Saturday, March 31, 2012

Spekpannenkoek

All this talk about spekkoek last week left me with a taste for bacon! Luck would have it that yesterday, on March 30th, the Netherlands celebrated Pancake Day. The centuries old tradition stems from the onset of Lent, a forty day fasting period that would lead straight into Easter. The Tuesday before Lent would be the last day that the believers were allowed to consume luxury items such as eggs, milk, butter and meat. That day is known as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras, but has no particular name in Dutch.

And so neither is Pancake Day celebrated on that famous Tuesday, like in many other countries, but almost a month later, on March 30th. Schools engage in baking pancakes for the retirement homes in their neighborhoods, parents will bake pancakes for dinner that day, and kids are thrilled that there will be no Brussels sprouts, broccoli or sauerkraut on the menu.

Lent or no Lent, pancakes are always a welcome sight at a lunch or dinner table, whether that's at home or at one of the many pancake restaurants around the country. The traditional flavor is sweet, with plain pancakes, apple pancakes or chocolate spread pancakes as the main favorites, but often savory pancakes are eaten as well. The most traditional of those savory delicacies is the spekpannenkoek, or the bacon pancake.

Choose your favorite bacon (thick sliced, peppered, hickory smoked, honey maple......the varieties are endless!) and experiment! This is a basic spekpannenkoek. To make it more interesting, you could sprinkle a handful of grated Gouda cheese on the pancake right before serving, or fry slices of apple with the bacon before adding the pancake batter.

Spekpannenkoeken
10 slices of bacon
3 cups of self-rising flour
2 eggs
6 cups of milk, divided
1 stick of butter, divided

Cut the slices of bacon in three or four pieces, if desired. Stir the flour, three cups of milk and the eggs together. Beat until the batter is smooth, and thin it with the remaining milk. Melt six tablespoons of butter, let it cool a little bit and stir this into the pancake batter. You are looking for a pourable batter.

Heat a 12 inch skillet, and add in ½ tablespoon of butter. Brown the pieces of bacon in the butter, turning them over as they crisp up. Remove them from the skillet and pour off any surplus fat, you want just enough to grease the bottom but nothing more. Add the bacon back in the pan, arranging it so that it's distributed evenly. Pour in half a cup of batter and carefully swirl the skillet so that the whole bottom surface is covered with a thin layer of pancake batter. Bake the pancake until the surface is dry. Then flip or turn the pancake over and cook the other side.

Stack the pancakes as you go and cover them with a clean kitchen tea towel while you bake the rest. Serve the spekpannenkoeken with appelstroop or pancake syrup.  Makes about ten large pancakes.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Spekkoek

For some foods you have to slow down, relax and take it easy. Long simmering stews on the back burner, bread dough slowly rising on the counter.... Hurrying will make it no better, or faster, and in the long run the patience exhibited is key to the wonderful, rounded flavors of the dish. So too with this Indonesian layered cake called spekkoek. Each layer is painstakingly spread, baked and brushed. Cakes will often count up to twenty layers: they sell for high prices on the market as time is money, and money is easily spent. One of these Sundays, treat yourself to some time in the kitchen. Get an easy chair, or a comfortable stool and park yourself next to the oven, monitoring each layer's progress carefully. You'll be so glad you did!

The name "spekkoek" initially doesn't sound very enticing: "spek" means bacon, or fat, and "koek" is cake or cookie. Fat cake just doesn't have that sort of  a ring to it where you want to drop everything you're doing and get yourself a slice. Much less two.

And yet, the Indonesian layered spice cake that is graced with such a...shall we say, unfortunate name, does look a little bit like bacon at first glance. The alternating light and dark layers could very well be considered a modernist rendition of a slice of bacon, but that's where all similarities end. For the rich, flavorful cake does not taste anything remotely like bacon, but contains a wonderful mixture of spices and sweetness instead.

The spekkoek is thought to be a Dutch adaptation to an Indonesian recipe, or perhaps a Dutch invention or an Indonesian rendition of a Dutch spice cake....who knows. Regardless of the fact how this tastebud-teasing cake came to be, it is a small work of art and a feat of patience. For each layer is to be baked separately, painstakingly slow. But not so slow that you can walk away from it. Because if you do.....dang! The whole thing burns and you have to start from scratch. Which is no fun.

