Monday, December 15, 2014

Amandelbroodjes

The month of December could just as well be called "almond month". It's when specialties such as gevulde speculaas, banketletter, banketstaaf, and kerststol show up in bakeries and cafés, and at coffee time with friends or family. For many, these Dutch pastries and breads signify the welcome arrival of the winter festivities, such as Sinterklaas and Christmas.

These baked goods all have almonds in common: they're filled with the sweet, slightly sticky substance called "amandelspijs" or almond paste, that is so loved by many. Almonds have been part of our baking history for many centuries: the earliest Middle Dutch cookbook "Wel ende edelike spijse" already mentions a variety of almond dishes, such as almond butter and almond bread porridge. It seems that we developed a sweet tooth and a craving for almonds early on!

Today's pastries are called "amandelbroodjes". These almond filled treats used to be so popular that a Protestant church in The Hague sold them by the thousands to finance their new chapel! Its name literally translates to "almond rolls", but they're hardly rolls. They're more like the apple turnovers, or appelflappen, that we're familiar with. The good thing is that they're easy to make, and quick to bake. The bad news is that they'll disappear in no time, as they are absolutely delectable. It's hard to deny yourself the pleasure of biting into a warm piece of banket!

Amandelbroodjes
8 oz* slivered almonds
8 oz* sugar
1 teaspoon almond essence
1 large egg
Zest of 1/2 lemon

8 squares of puff pastry

1/4 cup coarse sugar

Add the almonds, the 8 oz of sugar, the almond essence, one large egg and the lemon zest to a food processor, and pulse repeatedly until the paste comes together. It should be sticky but stiff, and you should still be able to see itty-bitty pieces of almond and sugar crystals.

Preheat the oven to 385F. Take 2 oz of the almond paste and roll it into a small log. Wet the puff pastry with a  little bit of water, and place the log slightly to the right of the middle (see picture above). Fold the dough over so that the long ends meet, and pinch the dough together or use a small fork to push the tines into the dough and sealing it. Brush a little bit of water on the top of the turnover and dip it into the coarse sugar.

When all turnovers have been filled and folded, you can place them in the fridge until you are ready to bake. Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silpat and cover with plastic so they don't dry out. You can wrap and freeze any leftover spijs.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until the tops are golden and puffy. No worries if they look too big, the dough will slightly collapse as it cools!

Almond paste gets really, really hot, so don't bite into a hot amandelbroodje just yet.....let it cool until warm to the touch - that's when they're at their best!





* Volume ounces are different than weight ounces. A full measuring cup of 8 volume ounces does not necessarily equal 8 weight ounces: imagine the difference between a cup of feathers and a cup of lead! The ounces for this recipe are by weight, not by volume.  

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Koffie Verkeerd

The enjoyment of coffee drinking is nothing new to the Dutch. Public coffee houses, where the caffeine-laden beverage could be enjoyed, have been part of the city landscapes since the early seventeenth century. Traditionally, only men visited these koffiehuizen, to talk about politics, read newspapers, smoke pipe tobacco and do business while drinking cups of hot, steaming coffee. Women seldom, if at all, entered these public houses, and preferred to consume coffee and tea at home.

Slowly but surely, coffee became an integral part of the day as it was served with breakfast, then with lunch, and as the integration of the black beverage solidified over the years throughout all layers of society, coffee was also served with dinner at six, and again at 8pm. The country became a coffee-loving nation, which it is to this day. According to The Atlantic magazine, the Netherlands is the world's most-coffee-drinking nation, with an average of 2.4 cups a day.

But 2.4 doesn't sound like all that much, to tell you the truth. On average, we consume four to five cups a day (one cup at breakfast, another one at work around 10:30, possibly a third one to wrap up lunch time or at 2:30pm as a pick-me-up with a cookie or a koekje, maybe a cup with dinner, and another cup at 8pm). On those days that the buurvrouw comes over, you drink at least two or three cups, while you visit and talk about well...the other neighbors, I guess. With an average of 2.4 cups, either people have stopped visiting or somebody's not pulling their weight back home!

The persistent rumor that the Dutch are so stingy that they will only offer a single cookie with coffee is one that is hard to kill, but so very untrue. Nine out of 10 Dutch people insist that serving coffee without cookies is just "not done": the cookie is part of the coffee drinking experience. This explains why, when ordering coffee at a café, one usually gets a cookie or little piece of chocolate with the order. And since, especially in company, the Dutch will seldom only consume one cup of coffee (that's just not gezellig!), it is very doubtful that a second cookie is not offered with a follow-up cup.

