets together, starting from the longer side facing you.
Carefully transfer the roll to the prepared cookie sheet.
Repeat with the other phyllo sheets.
If you have more than 16 sheets in your package (more than four sheets per roll), you might have to apply filling twice.
Brush the rolls with water and oil mixture and bake for 30-45 minutes, until golden brown.
Let it cool slightly. Slice each roll into pieces and dust with powdered sugar.
VARIATION: You can apply a little bit of filling to each sheet and then form a roll.