The history of "vlaai", or flat pies, is a long one. Initially discovered by the Germanic tribes, the story goes that the women would spread out any leftover dough from bread baking on a hot stone and drizzled fruit juice or honey over it to make themselves a little treat. Over the dough, mind you, not the stone. Over the years, the dough was spread thinner and the number of toppings became larger, and hey presto! they ended up with fruit pies. That's how the story goes. We weren't there so we can't really know whether it's true or not.......it doesn't really matter, does it? All that counts is that we have fabulous recipes for all kinds of pies!

The province of Limburg, gastronomically one of the more interesting areas of the country, is known for a large variety of culinary treasures, among which are its famous vlaaien, or pies. Limburg vlaaien are unique in their sort as they use yeast dough instead of a pie crust, and measure on average about 28 centimeters (approximately 11 inches) in diameter. Elaborate lattice works, almond shavings, or swirls of whipped cream are used to top off the pies that often hold fruit fillings or custardy creams. One of the most popular choices is a pie with a creamy milk rice filling, the rijstevlaai. Vlaaien are usually served on Sundays after lunch, at birthdays, burials, weddings, coffee tables, retirement parties, and when the local fair is in town. Any time there's a gathering of good people, really. And if there is no reason at all to celebrate, mourn, gather or depart, it's just a gezellig thing to do. A cup of coffee, a piece of vlaai, and your day's made!

Fortunately, they're easy to make and bake, and tend to be a favorite with many. Enjoy a slice of vlaai with a cup of coffee or tea, and pick out a variety you like. How about kersenvlaai , (cherry) or kruimelvlaai, a custard crumble? Sometimes a mocha vlaai, or one covered in fresh fruit may hit the spot. The yeast base is always the same, the filling changes.

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

For the filling
3 1/2 cups (800 ml) whole milk
1/2 cup (100 grams) short-grain rice
1/3 cup (75 grams) regular sugar
Pinch of salt
2 eggs, divided
2 tablespoons regular sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla essence

Add the flour to a mixing bowl. Proof the yeast in the warm milk, then add to the flour. Mix in the sugar, the butter, and the beaten egg, and knead everything into a soft but solid dough. Cover and set aside to rise.

Wash the rice in cold water and rinse (you may have to do this up to three times until the water remains clear). Bring the milk and salt to a boil, add the rice and the sugar, and bring back up to a boil. Cover and simmer on low for half an hour, stirring frequently, until the rice is cooked and it resembles a thick porridge. Stir in the vanilla and set aside to cool. The rice will continue to absorb liquid and thicken. 

Mix the egg yolks with the two tablespoons of sugar until creamy, and beat the egg whites into stiff peaks. Mix the egg yolks with the cooled rice porridge and when it is well blended, fold in the stiff egg whites.

Butter an 11 inch (28 cm) pie dish or metal pan, with a 1 inch (2.5 cm) rim. Punch down the dough, roll it out, and line the pie pan with the dough. Dock it with a fork, poking holes all over the surface, cover, and let rise again.

Heat your oven up to 375F (190C). Spread the rice mix into the pie, level with a spoon or a spatula, and bake to golden brown in approximately 25 to 30 minutes. If the top browns too fast, cover with some aluminum foil. Cool the pie in the pan for about 30 minutes, then remove and continue to cool on a rack. The rice filling will set as it cools.

Serve when cold, and it's one of those pies that's even better the next day. Great served plain, or decorated with big dollops of sweetened whipped cream and chocolate shavings!

If, for whatever reason, you happen to have more mix than pie bottom, butter a small oven dish and pour the rest of the mix in there, sprinkle some cinnamon and brown sugar on top, and bake it with the pie in the same oven. You'll have a nice, sweet, and creamy rice custard treat while you wait for the pie to cool off. No need to let good things go to waste!


There must be something in the human psyche that makes us want to celebrate the ending of another year by eating copious amounts of rich foods, and by stuffing ourselves with large quantities of sugar and butter, all doused in a consistent flow of adult and non-adult beverages. It's as if we were saying: "Well, I made it another year, you can't take THAT away from me!" while shaking a fat finger in the face of the inevitable.

New Year's Eve in Holland is a great example of mindset. What better way to ring in the New Year, we seem to think, than by eating deep-fried dough balls and batter coated apple slices?

Oliebollen (literally "balls of oil") and appelbeignets are a standard fare during the holiday season. The raisins and apples in the dough can hardly be considered a nutritional advantage, but it's one of those once-a-year treats that one looks forward to!

I love oliebollen but can only stomach about two. The usual amounts given in recipes are for 30 or more. Here's one that makes about eight oliebollen. Use peanut, soybean or sunflower oil in your fryer to fry these, not shortening. Oliebollen are good cold too, with a hot cup of coffee and some extra powdered sugar.

