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Little book of Dutch baking

I love to travel. A chance to switch off, slow down, and spend most of your time eating, drinking and sightseeing. It also provides lots of ways to get new ideas to take home with you.

So it was that during my recent visit to the Netherlands, I became the proud owner of a new cookbook, called simply Koekje (“cookie”). After a brief introduction, it then gets straight into the serious stuff of recipes written by two Dutch bakers, Cees Holtkamp and Kees Raat.

Dutch baking is probably most famous for the stoopwafel, two pieces of wafer filled with caramel syrup. And then…well, there is not a huge amount of recipes that spring to mind. Sure, there is speculaas, but versions of it also appear in France, Belgium and Germany, so a little tricky to claim it as unique. And that is where these gentlemen come to the rescue. Cees Holtkamp runs Patisserie Holtkamp, a traditional bakers which makes tempting treats that you can buy throughout Amsterdam. Kees Raat runs the Unlimited Delicious chocolate shop and patisserie in Amsterdam’s trendy Haarlemmerstraat. So basically…they know their stuff. They really know their stuff.

This means Koekje has a perfectly formed selection of 100 biscuits – 50 Dutch classics from Mr Holtkamp and 50 recipes with a modern twist from Mr Raat. The traditional cookies include some spectacular names like arnhemse meisjes (“little Arnhem girls”), utrechtse spritsen (“Utrecht sprays”), taaitaai (“tough-tough”) and haagsche wind (“wind of The Hague”), with recipes ranging from simple butter biscuits to those rich with nuts, fruit and spices. The contemporary recipes include javaanse jongens (“java boys” made with hot sambal sauce!), zeeschuim (“sea foam”) and zeeuws profetenbrood (“Zeeland prophet bread”). It’s fair to say that there is something in there for everyone, even if it does mean that you have to learn to pronounce names that often seem to contain an impossible pile-up of vowels.

I think this is a lovely little book – it’s been put together to look stylish, but each two pages have a clear picture of the finished item, and a simple recipe. Lots of these recipes look delicious, but none of them (yet) look like they would be too hard to make. It’s a good guide to just peruse when looking for inspiration, and it’s great to see traditional recipes and contemporary variants collected in one place and presented so well. A concept that would be great to see for the baking of other countries, perhaps?

It probably doesn’t take a genius to work out that I’m going to be making extensive use of my new Dutch baking bible. While there are a lot of recipes that are interesting, I am drawn to those that use more unusual ingredients – aniseed,  sesame, rye or sambal hotsauce – or those which are very different from British biscuits, such as “tough-tough” biscuits or the haagsche wind meringue recipe from 1880.

That’s the good news. Now for the bad news. As far as I’m aware, Koekje is not yet available in English, which is a shame, as I think it would be a great seller. So for the time being, it’s a case of even geduld alstublieft (patience please)!

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An evening with Yotam Ottolenghi

So far, all I have blogged about is places I have eaten and things I have made myself. Nice, but I do get up to a bit more than that.

Last night, I attended a cookery demonstration in town to celebrate Yotam Ottolenghi’s new book, Plenty. I already have his first book (the self-titled Ottolenghi), which contains a wonderful array of dishes inspired by European and Middle Eastern culinary tradition. He is also the chef/patron of the rather great restaurant of the same name on Upper Street in Islington. The talk was just £6 for a glass of wine and a chance to see the expert at work – what’s not to like?

My very own copy!

The format was very informal – Waterstone’s bookshop on Piccadilly have a great little setup with a kitchen, and ample seating from which we were able to throw questions at the expert about what he was making, his business and his food philosophy. He ran through four dishes in total (roasted cauliflower with saffron, burnt aubergine salad, herb cous cous and beetroot salad), and at the end, we got to taste each of them. They were all great, and I will be trying the aubergine salad and the cous cous as soon as I can. They flavours were fresh, bright, light and rich.

I love his style of cooking. The focus is not about exact measurements and scientific methods, but rather about balance and getting flavours to shine and work with each other. More of an art than a science. He seems quite happy to work with “some” of this, and “a bit” of that, as long as you are checking the dish and can develop a feel for how things are working together. I liked his emphasis on how food tastes, encouraging the audience not to be scared of adding seasoning. We all seem to have a collective phobia of salt, but the truth is that you can’t cook well without it. But in any event, if you are cooking yourself, you are more aware of how much you are adding, and you probably on balance consume less of the stuff than if you just buy processed food. Anyway, the point is that he likes to think in terms of taste and flavours, and encouraged us to do the same. He also spoke at some length about presentation and his liking for colourful food. To demonstrate, the aubergine salad was transformed with the addition of chopped coriander and jewel-like pomegranate seeds. I also loved what he called his “million dollar cous cous” – stirring a herb paste through the cooked grains to make a bright green dish. He thought that colour matters not just in the food, but how it is presented. Perhaps this means it is time to get in a new set of dishes? It seems my penchant for picking up eclectic (i.e. mis-matched) bowls and dishes is finally, finally trendy!

Having sat through an inspirational talk and tried some truly wonderful food, I duly picked up a copy of Ottolenghi’s new book and got it signed. I have to admit, I was just a touch excited and came across like an over-excited schoolchild, gushing about my favourite recipe. Anyway, no harm done, better to come across as enthusiastic than to stand there and brood. I have to say, it is a beautiful publication in its own right – the cover is slightly padded and thus feels luxurious. In terms of recipes, it only covers savoury, which is probably a good thing for me, so I can steer this blog towards a better balance of sweet and savoury. The recipes are arranged by ingredient, making it easy to pick up items when you are out and about, then come home and pick out what you want to make. It also looks wonderful – lovely photography of bright, vibrant dishes, accented with outline art of various key ingredients. It all looks very stylish, and the book is currently enjoying well-deserved pride of place on my coffee table.

So, time to hit the kitchen and honour the dedication – keep on cooking!

(Postscript – I also have to add that I feel very privileged that I am able to attend these sort of events. It was my resolution at New Year to start doing more of these foodie things rather than just cooking and posting pictures of my food, and I am so glad I went. Looking forward to the next one!)

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