Sunday, December 18, 2016

Amandelkransjes

 The dark days before Christmas, my grandmother called this time of the year. The days are short, and the nights are long. But even though we're lacking daylight outside, doesn't mean we can't make it gezellig inside - a cup of hot tea, a couple of cookies....it's easy to do! It's also probably a good day to finish writing those last Christmas cards, if you haven't done so yet. Last year, the Dutch sent 115 million cards for the holiday season. Several of those may have come your way if you still have family and friends in the Netherlands!

Christmas is also linked to great food. Kerstkransjes, or cookie Christmas wreaths, are a typical sight in Dutch Christmas trees. Sprinkled with sugar, decorated with slivered almonds, round, scalloped, chocolate,...they come in a variety of shapes and flavors, but always with a little hole in the middle so you can tie it to a branch of the tree.

For today, I baked some almond kransjes - some of them may go in my tree, but I've primarily made them to give to a neighbor....but I may have sample one or two with my afternoon tea while I write my Christmas cards! The dough is easy and quick to put together, and the cookies bake in fifteen to twenty minutes. These happen to be scalloped, but you can cut out stars, trees, or snowmen - and it's an easy and fun project to do with kids.

Sprinkle with colored sugar, add some chocolate or cinnamon to the recipe, or you might even dip the cookies in chocolate. They also make a great gift during these holiday times. The recipe makes approximately twenty cookies.

Amandelkransjes
1 cup all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons butter, cold and diced
1 sachet vanilla sugar (or 2 teaspoons vanilla essence)
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 to 3 tablespoons cold milk
1 egg, beaten

For decoration: slivered almonds and granulated sugar

Mix the flour with the salt, the sugar and the baking powder. Carefully knead in the cold butter, then add in the vanilla, lemon zest. If the mixture is too dry, add in a tablespoon of cold milk at a time. Knead everything into a pliable dough, wrap in plastic film and refrigerate for an hour, to let the flavors blend.

Roll the dough out on a lightly dusted counter. Preheat the oven to 350F. Place a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet. Use a drinking glass, or a cookie cutter of any shape, to cut out the cookies. Use the end of an apple corer or a large straw to poke a hole in the middle of the dough. When all cookies are cut and cored, place them on the parchment paper, brush them with egg and sprinkle sliced almonds and sugar on top. Bake on the middle rack until golden, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Cool on a rack. Now you can either pack them in a cute cookie tin, or cut ribbons and thread through the hole, then put a knot in it and decorate your tree!


Sunday, December 4, 2016

Chocoladeletters

The early days of December always hold much joy and excitement in the heart of the Dutch, old and young - it is Sinterklaas time! A full twenty days ahead of Santa Claus, on December 5th, Sinterklaas delivers presents and goods to all, and the days are filled with plenty of sweets. This is the time of year when you may get speculaasbrokken or a piece of banketstaaf with your cup of coffee, or if you're really lucky, a piece of gevulde speculaas!

Sinterklaas time is also the time that the children get to "set" their shoe by the fireplace or backdoor. The shoe is filled with straw and a carrot for the horse Amerigo, and often has a written letter to Sint with a request for presents. The shoe is always set out right before going to bed. As you can imagine, the next morning is a mad dash to make it to your shoe first, so that you can see what Sint or his helper Piet have left you in return! It's often a small token - a mandarin orange, a small gift or, if you're lucky, a chocolate letter.

In the old days, according to this source, gifts would be covered with a sheet, instead of individually wrapped. A letter made from bread would indicate what presents would be for which child. Later, these letters became chocolate letters and can still be found in all the letters of the alphabet, so that there is a letter for everybody.

The most popular letter is the letter M, not in the least because the perception is that it has the most chocolate....but one look at the weight of both an I and an M reveal that both letters hold exactly the same amount of chocolate. For some reason, the facts don't matter: an M still seems like a better deal than an I!

For those of us that live abroad, it can sometimes be difficult to find chocolate letters so that we can continue the tradition with our families, or the stores we order from have run out or don't have the letters we need anymore. So let's make our own!

Making your own chocolate letters* is really very easy: all it takes is chocolate, a little bit of butter ( 1 oz per 4 oz of chocolate) and all the sprinkles and edible cake decorations you can find. It would be a great afternoon activity to do with the kids and let them decorate their own letters.

Chocolade letters
For approximately 8 small letters
Chocolate, 1 lb
Butter, 4 oz (room temperature)

Melt 12 oz of chocolate over a pot with warm water, or in the microwave, but be careful to not overheat or burn the chocolate. Dark chocolate should not surpass 118F (48C) and milk chocolate should not get hotter than 113F (45C). Remove the pot from the heat and stir the remainder of the chocolate into the melted chocolate to bring down its temperature to between 86F and 88F (30 to 31C). Be careful to not have any water or steam get to the chocolate - it will seize up. (More info on tempering chocolate here).

When all the chocolate has melted, whip the butter airy and fluffy until it turns white, then stir in the chocolate. Place a piece of parchment paper on the back of a baking sheet, and tape it down. Slide your printed letters under the paper. Prepare a piping bag with a star tip, and fill the bag.

Now pipe the letters onto the parchment paper. You can pipe high or double for thicker, higher letters, or do a single pass. If you don't like how you piped it, you can remove the chocolate and add it back to the bag. If the chocolate spreads too much because it's still too warm, put it back in the bag and wait a little bit longer.

You have a bit of time before the chocolate starts to set. Decorate the letters with edible glitter, kruidnoten or chocolate chips for the kids, or go for grownup flavors like a dusting of chili powder, pistachios or sea salt. Place the letters, after they're done, in a cool area to set up: it will take about two hours. You can then wrap them, or eat them :-)




*The easiest letters to pipe are the S and the O, but if you're adventurous or experienced, definitely try different shapes. I printed out the letter S in Calibri font at 520 points so that it would match the traditional small chocolate letter of 4.5 inches by 3. The large letters measure 6 x 4 inches.