Eat My Reads

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron: Cabbage Strudel

This is a post originally written on August 10, 2012, the first entry on a second blog. A second blog, ha! I obviously hadn’t realized how much work a blog is at the time. 

Not too long ago, I heard that Nora Ephron had passed away which set off a totally unexpected chain of events for me and here I am. I found myself really affected by this news – not in a hit-by-a-ton-of-bricks kind of way but in a melancholy gnawing-at-me way. It prompted me to watch When Harry Met Sally for the first time a week ago (I knoooooow.). I refreshed my memory on Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. I didn’t have to watch Julie and Julia again – I like that movie a lot and remember it quite well. Did you read the book? Contrary to her movie persona, Julie’s not very likeable in the book. But I digress.

It was weird how affected I was that she wasn’t of this earth anymore because frankly, I wasn’t really a fan. Not in the real sense of the word anyway. I didn’t particularly like her movies. I only owned one of her books, the one where she’s all funny about getting old. I Feel Bad About My Neck, it was called. It was a random pick at Fully Booked that I ended up liking and I felt compelled to browse through it like some sort of private going-away reading. And when I landed on the part where she mentions, nay, laments the disappearance of the cabbage strudel, I knew I had to make it. It was my own little way of honoring her. Of remembering her.

So that’s what I plan to do on this blog – read, cook, eat. There’s a lot of food in literature. Murakami’s characters always seem to be cooking (Something light and healthy, very Japanese-y.). The book I’m reading now has a character who sort of has a signature dish she makes for friends and boyfriends (Asian shrimp and vegetable stir-fry.). And if the book doesn’t feature a specific dish, I’m sure there will be other things I can draw inspiration from to translate to food. It’s gonna be fun.

So where were we? Ah yes, cabbage strudel. Turns out it’s a Hungarian dish that’s usually served with soup or a main like roast. Nora Ephron describes it as “simultaneously sweet, savory, and completely unexpected, like all good things.” She apparently first tried this dish in ’68 at a humble Hungarian bakery in New York which led to a cabbage strudel phase. It ended, as phases are bound to, but she was revisited by the thought of cabbage strudel one day. Sadly, the humble Hungarian bakery was no longer in business and no one seemed to make it anymore and if they did, it tasted nothing like the cabbage strudel in her mind. Her hunt finally ends at a joint called Andre’s Cafe. Last Sunday, I dug up the recipe from that exact same place online. Jackpot!

To make cabbage strudel, you’ll need:

1 medium cabbage (I know the recipe says “very small cabbage” but just trust me on this.)

1/2 cup butter

1/2 t salt

1/2 t freshly ground pepper

10 phyllo pastry sheets (available at Santis Delicatessen)

1/4 cup melted butter to brush on phyllo pastry

1. Preheat the oven to 175 C/350 F. Shred the cabbage and transfer to baking tray. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper then top with cut up pieces of butter. Now about the size of the cabbage – I first used half of what we would consider a medium cabbage in the Philippines thinking it would probably be the equivalent of a very small one in the States. You know how everything seems to be super-sized over there? Well, I found that it shrunk to like, nothing, and I felt I needed more stuffing so I cooked the other half, too. I ended up with just the right amount. This is my first batch of cabbage and yes, that is a lot of butter. I think I might cut the butter in half next time.

2. Cover the baking tray with aluminum foil and seal the edges. Bake for 45-60 minutes, until cabbage is tender and golden, stirring occasionally and remembering to seal the foil back. Here’s how mine looked after baking.

3. Crank up the oven to 200 C/400 F. Set baked cabbage aside to cool. When it’s ready, bust out the phyllo pastry! I had never worked with phyllo pastry before and really looked forward to this. It’s not to be frozen, just chilled, and you should leave it out about an hour before you plan to use it. Upon handling it for the first time, I was astounded that the folks over at Andre’s Cafe made this stuff from scratch. How do they get it so big and paper thin? Hardcore. Anyway, melt the 1/4 cup of butter. Line the working area with parchment paper. Place a sheet of phyllo pastry on top of the parchment paper and brush with butter. Top with another sheet of phyllo pastry and brush with butter. Continue until all 10 sheets are stacked. Some of it will tear but the butter helps glue it back. Try to work as fast as you can – the more the phyllo pastry dries out, the harder it is to handle.

