Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hopjesvla

Vla is a dairy dessert that is so engrained in the Dutch kitchen, that you will find at least one or two packages of vla in every refrigerator. It's traditionally the most favorite dessert to finish a meal with, often poured into the same dish you were served your main course on (and some will say that the savory gravy leftovers on the plate will add that extra little "something" to the sweet vla), and eaten with a spoon.

Most often, people will have two or more favorite vlas: with a selection of over twenty flavors, it is easy to find several that you like. The most common flavors are ofcourse vanilla and chocolate, but others like caramel, blanke vla (with a flavor that nobody has yet been able to define, it is simply called "white vla" or "blank vla", depending on how you interpret it), lemon, raspberry...you name it. Seasonal vlas include stoofpeertjes vla, or apple/cinnamon for the fall, and lighter ones, mixed with yogurt for the summer or spring.

But vla has always been one of those desserts that I didn't want to try and make at home: after all, how can you approach the flavor that has been carefully (and chemically) defined in dairy factories all over the country? Newer cookbooks don't mention vla anymore, but digging deep into the early and mid last century cookbooks brought up a few recipes. And I am so glad I did: it turned out to be much easier than I expected and definitely an improvement over any store-bought vlas!

Vla is, as far as I can tell, a typical Dutch dessert, and seemingly one of "recent" discovery. The cookbook of the Haagsche Kookschool from 1895 does not mention any vla: the closest recipe is one for vanilla sauce, but another cookbook, the Nieuw Praktisch Kookboek, first published in 1906 gives recipes for chocolate vla, vanilla vla and even almond vla. Hurray, the vla has been invented!!

And luckily for us, the coffee flavored candy Haagse Hopjes had been invented by then as well, so that the combination of flavor and dessert was just a matter of time......

Hopjesvla
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups milk
1/2 cup strong, black coffee
2 teaspoons instant coffee (optional)
3 tablespoons corn starch
2 egg yolks

Heat a saucepan with a heavy bottom and add the sugar. Watch carefully as the dry sugar turns liquid and slowly colors golden. Monitor your heat carefully as sugar will go quickly from golden to burnt!

Mix the coffee with the milk and stir well to dissolve the instant coffee granules. When the sugar has caramelized CAREFULLY pour half of the milk in the pan. The sugar will seize up and harden, but by stirring and bringing the milk up to a slow boil, the caramel will soften and eventually dissolve. Continue to stir.

In a separate bowl, mix the cornstarch with the two egg yolks and slowly add in the remainder of the coffee and milk. Now take a tablespoon of hot milk out of the pan and add it to the mixture, stir well and add another one. Do this three more times so that the egg/cornstarch mixture is up to temperature. Take the pan off the stove, and carefully stir in the egg mixture. Return the pan to the heat, and slowly bring up to boil, all the while stirring.

The vla will thicken in the next two to three minutes, and will be ready to take off the stove when it "gloops" i.e. air bubbles will come to the surface and instead of disappearing will leave small holes in the vla, making a "gloop" sound. That's the best I can describe it!

Pour the vla in a bowl, cover with plastic film to avoid the formation of a milk skin, and refrigerate until cold.

To achieve the pourable consistency, you may need to add a tablespoon or two of cold milk to the vla and stir it well before serving.





Sunday, February 19, 2012

Poffert

Awwww.......it looks like the Elfstedentocht will have to skip another year. Again. The last time the Eleven Cities Tour race was skated (is that a verb?) was in 1997, and was won by Henk Angenent, a fine Brussel Sprouts grower from the province of South Holland. He finished the 200 kilometer race in 6 hours and 49 minutes and many a Dutch man, or woman, has been eager to beat his record since. But it looks like the weather is not cooperating this year either, so another year goes by without the excitement of Holland's largest speed skating event. Thankfully, there are still plenty of dishes from our northern regions to explore, so here we go!

The province of Friesland is proud of its province and its beautiful waterways, and it shows. As a matter of fact, the whole country is taking a larger interest in its own beauty, and several fantastic magazines dedicated to either outdoor living, backyard farming or covering certain regional areas have appeared on the store shelves.

During my visit this last January I came across one of those magazines, a beautiful publication called Noorderland. It covers the most northern region of the country, the provinces of Friesland, Drenthe and Groningen to be exact. Their winter photography of traditional Dutch landscapes was breathtaking, but what really got my attention was a gorgeous picture of a poffert. (Yeah I know, big surprise huh....what can I say!? I love Dutch food!!). The magazine itself was no longer on the shelf, but the editorial team was so kind as to send me a backcopy for which I am very grateful. Thank you, Noorderland!