1/3 cup (50 gr) mixed dried fruits (raisins, currants) 
2 (7 gr) teaspoons active dry yeast 
1/2 cup (125 ml) milk, warm 
1 cup (150 gr) all purpose flour 
pinch of lemon zest
pinch of salt
1 egg
1 (10 gr) tablespoon butter, softened 

1 heaping tablespoon powdered sugar

Soak the dried fruits in some rum, orange juice or warm water several hours before, preferably the night prior to the frying. It's traditional to use currants and raisins, but fresh or dried apples, apricots, cherries are all very nice as well. Drain the fruits before you add them to the batter, and spread them out a bit so they can air-dry.

Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk. Mix the flour and the lemon zest, and stir in the milk and yeast mix. Add the salt, the egg and the butter and stir the batter for several minutes until everything is nicely blended. Stir in the drained raisins. Cover and let rise until it doubled its volume.

In the meantime, heat the oil in the fryer up to 350F/175C. Place a plate with several paper towels to soak up the excess fat of the fried goods. Use a large spoon or an ice cream scoop (see suggestions below) to scoop out a portion, drop it into the hot oil and fry for about four minutes on each side or until brown. Dipping the scoop or spoon in the hot oil before each scoop will make it easier to drop the batter into the oil. It's important to gauge the temperature of your oil: too hot an oil will scorch the outside but leave the inside of the balls uncooked. A low temperature will not fry the balls fast enough and they will become "sinkers": oil-saturated and inedible.

Drain the balls on paper towels, then transfer onto a new plate and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Oliebollen on the left, appelbeignets on the right....
Happy New Year!

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Christmas time is a special time in Holland: for one, we don't just celebrate Christmas Day, on December 25, but repeat it the next day, on December 26th, a day aptly called 'Second Christmas Day'.  Two times the party, two times the food! On Christmas Eve, people may attend Christmas Mass at midnight and come home to have a midnight feast, also called koffietafel (literally means "coffee table"), with luxury rolls, cold cuts, cheeses, fruit preserves, hot chocolate, coffee or tea before going to bed. Traditionally, a luxury bread called kerststol is served and eaten at Christmas time: it is studded with candied fruit peel and raisins and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The bread is bought at neighborhood bakeries or, even better, baked at home.

If the bread contains a ribbon of creamy almond paste it is called a "stol". If it doesn't, it's "just" Christmas bread. During the December holidays, buttered slices of kerststol will be part of breakfast or brunch and may be offered to guests instead of a cookie with their cup of coffee or tea.

The stores and bakers will sell exactly the same bread at Easter, but then it's called paasstol.  

The commercially prepared stollen are heavy, chewy and rather rich. I prefer mine a little lighter so I use all purpose flour instead of bread flour.

1/2 cup golden raisins (75 grms)
1/2 cup mixed candied peel (orange, lemon, citron) (40 grms)
1/4 cup orange juice, warm (60 ml) - some prefer rum, or a flavored liqueur
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour (350 grms)
3/4 cup milk, warm (175 ml)
2 teaspoons active dry yeast (7 grms)
1/4 cup sugar (55 grms)
1/2 teaspoon salt (4 grms)
1 egg, beaten 
1/2 stick of butter, melted (50 grms)
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest

1 small can of almond paste* (or make your own by blending sliced almonds with the same weight amount of sugar, a small egg, lemon zest and a teaspoon of almond flavoring)

2 tablespoons butter, melted (25 grms)
2 tablespoons powdered sugar (15 grms)

Soak the raisins in the warm orange juice for a good fifteen minutes, then drain. Spread them out in a colander or baking sheet so that they can air-dry while you continue with the recipe. 

In a large bowl, place the flour. Make a well in the center and pour the warm milk in, and sprinkle the yeast on top. Let it sit for five minutes. Stir the flour and the milk until it barely comes together. Add the sugar and the salt, stir again, and slowly add the egg, then the melted butter and the lemon zest. Continue to knead for ten minutes on medium speed, until the dough comes together. If it's too dry add a tablespoon of milk at a time. 

Let the dough rest at room temperature, covered, for thirty minutes. Give those raisins a quick squeeze to drain some superfluous liquid. Fold them and the mixed peel into the dough: either by hand or in your bread mixer, but be careful that you don't tear through the gluten strands! You'll probably have more dried fruit than you think will ever fit, but keep kneading and pushing those raisins back in the dough (they tend to escape).  Knead the dough carefully until the raisins and candy peel are well distributed. Grease a bowl, place the dough inside, cover and rest for an hour at room temperature or until the dough has doubled in size. Don't skip this step as the stol will be very thick and heavy if you do. 

Gently deflate the dough and pat into an oval. Place the oval with the short end toward you and make an indentation along the length of the dough, in the middle. Now roll the almond paste on the counter until it forms a roll almost as long as the dough. Lay the almond roll in the indentation and lift the left side of the dough over the paste. Make sure that the dough does not meet the bottom half all the way: a significant shape of the stol is the bottom "pouting" lip of the bread. If you want a more pronounced pout, fold the right side of the dough one-third towards the almond paste ribbon, and fold the left side of the dough in half, placing it on top of the bottom half and covering the paste.