Koffie verkeerd, or "wrong coffee", is a typical Dutch way of consuming coffee: half automatic drip coffee and half warm milk. It's called "wrong" because traditionally coffee only contains a "wolkje", a small cloud, of milk.

Koffie Verkeerd
4 oz strong drip coffee, hot
4 oz milk
Sugar as desired

Warm the milk to the point of boiling, and add to the hot coffee in the cup. Stir. Serve. With a cookie. Or better, make it two!



Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Appelkruimelvlaai

It's not quite fall yet, but our local orchard is already announcing the ripeness of their first apples. We pick varieties as they ripen, so towards the end of the month, we always end up with a couple of apples of each flavor. Some are sweet, some are tart, some hold up well in the oven and others become jammy and tender. I don't mind as it's a perfect mix for apple pie!  

Vlaai, a broad and flat yeast dough pie, is originally from the province of Limburg. During the weekly bread baking duties, women would often flatten out a piece of leftover bread dough and cover it with slices of fresh fruit or a ladle of sweet jam, so that they had something to eat with their coffee (and you know how much we like our coffee time!). When the bread baking was delegated to the village baker, who baked and brought it to the house, vlaaien would only be baked for Sunday visits, during village fairs and for the holidays. 

Baking vlaai on Sunday is still a bit of a tradition in the South, and a piece of warm vlaai straight out of the oven is often eaten for lunch, with a cup of coffee or two. Depending on what fruit is seasonal and ripe, you could get apple vlaai, cherry vlaai or plum vlaai. If there was no fruit to be had, or it was a special occasion, sometimes you'd get kruimelvlaai, a sweet custardy vlaai with crunchy streusel on top. 

Today's vlaai, appelkruimelvlaai, or apple crumble vlaai, is similar to the Dutch apple pie that many are familiar with, albeit it with less sugar. The natural flavor of the apple is allowed to shine through, and because you only bake it for 25 to 30 minutes, some of the apple still has a bit of a bite. Fantastic!

The vlaai dough is easy to make. The average vlaai pan is 11 inches wide and about 3 inches high, but any size will do,  so don't let that hold you back!

Appelkruimelvlaai
For the dough
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

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.

For the filling*
4 to 5 large apples, various flavors
Juice of 1/2 lemon
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons panko

Peel and core the apples, then cut into dice. Slices are okay too, but for this pie I like the cubes, they add a bit of texture. Toss the apples with the lemon juice, the sugar, cinnamon and the cornstarch. Keep the panko aside until you are ready to assemble the vlaai.

Grease your pie pan, 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, cover and let it rest while you make the kruimeltopping.

For the topping
1 cup AP flour
1 stick butter, cold
1/2 cup sugar

Cut the butter into small pieces. Mix the flour and the sugar in a bowl, and rub the butter between your fingers in the flour. I tend to put flour and butter between the palms of my hands and rub them together (no patience!) until the mixture resembles wet sand.

Heat your oven to 400F. Sprinkle the panko on top of the dough (this prevents too much juice going into the dough and making it soggy). Pour the apple mixture on top of the vlaai dough, flatten it out a bit and then top with the crumble. Bake in the oven for 25 minutes, and check to see if your kruimeltopping is browning. If it's not already golden, give it five more minutes and then finish it under the broiler for a nice golden color. Do not walk away at this point, these broilers are fast!!

Let the vlaai cool so that the filling can settle, cut into generous pieces and enjoy it by itself, with a dollop of whipped cream or a la mode, with a big scoop of ice cream.




*If you would like, you can add raisins, currants, boerenjongens or boerenmeisjes to the filling.



Thursday, August 7, 2014

Kersenstruif


Kersen, or cherries, are grown abundantly in the Netherlands. Old-fashioned varieties with fun and mysterious names such as Mierlose Zwarte, Udense Spaanse, Meikersen, Dikke Loenen, Pater van Mansveld and Morellen (pie cherries) can be found in fruit-rich areas such as Limburg, De Betuwe or the Kromme Rijnstreek, close to Utrecht. During the eighties and nineties, many of the cherry orchards were eradicated because of urban development, but in the last several years, a new movement to bring back some of the old-fashioned varieties is quite successful.

Until the 1970's, the small village of Mierlo in the province of Brabant was THE place for all cherry lovers to travel to during the season. Because of its calcium-rich soil, the Mierlose Zwarte, the black cherry of Mierlo, was a favorite indulgence, popular because of its particular flavor and sweetness. It was also the cherry of choice to bake kersenstruif with, cherry pancakes, a traditional dish during the short cherry season. People would beg, bargain or steal to make sure they obtained a pound or two of the harvest so that they did not have to miss out on this treat!

