“So, got any plans for your weekend?”
Max doesn't bother to look up from the ball of dough he’s been kneading for the past fifteen minutes. “Not really,” he says. “Just a quiet two days with the family.” He steps back, stretching his arms out for a moment before returning to the dough and throwing it against the tabletop. “I think we’re all looking forward to that.”
“Don’t go destroying that dough, Chef.” Robbie looks up from the chives he’s been mincing. “Now tell me, what has it ever done to you?”
“It’s—” Smack. “—just —” Smack. “—how —” Smack. “—I —” Smack. “—was —” Smack. “—taught!” He slams the ball of dough back on the counter and pokes at it; it’s not quite springing back as much as he would like it to, so he returns to his flogging. “Makes it easier to work with later!”
“Do you always abuse bread in this manner?” he says with a cheeky little grin.
Max rolls his eyes. “Just strudel, Chef.” After a few more smacks, he throws it back against the countertop; this time, it springs readily at his touch. Perfect. “The more you develop the gluten, the easier it will be to stretch out.” Pulling off one of his side towels, he lays it flat against the countertop and gently transfers the pastry dough onto it. “It’ll tear otherwise when you try to work it.”
Robbie’s knife continues to clatter against the cutting board as Max rolls out the dough. “How thin is strudel supposed to go? Don’t think I’ve ever worked with it.”
“As thin as humanly possible.” After years of being parted from his homeland, it’s quite soothing to be able to work with his cuisine again; even now, gently teasing the dough into the proper thickness still comes naturally to him. “Chef Wilmer at the Albertina would train us with newspapers. He wouldn’t be satisfied until he could read yesterday’s headlines through the dough.”
“Excuse me, Chef?” Max looks up from the dough to see Noah, one of the younger cooks, walk to him with a mixing bowl in hand. “I’ve made the filling, but I’m not sure if it’s to your liking. Could you give it a quick taste?”
“Of course,” he says, grabbing a nearby spoon and plunging it into the sweet-smelling apple filling inside the bowl. Upon tasting it, it’s almost perfect—the sweetness of the apples, the crunch of the nuts—but something’s just not exactly right.
“It’s a bit too sweet.” He sets the spoon down. “Try to cut it with some lemon…” His voice falters as he realizes what he’s saying. “…juice.”
“We’re out of lemons, Chef,” says Noah. “I’m still amazed at how many we managed to get in last month.”
Damn rationing. “Very well, um,” says Max, drumming his fingers against the countertop, “try adding a pinch of cream of tartar and a splash of water. Just to cut the sweetness, it doesn’t need to taste exactly like lemons.”
“Yes, Chef,” says Noah, turning back on his heel towards his workspace.
“Too sweet, Chef?” says Robbie, gently scraping the minced chives into a small container. “We cannae afford to waste sugar like that.”
He sighs. “I know, I know,” he says, returning to the dough; it’s still too opaque for his liking. “He’s a kid working with a vague recipe. He probably just added a pinch too much.” He smiles to himself, thinking of how dinner went last night. “Tzippi always gets a bit too enthusiastic with her measurements whenever she helps me, too. I’ll ask for a pinch of salt and she’ll throw in a handful.”
“Ah, starting them young, aren’t you?”
“She always insists on helping with dinner.” Finally, he can start to see the faint pattern of the towel come through; the weave of the fabric is clear through the dough. “Rebekka and I spend so much time in the kitchen that she thinks it’s just something everyone does. Oh, but she’s a great baker; if we give her an exact recipe with exact quantities, she’ll follow it to the letter every time—”
“Excuse me, Chef.”
He thrusts the bowl towards him again. “I added the cream of tartar, like you asked.”
“And the water?” he asks, grabbing a clean spoon.
“How do you think it tastes?”
“A bit better, Chef? I don’t know if I added too much or too little, I’ve only ever used it in biscuits.”
It’s missing those citrusy notes, but there’s just enough tartness to contrast the sugar.
“Much better,” he says.
“Thank you, Chef.”
“It’s not perfect, but, well…” He shrugs. “Cream of tartar isn’t a perfect substitute. Not your fault.”
Max pats a clean, flour-free area of the countertop. “You can set that right there,” he says. “And could you please get me the rest of the melted butter?”
“So,” says Robbie, wiping down his cutting board before setting down a bunch of scallions, “how are we planning on assembling this strudel with all that dough?”
“Just lay some filling down in a neat line and roll it up,” says Max, gently brushing the dough with the butter as soon as Noah sets it down. “All those layers will act a bit like puff pastry in the oven; they’ll rise up and become all nice and crispy.”
“Then why don’t you just use puff pastry?”
“Because that would be blasphemous.” He spoons out the apple mixture near the top of the dough. “It’s not traditional. Puff pastry is meant for other things, not strudel.” He drizzles a bit of butter onto the filling and begins the long and painstaking process of rolling it up. “I have standards.”
“Strange, I always thought you were one for innovation.”