The poffert, or boffert, is originally a northern dish. Not clear on whether it's originally from Friesland or Groningen, the poffert can also go by trommelkoek (tin cake) or ketelkoek (kettle cake), and is usually eaten as a meal, not as dessert or a coffee cake. It's heavy, thick and a real stick-to-your-ribs kind of baked good, but at the same time a fantastic and sweet discovery.

The Frisian cookbook "De Welkokende Vriesche Keukenmeid" from 1772 mentions the poffert and declares that the poffert is "zeer geschikt om op reis mede te nemen" (very suitable for traveling). And we're not surprised: besides being sturdy, it also holds well and becomes even better tasting after a day or two. Not to mention, whomever you will be visiting will be pleased to receive a slice or two!

While researching this recipe, I came across many different variations, as one can expect for a recipe that's been around for several centuries. The earlier mentioned cookbook adds six eggs to a pound of white flour, half a pound of melted butter, a spoonful of rosewater, a spoonful of yeast and some water. A later recipe adds raisins and apples. Other cookbooks suggest lining the cake pan with strips of bacon, then pouring in the batter so it becomes a more savory dish.

What most recipes agree on, though, is that the cake was meant to substitute a meal. No sugar is added to the initial batter, but the slices of bread cake are served with syrup, and if desired, some butter.

Poffert
1/4 cup dark raisins
1/4 cup golden raisins
3 each dried apricots
3 each dried figs
1 tablespoon preserved ginger
2 cups self-rising flour
3 egg yolks
3 egg whites
1 cup of milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons ground almonds (optional)
2 tablespoons brandy
2 tablespoons panko or breadcrumbs

For serving: pancake syrup, cinnamon sugar, powdered sugar

Soak the raisins in half a cup of water. Chop the apricots, figs and ginger and add them to the raisins, set aside to soak.

Add the flour to a mixing bowl and add three egg yolks, the milk, the butter and the salt. Mix well. Whip the egg whites in a separate bowl until stiff, and fold them in with the batter. Lastly, drain and squeeze the dried fruits, then fold them into the batter, together with the brandy.

Spray some baking spray into your poffert pan (if you don't have a poffert pan, you can use a bundt or angel food pan and cover the top with aluminum foil). Add the panko or breadcrumbs and toss them around in the pan until all sides, and the little pokey part in the middle, are covered. Do the same with the lid. Tap out the remainder of the breadcrumbs. Carefully pour the batter into the pan and close with the lid. Only fill the form to about 75% of its capacity, as the batter will tend to rise.

Insert the pan into another pan with hot boiling water, but keep the water level at about an inch, an inch and a half,  below the rim of the poffert pan. Put a trivet on the bottom of the pan so that the surface of the poffert pan does not immediately touch the bottom of the water pan. Put something heavy on top so that the poffert pan doesn't float or tilt. Add hot water as needed.

Keep at a rolling boil for an hour. Remove from the pan, carefully (watch out for steam!!) remove the lid and insert a food thermometer or skewer to see if the cake is done. If the skewer comes out clean, the cake is done. If not return it to the water pan and continue to boil for another twenty minutes.

When the cake is done, replace the lid and put the pan in a 375F oven, middle rack for another ten to fifteen minutes. This will brown the panko and the outside of the poffert.

Tip the pan on a cookie rack, cool until warm, then slice and serve with syrup, butter or cinnamon sugar. If you feel adventurous, tie on some skates and get to practising, the next Elfstedentocht might be just around the corner!!



Saturday, February 11, 2012

Koek-en-zopie

Skating has been on the brain of every Dutch person, voluntarily or not, for the past several weeks. And not just any kind of skating. The air was pregnant with possibilities of another Elfstedentocht this year, and as it always goes, the whole country goes into skate frenzy.

The 200 kilometer ice skating event travels along the waters of eleven Frisian cities, all connected through waterways. But skating is no new pastime for the Dutch: for centuries they've tied skates on and whisked away on the ice, sometimes out of need, but mostly for pleasure.

During the 17th and 18th century, that pleasure part did not only limit itself to slipping and sliding on the ice on a set of iron blades (for the rich) or sharpened large animal bones (for the not-so-rich): as rules and regulations were only applicable to the land, during cold winters and frozen waters, small shacks would appear on the ice. These temporary settlements provided opportunities to strengthen the inner self with hot alcoholic beverages that were taxable and subject to law on the mainland but not on the ice. Other small buildings were constructed to help one lose one's hard earned money in gambling pits or to brave the cold and harsh conditions for eh.....visits of a more carnal nature. Go figure.

