Vrolijk Kerstfeest !!!


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, shouldn't mean we can't make it gezellig, cozy, 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. Kerststol, gevulde speculaas and a wide array of cookies are served during this time of year, usually accompanied by a good cup of coffee or tea. One of those traditional cookies are kerstkransjes, or Christmas cookie wreaths, which 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 kerstkransjes with slivered almonds, called amandelkransjes. Some will go in my tree on a pretty red ribbon, but I've primarily made them to give to a neighbor who could use some extra cheer this time of year.

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 cocoa 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.

1 cup all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 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, and two tablespoons of milk. If the mixture is too dry, add in another 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, to about a quarter inch, or half a centimeter thick, thicker if you like chewy, thinner if you like crisp cookies. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place a piece of parchment paper or a silicone mat 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 lightly 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 these cookies in a cute cookie tin, or cut ribbons (10 inch) and thread through the hole, then put a knot in it and decorate your tree or wreath.

Merry Christmas everyone!


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 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 (500 grams)
Butter, 4 oz (250 grams) (room temperature)

Melt 12 oz (375 grams) 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. 

Appeltjes onder de deken

Sometimes recipes are hard to resist: either they have adorable names, or they are made with delectable ingredients. This week's recipe combines both: the name of the dish is Appeltjes onder de deken, meaning "little apples under the blanket", and the dessert dish has both apples and a thick, creamy, vanilla sauce, a winning combination. How can you say no!?

These "tucked in apples" as this recipe is aptly called, make use of a staple in the Dutch household: apples. It's a perfect dessert to get in the oven as you dish up the evening meal: by the time you are done and the plates are cleared, your apples will be baked and ready to be served. They are wonderful eaten warm, but will do just well at room temperature.

Apples are not foreign to the Dutch kitchen. We love our apple pie, apple turnovers, apple beignets and appelbollen! It should therefore not be surprising that yearly, over 300 million kilos of apples are harvested in the Netherlands. Of all those apples, a whopping half were of the Elstar variety alone. It is easily the most popular apple among the Dutch.

The Elstar apple was developed in the city of Elst, in the province of Gelderland, by a man called Arie Schaap. The Elstar combines the name of the city and the two first letters of Arie's name, in his honor. Since the apple's introduction in the seventies, it has quickly become a Dutch favorite and continues to be so to this day. The Elstar is a red and green apple, with creamy white flesh and a sweet and slightly tart taste, and is a cross between the Golden Delicious and the Ingrid Marie apple.

Other traditional Dutch varieties, which are becoming more and more difficult to find, are Notarisappel, Groninger Kroon, Sterappel, Dubbele Zoete Aagt, Eijsdener Klumpke and the more accessible Boskoop apple, also know as Goudreinet. This last one was developed in  1853 in Boskoop (South-Holland) by fruitgrower P.A. Ottolander. 

Elstar apples are hard to come by here in the United States, so I've used little Gala apples instead. The Elstar has a sweeter taste but the Gala will do for tucking in, so to say. If you have space in your garden, you may consider planting an Elstar tree or any of these other old fashioned Dutch varieties! It takes a bit of looking but they can be found at nurseries.

For this recipe, you traditionally do not peel the apples. I used a packaged vanilla pudding for the sauce, but you are welcome to use your favorite custard recipe, or vanilla vla, or make your own.

Appeltjes onder de deken
1/2 cup mixed dried fruits*
1/2 cup (125 ml) apple juice
2 tablespoons brandy (optional)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick
4 small size Gala apples
2 packages vanilla pudding (cook and serve, 4.6oz/130gr each)
6 cups (1.5 liter) milk

Mix the dried fruits with the apple juice, brandy, brown sugar and the cinnamon stick and let it soak overnight if possible, but at least a few hours. 

The next day, heat the oven to 375F (190C) while you prepare the hot sauce. Wash the apples and cut in half, top to bottom. Remove the core (I use a teaspoon sized measuring spoon for a nice, even round). Pour half of the sauce on the bottom of a large baking tray - the tray has to hold 8 apple halves- and keep the rest warm and covered!**

Place the apples, cut side up, on top of the vanilla. Stir the dried fruit and put a heaping tablespoon in each apple hollow. Continue until the fruits have been distributed evenly.

Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Serve the apples hot at the table, and pour the rest of the hot sauce over the apples right before you serve, tucking them in under a nice, warm blanket.....

Eet smakelijk!

* Use what you have: mix up dark raisins, golden raisins, currants, cranberries, chopped up walnuts, almonds or pecan.

** It's a little bit more work, but I prefer making the second batch of vanilla pudding when the apples are baking - right before they come out of the oven. That way, I have piping hot custard to pour over the apples! 


"Aan een boom zo volgeladen mist men vijf, zes pruimen niet" wrote Hieronymus van Alphen, the known Dutch poet, pointing out that "on a tree so richly filled five, six plums will not be missed". That must be what the squirrels are thinking as, each day upon return from work, I find half-eaten, half-buried plums in my gardens. The tree, however, does not seem less laden for it.

As cute as the little rascals might be, and as willing I am to share the wealth, it is time to put the ripe fruit to good use. Plum jam is always an option, but I am rather partial to vlaaien, the Limburg version of tarts or pies. And seeing as how this afternoon I am expecting company for coffee, a plumb tart or pruimenvlaai seems to be just the ticket!

Limburg vlaaien use a rich yeast dough for the base of their tarts and pies instead of a flaky crust. It is reminiscent of the fact that these particular pies originated from the leftovers of bread dough at the bakery, and at home. The last remaining pieces of dough would be rolled out, flattened and covered with jam, pieces of fruit or sometimes even just a sprinkle of sugar.

The province of Limburg has a large variety of vlaaien, from sweet and tangy (apricot) to rich and creamy (rice), and just about everything in between. The traditional black plum tart, zwarte pruimen vlaai, is made with dried Italian plums, or prunes, and was made during wintertime when fresh fruit was not available. But since this is (late) summer, and plums are abundantly available, we'll make a fresh plum vlaai instead.

As for Dutch plums, there aren't many, which might explain why there is a distinct lack of plum recipes in the many Dutch cookbooks from the last century. Some varieties are Vroege Tolse, Eldense Blauwe, Reine Claude van Schouwen, and the Dubbele Boerenwitte that was mentioned as early as 1790 in J.H.Knoop's "Pomologie of Kennisse der Vruchten" publication. If you have space for a fruit tree, it might be fun to plant one of these Dutch varieties!

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:
1 package vanilla pudding, prepared with half the amount of liquid
About 15 ripe plums, washed, pitted, and quartered.

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. You could use a package of vanilla pudding to make it easy on yourself but if you have the time, try making this pastry cream - half the recipe will do.

Grease a large pie pan (11 inches/28cm), or vlaaivorm, and roll out the dough into a large circle. Transfer it to the pan, and cut off any excess dough you may have. Poke holes in the dough so that it doesn't seize up while baking. Pour the vanilla pudding or pastry cream on top, then arrange the quartered plums. Bake at 400F/200C for 25 minutes - sprinkle a tablespoon of sugar over the plums and bake for another five minutes. When you take the vlaai out of the oven, sprinkle another tablespoon of sugar over the fruit and let it cool.

It's great served by itself, with a big dollop of whipped cream or, the American way, with a scoop of ice cream!