He scoffs. “Not with strudel,” he says, continuing to drizzle even more butter onto the dough and rolling it up. Truly, it would be more efficient to just use puff pastry instead of going through the trouble of stretching and rolling the dough like this, but then that would mean replacing the hours of kneading and stretching with hours of rolling and folding, which is a whole different kind of inefficiency altogether. Besides, he’s nothing if not stubborn when it comes to his culture, and he’s not about to laminate some dough to replace the proud tradition of making strudel with a towel.
Speaking of laminated dough, it seems that Noah’s making himself useful again by pulling out the lean dough and butter that he’s worked on earlier this morning. Truly, he’s an efficient kid, always looking for the next task to complete; had it not been for a bout of rheumatic fever as a child, he would have made a wonderful military officer.
“Excuse me, Chef, how many folds would you like for the croissant dough?”
Robbie temporarily looks up from his cutting board. “Three three-folds, please,” he says.
Robbie eyes him suspiciously. “That’s it?” he says, narrowing his eyes. “Just three?”
“Well, it gets the job done, doesn’t it?”
“Well, back at the Imperial, we’d fold our croissant dough four times.” The strudel finally completely rolled, he gingerly moves it to a greased baking tin and makes his way towards the range. “And we always liked to make the last one a four-fold to give it a few more extra layers.” The metal tin squeaks against the grate of the oven as he slides it in. “Over two hundred layers. Three three-folds will barely give you fifty.”
“Well, excuse me, Chef,” says Robbie, “but croissant dough is leavened. It doesn’t need all those hundreds of layers.”
“Are you questioning my expertise, Chef?” he says, trying to look disapproving even as a laugh threatens to rise in his chest. “For years I've been making laminated pastries, and you dare insist that they don’t need layers?”
“Chefs, I’m really sorry,” says Noah, nervously looking back and forth between the two, “but do you want me to fold it a few extra times or not?”
Robbie waves his hand. “Do the three three-folds. Don’t listen to Chef Klein.”
“Sure, don’t listen to the Austrian on matters of lamination.”
“No, you don’t dare get to play the refugee card to get out of this conundrum—which you started—”
He really does laugh this time. “It’s not about being a refugee,” he says. “All the good laminated pastries come from Vienna.” The flour sparkles in the light as he wipes it off the bench. “It’s why they’re called viennoiseries.”
Clack, clack, clack, goes the knife as Robbie methodically minces the bunch of scallions. “Croissants are French.”
“Yes, but they were popularized by an Austrian baker. 1839. Learn your history.”
“Surely not all the good pastries are Viennese, Chef.”
“Go ahead, name a few.” God, where’s the food order? It’s never this late, and he needs to sign off on it already lest he go mad with the break in his routine.
“I’ll bite. Turnovers?”
“Pain au chocolat?”
There’s a pause as Robbie looks at him suspiciously, as if weighing his words.
“You’re pulling my leg, Chef.”
“I assure you I am not.” Seriously, it’s been almost an hour, and while he could pass the time fabricating filet mignon, he’s not about to go and greet the delivery boy with hands that reek of raw beef. “It was introduced to Denmark by Austrian bakers, and they liked it so much that they decided it was their own.”
“Excuse me, Chefs?”
The boy looks timid even as he’s busy rolling out several pounds of dough. “I heard that puff pastry is French, not Austrian.”
“Aha!” Robbie triumphantly sets his knife down with a clatter. “And you were the one going on and on about tradition earlier with that damn strudel when your proud viennoiseries are made with French dough—”
“So what if the French got a bit cocky and decided to mess with the recipe a bit!”
“And still you lecture me about how I should be folding my croissant dough—”
“Sorry for the delay, gentlemen!”
A clatter of footsteps interrupts their debate, and Max’s head sharply turns around to see Feldman wobbling over with a large wooden crate smelling of—
“Lemons,” he says triumphantly, setting the crate on the floor with a heavy thud. “Two whole pounds. Just managed to get them in last-minute.”
Max’s eye is beginning to twitch. “Lemons?” he asks, trying very hard not to look at the imperfect strudel currently baking away in the oven.
“Best you don’t ask,” he says, uncharacteristically stern, before clearing his throat and turning on his heel. “Rest of the delivery should be down within the minute.”
“Lemons,” he repeats, staring down at his hands as Feldman skips back through the hallway. “Oh, God, we could have waited another half hour instead of using cream of tartar—”
“No, it’s not your fault, Noah.” He sighs, leaning against the counter. “I just hope Lady Hamilton will be satisfied with this imperfect strudel.”
“Och, she’ll never be satisfied, Max,” says Robbie ominously. “You know that.”
Max meets his eyes again; despite their earlier japes, he’s still smiling at him knowingly, as if he knows they’re both in on the entire joke.
And he really can’t help but return the grin in full force. “Well, too bad for her.”
It’s no Vienna. But it may be the most damn fun he’s had in the kitchen for a while.