The Mierlose Zwarte also suffered from the urban sprawl and during these last thirty years, production was minimal. Fortunately, growers like the Van Der Linden family at the Kersenboerderij kept a small part of the orchard with original trees, and are currently very successful in grafting and expanding this heirloom orchard.

The season for Dutch cherries is short, starting around June 1st, and barely making it to mid-July. Cherries are best eaten fresh, and are most often consumed that way by the Dutch. It is therefore not surprising that there are only a few recipes that involve cherries in a different fashion: kersenvlaai (cherry pie), kersenpap (cherry porridge) and today's recipe, kersenstruif. These recipes work best with slightly overripe, dark, sweet cherries. Since we don't have access to the Mierlose Zwarte, the Bing cherry is a usable substitute.

I read somewhere that, traditionally, people left the pits in the cherries for this dish: I am unsure as to how this would contribute to a better flavor, and can only imagine what harm it may cause. Therefore, I highly recommend pitting and halving the cherries before you add them to the pan! 

Kersenstruif
Four cups pitted and halved sweet, dark Bing cherries
1 1/2 cups self-rising flour*
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 1/4 cup milk
Pinch of salt
Butter

Beat the flour, sugar, vanilla, eggs with one cup of milk and the pinch of salt, until you have a silky smooth batter. Stand for ten minutes, covered. If the batter thickens, add a little bit more milk, a tablespoon at a time.

Melt a little bit of butter in your favorite non-stick pan or on your pancake skillet. Distribute half a cup of pitted cherries on the melted, then pour approximately a fourth of a cup of batter over the cherries. Bake at medium heat until the pancake bubbles up and starts to dry on top. Use a large spatula to flip the cherry pancake and continue to bake it on the other side.

Serve with powdered sugar. Makes approximately 8 pancakes.



* if you don't have self-rising flour, add a scant tablespoon of baking powder to all-purpose flour, or two teaspoons of active dry yeast. If you use yeast, warm the milk to 110F, and allow the batter to sit for twenty minutes, then stir it down.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Aardbeienjam

Strawberries, or aardbeien, are a welcome sign in early summer. The moment the first crate of these zomerkoninkjes (called King of Summer because of its little green crown) hit the market, you'll see strawberries in everything: on beschuit, on fresh fruit tarts, or on slices of fresh, white, buttered bread if you're lucky!

The actual natural strawberry season only lasts for a good five to six weeks, from early June until mid July, but the Netherlands is able to produce about 20 million pounds a year because of their ingenious greenhouse and plastic tunnel systems. It keeps us in strawberries practically year round, except for the first two months of the year, when the runners are being refrigerated for up to 10 weeks before being put in the soil. The strawberry that is most popular in Holland is the Elsanta variety.

It goes without saying that strawberries freshly picked in the field, that are still a little warm from the sun, are hands-down the best for eating fresh. So if you're growing your own, or have the chance to get your hands on some, enjoy them while you can! If you are not able to get around to eating all of them immediately, but don't want them to go to waste, making a quick jam* is a second option.

If you find yourself in the country during this time of year, you may enjoy visiting Het Aardbeienland, a small theme park in Limburg. Its main focus is, you guessed it, strawberries! There is plenty of opportunity to pick your own, learn about new and heirloom varieties, have the kids play in the playground or walk around the Strawberry Forest.

Aardbeienjam
1 lb strawberries, hulled and chopped
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon pectin powder

Add the strawberries, sugar, lemon juice and water to a small saucepan. Bring the pan up to heat, and let the mixture simmer for about twenty minutes, on low, until the fruit is soft. Mash with a fork or potato masher. Stir in the pectin, bring up to a boil and stir for a whole minute, then take off the stove and let it cool. Pour the jam in a clean container and refrigerate*. Eat within two weeks.

*This jam is meant for quick consumption and is not to be stored outside of the fridge, or for a long period of time. If you wish to omit the pectin powder, just continue to simmer the jam until it's thick. If you wish to preserve the jam for shelf, or long life holding, please follow canning instructions for your area (depends on high altitude) and from an approved source: either your local Extension office or here. If the jam shows any sign of spoilage (mold, acetone smell) please discard the jam immediately. Food safety is key: it's not worth sacrificing a couple of dollars or your family's health for. I will be doing a proper canning article later in the year.