Sunday, December 4, 2016

Chocoladeletters

The early days of December always hold much joy and excitement in the heart of the Dutch, old and young - it is Sinterklaas time! A full twenty days ahead of Santa Claus, on December 5th, Sinterklaas delivers presents and goods to all, and the days are filled with plenty of sweets. This is the time of year when you may get speculaasbrokken or a piece of banketstaaf with your cup of coffee, or if you're really lucky, a piece of gevulde speculaas!

Sinterklaas time is also the time that the children get to "set" their shoe by the fireplace or backdoor. The shoe is filled with straw and a carrot for the horse Amerigo, and often has a written letter to Sint with a request for presents. The shoe is always set out right before going to bed. As you can imagine, the next morning is a mad dash to make it to your shoe first, so that you can see what Sint or his helper Piet have left you in return! It's often a small token - a mandarin orange, a small gift or, if you're lucky, a chocolate letter.

In the old days, according to this source, gifts would be covered with a sheet, instead of individually wrapped. A letter made from bread would indicate what presents would be for which child. Later, these letters became chocolate letters and can still be found in all the letters of the alphabet, so that there is a letter for everybody.

The most popular letter is the letter M, not in the least because the perception is that it has the most chocolate....but one look at the weight of both an I and an M reveal that both letters hold exactly the same amount of chocolate. For some reason, the facts don't matter: an M still seems like a better deal than an I!

For those of us that live abroad, it can sometimes be difficult to find chocolate letters so that we can continue the tradition with our families, or the stores we order from have run out or don't have the letters we need anymore. So let's make our own!

Making your own chocolate letters* is really very easy: all it takes is chocolate, a little bit of butter ( 1 oz per 4 oz of chocolate) and all the sprinkles and edible cake decorations you can find. It would be a great afternoon activity to do with the kids and let them decorate their own letters.

Chocolade letters
For approximately 8 small letters
Chocolate, 1 lb
Butter, 4 oz (room temperature)

Melt 12 oz of chocolate over a pot with warm water, or in the microwave, but be careful to not overheat or burn the chocolate. Dark chocolate should not surpass 118F (48C) and milk chocolate should not get hotter than 113F (45C). Remove the pot from the heat and stir the remainder of the chocolate into the melted chocolate to bring down its temperature to between 86F and 88F (30 to 31C). Be careful to not have any water or steam get to the chocolate - it will seize up. (More info on tempering chocolate here).

When all the chocolate has melted, whip the butter airy and fluffy until it turns white, then stir in the chocolate. Place a piece of parchment paper on the back of a baking sheet, and tape it down. Slide your printed letters under the paper. Prepare a piping bag with a star tip, and fill the bag.

Now pipe the letters onto the parchment paper. You can pipe high or double for thicker, higher letters, or do a single pass. If you don't like how you piped it, you can remove the chocolate and add it back to the bag. If the chocolate spreads too much because it's still too warm, put it back in the bag and wait a little bit longer.

You have a bit of time before the chocolate starts to set. Decorate the letters with edible glitter, kruidnoten or chocolate chips for the kids, or go for grownup flavors like a dusting of chili powder, pistachios or sea salt. Place the letters, after they're done, in a cool area to set up: it will take about two hours. You can then wrap them, or eat them :-)




*The easiest letters to pipe are the S and the O, but if you're adventurous or experienced, definitely try different shapes. I printed out the letter S in Calibri font at 520 points so that it would match the traditional small chocolate letter of 4.5 inches by 3. The large letters measure 6 x 4 inches. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Appeltjes onder de deken

Sometimes recipes are hard to resist: either they have adorable names, or they are made with delectable ingredients. This week's recipe combines both: the name of the dish is Appeltjes onder de deken, meaning "little apples under the blanket", and the dessert dish has both apples and custard, a winning combination. How can you say no!?

These "tucked in apples" as this recipe is aptly called, make use of two staples in the Dutch household: apples and vanilla vla. It's a perfect dessert to get in the oven as you dish up the evening meal: by the time you are done and the plates are cleared, your apples will be baked and ready to be served. They are wonderful eaten warm, but will do just well at room temperature.

Apples are not foreign to the Dutch kitchen. We love our apple pie, apple turnovers, apple beignets and appelbollen! It should therefore not be surprising that, last year, 336 million kilos of apples were harvested in the Netherlands. Of all those apples, a whopping 129 million kilos were of the Elstar variety alone. It is easily the most popular apple among the Dutch.

The Elstar apple was developed in the city of Elst, in the province of Gelderland, by a man called Arie Schaap. The Elstar combines the name of the city and the two first letters of Arie's name, in his honor. Since the apple's introduction in the seventies, it has quickly become a Dutch favorite and continues to be so to this day. The Elstar is a red and green apple, with creamy white flesh and a sweet and slightly tart taste, and is a cross between the Golden Delicious and the Ingrid Marie apple.

