Tag Archives: belgium

Galette des Rois

Yesterday was Twelfth Night, the traditional end of Christmas festivities, and the day by which you’re supposed to have taken down all the decorations. We’re back to normal, but there are a couple of houses in the neighbourhood that are still holding on to the festive vibe.

So is that the end of the excitement? Well, not quite. Today (6 January) if Epiphany, so there is one last change to eat cake before we get to our resolutions to be healthier and more sporty in 2017. On of the cakes eaten on this day is the Galette des Rois (“cake of the kings”) which is popular in France and Belgium. It has a sweet almond filling between two layers of golden puff pastry. Probably best to start that diet on 7 January then…

We actually had one of these at work yesterday. We’d been discussing the phenomenon of “cake culture” and whether we should encourage or discourage the appearance of cakes in the office as part of a commitment to healthy eating. Afterwards, of course, I went to a bakery and rocked up with one of these guys, but we managed to agree it was OK, as this was a cultural cake, rather than a celebration of cake culture, so we were fine with that.

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There is also a bit of fun that goes with this cake. Traditionally a ceramic bead would be added to the filling, and when the cake is cut and served, the person that finds the bead becomes king or queen for the rest of the day. If you buy a galette, you will usually get a golden crown to go with it, which the lucky monarch can wear to impress their subjects.

Now, you might be thinking that hiding a piece of ceramic in a cake is not a great idea if someone is hungrily tucking into it and they, oh, perhaps value their teeth? And you’d be absolutely right. As it turns out, I was the lucky king for a day at work, and it was a bit disconcerting to discover there was a piece of stone lurking in there. If you’re going to make one of these, I think the best way is to keep the tradition of something in the cake, but perhaps add a whole almond instead. All the fun, none of the risk of dental damage.

This is a very simple recipe to make. If you’re the sort of person that makes their own puff pastry, that’s great, but I am not one of those people. I bought mine from the store, and it makes life a lot easier. You just have to make the filling, then put it between two discs of pastry and bake it. But to make up for buying the pastry, I did make my own paper crown!

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To make a Galette des Rois:

• 1 block of sheet of puff pastry
• 1 portion of filling
• 1 teaspoon apricot jam

• 1 egg, beaten
• 1 whole almond or trinket

For the filling:

• 100g butter
• 100g caster sugar
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon almond extract
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 100g ground almonds

• 2 tablespoons dark rum

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. Make the filling. Cream the butter until soft, then add the sugar and beat well for a minute. Add the egg, almond extract and vanilla extract and mix until light and fluffy. Fold in the ground almonds, then add the rum and mix well.

3. Roll out the puff pastry so that you can cut two discs of at least 20cm, but try to get 25cm if you can. Cut out the two discs, and transfer one to the baking sheet. Use some of the beaten egg to moisten the edge of the pastry disc. Put the apricot jam in the middle and spread evenly, avoiding the egg.

4. Gently spoon the filling onto the pastry disc and spread it evenly – you might not need all the filling, particularly if the pastry disc is on the smaller side. Pop an almond or lucky charm into the mixture.

5. Place the other pastry disc on top, and working from the centre, use your hands to gently pat it down, getting rid of as many air bubbles as you can. Finally press down on the edges where you brushed the beaten egg to get a good seal. Crimp with a fork, then trim with a very sharp knife to get a neat edge.

6. Brush to top of the galette with beaten egg. Make a hole in the centre with a skewer to allow steam to escape, then use the back of a sharp knife to make a pattern on top of the galette.

7. Bake the galette for 25-30 minutes until puffed up and golden. You many need to turn it round half-way to get an even bake.

7. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. Warn your guests about any ceramic or metal lucky charms in the galette before serving!

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Les Couques de Dinant

Earlier this year, I agreed, in a moment of generous madness, that I would cater a family wedding for around 30 people over four nights deep in the Belgian countryside. I mean…how hard could it really be? Of course, I was not going to make all the mistakes that other cooks might make. Oh no, I was going to be organised, I was going to cook everything a couple of times to be sure the recipes were foolproof, I was going to have a detailed set of plans, I would run everything to schedule. A doddle. 120 covers? Ha, I laughed at the task. It’s all in the organisation, or so I thought.