This "thousand layer cake" is incredibly rich, and that's perhaps where its "fat" name applies. Ten eggs, two sticks of butter on merely two cups of flour, and a cup and a half of sugar......this cake is not for the faint of heart, neither in preparation nor in consumption. No wonder the layers are carefully counted in certain circles and if found lacking, considered to be the work of a "lazy housewife". Cakes should have at least ten layers or more in order to be respected and appreciated!

So, this time, no slicing thick pieces of spekkoek and devouring it in two bites or three. Neither the richness of the cake nor the time spent to make it allows for a quick snack. It is a cake to be taken in carefully, small bite by small bite, and shared with those we care most about.

Spekkoek
2 sticks butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cup sugar, separated
10 eggs, separated
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, ground
1/2 teaspoon cardamom, ground
1/4 teaspoon cloves, ground
1/4 teaspoon ginger, ground
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
parchment paper
1 tablespoon of flour

For brushing: melt 3 tablespoons of butter

Cream the butter with 1 cup of sugar until light golden and creamy. Carefully mix in two egg yolks at a time until all 10 have been blended in well. Mix in the vanilla extract. In a separate bowl, squeaky clean, whip the ten egg whites with the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar until stiff. Rub a little bit of whipped egg white between thumb and index finger to see if all the sugar dissolved: if not whip a little longer.

Sift the flour above the creamed butter mixture and carefully fold it in, until well blended. Then spoon the egg whites in the mixture and fold in. You should have a light, scoopable batter.

Divide the batter into two bowls, and assign a half cup measuring cup to each batter. Sift the spices above one and fold them in. Sometimes the fine spices do not fold in fully and create lumps: just squish them on the side of the bowl and fold them right back in.

Grease and flour an 8 inch spring form pan (the traditional form is round, but you are also welcome to bake the spekkoek in a bread pan or a square pan). Cut a circle out of parchment paper to cover the bottom of the pan and grease it as well. Flour the pan with a tablespoon of flour, tap the pan and remove any loose flour.

Heat the oven to 325F. Spray the inside of the measuring cup and scoop half a cup of spiced batter into the pan. Spread it along the bottom, so that it covers the whole pan. Now place the pan in the oven for several minutes and bake the first layer. Since it's a very thin layer, it only takes a few minutes. You want the layer to be baked and have a slight toasted top.

Remove the pan from the oven and carefully brush the layer with melted butter. Spray the inside of the second half-cup measuring cup and scoop out half a cup of the light batter on top of the baked layer, spreading it and making sure all areas are covered, preferably with the back of a spoon so the bottom layer doesn't rip. Put the pan back in the oven, but this time turn on the broiler.

Wait several minutes, remove the pan from under the broiler and check to see if the layer is baked and is lightly golden on top. If yes, brush with butter and add a layer of spiced batter. If not, return it to the oven and bake for a little while longer. On average, between brushing, spreading and baking you need about 8 to 10 minutes per layer. Keep track of which batter goes on top of which, you want to make sure you alternate the colors and flavors!

When the last layer is baked, brush it, and use a skewer to test the done-ness of the cake. Insert it in the middle, and if the skewer comes out clean, it's ready to cool down. If there is still some batter clinging to the skewer, turn off the broiler and bake the cake for several more minutes. Sprinkle the top with the powdered sugar.

Cool the spekkoek in the form, then carefully insert a knife around the edge and cut the edges loose: sometimes it will not release by itself. Carefully slice a piece of cake to admire and taste your hard work, then wrap it in plastic film and cover it with aluminum foil, to avoid the cake drying out.

Serve a thin slice with coffee, or as a well-deserved ending to a rijsttafel.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Saveur's Best Blog Awards 2012

In This IssueSaveur, the top culinary magazine of America, is accepting nominations for their 2012 Best Blog Awards. If you enjoy reading the recipes and stories at The Dutch Table, please consider submitting us for a possible win! It would be a great way to get Dutch cuisine on the culinary map.

Click on this link: http://www.saveur.com/food-blog-awards/nominations.jsp and fill out the information, it will take less than a minute. Our website address is www.thedutchtable.com. Nominations close on March 29.

