Knapkook


There is something inherently attractive about simplicity: are we not able to recall with much more pleasure the flavors of a home cooked meal instead of a luxury dinner, the pure taste of good cheese, the sweet acidity of a sun-kissed tomato fresh of the vine? Perhaps too, when we have to do with less, we can hopefully still enjoy the things we do have, or are able to obtain, with equal pleasure.

It is not often that I wax philosophical about the shortcomings in life, but this week's cookie reminded me of how the best baked goods benefit from just a handful of simple ingredients. A simple sponge cake is just eggs, sugar and flour. A good bread should consist predominantly of flour, water, salt and yeast. And so too this traditional Limburg cookie, the knapkook: butter, flour, sugar, egg, and a pinch of baking powder to lighten it up is all it needs. Quality ingredients, mind you, but still just the very basics of baking.

My grandfather Tinus loved all things sweet but had a special preference for cookies, or pletskes, as they were called in the Venlo dialect that he grew up speaking. He enjoyed them in moderation, but his eyes lit up if there was the prospect of a cookie with his afternoon coffee. His favorite cookie was the knapkook, best translated as "snap cookie". It is a cookie typical of Limburg and part of Belgium (Maaseik in particular): crisp and sugary, it makes a satisfying snapping sound as you break it in two. These cookies are fairly large, measuring a good 4 inches across.

Just like with so many recipes that are handed down from generation to generation, you can make these as fancy as you like: add a teaspoon or two of hazelnut liqueur to the dough, mix a pinch of cinnamon in with the flour or with the sugar on top, or brush it with strong coffee instead of egg. If you don't have a 4 inch round cookie cutter, make smaller ones, or cut them into diamond shapes. Today, I baked the most basic version - and sometimes, basic is good enough.

Knapkook
2 cups all-purpose flour (250 gr)
3/4 cup sugar (150 gr)
1 stick and 2 tablespoons butter (150 gr), cold
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder (5 gr)
1 egg
Pinch of salt if butter is unsalted

For topping:
1 egg
1/2 cup coarse grain sugar (100 gr)

In a bowl, cut the cold butter into the flour, sugar and baking powder, until you have pea-sized pieces of butter. Add the egg, liquor or a different flavoring if desired, and knead the contents of the bowl into a dough for a good four to five minutes, until it comes together and holds it shape. The dough should not be too sticky. Form into a log, wrap with plastic foil, or place it in a container, and
refrigerate for an hour.

Remove the dough from the fridge and let it adjust to room temperature to become pliable. Cut off a piece of the log, and roll it thin, about 3mm or 1/8 of an inch. Carefully remove the cookies from the counter and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

When all the cookies are cut, brush them with beaten egg and sprinkle coarse sugar on top. Bake in a 425 degree oven for about 8 minutes until they're golden brown, not pale. Pull the parchment paper with the cookies onto a rack and let it cool - the cookies will harden. These can be stored, when cold, in a biscuit tin or cookie tin.

Makes approx 25 cookies.




Rabarbervlaai

Even though rhubarb has been around for over 5,000 years, it is a relative newcomer to Dutch vegetable gardens, having only been introduced in the early 1900s as an edible option. Before that time, rhubarb had a medicinal function - a strong laxative was made from its roots and stalks. In 1857's volume 7 of De Navorscher, a magazine dedicated to genealogy and heraldry, a small home pharmacy kit was described as containing salves, lavender and rhubarb. A guideline for sea faring folk also listed rhubarb as a strong laxative.

It wasn't until 1600 that they discovered that the stalks could also be eaten. It's not that surprising that it took people so long - anybody who's bitten into a raw stalk of rhubarb will probably remember the intense sourness of the vegetable, and the odd feeling it leaves in the mouth!

Fortunately, a bit of sugar and some heat turns this sourpuss into a delicious compote that can be used as a condiment/vegetable option with savory meats, or as a sweet filling for pies. The redder the stalk, the sweeter (i.e. less sour) the taste. Some varieties, like Victoria, will grow a combination of the two colors, which makes it a very versatile plant. Others like Strawberry, Mammoth Red or Valentine grow red stalks.

Rhubarb vlaai recipes (the Dutch equivalent of pie, made with a yeast dough and traditionally from the province of Limburg) are plentiful, but there isn't one specific, unique recipe. Some families make a crumble vlaai, others top it with a sugared lattice, and some families cut the tang even further by adding slices or chunks of strawberry, or putting the rhubarb filling on top of a layer of sweet custard. Try all the varieties, or come up with your own family favorite - any rhubarb pie is better than no pie at all!