Other traditional Dutch varieties, which are becoming more and more difficult to find, are Notarisappel, Groninger Kroon, Sterappel, Dubbele Zoete Aagt, Eijsdener Klumpke and the more accessible Belle de Boskoop apple.

Elstar apples are hard to come by here in the United States, so I've used little Gala apples instead. The Elstar has a sweeter taste but the Gala will do for tucking in, so to say. If you have space in your garden, you may consider planting an Elstar tree or any of these other old fashioned Dutch varieties! It takes a bit of looking but they can be found at nurseries.

Appeltjes onder de deken
1/2 cup mixed dried fruits*
1/2 cup of apple juice
2 tablespoons of brandy (optional)
1 tablespoon of brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
4 small size Gala apples
2 packages vanilla pudding (cook and serve, 4.6oz/130gr each)
6 cups milk

Mix the dried fruits with the apple juice, brandy, brown sugar and the cinnamon stick and let it soak overnight.

The next day, heat the oven to 375F while you prepare the hot custard. Wash the apples and cut in half, top to bottom. Remove the core (I use a teaspoon sized measuring spoon for a nice, even round). Pour half of the custard on the bottom of a large baking tray - the tray has to hold 8 apple halves- and keep the rest of the custard warm and covered!**

Place the apples, cut side up, on top of the custard. Stir the dried fruit and put a heaping tablespoon in each apple hollow. Continue until the fruits have been distributed evenly.

Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Serve the apples hot at the table, and pour the rest of the hot custard over the apples right before you serve, tucking them in under a nice, warm blanket.....

Eet smakelijk!






* Use what you have: mix up dark raisins, golden raisins, currants, cranberries, chopped up walnuts, almonds or pecan.

** It's a little bit more work, but I prefer making the second batch of vanilla pudding when the apples are baking - right before they come out of the oven. That way, I have piping hot custard to pour over the apples! 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Pruimenvlaai

"Aan een boom zo volgeladen mist men vijf, zes pruimen niet" wrote Hieronymus van Alphen, the known Dutch poet, pointing out that "on a tree so richly filled five six plums will not be missed". That must be what the squirrels are thinking as, each day upon return from work, I find half-eaten, half-buried plums in my gardens. The tree, however, does not seem less laden for it.

As cute as the little rascals might be, and as willing I am to share the wealth, it is time to put the ripe fruit to good use. Plum jam is always an option, but I am rather partial to vlaaien, the Limburg version of tarts or pies. And seeing as how this afternoon I am expecting company for coffee, a plumb tart or pruimenvlaai seems to be just the ticket!

Limburg vlaaien use a rich yeast dough for the base of their tarts and pies instead of a flaky crust. It is reminiscent of the fact that these particular pies originated from the leftovers of bread dough at the bakery, and at home. The last remaining pieces of dough would be rolled out, flattened and covered with jam, pieces of fruit or sometimes even just a sprinkle of sugar.

The province of Limburg has a large variety of vlaaien, from sweet and tangy (apricot) to rich and creamy (rice), and just about everything in between. The traditional black plum tart, zwarte pruimen vlaai, is made with dried Italian plums, or prunes, and was made during wintertime when fresh fruit was not available. But since this is (late) summer, and plums are abundantly available, we'll make a fresh plum vlaai instead.

As for Dutch plums, there aren't many, which might explain why there is a distinct lack of plum recipes in the many Dutch cookbooks from last century. Some varieties are Vroege Tolse, Eldense Blauwe, Reine Claude van Schouwen, and the Dubbele Boerenwitte that was mentioned as early as 1790 in J.H.Knoop's "Pomologie of Kennisse der Vruchten" publication. If you have space for a fruit tree, it might be fun to plant one of these Dutch varieties!

Pruimenvlaai
1 1/2 cup AP flour
1/2 stick* butter, room temperature
1/3 cup milk, warm
1 small egg
1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt

About 15 ripe plums, washed, pitted and quartered.
Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk, and let it proof while you measure out the rest of the ingredients. Add the flour to a mixing bowl, sprinkle the sugar on top and give it a stir. Now pour the milk with the yeast on top and start mixing. As the dough comes together, add in the egg and a bit later the salt. Add the soft butter and let the whole mixture come together while you need it into a soft dough. (You may need to add a tablespoon or two of milk in case the dough turns out to be a bit dry).

Form the dough into a ball, put it in a bowl, cover and let it rise.

In the meantime, make the filling. You could use a package of vanilla pudding to make it easy on yourself but if you have the time, try making this pastry cream - half the recipe will do.

