Gebakken Peren

"To be left with baked pears" is a typical Dutch saying which indicates you are in trouble, or that you're left holding the proverbial bag. Presumably the expression comes from the Middle Ages, where women sold stewed or baked pears on the street. If they had not sold all their merchandise by the end of the day, they were left "stuck with baked pears".

Whether that's true or not, I am unsure but it's a cute story and I'll go with it. Holland has many sayings that involve food somehow: cheese (laat zich het kaas niet van het brood eten), vegetables (een kool stoven), fruit (met de gebakken peren zitten), or meat (wat voor vlees je in de kuip hebt), beans (boontje komt om zijn loontje), butter (boter op zijn hoofd hebben) and ofcourse bread (de een zijn dood is de ander zijn brood).

I found a recipe for baked pears in an old Albert Heijn cookbook but found the execution a little on the boring side. I tend to follow recipes to a T, especially because I want to make sure I reflect the original flavors, but in this case I allowed myself a little culinary freedom. Baked pears are traditional in the verbal fashion, but are not a typical dish or one with much history. However, for a change, one can be glad to be left "stuck with baked pears"!

Gebakken Peren
3 large pears, firm (I used Bartletts)
3 tablespoons of butter
1 cup of sugar, divided
1 cup of water
1 tablespoon of panko or unseasoned breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon of vanilla flavoring
 2 tablespoons of chopped hazelnuts

Wash and cut the pears in half, don't remove the stem nor peel the fruit. Melt the butter in a skillet and place the pears cut side down. Fry at a low temperature until the pears are golden on the cut side, about ten minutes. Place the pears, this time cut side up, in an oven dish, sprinkle with a tablespoon of sugar and panko and bake for twenty minutes at 350F.

In the meantime, let the butter in the skillet cool a little bit, then add the rest of the sugar while stirring and carefully add the vanilla and the water. Be careful that the sugar has absorbed the butter before you add the water, otherwise it will cause lots of splattering and may cause burns! Stir over heat until the sauce thickens and caramelizes, add the hazelnuts and take off the stove.

Place the pears under the broiler so that the breadcrumbs can brown. Take one pear, place it on a plate and spoon the hazelnut caramel sauce over it.

I served the pears with hangop: 16 oz of plain yogurt is left to drain in a moist cheesecloth in a colander over a bowl for 24 hours. Stir the remaining creamy yogurt with a tablespoon of powdered sugar, just enough to take the sour edge off the dairy, and whip for several beats to incorporate some air into the yogurt. This is called "hangop" or "hangup" in Dutch and is an old-fashioned dessert.


Boterkoek has a distinct pattern
pressed into the dough
with the tines of a fork
Some days are just better baking days than others: a couple of days ago I had planned on baking a hazelnootschuimtaart, a hazelnut meringue cake. But with one thing and another, things got busy and I wasn't going to have time to make an elaborate cake for the company I was expecting later that day. Thankfully, the Dutch kitchen has so many cookie, cake and pie recipes that I never lack for ideas. In this case, I turned to plan B. As in Boterkoek, an alltime favorite.

The Dutch Buttercake consists of hardly anything else than butter, sugar and flour. Just for giggles, lemon zest, salt and vanilla is added, but the main ingredients are those three key players in the Dutch baking world. Buttercake is just like it sounds: a dense, buttery, sweet cake that sticks to your ribs. And there's nothing wrong with that!

Do make sure all the butter is incorporated into the dough, or it will leave small airpockets in the cake as the butter melts. It's not going to make it taste any different, but it just looks better.

Boterkoek is usually baked for fifteen minutes, but it's one of the trickier cakes to gauge when it's done. As soon as the top starts to color and the sides are slightly dry, it will be ready: you want the inside to still be fairly soft but baked. If you bake it too long, the taste will still be good but the cake will be dry and dense. Nothing wrong with that, and everybody likes their boterkoek a certain way, so you will just have to give it a try and see. Fifteen minutes usually does the trick, but if the middle is still wet, bake it a little longer. After you pull the cake, it's cooled and cut into small squares or narrow slices. It really doesn't lend itself too well for large pieces: it is a heavy cake that is best eaten in small amounts. It can be baked in its original form, or filled with amandelspijs (divide the dough in half, press one half in the pan, spread the almond paste, then cover with the second half of the dough).