Fast forward to the actual event in May, and I found myself in a hire care, winding along rural roads from Brussels to a small village in the Ardennes. If you don’t know the area, it is very pretty – forests, hills, charming towns and lots to explore. On the way to the venue, I was confident that driving out of Brussels was going to be the only bad thing about this whole trip. Even thought I lived in the Belgian capital for four years, I never got used to some of the worst driving in Western Europe. However, once we’d cleared Brussels, taken the motorway to Namur, and finally reached a small road along the river Meuse in the strawberry region around Wépion, I felt a bit of a sense of relief. A large strawberry ice cream on a patch of grass overlooking the river told me it was all going to be fine now. I had my day-by-day planner, everything would be straightforward. Time to sit back and enjoy the countryside.

Our trip took a took a bit of a detour down to Dinant. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for this place, and from the picture above, you can see why. The Meuse snakes its way along a valley, with long, thin towns lining its banks. And the results are stunning – traditional houses in front of large rock faces. Dinant is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, and today the evidence of this creation is still celebrated in the city.

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During this visit, I came across a traditional biscuit, the couques de dinant. The place where I discovered them was the wonderfully traditional Patisserie Jacobs, which had the various couques in just about every elaborate shape that you could think of – people, animals, baskets of flours and, of course, saxophones. It really was like stepping back in time, and after coffee and a strawberry tart, the helpful lady was happy to explain all about the ingredients, the history and the process of making couques de dinant.

These are traditionally made from very simple ingredients – flour and honey – and shaped into elaborate shapes using wooden moulds, and then baked at a high temperature so that the honey caramelises and they take on a deep, golden colour. There is also a variation, the couques de rins, which are made with added sugar. Apparently, there are rules about ensuring careful labelling so that customers can be sure they are getting exactly the right thing.

Now, these little couques are rather hard to describe…the best I can say is that they are like very hard biscuits, but you don’t actually bite into them. For goodness sake, don’t bite into them! Well, you could, but you would probably break your teeth, and that would be bad. No, the trick with the couques is to break them into pieces, and then pop a small piece into your mouth and let it soften, rather like a sweet. The flavour is very old-fashioned, and sort of reminds me of German Christmas biscuits, also often made with lots of honey.

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When I got back to London, I decided to have a go at making these myself. The good thing about making couques de dinant is that you really can make very small amounts of them, as you just need equal weights of honey and flour. Before making a big batch, I did a little test run with a spoon of honey and an equal weight of plain flour.

What became clear to me very quickly is that the type of honey you use here really does matter. I don’t think it is so much the quality of the honey as such, but you do want something with a strong flavour. My first attempt using a very mild acacia honey was a bit lacklustre. However, a second attempt using a strong wildflower honey was much better, with a much richer flavour.

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Actually making the couques was fairly straightforward. I don’t have an elaborate foot-high wooden stamp of the type they use in traditional Dinant bakeries, but I did have some biscuit presses  from when I made German Springerle a couple of years ago, and I thought using my little pine cone mould would look rather cute. Just roll out the dough, dust very lightly with flour, then press the mould on top. This helps to stop sticking, and in my experience works better than trying to apply the flour to the mould itself (think about it – if the mould is not actually sticky, the flour will just fall off…). Once you’ve got a nice sharp imprint, just use a soft brush to gently sweep away the excess before baking.

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Once you’ve got all the dough ready, just pop in the oven and bake until a rich golden colour. When you remove them from the oven, there is another trick – brush them straight away with some plain water. This makes any remaining patches of flour disappear, and gives the finished couques an attractive sheen. And there you go – you’ve made the couques! If you want to see an expert at work, here is a rather nifty video from a baker in Patisserie Jacobs. It’s in French, but you can still get an idea of the process.

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Now…the big question…what are they actually like? Well, as promised, they are pretty tough. The thinner the couque, the more likely it is to snap, but they don’t seem to end up as crisp and delicate morsels. Just as the lady in the bakery promised, you need to bread off a piece, and just let is melt in the mouth. Not as sensational as macarons or as delicate as florentines, but they’ve got a certain old-fashioned charm, and of course, a delicious strong honey flavour. They also last for absolutely ages, so if you’re looking to make decorative cookies, these are a great option.

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Oh, and that wedding…you might be interested to know how it went? Well, for all my naïve ideas that I could plan everything and have it run like clockwork, that didn’t happen. But you already guess that! I spent the best part of the four days of the wedding celebrations running around in the large kitchen, bossing people about, with about seven different pots on the go at any one time.  Of course, what was fantastic was that with our little kitchen gang, we were able to turn out a series of delicious dishes which the guest and the newlyweds seemed to really enjoy. We did everything from scratch, and the reason we did that rather than using shortcuts was that we all wanted to do something special for the event. We were ambitious, goodness knows we were ambitious, but it all worked, so I hope that we did succeed in helping to make their celebrations a little more special.