Grease a large pie pan (11 inches), or vlaaivorm, and roll out the dough into a large circle. Transfer it to the pan, and cut off any excess dough you may have. Poke holes in the dough so that it doesn't seize up while baking. Pour the vanilla pudding or pastry cream on top, then arrange the quartered plums. Bake at 375F for 25 minutes - sprinkle a tablespoon of sugar over the plums and bake for another five minutes. When you take the vlaai out of the oven, sprinkle another tablespoon of sugar over the fruit and let it cool.

It's great served by itself, with a big dollop of whipped cream or, the American way, with a scoop of ice cream!



 * Explanations of how much a stick of butter is can be found under the tab "What's in a cup?" at the top of the page.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Happy King's Day everyone!



What better cake to celebrate with - a traditional Dutch slagroomtaart!! 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Janhagel

These first days of Spring - as the first flowers awaken and the most courageous of the birds dare to sing their song - make a Dutch housewife antsy. After a long, cold and dark winter it is time for the Grote Schoonmaak, otherwise known as Spring cleaning. It's time to open the windows, to bring out the furniture and to let the fresh air blow the cobwebs away! Nowadays, we don't have half of the work our grandmothers or great-grandmothers had to do. In those days, all the furniture would be put outside, the heavy mattresses on the beds would be lifted and aired out and every single corner of the house, every room from top to bottom, would be washed down from ceiling to floor with buckets of sudsy water.


Curtains and bed linens were washed and dried out on the "bleek", a grassy area behind the house that was mowed short for that purpose. Sunshine and fresh air would help to remove the yellow hue and washing liquid odors from the fabric and give it a fresh smell. This was also the time that heavy rugs and mats would get a good beating to get rid of all the dust. Who remembers those rug beaters?

Spring cleaning was also the moment that the ceilings would be whitewashed, all the wood furniture would be rubbed with oil or wax and the rooms would be redecorated with new wallpaper. As you can imagine, it would sometimes take several days to get it all done. Many of the neighborhood women or relatives would come over and help with the heavier loads, especially the mattresses. It was therefore custom that the woman whose mattresses were put out that day would offer this particular cookie (beddenkoek, another name for janhagel) with the afternoon coffee.


Advertisement in paper from 1925.
Not many women had the time to bake during this period of intense cleaning, so bakers in the area would bake and sell Schoonmaak Janhagel during a couple of weeks at the end of winter. After all, Spring cleaning had to be done before Easter, because that was the time of renewal, of new life. It was also the time of year that plenty of family members would be coming over for Easter lunch and you would not want to be caught dead with year-old wallpaper, nicotine and smoke yellowed ceilings and dirty rugs! Oh the shame!!!


But not everybody enjoyed Spring cleaning, as this site confirms. Instead of working up a sweat cleaning and scrubbing, some people would move house during the weeks before Easter and so avoided having to do any cleaning or wallpapering in their current house. Housing regulations stated that all newly rented homes should come with freshly painted and wallpapered walls and a month of free rent, courtesy of the housing agency. It still meant taking out all the furniture and rugs, but instead of moving it back in the same house, they would move it into a freshly painted and wallpapered house, often two doors down from the old one! Smart, or cheeky? You decide!

Either way, all this (reading about) cleaning might have made you tired, so it's time to put your feet up and have a cup of coffee. This cinnamon flavored cookie is quick to make and will make your house smell wonderful, so treat yourself to a janhagel, whether you've cleaned the house or not!*

Janhagel 
2 sticks butter (230 gr)
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
Topping:
1 egg
1/3 cup shaved almonds
1/4 cup coarse sugar


Heat oven to 350F. Using the paddle on a mixer, combine the butter with the sugar  until it looks like coarse sand, then add in the egg. Combine the salt, flour, cinnamon and baking powder and add it to the mixer and let it turn, on medium, until the dough comes together - all the dry ingredients should be incorporated and you should have a cohesive whole.

Remove the dough, pat it down into a circle and wrap it in plastic - then refrigerate for about 30 minutes. This should allow the butter to set up (better baking results). When it has rested, roll the dough out (not too thin!) into a square (or trim the edges) onto parchment paper or a silicone mat. Beat the egg and brush the top of the dough, then sprinkle almonds and sugar on top. Don't forget to sprinkle all the way to the edge! Don't cut the cookies yet, you will do that when they come out of the oven.

Bake the slab of cookie dough golden in about 15 minutes. Remove it from the oven and cut with a knife or pizza cutter while they are still warm. The average size is about half a playing card - but you can divide the dough into equally sized rectangles and make them as big as you wish! The cookies will harden as they cool.

By this time, whomever is in the house will come and see what you are up to - these cookies smell amazing! Explain to them that these are "schoonmaak" cookies and that you can only get one if your room is clean. Just kidding....but hey - it might just work!

Makes about 25 cookies. 




*There is always tomorrow, but if you really would like some motivation to get started, I can highly recommend this website. BabySteps!