The recipe makes one large pie, or five small ones. I used five 4.75 inch fluted individual pie forms, with a removable bottom, to make the small pies. For one large vlaai, I use a 9 or 10 inch fluted pie or quiche form, also with a removable bottom.

Rabarbervlaai
For the vlaai:
1 1/2 cup AP flour
3/4 stick butter
1/3 cup milk, lukewarm
1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 egg
Pinch of salt

For the filling:
4 cups rhubarb stalks, chopped into 1/2-1 inch pieces
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup red berry juice, divided
1 heaping tablespoon cornstarch

Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk, and let it proof while you measure out the rest of the ingredients. Add the flour to a mixing bowl, sprinkle the sugar on top and give it a stir. Now pour the milk with the yeast on top and start mixing. As the dough comes together, add in the egg and a bit later the salt. Add the soft butter and let the whole mixture come together while you need it into a soft dough. (You may need to add a tablespoon or two of milk in case the dough turns out to be a bit dry).

Form the dough into a ball, put it in a bowl, cover and let it rise.

In the meantime, make the filling. In a saucepan, add the rhubarb, sugar, and 1/2 cup red berry juice (water is okay, too). Stir once and let it come to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. The more you stir, the more the pieces are going to fall apart, so try to stir as little as possible if you want soft chunks. After about 20 minutes of slow simmering, the pieces should be soft. Now, mix the cornstarch with the remaining 1/4 cup juice to make a slurry, and carefully fold this into the pot. Turn up the heat until it boils, then turn it down and when it thickens, turn it off. Set it aside to cool, or save in a container overnight.

Punch down the dough, weigh it and divide the dough into five equal pieces. Roll them into circles large enough to line the pie forms with. Spray or butter the pie forms. Cover the pie forms with cling film and let them rise a second time, about 20 - 30 minutes, until fluffy. Dock the dough with a fork and prick little holes all over, letting the air out.

In the meantime, heat the oven to 400F. Spoon the cold rhubarb into the forms. Top with streusel, sliced strawberries or add a lattice from the dough scraps. Bake in the hot oven for 25 - 30 minutes. Remove, let cool and enjoy!




Champignonragout met rijst

A couple of different ways of eating have hit the media lately. I always wonder, with these new diets or food choices, how it is going to affect those of us who like to cook traditional Dutch foods. Fortunately, many dishes translate well: with a LCHF (low carb, high fat) diet you can still enjoy your stamppots, replacing the potatoes with cauliflower, and having juicy sausages, brats or gehaktballen, meatballs. We have good soups that don't need dairy or meat to taste great, such as groentesoep.  Even our national soup, the split pea, or erwtensoep, can be made with a vegetarian choice of smoked sausage.

More and more people are choosing to reduce the amount of meat they eat: whether for health reasons, the environment, their wallet or just because they're curious about trying different recipes or ways to cook. In the Netherlands alone, a 2018 news article from the national Nutrition Center announced that almost half of the Dutch (46%) were trying to eat less meat.

Of course, our cuisine did not always feature meat so frequently as it does now: as with other kitchens around western Europe, meat was only served once or twice a week during the early beginning of the 20th century and did not become more frequent until the 1960s. In order to find something that would meet my own imposed meatless recipe challenge, I went back into the archives of magazines, newspapers and cookery books from before 1950 to find something tasty, flavorful, and easy to make for a Meatless Monday evening.

I struck gold with an article in the 1936 news bulletin of the Women's Electricity Association, the Vrouwen Electriciteits Vereniging, whose aim it was to promote the use of electricity in the household through the publication of a monthly magazine, geared towards women. It featured articles on how to use electrical appliances, how to ensure safety when using multiple outlet extenders, and articles about the many benefits and advantages of electricity in the home. The magazine featured a mushroom ragout, a savory sauce dish, that sounded like just the ticket! I updated it with a few tips and tricks, and it was delicious.

For this particular dish, I chose cremini mushrooms, but you can make it just as well with white button mushrooms, or a mixture of both. You don't have to use regular white long grain rice, as I did: brown rice, wild rice or any of the more exotic black, red or Forbidden will serve just as well. Just follow their specific cooking requirements, as they differ from each other.

Champignonragout met rijst
For the ragout:
1 lb mushrooms
1 tablespoon olive oil (or butter)
1 shallot, or a small red onion
2 cups vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
Thyme
10 parsley stalks
Cornstarch
Salt and pepper

For the rice:
1 cup regular long grain rice
2 cups water
Salt

If needed, rinse the mushrooms under running water (yes, you can) and slice off the little bottom of the stem if it's too dry. Slice, quarter or cut through the middle as you see fit: but not too small. You want to be able to stab the pieces with a fork.

