Come Into My Kitchen

Carol Jean DeFeo’s cooking marries Croatian and Italian cuisines

Carol Jean (Stipetich) DeFeo learned to make apple strudel from her mother.
Carol Jean (Stipetich) DeFeo learned to make apple strudel from her mother. The Kansas City Star

Were marrying the Croatian and Italian cuisines in your kitchen as successful as your marriage to your beloved Fred? It was a happy union between Fred and I both inside and outside the kitchen. Croatia and Italy are separated by the Adriatic Sea, so we were both raised in the tradition of eating wholesome, unprocessed foods that were made to sustain.

Sarma, which is cabbage leaves stuffed with sausage and covered with a tomato sauce, is the perfect example of a dish that brought our cultural cuisines together. Like most food I prepare, it is very simple but takes time to make. What would be considered peasant food in the old country might now be considered a more gourmet dish, because of the steps involved in its preparation.

Did you learn to cook from your mother, Kathryn (Radocaj) Stipetich, growing up on Strawberry Hill? My mother was always in the kitchen cooking up wonderful things. She always had sauerkraut fermenting in the kitchen and made tasty things for my father, two brothers and me to eat. I remember being 5 years old and cooking something with my mother’s sister Rose and her friend Rose Weitzl. That memory sticks with me so vividly, but I can’t remember what it was I made.

I have a large extended family, and we always get together over the holidays. One of my cousins recently told me that it was my mother, whom they called Aunt Kathryn, that taught them how to make this apple strudel. That means a lot.

Six years ago, you lost your mother; father, John; and husband, Fred, within a year. How did you get through it all? I can tell you that there were many days I felt laid flat, but in life, you still have choices. You can bury yourself in sadness or make the decision to live and carry on your beloveds’ memories.

Of course, food is the language that transcends speaking, when there are no words to say. People brought food to me and were so loving and nurturing. Now, cooking and sharing these family recipes for and with others has become a way to stay connected to the past and pay it forward. I think all three would be tickled that I’m sharing this strudel recipe with anyone who wants to try to make it.

As sentimental and empathetic as you are, you also have a very logical side to you, as demonstrated by your career as a math teacher. Do you think cooking provides real-world experience with mathematical principles? People not only learn about math in the kitchen, they also learn about science. Cooking is chemistry on its most basic level. Children can learn about time concepts, fractions and measurements. How do you double or halve a recipe? You use math.

I taught for 20 years at Rockhurst High School and was the math teacher for the Mirabile boys of Jasper’s Restaurant & Marco Polo’s Italian Market. I’d like to think they use their math skills in the restaurant on a daily basis. But more than learning mathematical concepts, whether you’re making sarma or strudel, hopefully people are learning the value of coming into the kitchen together.

Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. Email her at to nominate a cook.

Carol Jean (Stipetich) DeFeo

Residence: Kansas City

Occupation: Retired mathematics teacher

Special cooking interest: Croatian and Italian foods

Apple Strudel

Makes 4 strudels, yielding approximately 14 (1-inch) pieces per strudel

For the pastry:

1 egg

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup vegetable oil

2/3 cup warm water (105- to 110-degrees)

1 tablespoon sugar

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

For the filling:

5 pounds Jonathan apples, divided

1 cup unsalted butter, melted and divided

1 cup sugar, divided

2 teaspoons cinnamon, divided

1 cup finely crushed vanilla wafers, divided

For garnish:

2 tablespoons melted butter, divided

Confectioners’ sugar, optional

To make the pastry: In a large mixing bowl, beat egg, salt and oil with an electric mixer on medium speed. Add warm water and sugar and continue beating until frothy. Gradually add flour, 1 cup at a time, turning electric mixer to lower speeds as needed. (If mixer strains too much, incorporate remaining flour by hand using a wooden spoon.)

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes. If dough feels sticky, add flour 1/4 cup at a time. Divide dough in half and roll each into a ball. Place each into a lightly greased pan, turning each ball of dough over until lightly coated with oil. Cover each bowl of dough with plastic wrap and allow to rest for about 1 hour in a warm place.

While dough is resting, prepare apples by peeling, coring and cutting into thin slices.

To assemble strudel: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 jelly-roll pans with nonstick aluminum foil or parchment paper and lightly coat with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.

Place a 2- by 5-foot piece of clean muslin or cotton over a tabletop and sprinkle lightly with all-purpose flour. Roll out dough until it is paper-thin and makes a rectangle that measures about 36 inches in width by about 40 inches in length.

Standing in front of the 36-inch spread of paper-thin dough, evenly brush 1/2 cup melted butter over all.

Using a sharp knife, cut dough lengthwise into two equal pieces, yielding two pieces of pastry that measure approximately 18 inches wide by 40 inches in length.

Leaving a 2-inch border from the edge of dough on all sides, sprinkle 1/2 cup finely crushed wafers over all. Carefully place half of apple slices over portion of dough covered in wafer crumbs. Sprinkle 1/2 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon over all apples.

Standing in front of the width of dough, carefully fold 2-inch border over apples on the left and right side of each rectangle, yielding 2 pieces of pastry that measure approximately 14 inches in width by 40 inches in length. Carefully lift the edge of the cloth nearest you as an aid to first fold over the dough. Continue lifting the cloth, allowing pastry to carefully roll upon itself to create two 14-inch strudels, fashioned jelly-roll style. Crimp to seal all edges of dough and transfer each to prepared pans. Brush the top of the unbaked pastry with 1 tablespoon melted butter.

Bake for 45 minutes or until pastry is golden brown. Continue process for remaining ball of dough, using remaining butter, apples, sugar and cinnamon.

Allow strudel to cool before cutting. If desired, dust with confectioners’ sugar immediately before serving.

Per serving: 109 calories (44 percent from fat), 5 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 14 milligrams cholesterol, 15 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 11 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.