2 sticks of cold butter
2 cups of flour
3/4 cup of sugar
1/8th teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 vanilla bean
Lemon zest from one lemon

Mix the flour with the sugar, the salt, one egg, the seeds of the vanilla bean and the lemon zest. Cut in the cold butter, then knead the dough until it all comes together. If the dough gets too sticky, wrap it in plastic film and refrigerate it briefly.

Butter a 9 inch pie form, pat the dough into the pan and make sure the top is even. Make markings with a fork as in the first picture, beat the second egg and brush the top of the cake with it, then bake in a 350F oven for about 15 - 20 minutes. Keep an eye on it, and as soon as the sides begin to pull away and toast, it's ready.

Let the cake totally cool before cutting it into narrow slices or squares.


Hangop on plate with fresh strawberries
Hangop literally means "to hang up". It's an old fashioned Dutch dairy dessert made with buttermilk or yoghurt that's left to drain, hanging, in a towel over a colander; hence the name. The whey is drained, and the remainder of the milk is now a thick, creamy dessert, somewhere between thick cream and creamy yogurt.

Sweeten it with a tablespoon or two of sugar and honey, or just leave it tangy as it is, however you like it, it's fine. I prefer to serve mine with fruit, such as stewed strawberry-rhubarb, stoofpeertjes or just plain fresh fruit. Today, I cut up several ripe strawberries, tossed them with a little bit of sugar and let them rest for an hour or two.

To make the hangop, you'll need a colander, a tea towel, a bowl and plenty of time. Hangop can be made out of buttermilk or yoghurt alone, but the creamiest hangop comes from combining the two. Save the whey for bread baking or a refreshing summer drink.

Hangop in blue towel
1 quart (1 liter) full-fat cultured buttermilk
1 cup (250 gram) plain yoghurt with active cultures

Warm the buttermilk in a pan on the stove up to 110F (43C). Stir in the plain yoghurt, bring it back up to 110F (43C), then cover with a cloth and set it aside, overnight. The next morning the buttermilk should have thickened considerably. Moisten a tea towel, drape it over a colander and place the colander in a bowl. Carefully pour the buttermilk into the towel. The whey, a light yellow-greenish watery liquid, will almost immediately drip through the towel. Now you can either tie the four ends of the towel together and suspend it from, for example, a kitchen cabinet door knob, or just leave it in the colander. The whey will continue to drain.

After four hours, carefully lift the towel with its contents and slightly squeeze out the rest of the whey. Open the towel and move the hangop into a clean bowl with a spoon. You should have a very thick creamy yogurt!

Stir in your sweetener of choice and see if it's creamy enough. If too much whey drained, you can stir in some whipping cream or some milk, one tablespoon at a time. Enjoy!!

Plate with fresh hangop and strawberries


For a country that's partially below sea level, partially surrounded by the North Sea, and with a history of seafaring daredevils, you'd think we'd eat fish every day. Or if not every day, at least more often than we do. Granted, fried fish has its own stall on the market offering kibbeling, lekkerbekken and other tasty morsels, herring is traditionally a delicacy and even fish sticks make it on the menu every now and then. 

But fish for dinner, unless it's fried or Friday, is not very common. Seafood, in particular, is still considered a bit of a luxury and will not often make it to the table "just because", or as a regular midweek dinner option. It's strange really, because there are so many exciting things to eat from the Dutch waters that is not just your plain ole fishy-fish-fish. Mussels, eel, herring, oysters, clams, trout, plaice, and some local varieties such as the North Sea sole, and the North Sea shrimp otherwise known as the Dutch brown shrimp, or in Dutch grijze garnaal, grey shrimp, are all excellent choices. 

This last one, Crangon crangon,  is very tasty and a real treat if you can get your hands on some: the shrimp are smaller and browner in color than the pink ones, but the taste is also much more delicate and flavorful. Use them for shrimp cocktails, in warm seafood dishes or covered in whiskey cocktail sauce on a white roll.