Thank you!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Zuurvlees

One of the drawbacks of living abroad is missing out on favorite foods. Sometimes it's not the food itself as much as the memory or the experience of eating it, and with whom. One such foods is "friet zuurvlees", a portion of french fries covered in a thick, sweet and slightly tangy beef stew. As soon as the smell hits me, I am transported back to two different places in time: one place is my grandma Pauline's small kitchen in Blerick, and the many, many times we sat at her table and ate this dish. The other place is, oddly enough, the Waterlooplein flea market in Amsterdam, where on Saturday mornings my friend Andy and I would often hit the patatkraam, a small stand that sold sodas, ice creams and french fries, to get a portion of zuurvlees with our fries.
Finding zuurvlees in Amsterdam is a treat in itself, as the tangy, sweet and tender beef stew is a traditional dish from the south of the Netherlands, more specifically from the province of Limburg. Traditionally made with horse meat, the current versions more than often uses beef instead.

Any southern frietkraam worth its name will offer "friet zuurvlees", preferably a homemade zuurvlees. Especially the city of Maastricht is famous for it, so as soon as the opportunity arose I took off to the Markt where I was told I could get a fantastic sample of my favorite food. Well.......not so much. The sauce was thin and riddled with dark specs, which I have yet to identify, and the flavor was off: not sour, not sweet.....it just tasted like a canned, watered-down version of the real stuff.

So, I figured it was time to hit the pots and pans again and make grandma Pauline's zuurvlees: nice chunky pieces of beef, and a thick gravy that clings to every golden french fry on my plate. Yum!!

Zuurvlees
2 lb beef chuck roast, cubed
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
1 cup white wine vinegar
2 cups of water
2 bay leaves
5 black peppercorns
2 cloves, whole
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon appelstroop
2 slices ontbijtkoek

Put the beef in a non-reactive bowl, place the slices of onion on top and cover with the vinegar and the water. Add two bay leaves, the peppercorns and the two whole cloves, cover and marinate for at least four hours, but preferably overnight. Make sure to stir the meat once or twice during this time so that all pieces have an opportunity to marinate.

Separate the meat from the marinade, and remove and discard the peppercorns. Pat the beef chunks dry with a towel, and salt and pepper them. Melt the butter in a Dutch oven and brown the meat. Drain the onions and brown with the meat, then add the marinade. Bring back to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the meat is tender, a good hour or two.
Now stir in the appelstroop, break the ontbijtkoek in pieces and add it to the sauce. Slowly simmer until the ontbijtkoek has dissolved. Taste, and adjust the seasonings if necessary.

Serve hot over a plate of homemade patat and enjoy!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Vanillevla

Last week's recipe was hopjesvla, and I received great feedback on the blog, on Facebook and through email. Thank you all for your positive reactions, it looks like there are many vla-lovers out and about! Vla triggers childhood memories, as it is a comforting dessert, and one that is solidly engrained in Dutch culture. If you have been near, into, or grew up with Dutch cuisine, you have probably heard of, or even tasted, vla. It is the ultimate Dutch dessert.

But not everybody likes coffee, the predominant flavor in hopjesvla, so when I said I also tried a recipe for vanillavla, the requests came flying in. This is so easy to make, and tastes great. You probably  have all the ingredients at home already so let's get started! If you leave out the vanilla pod, you have the basic recipe for a simple vla: a great excuse to experiment with your favorite flavors. 

Vanillevla
1 vanilla bean
2 1/2 cups milk
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon of vanilla extract
1 drop of yellow food coloring (optional)

Bring the milk to a simmer in a heavy saucepan. Slice the vanilla pod in half, lengthwise. Scrape the seeds from the pod and add both seeds and pod to the simmering milk. Leave it on a slow simmer on the stove for about ten minutes. Remove the pod.

Mix the cornstarch with the sugar and the egg yolks to a thick paste, stir in the vanilla extract. Add a tablespoon of warm milk to the mix, stir and repeat, as you want to bring the egg yolks up to temperature. Add a couple more tablespoons of warm milk, then stir everything into the saucepan. Bring up to heat, keep stirring until the vla thickens, about two minutes. (Taste to see if it's sweet enough or vanilla-ey enough, if not add a little bit more sugar or vanilla extract. Be careful though, it's hot!!!)

Take the saucepan off the stove. If you must have a supermarket yellow vla, stir in the drop of food coloring. If not, pour the vla a bowl and cover the top of the custard with food film: you don't want a thick skin to form as it cools. Let it cool, preferably overnight. Stir the vla with a spoon before serving. If it's too thick, add a tablespoon of milk at a time until you reach the right consistency. Enjoy it by itself, mixed with tangy yogurt or with fresh fruit. Lekker!