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

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).

Boterkoek
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

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
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

Garnalencocktail

A typical Dutch seafood
market stand
For a country that's partially below sea level, 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, 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". One of those special occassion dishes is the Dutch shrimp cocktail. Served with a homemade whiskey cocktail sauce, it's a treat for all!

Perhaps it's because there are so many other 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.

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSAwQxK06pQ

For festive occassion 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.

The sauce really makes or breaks the dish, especially if you use regular pink cocktail shrimp for lack of better, as I did. Make sure you make a larger batch of sauce, as it goes very well with other foods: especially with red meats or french fries!

Garnalencocktail
10 oz cocktail shrimp
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
Parsley

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. Add the well-drained shrimp (nothing worse than a swimming shrimp!), 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!