As their size is smaller, these little nuggets are a pill to peel mechanically, so it's done mostly by hand. In the old days, this was part of the daily chores of the women of Volendam and Zeeland, but is now outsourced to countries such as Poland and Morocco. An old television advertisement for the Yellow Pages, featuring two Dutch shrimp peelers, gives an idea of this overwhelming task.

For celebratory occasions such as Christmas and New Years, often a shrimp cocktail will be part of the dinner course. Served in a glass, with some lettuce, parsley and a dollop of whiskey-cocktail sauce, it's a festive way to start a meal - very seventies, in a way, and a nice change from red horseradish cocktail sauce.

The sauce really makes or breaks the dish. Make sure you make a larger batch of sauce, as it goes very well with other foods, especially with red meats or French fries!

Makes four servings.

12 oz (350 grams) salad shrimp (or shrimp of choice)
1 cup (250 ml) whipping cream
2 tablespoons ketchup
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/8 scant teaspoon sweet paprika
1/8 scant teaspoon curry powder
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon whiskey
Pinch of white pepper
Pinch of salt (optional)
Lettuce leaves

Lightly whip the cream so that it takes volume, one or two minutes, but remains liquid. Carefully fold in the ketchup, mayonnaise, paprika, curry, lemon juice and white pepper. Add the whiskey, stir and taste. Adjust the seasonings if needed. If you like a little kick, add a pinch of cayenne pepper.

Rinse the lettuce leaves, then divide them over four glasses. Pat the shrimp dry and divide over the lettuce,  add a good dollop of sauce on top of the shrimp and finish with some parsley.

Nieuws! - First new herring brought ashore

Radio Netherlands just announced that the first herring of the season, known as Hollandse Nieuwe, has been caught and brought ashore. The article says that according to experts, "this year's herring should be an especially good crop." The first barrel was sold at the Scheveningen auction today for €67,750.

"Flag Day" is the day that kicks off the official herring season in coastal Holland: fishing floats are decorated with strings of flags to celebrate the Hollandse Nieuwe's arrival and several coastal towns celebrate by having live music concerts, traditional arts and crafts and ofcourse, lots of fish for eating.

A herring fit for the Hollandse Nieuwe title is one that has at least 16% body fat, and is prepared following a traditional method: with a special knife, the fish's gills and entrails are removed, except for the pancreas. This organ releases enzymes that will "ripen" the fish. The fish is slightly salted and stored in a barrel for five to seven days, then sold.

Well, good! Unfortunately, here in the United States, we will miss out on the fishy fun. If you feel homesick, or just want to celebrate this day, try this pickled herring salad instead: it's quick to make and all the ingredients can be found at your local store!


One of Holland's snack bars
Fast food has its own key players in Holland: ofcourse you can get a "vette bek" (literally "a greasy piehole", referring to the state of your mouth after you consume the fast food of your choice) at McDonalds, KFC or any other international fast food chain, but Dutch "snack bars" such as Febo, the neighborhood cafetarias and patatkramenshoarma places and broodjeszaken have a much more interesting variety of quick snacks. Besides the ubiquitous patat, or French fries, the Dutch have many meaty choices to pick from.

We've covered frikandellen and bitterballen before. Hotdogs and kroketten are also still pretty mainstream, but then we're getting into the more, shall we say, creative side of the snack business: items such as Kipcorn (a deep fried sausage from chicken meat and coated with corn flakes), Mexicano (a spicy rectangular flat beef patty that sports something akin to tire tracks), bamischijf (breaded asian noodles shaped like a bright orange hockey puck), nasibal (breaded fried rice ball), Sitostick (battered cubed turkey meat and pieces of onion on a stick), kaassouflé (a puffed up square of breaded cheese), nierbroodjes (kidney kroket) etc etc etc. These items are all deep-fried and contribute beautifully to the "vette bek" syndrome!

Automatiek Beursken in Velp still makes
most snacks from scratch
To increase business and make it easier for customers to just grab a quick bite to eat instead of having to stand in line to order, the Dutch use a "food in the wall" system called automatiek, or automat in the US.  Deep-fried beauties are showcased behind small windows. You drop in some coins, pull open the window of your choice and enjoy the hot, greasy snack. Repeat.

