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!
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.