So while I spent most of the four days of the wedding celebrations over a hot stove, feeling stressed, tired, frustrated, impatient and probably nearly shouted at lots of people, it was also wonderful, crazy, fantastic fun. I’ve learned a lot about cooking for big groups, and I’ve also realised that I probably don’t plan to open a restaurant quite yes. however, that’s not to say that I don’t still have a little fantasy to open a café floating around in my head…

To make Couques de Dinant (makes around 12-15):

• 250g runny honey
• 250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
• dot of oil to grease
• water

1. Preheat the oven the 220°C (430°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and rub very lightly with vegetable oil.

2. Put the honey in a bowl, and add the flour, a little at a time, until you have a smooth dough. You want a texture that is firm but which can be shaped, so you might need a little more or a little less – go you your gut.

3. Turn the dough onto a well-floured surface and roll to around 1cm (1/3 inch) thickness. Dust with flour and press the mould into the dough, trim and place on the baking tray. Repeat until all the dough is used up.

4. Bake for around 10-15 minutes until golden, turning the tray half-way during baking if needed to get an even colour (watch them – the high honey content means they can easily burn). When done remove from the oven and brush each with a little water. Leave to cool.

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Belgian Buns

The eyes of the world might be on London in anticipation of a certain new baby, but today saw another royal development across the English Channel in Belgium.  Today is Belgian National Day, and after 20 years in the top job, King Albert II choose today as the moment to abdicate in favour of his eldest son Philippe. Hence the Brussels-themes header, complete with the Atomium.

To mark this, I’ve foregone the more familiar waffles or baked endive, and instead made a batch of Belgian Buns. Spirals of rich, yeasted dough, filled with sultanas and topped with icing and cherry.

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The funny thing is that, in spite of their name, there does not seem to be any basis for linking these buns to Belgium. Indeed, a Belgian friend told me that while they have something similar, it is named after Switzerland (the couque suisse). In the same way that the Danes refer to Danish pastries as coming from Vienna. Sort of.

While Belgian Buns might not be big in the low countries, they are a favourites in Britain. That said, I was quite surprised about how few recipes there are in cookbooks or online for these tasty treats. I’ve actually used my recipe for Swedish cinnamon buns, but without the spices. The cinnamon butter is replaced with brown sugar and sultanas, and the buns are finished with a soft fondant icing and the traditional red cherry.

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After making these buns, I realised that it has been a good few years since I’ve last enjoyed one of these little fellows, but I am very pleased with the result. The dough is rich and buttery, and allowing a decent amount of time for the dough to prove means the texture is very light and fluffy. The only little note of caution I would sound is that you should go easy on the icing – it’s very sweet, so unless you’ve got the sweetest of sweet teeth, you don’t want more than a drizzle.

So there we have it – some (fake) Belgian Buns for the coronation of the new Belgian King. And part of me thinks that it would be rather nice if these things are being served in the Royal Palace of Brussels today.

To make Belgian Buns (makes 12):

For the dough:

• 2 teaspoons instant yeast
• 50g sugar
• 60g butter
• 130ml milk, scalded and cooled
• 1 egg
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 325g strong white flour

For the filling:

• 120g sultanas
• 30g brown sugar
• milk

For the glaze:

• 200g icing sugar
• 3 tablespoons boiling water
• 12 glacé cherries

1(a). If using a bread machine: put the dough ingredients into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

2(b). If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar and yeast. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and egg, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

3. Once the dough is ready, turn it onto a floured surface. Roll into a large square (around 25 x 25cm). Brush the surface with milk, then sprinkle the sultanas and brown sugar across the dough. Roll the dough into a fat sausage, then cut into 12 equal slices.

4. Lay each slice, cut face up, on a bun case. Cover with cling film or a damp teacloth and leave to rise for at least an hour until doubled in size.

5. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Bake the buns for about 10-12 minutes until golden.

6. When done, remove from the oven and cover with a clean tea-towel (this will catch the steam and keep the buns soft).

7. When the buns are cool, make the glaze. Combine the icing sugar and boiling water, mixing until smooth. Drizzle over each bun and top each one with a glacé cherry.