Rest the dough on a lightly greased baking sheet or silicone mat. Cover it and let it proof for about 30 minutes or until ready to bake: the dough should barely spring back if you poke it with your finger. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 350F. Bake the bread for 35 - 40 minutes on the middle rack, then reduce the heat down to 325F. Brush with melted butter and bake for another five minutes, then brush again and bake for another 5 minutes. If the bread is browning too fast, cover it with a piece of aluminum foil. Use a digital thermometer to determine if the bread is done: the temperature should be 190F and rising.

Cool the bread on a cooling rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and slice.

Tip: If you have any kerststol left over the next day, toast a slice until nice and golden. Whip the almond paste out with the tip of your knife and spread it on the warm slice of bread. Yummm!!!!!!!!!

*  Or make your own by blending 8 ounces of sliced almonds with the same amount of powdered sugar, an egg, a teaspoon of zest and a teaspoon of almond flavoring. If you have access to almond meal, substitute it for the sliced almonds.

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It's Time for Speculaas!

Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger are the main ingredients for a special Dutch treat called "speculaas", with a dash of white pepper thrown in for good measure. The word seemingly originated from the Latin word "speculum", mirror, in reference to the way the goods were prepared: the dough was pressed into a wooden decorated form, turned over and knocked out onto the baking sheet. The cookie now carried a "mirrored" image. In the old days by the end of November, bakers all over the country would initiate a subtle but effective sales strategy by throwing a handful of their speculaas spices in the bread oven's fire. The smoke would carry the wonderful smells into the streets, announcing the beginning of the speculaas baking season. Once you start baking this dough in your own kitchen, you'll know why: it makes the house smell wonderful!

Speculaas is no longer a unique December treat. An industrialized baking process has made speculaas an everyday kind of cookie in the Netherlands and it's available year-round for all to enjoy, even here in the US. As for me, I still wait until the beginning of December before I start baking speculaas, somehow the "once-a-year"-ity of it makes it into such a special occasion.

This year, I opted for two varieties: Gevulde Speculaas (filled with almond paste) and "brokken". Speculaas can be cut out in many shapes, but my favorites are "brokken", chunks. I bake a 1/2 inch high slab of speculaas in the oven until it's ready, and when it's cooled down on the counter, I break it into large chunks. Not pretty and fancy, but a lot easier and just as flavorful! 

Before I start, I make my own mixture of spices. Everybody has a preference for one or more spices in the mix, so feel free to adjust and experiment accordingly. As for me, I am not big on either nutmeg or cloves so barely put in the minimum.

Speculaas Brokken
2 cups (300 grams) self-rising flour*
2/3 cup (125 grams) dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons speculaas spices**
1 stick (125 grams) butter, cold 
5 tablespoons (75 ml) milk, cold
1 egg, beaten

Optional: sliced almonds

Mix the flour, sugar, and spices in a bowl until well integrated. Divide the butter into small pieces and rub into the dry mixture until crumbly, like wet sand. Moisten the mix with a tablespoon of milk at a time, and knead the dough until the butter and the spices are well blended. This will take a bit of kneading as the warmth of your hands will make the butter melt, and together with the milk, form a cohesive dough. Pat the dough into a flat oval, wrap securely in plastic wrap and refrigerate preferably overnight, but at least for four hours. This will allow the spices to thoroughly release all their goodness into the dough.

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. If you are baking on a silicone mat or on parchment paper, place the dough on top, cover with the plastic wrap, and roll into an oval shape, about 1/2 inch high (or 3 mm if you are baking cookies). Pull back the plastic wrap, brush the dough with the beaten egg and sprinkle the almonds on top (optional) and softly roll the almonds onto the dough, just enough to where they're stuck.

Move your silicone mat or parchment paper onto the baking sheet, place it on the middle rack in the oven and bake for approximately 20-25 minutes. Check regularly as you want to avoid burning the bottom. Remove when the edges are crisping up (the rest of the speculaas will still be soft) and rest on a cooling rack until lukewarm. Break the oval into chunks and allow them to cool and harden, about another hour. Great with a steaming cup of coffee or a hot chocolate.

* If you don't have self-rising flour, measure out two cups of all-purpose flour and add two heaping teaspoons of baking powder and a large pinch of salt.

** For the spices: start with 1 heaping tablespoon of ground cinnamon. Mix in a 1/4 scant teaspoon nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon scant ground cloves, 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/8 teaspoon cardamom, 1/8 teaspoon mace and 1/8 teaspoon white ground pepper and, if you have it, 1/8 teaspoon of dried orange peel. If you like the flavor of anise, add a 1/8th teaspoon of ground anise to give it a special twist. Smell and decide if you like it. Too much clove? Add in a bit more cinnamon. Prefer more ginger? Feel free to add some more. You are welcome to make it your very own, but make sure you write down the quantities and ingredients so you can replicate your personal recipe. Store in an airtight jar.

If you don't feel comfortable mixing the speculaasmix yourself, try finding them on one of the many online stores that sell Dutch foods.