Use a non-stick pan and heat it to medium heat. Don't add any fat to the pan, just the mushrooms. As we're not going to be using any meat-based stock to the mushrooms, we want to try and get the most "meaty" flavor out of the mushrooms as we can. Let the mushrooms toast in the dry pan, until they're golden and releasing a great flavor. If you're not comfortable with that, use a little bit of olive oil or butter (unless you are vegan) to help aid the process. Remove the mushrooms and set them aside, then add the oil to the pan, add the onion and stir until the onion is caramelized, about five minutes.

Wash the parsley, and cut the leaves from the stems. Chop the stems small and set them aside. Squeeze any water out of the parsley leaves with a paper towel and chop the leaves fine. Add the mushrooms back in the pan with the onions, pour in the stock and the bay leaf and a pinch of thyme. Add in the chopped parsley stalks. Give everything a good stir, and then turn it to low, and cover.

In the meantime, wash the rice two or three times and add it to a small sauce pan. Add the water, a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil on medium heat. Cover, turn to low and let it simmer for ten minutes, stirring once or twice to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom. After ten minutes, turn off the rice an leave it covered (no peeking!) and let it sit for another ten minutes. I only do this with long grain white rice and have not tried it with other types of rice, so probably best to just follow directions on the other rices).

Taste the mushroom sauce - adjust the seasoning with salt and freshly ground black pepper. To thicken the sauce, I sift a tablespoon of corn starch through a fine mesh strainer over the sauce while stirring. You can also dissolve the cornstarch in a little bit of cold water and stir that into the sauce to thicken it. Cornstarch is gluten-free.

Optional: a tiny splash of white wine, sherry or brandy will add additional flavor to the sauce, provided you let the alcohol cook out.

Right before serving, fluff the rice with a fork and fold in the chopped parsley leaves.

Makes enough for two as a meal serving, or four as a quick appetizer. This is also good over toast (HGHC: high gluten high carb LOL) for breakfast or brunch.






Preisoep

Growing up in the Netherlands, prei, or leeks, was the one vegetable that would show up in my grocery cart with just about every shopping trip. For one, it was a cheap vegetable to buy, and second it would flavor so many foods we made, especially as students. Thirdly, I absolutely love love LOVE prei! Leeks would feature in soups, salads, oven dishes, mashed through potatoes, or as a creamed vegetable by itself - it was filling, flavorful and most of all, affordable.

The only thing that annoyed me beyond belief was the fact that it would stick out of my shopping bag and get in the way of cycling! If you've ever ridden a bicycle in Holland with shopping bags on your stuur, you know exactly what I mean :-)

Leeks are predominantly grown in the provinces of Limburg and Noord-Brabant, as it needs a loose soil to grow best in. The vegetable is blanched as it grows taller by hilling up the soil around it - which also explains why so often leeks have sand inbetween its layers. Its flavor varies from onion-y, when raw, to downright sweet when cooked. It is very versatile vegetable!

Prei is also very healthy: it's loaded with fiber, vitamins and minerals and has a slight diuretic effect. All good things, I'd say! For this wintery weather, a cup of hot leek soup with a sprinkle of smoky, crispy bacon bits might be just what you need. Best of all, it's a quick soup to make. With five ingredients, 5 minutes of prep and twenty minutes of cooking, you have a satisfying soup at your disposal.

Preisoep
1 lb floury potatoes
1 large leek
1 vegetable or chicken bouillon cube
4 cups water
8 strips bacon

Peel the potatoes and dice. Cut the root end of the leek, and remove the top dark green/blue layer. We are not going to use this today, but if you rinse, chop and freeze it, it can be used to make a great vegetable stock. Cut the white body of the leek in half, lengthwise, and slice into one inch pieces. Rinse any sand that may be hiding between the layers.

In a saucepan, add four cups of water, the potatoes and the leeks, and a pinch of salt. Add the bouillon cube to the pan, cover and bring to a boil, then turn down medium and boil for 15 minutes. In the meantime, put a skillet on the stove, add the slices of bacon and on a low fire render the fat out of the bacon so that it goes crispy.

After fifteen minutes, check to see if the potatoes are soft. If you like chunky soup, remove a couple of spoons of the vegetables, and add them back in after you've blended the rest. If you prefer it smooth, leave it in and blend the vegetables into a smooth, thick soup. Taste, and see if you need to adjust the seasoning. For a little bit of luxury, stir in one or two spoons of cream.

Drain the crispy bacon on a paper towel and cut into strips. Pour the soup into a bowl, sprinkle the bacon on top, and drizzle one or two teaspoons of bacon fat over the soup (if you want). I always like to give it a good sprinkle of freshly ground pepper, as well.

Makes four servings.