One of the more hefty choices of these greasy foods, and one that's easy to make at home, is a bereklauw, a bear claw, or berehap (bear bite). Whereas here in the United States a bear claw is a deep fried pastry, the Dutch version is a meatball, cut in thick slabs and speared with slices of onion, then quickly deep-fried. It can be eaten by itself or doused in peanut sauce, mayo or curry ketchup.

The Dutch have a love relationship with meatballs: the large, juicy gehaktballen are a traditional choice for protein for dinner. It goes well with practically any kind of vegetable and is served with a creamy, flavorful pan juice to pour over the potatoes. This snack is made with any leftover meatballs. Usually, you make a pan full. Whatever is not eaten with dinner that night, will be served sliced cold on a sandwich or, in this case, sliced and deep-fried as a midnight snack.

4 large meatballs, cooked the day before
2 large onions
Skewers (do not soak!!!)

Slice the cold meatballs in 4 thick slices, cut the onion up in six. Take a skewer and start with the end piece of the meatball, then add a layer of onion, the second piece of meat etc etc. See picture below.

Heat the fryer to 375F. When the oil is ready, place one or two in the grease and fry for a good four to five minutes, or until the onions are done.

Douse with peanut sauce or ketchup and enjoy your bear claw!

Limburgse Kruimelvlaai

Vlaaien are a typical pie from the south of Holland, more accurately from the province of Limburg. A Limburgse vlaai may only be called such when the whole pie has been baked. Baking the dough first and then filling it with a cream cheese filling or a bavaroise automatically disqualifies the pastry to be called "limburgse": it will have to suffice with being called a vlaai.

My grandma used to tell me stories about the vlaaien they would bake during Kermis, or fair time. Once a year, the fair would come to town and families would bake up to thirty vlaaien to feed friends and family: fancy ones like rice pie, rich puddings and topped with whipped cream, or plain fruit ones. The richer pies would be consumed first, the simple fruit pies would usually be the last ones to be eaten.

A cup of coffee and a slice of vlaai, it is still a traditional way of enjoying time spent with visitors or of celebrating an important milestone in one's life (even if that milestone is having found the perfect shoes on sale that afternoon!) The dough is not the flaky pastry dough as we know it here in America, but rather a yeast dough that needs to rise twice before being baked. 

This kruimelvlaai (crumb pie) is a streusel-topped vanilla pudding pie. This time I chose to use a store-bought vanilla pudding mix, but you can also make this pie with pastry cream. It's a lovely vlaai, with a crunchy top, sweet pudding and a tender crust, perfect for an afternoon treat!

Limburgse Kruimelvlaai
For the dough
1/3 cup milk and 2 Tbsp (100 ml), lukewarm
1 1/2 teaspoons (5 grams) active dry yeast
1 3/4 cup (250 gr) all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons (30 grams) sugar
1/2 teaspoon (4 grams) salt
1 egg
1/2 stick butter (55 gr), soft at room temperature
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs or panko

Sprinkle the yeast over the warm milk and set it aside to proof. In the meantime, mix the flour with the sugar and the salt. When the yeast has proofed, add the milk to the dough and mix for a minute. Add the egg and continue to mix until the dough comes together, then knead in the butter. Knead everything to a consistent whole, not too sticky but certainly not too dry. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover and let it rise.

For the filling
Follow the directions on the cooked pudding box or make the pastry cream per the link above. Make sure you have at least two cups.

For the streusel
1 cup (150 grams) all-purpose flour
1 stick (110 grams) butter
1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar

Cut the butter into the flour and sugar until it feels like wet sand.

Grease an 11 inch/28 cm pie form, roll the dough into a circle and line the form with the dough. Poke holes in the dough with a fork, cover and let rise again until puffy.

Pour the cooled vanilla pudding on top of the dough and cover with the streusel. Bake in a 400F/200C oven for twenty minutes. You may need to place the pie under the broiler for a golden touch.

Eat lukewarm with a cup of coffee and in the company of good friends!