Cooking in the Footsteps of My Ancestors

My mother was always blunt, or “direct” if you want to be polite. I learned to live with comments like, “Well, that hairstyle doesn’t look good on you,” or “You just have no sense of style,” (when I preferred my own tailored look to her more flamboyant, sequin-bedecked clothing suggestions).

So it didn’t really surprise me when she looked at her plate one Christmas day and said, “These aren’t right.”

German strudelsShe was looking at the strudels I’d prepared, based on her own recipe. Little pockets of fluffy, dumpling-like goodness—tossed in the air until they’re tissue paper thin, rolled up and steamed over potatoes, and then served with gravy, sauerkraut, and North Dakota sausage. A delectable treat for anyone who grew up in a Black Sea German home. They were my favorite of all the German dishes my mom cooked when I was growing up. I’d spent years learning to make them myself, including coaching from my mom, my dad’s cousin (for effective dough stretching techniques), and my Aunt Idella.

“What’s not right?”

“These. They’re sort of hard.”

Well, they tasted the same as always to me. When I pointed out that this hadn’t prevented either of us from eating a plateful (I could be direct, too), the conversation ended. Until the next day.

The phone rang and when I answered it, the voice on the other end said, “Baking powder.”

It took me a moment to realize this wasn’t the typical approach of a telemarketer and that it was my mother’s voice.

“How old is your baking powder? That’s it. That’s why they weren’t right.”

She obviously had been stewing on this all night. But I confess, I was a little annoyed with the “not right strudel” conversation, so I rolled my eyes, promised to check, and hung up. Later that morning, when I got around to making good on my promise, I discovered that my baking powder was past its expiration date—by seven years. Woops.

Fast forward to yesterday. It was a cold, rainy weekend in Seattle, and strudels seemed like the perfect antidote. Another important factor was that I planned to be home all day. The strudel recipe calls for the dough to rest a lot, so you have to be nearby to tend it.

I’ve learned to check my baking powder these days, and sure enough, mine was expired. But only by a month and I didn’t want to run to the grocery store. I decided it was still fine.

But it wasn’t. My strudels did not live up to my mother’s, aunts’, or grandmothers’ cooking. Probably not my great-grandmothers’ either, but I never had a chance to try their strudels for myself.

Baking powder seems to be my Achilles heel of strudels. I can just sense the disappointment of centuries of Black Sea German ancestresses. I’m sure they whipped up a pot of strudels for the family dinner, flipping the dough up in the air while doing laundry with the other hand and tending small children underfoot.

They created doughy goodness in their primitive kitchens—no running water, wood-fired stoves, a cellar across the yard providing the only refrigeration. By contrast, my kitchen is 21st century elegance—granite tile, gas range, stainless steel appliances, and lots of doodads that peel, core, and chop. And yet, I was foiled by baking powder.

I’ve often visited my ancestral towns to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors. But I still struggle to cook in the footsteps of my ancestors. Sigh. Off to the store for more baking powder.


  1. Steoh on November 16, 2015 at 8:47 pm

    Love your way with words, Carolyn. Very good story.

  2. Carolyn on November 16, 2015 at 9:08 pm


  3. Kathie on November 16, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    I have been searching for a recipe for strudels. Can you help me find one for the dough and filling? Every time I google it, I get recipes for Austrian pastries! Your picture is exactly what I remember the ladies in my family making.

  4. Tom on November 16, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    Send me a batch…I’m a true strudel eater and will give an honest appraisal! Which will be outstanding!

  5. Marilyn Laubhan Yanke on November 17, 2015 at 5:56 am

    Strudle recipe: Yours look like mine, but my mother never told me she used any baking powder. If you can’t give your recipe, at least, could you please give a hint as to baking powder/flour ratio? I also don’t do them in the air, stretch them thin enough to almost read through on my lap (large tea towel pinned around me). Have to use good wheat flour, high protein, with good gluten…. not a wheat/barley mix. Is the straight… direct… personality a generation thing, or an old German thing?

  6. Faith on November 17, 2015 at 6:27 am

    My mother-in-law was like that in her speaking, but you know after awhile it was okay because a person knew exactly where they stood. Her strudels were wonderful, also her knephla and chicken with cream gravy.

  7. misty on November 17, 2015 at 6:30 am

    would you mind sending the recipe to me please

  8. Sheila Butler on November 17, 2015 at 6:34 am

    I have a recipe that calls for yeast and they turn out great every time

  9. Nora on November 17, 2015 at 7:48 am

    Great story. I too would live your recipe. N

  10. Louise Wiens on November 17, 2015 at 9:42 am

    Carolyn: I was in Leipzig this August and thought you might want some photos to add to the Leipzig Facebnok page. If so, how many should I send you? Thanks.
    Louise Wiens, Ontario

  11. Louise Wiens on November 17, 2015 at 9:45 am

    Carolyn: I was in Leipzig, Bessarabia this August and thought you might like some photos to add to the Leipzig Facebnok page. If so, how many would you like?? Thanks.
    Louise Wiens, Ontario

  12. Carletta Zebroski on November 17, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Love to have the recipe for the sturdiest

  13. gabe on November 17, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    This is so funny! Why do our old-fashioned German-Russian mothers always seem to know best? At least now I’m at an age where I can laugh about it. But it took a while.

  14. Strudels for Dummies » Carolyn Schott, Author on November 17, 2015 at 8:03 pm

    […]   Cooking in the Footsteps of My Ancestors […]

  15. admin on November 17, 2015 at 8:05 pm

    This is awesome! I love all of your love for strudels – me too!

    I’ve posted the recipe – report back if you try them!

  16. Carolyn on November 17, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    @Louise – I would LOVE the Leipzig photos! You can send to me at [email protected]

  17. Louise Wiens on November 18, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    Hi Carolyn: I will do this in the next couple of days. Louise

  18. Louise Wiens on November 27, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    Carolyn: I will send you the photos now. Then, separately, I will send you the descriptoon. I don’t know how to do it together. . Louise

  19. Carolyn on November 27, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    Hi Louise,
    Separately works just fine….can’t wait to see them!

  20. Cindy & Idella on December 8, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    Hi Carolyn, I came across this blog by way of the Schott Glass Co. — so I am reading this to mom and all of a sudden I read Aunt Idella and mom said you’re kidding me — so I had her come to the computer and see it. It made her day!! What a fun story to run across and read to her. We both agreed you need to come visit and make mom some strudels.

  21. Carolyn on December 9, 2015 at 7:26 pm

    Hey Cindy – how fun! Yes, your mom’s advice (via her cookbook, I don’t think she and I ever talked about it) on the multiple stages of resting the dough was instrumental in my being able to make good strudels!

    Love you guys!