Worth making? These buns are amazing! Very easy to make and they really look impressive when stacked up high, either on the breakfast table or with morning coffee.

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On Location: In Bruges

The festive season is nearly upon us, so time for the annual tradition of a pre-Christmas visit to Brussels. And with a free day while I was there, what could be nicer than a day trip to the charming city of Bruges?

The basics: Bruges is in the north-west of Belgium in the Dutch-speaking area of Flanders. This matters. Brussels might be (in theory) happily bilingual in Dutch and French, but get outside of the capital and it is one or the other. Dutch in the north. French in the south. And my years living in Belgium confirmed that never the twain shall meet. When wandering around the city, you’ll see a few traces of French, but they tend to be few and far between. It’s all very proudly Flemish (the Belgian version of Dutch…I never promised this was easy or straightforward!).

However, as you can see from the pictures, the attraction of Bruges is the fact that the whole place is basically a giant open-air museum. Beautiful old buildings ranging from medieval towers to elegant nineteenth century townhouses. No surprise then that it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.

I really love the picture below. It’s a bakery with what to me is a very traditional Belgian typeface, and rather remarkably (I thought) a rare example of bilingualism in Bruges.

The town might be well-preserved, but it is still very much a bustling commercial city as well, and wandering the streets, you sometimes think it’s just a row of shops. Then just stop, look up, and prepare to be amazed by some stunning architecture. You know, a lot of it really is just too much…but then, hundreds of years ago, this was a way of saying you were rich, seriously rich. The grander the facade, the better you were doing.

My own little theory is that an unususal façade was the ideal way of ensuring that people would be able to find your building. Someone might not have been able to read, or to communicate very well with the locals after travelling for several days on a horse, but they would surely have been able to find the house with the golden façade and a cockerel on top.

Bruges also has a pretty network of canals. On previous visits, I’ve been round them on a barge, but this time, it was a bit too chilly. Waffles and frites were much more appropriate.

Of course, any self-respecting city in the Low Countries has to have an impressive market square. Well, Bruges boasts several.  In winter, they’re packed with Christmas markets, skating rinks and people enjoying hot snacks and mulled wine. In summer, the places are filled with cafés to enjoy the wide selection of Belgian beers. I love them (the squares, and the beers!).

With all this history, there are also some charming little nuggets. This little fellow is the Bruges Bear, the original inhabitant of the city, or at least the forest that used to cover where the city now sits.

So, having gotten to the end of these pictures, is Bruges worth visiting? Absolutely. One very charming thing is that Bruges also looks good in all weathers. In bright sunlight, the colours are vibrant. When it is cloudy, the heavy skies loom over the city. When it is raining or misty, the city is very atmospheric. I was lucky to visit on a day where the weather changes from thick fog to clear blue sunny skies.

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Birthday Macarons

I would love to be able to say that I made these macarons, but I didn’t.

Nope, in fact, I suppose that really I am just doing this to make you just a tiny bit jealous…I received this lovely gift for my birthday recently – a rather amazing (and delicious) box of macarons from famous Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini.

These require nothing more demanding than to be enjoyed with a cup of green tea.

The flavours are great, and really link back to the world of the chocolate maker – fruity (cassis, strawberry, vanilla, salted caramel, speculoos, one intesely dark chocolate, one chocolate and almond and finally, one citrus macaron that had been wholly dipped in chocolate. All in all, pretty sensational!

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A visit to Brussels

I’ve been rather quiet over the last few days, which is down to a visit to see friends in Brussels. I didn’t really go to any of the tourist attractions unless they just happened to be on my way somewhere, as the entire visit revolved around food, drinks and socialising. This weekend of simple objectives proved to be the right call, it the weather was exceptionally hot. Clear blue skies and scorching!

Rather than trying separate posts for each thing, I’ve just put it all together. It reads little like a wandering stream of consciousness, but I hope it makes some sense!

As you can see, the more “traditional” side of Brussels. The plaque honours the birthplace of Audrey Hepburn, although most visitors miss this as it is located on a side street, away from the main attractions. There is also the spire of the town hall, a traditional Brussels building and the royal palace. I promise, all these were seen on the way from a brunch to meeting for drinks in the centre of town!

To balance these tourist highlights, a few shots capturing beer, cartoons, art noveau and more beer. I would have included frites, but it was just waaaaay too hot to even think about eating them at the weekend.

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