Filo, fillo, phyllo – they’re all the same wonderfully flaky pastry.

4. Line the narrow side of the phyllo pastry with the baked cabbage. When done, start rolling from the cabbage side all the way to the other end like you would a maki roll. Transfer, parchment paper and all, to a baking tray and pop in the oven. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes.

Mine came out a bit too browned on top and the innermost layers of phyllo pastry were slightly undercooked which leads me to think that my oven was too hot. I also bake with a convection oven and apparently I’m supposed to slightly adjust temperatures that are meant for the regular kind but I haven’t quite figured that out yet. The genius about phyllo pastry though is if it’s too burnt, you can just nudge it a little and it will flake right off. Nobody will notice.

Doesn’t this look delicious? You can almost hear the crunch of the phyllo pastry.

To go with my cabbage strudel, I decided to roast a bird. I roasted my first chicken exactly a year ago with the guidance of Ina Garten’s recipe. I’ve tried a couple of others but this one’s the best so far. And it’s simple! A couple of things before we get roasting: 1) Make sure that the chicken is completely thawed to room temperature. If the temperature of the chicken is uneven, it will cook unevenly. 2) I find that it helps to remove as much moisture from the chicken as possible, in the cavity and outside, using paper towels. 3) I roast my chicken on a baking rack with the baking tray under it – it prevents the bottom of the chicken from becoming too soggy and it catches the drippings.

To make Ina Garten’s roast chicken, preheat the oven to 220 C/425 F. Liberally sprinkle the chicken inside and out with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Drop about a tablespoon of softened butter into the cavity. Rub about 2 tablespoons more on the chicken and really get it in the nooks and crannies, under the skin. Sprinkle with more salt and freshly ground black pepper. Half a lemon and puncture the outside with a knife. I saw Jamie Oliver do that on TV once. He was also roasting chicken. Half a bulb of garlic crosswise. Grab a bunch of fresh thyme and proceed to stuff the cavity of the chicken. Leave some fresh thyme to sprinkle on top. I didn’t have any kitchen twine so I used a long folded strip of aluminum foil instead to secure the legs together. Tuck the wings under the body. Bake in the oven for an hour and a half. It’s gonna smell gooooood…

…and look gorgeous.

To make sauce, I just splashed the baking pan with some chicken stock and placed it back in the oven for a bit to loosen up the drippings. I transferred it to a saucepan and brought it to a boil then adjusted with more chicken stock to taste and let it reduce a tiny bit. I usually have a roux going in the saucepan to thicken it into a gravy but I didn’t feel like it probably because I was too excited to eat already. I had it all with a nice chilled glass of Riesling.

This is nice and neat but it’s approximately 50 times more delicious when you make a mess of it with sauce, roasted garlic, roasted lemon ooze, and of course, the cabbage strudel.

Although mine turned out a little salty for my taste, cabbage strudel does go very well with roast chicken. It’s everything Nora Ephron promises – sweet, savory, and surprising – all wrapped up in wonderfully buttery and flaky phyllo pastry. The more I think about it, the more it seems like her. Not that I knew her or anything but she seemed to me like a smart, funny, and independent woman with strong feminist leanings who was, surprisingly (?), a hopeless romantic at heart. She was clearly optimistic about love – she married three times. I admire all of these things about her so much and hope to take them with me.

Thank you, Nora – for the heartwarming romantic comedies, the hilarious thoughts on aging, a fabulous new side for roast chicken which I will make often while thinking of you, and most importantly, for capturing Billy Crystal on film when he was still young and hot. Cheers.

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