But back to the first shack. Called koek-en-zopie's (cookies and hootch), these huts sold cakes and cookies, and something called zopie. The word zopie allegedly comes from the word soopje, which may have been derived from the word zuipen (to imbibe). Regardless, a recipe for the tipple resides online so there was no excuse to not try it out.

Nowadays, koek-en-zopies sell split pea soup, hot chocolate and gevulde koeken, but no more zopie which is a shame, because it was actually quite good and easy to make. So tie on your skates (or tie one on without!) and get to cooking: the Elfstedentocht may be near!

Zopie
3 12 oz. bottles of Michelob Amber Bock (or another type of bock beer)
1 cinnamon stick
2 cloves, whole
2 slices of lemon
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
4 tablespoons rum

Bring the bock beer, with the cinnamon stick, the cloves and the lemon slices to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for fifteen minutes. Whip the brown sugar with the eggs until foamy.

Carefully add a tablespoon of  the warm beer to the egg mixture and stir. Do this five more times, then take the beer off the stove. Remove the cinnamon stick, the lemon and the cloves. Carefully stir in the eggs. Make sure the eggs don't curdle, and keep stirring. Now return the pan to the heat, but do not let the mixture boil. The beverage will thicken a bit and give the drink a smooth, velvety texture.

Stir in the rum, and serve hot with a dollop of whipped cream and some cinnamon.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Zuurkoolschotel

It's cold!!! Holland saw (a lot of) snow last week, the temperatures have dropped and beautiful pictures of white landscapes and bright blue skies are all over the internet. Perfect weather for a wintery dish, the humble but oh so tasty zuurkoolschotel, or sauerkraut casserole.

In Holland, zuurkool is sold raw, i.e. uncooked, straight out of the brine from huge grey or white plastic barrels. The produce man or woman will scoop out a handful, squeeze some of the brine out and deposit the white stringy mass into a plastic bag, tie it closed and hand it to you. And there, in your hand, you hold a humble, flavorful, healthy and chockful with Vitamin C, cabbage bomb, so to say.

Zuurkool is most often served in a casserole (zuurkoolschotel), with three main ingredients: ground beef, mashed potatoes and ofcourse, zuurkool. But that's where it stops, as for every family that eats zuurkoolschotel, there is a different casserole recipe. Some families like to have fruit mixed in: pineapple or apple or raisins or bananas, sometimes even raisins and bananas. Other families prefer a spicier sauerkraut, so they mix in sambal or hot peppers with the ground beef. Yet others rather have a Hungarian twist so they mix lots of paprika and caraway in with the cabbage. Not always are the sauerkraut and potatoes separate: some families like to make a zuurkoolstamppot by mashing the potatoes and mixing in the sauerkraut, which leaves a big old mess for your stamper as the strips of cabbage get tangled in with the wavy metal bars of the masher. But that's half the fun!

And what about the ground beef? Some mix in pieces of fried bacon strips, others use half-om-half (half beef, half pork)........There is no one standard recipe for a zuurkoolschotel and most families will claim that their dish is the best tasting one, but what ALL can agree on is that the zuurkoolschotel is a traditional wintery dish and that it falls in the category of comfort foods.

So make this dish your own, by mixing in favorite flavors. Add garlic, or slice your potatoes instead of mashing them. Use shoarma spices on the ground beef to give it a different twist, or stud the dish with raisins, apples and a spicy, ground mustard. You decide!

Here are the basics:

Zuurkoolschotel
6 large potatoes
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1/4 cup milk
16 oz sauerkraut
16 oz ground beef
1 small can of pineapple pieces, drained
2 tablespoons of panko or breadcrumbs

Peel and quarter the potatoes, place with water on the stove and boil till done in about twenty minutes. In the meantime, drain the sauerkraut. Most sauerkraut in the US is sold ready-to-eat, but read the packaging to make sure. If it's raw, please follow the instructions on the packet and cook the cabbage first.

Brown the ground beef in a skillet, pour off the fat and season the meat with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 375F. Grease an oven dish with a teaspoon of the butter.

Mash the potatoes with the milk and two tablespoons of butter. Depending on how "dry" your potatoes cook, you may need more milk to get a smooth, creamy consistency. Taste and season with salt and pepper if needed.

Spread the ground beef in the casserole. Top it with the sauerkraut, and add the pineapple on top. Finish with a layer of mashed potatoes. Sprinkle the panko on top and dot with the remaining butter. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes or until the panko is golden brown.