I'm probably exaggerating a little bit, but as soon as the temperature drops, the nation prepares itself for a possible exhilarating event: the Elfstedentocht. The Eleven Cities Tour is a physically challenging skating tour through the province of Friesland: it's 200km (124 miles) of skating on frozen canals, channels and lakes through eleven Frisian cities, starting and ending in the city of Leeuwarden, the province's capital.
The route takes the skater through Sneek, Ulst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindelopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker en Dokkum. Although the cities are always the same, the route will depend on the quality and the thickness of the ice. As a maximum of 15,000 skaters are allowed to participate (and unfortunately, many miss out on the opportunity to join), the thickness of the ice has to be guaranteed all along the route. Often, a last minute break in the ice or a warm night will suspend the whole event until further notice. And that notice can sometimes be ten years later.....Only fifteen tours have been ridden in total. The first one was in 1909, and the last one in 1997.
The toughest of all tours was the one in 1963. On January 18th, fifty years ago today, the thermometer registered -18C (-1F) with strong winds. From the 15,000 skaters that started that morning only 69 made it to the finishing line, many in deplorable conditions with broken bones and suffering from snow blindess and hypothermia. The tour was won by Reinier Paping, presumably on the nourishment of a bowl of Brinta he ate for breakfast. The tour became so legendary that a movie was made, called "The Hell of 63".
This year, whispers of "Giet it oan?" are starting to surface again. We'll keep our fingers crossed!!
In the meantime, we're baking a Frisian cookie to get in the spirit. Fryske Dúmkes (Frisian Thumbs) are made with hazelnuts, aniseed, ginger and cinnamon, and receive their name either because their size is initially the size of a children's thumb or because the baker pushes his thumb print into the cookie when it comes out of the oven and is still soft. I chose to bake a slightly larger cookie instead and omitted the thumb print part: those cookies are very hot when they come out of the oven!
1 stick butter, room temperature
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger, ground
1 teaspoon aniseed, ground
1 heaping tablespoon whole aniseed
1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts*, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon milk
1 cup and 2 heaping tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 egg, beaten
Cream the butter with the sugar. Add in the spices, the nuts, the salt, the baking powder and the milk, and lastly the flour. Knead into a pliable dough (use a little bit more milk if too dry, add a tiny bit of flour if too wet), wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate. The longer it sits, the better the flavors meld together, but no longer than 4 hours.
Heat the oven to 325F. Roll the dough out and cut into 1 x 2 inch rectangles (or use an oblong cookie cutter, if you wish). Brush with the beaten egg and bake, on a parchment lined baking sheet, lightbrown in 20 to 25 minutes. Let the cookies rest on the baking sheet for a moment (if you want to press your thumb print in the hot cookie, this is a good time as any), then move them with the help of a spatula to a cooling rack.
Makes 20 as in the picture, 40 to 50 if you stay with 1 x 2 rectangles.
* If you can only find whole hazelnuts with skin, do the following: bring 2 cups of water and 1 tablespoon of baking soda to a boil. Add 1 cup of whole hazelnuts and bring back up to a boil. Simmer for three minutes. Pour off the water, and rub the skin off the nuts with a paper towel. Carefully roast the nuts in a dry skillet on the stove, then chop into small pieces.