Tag Archives: dutch food

{12} Speculaasbrokken

I had grand plans to make something from the Netherlands this year – the duivekater, a Christmas loaf which a long history that even appears in famous artwork from the Dutch Golden Age. Well, you can see from the name of this post that it is not what happened. I did manage to make a duivekater for Christmas day, and it was certainly delicious, but I did it all in something of a rush. So much so that it ended up looking like something that would not have been out of place on cakewrecks rather than being the jolly photogenic festive centrepiece I had in mind. Of course I will give it another go, so I’ve already added it to my list for next year’s baking.

But this leaves me with one bake missing. So what to do? Well, something else, obviously! I’ve reflected on all the complex, intricate things I made this year, and have decided to go in the opposite direction this time. I’ve made speculaasbrokken, which are simple, quick and delicious. You might think that I made something a bit fancy and then dropped it by mistake, but this is what they should look like – the name means “pieces” or “chunks” of speculaas, or Dutch spiced biscuits.


Speculaas cookies is a key part of Christmas in the Netherlands, and you can find the famous “windmill cookies” with their intricate designs formed using wooden moulds, and more simple “spiced nuts” which are rolled into little balls and baked. You can make the special speculaas spice mixture yourself if you have the time and inclination, otherwise you can used mixed spice or pumpkin spice for a similar effect. Whatever you do, make sure you’re pretty generous with the spices!

The method here is really easy. You throw everything in a bowl, make a dough, then chill it, roll it and bake it. Either make one mega-cookie or four smaller ones. After baking, you can either break it into pieces and serve it à la manière rustique but I think there is something quite satisfying and a little bit dramatic about brining it whole to the table and then smashing it in front of your guests. 

To make speculaasbrokken:

• 300g plain white flour
150g unsalted butter
160g dark brown sugar
• 6 teaspoons mixed spices
1/2 teaspoon salt (skip if using salted butter)
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons cold water
whole or flaked almonds, for decoration

1. Put all the ingredients apart from the water and almonds into a bowl, and work with your fingers until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add enough cold water to make a soft dough. Wrap in cling film, flatten, and chill for 30 minutes.

2. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

3. Roll the dough out to 3/4 cm thickness – you can do it in one large pieces, or make 4 separate pieces. Brush with milk and put almonds on top. If you are using whole almonds, you can make some sort of pattern, or you can use flaked almonds, in which case just sprinkle and press them down.

4. Bake the speculaas for around 45 minutes until it is dark looks evenly cooked. Turn half-way for an even colour.

5. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Then either break it into pieces to store, or keep it whole and smash it when you have guests for maximum impact.

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{1} Borstplaat

Hello and welcome to 2016’s edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas! I’ve been looking far and wide for some interesting festive baking, and hopefully you will enjoy what is to come over the next few weeks.

Today (5 December) is Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. This is the day on which St Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, the origin of the name Santa Claus) is said to come from Spain on a boat to distribute gifts and sweets to children, leaving those treats in clogs, or these days, more modern types of shoe. Alongside presents, it is traditional to get a chocoladeletter (your initial in chocolate!) as well as pepernoten and kruidnoten (spicy little biscuits – recipe here). Unless, of course, you are in Belgium, in which case you do all this on 6 December, because you’re Belgian and not the same as your Dutch neighbours.

One of the traditional treats is an incredibly sweet item called borstplaat. This name translates as “breast-plate”, and not “flat-chested” as I originally thought, which upon reflection would be a very peculiar name for a sweet aimed at children! But I can see where the name comes from – the resulting pieces are flat and glossy, and seem hard to the touch, just like pieces of armour.

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The reason that borstplaat is so sweet is that it is mostly sugar that has been cooked up with a little water, milk or cream, and sometimes a little butter, and then flavoured with whatever takes your fancy. Flavours such as chocolate, vanilla and coffee are traditional, but you could go with whatever flavour you like – strawberry, orange, lemon, just go crazy!

Something so sweet is easy to scoff at today (even if we Brits make it a personal challenge to eat our own weight in mince pies during December), but something like borstplaat makes sense when you look at it historically. In times when sweets were a real treat, it would be a really big deal to get a few pieces of something so sweet at Christmas time, and if you’re only getting this once a year, then it was easy for parents to look the other way. In fact, borstplaat does have a old-fashioned quality to it, which reminded me of things like sugar mice, with a texture rather like Scottish tablet. And this stuff is oh so sweet! Did I mention that?

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Borstplaat
is incredibly easy to make. You throw everything in a pan, bring to the boil, add a flavour, mix for a bit to encourage sugar crystallisation to start and then pour it out. You can make it in less than 15 minutes. It is also very simple to make different flavours – I made vanilla, chocolate and peppermint, but you can let your imagination run wild. Just be prepared for the fact that this stuff is very, very, very sweet. Either make just a small batch, or make sure you’ve got dozens and dozens of people coming to eat the stuff!

My recipe is something called roomboter borstplaat, made with butter and cream. You can make it more simply with water or milk, but the key thing is that you want to get the sugar to dissolve during the boiling process. I’ve added a few spoonfuls of water to the mixture. This doesn’t appear in a lot of recipes, but I found it guarantees that the sugar dissolves, and the extra water will evaporate during cooking anyway.

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To shape the borstplaat, you need to work quickly. You need to boil the mixture, then beat it until it becomes a little dull and just starts to go grainy. Then you pour it into a tray, or into prepared moulds, and leave it to set. You know you’ve got it right when the frosted effect appears on the top of the borstplaat.

As  you can see, I went a bit crazy and used lots of metal cookie cutters on a sheet of greaseproof paper as moulds. This definitely made for one my best pictures in a while, bit in the spirit of honesty, it was not the easiest way to make this stuff. Single pieces of borstplaat are fairly robust, but when you’re trying to get it out of these moulds with fiddly corners, it can be irritatingly fragile and I had quite a few breakages. If you want to try making them this way, go for simpler shapes, and make sure they are very, very well buttered so that nothing sticks. The hearts and discs were the easiest to get out of their moulds. It turns out that the Dutch have special moulds for making borstplaat which come apart in pieces! If only I’d known before…

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If you are impatient or prefer to make life easier for yourself, I would recommend that you just make a slab of this stuff, then break it into pieces as needed. Lining a bread tin with greaseproof paper will get you a nice, rectangular block.

If you want to get fancy, then use a silicone mould – I had one for making jelly babies, and made these cute little guys. The silicone mould was the easiest way to make elaborate shapes – they just slipped right out once the borstplaat was cool. Just be sure that your moulds are heat-resistant! The mixture it is pretty hot when you pour it in, and you don’t want a sugary molten plastic disaster!

So there you have it! We’ve kicked off with a tooth-achingly sweet treat, just eleven more bakes to go before Christmas. Simple, right?

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To make borstplaat

• 250g sugar
• 80g double cream
• 50g butter
• 4 tablespoons water

1. Prepare your moulds or pan. If making a slab, line the bottom of a loaf pan with greaseproof paper, rubbed with a tiny amount of unsalted butter to prevent sticking.

2. Put the sugar, cream, butter and water in a saucepan. Place on a low heat and cook until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and cook until the temperature reaches 115°C (240°F). If you don’t have a sugar thermometer, you’re aiming for the soft ball stage.

3. Remove the mixture from the heat. Add any flavours or colours at this stage. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture goes dull you can just feel the crystals of sugar starting to form.

4. Working quickly, pour the mixture into the moulds, or pour into the loaf tin. Leave to set until completely cooled.

Note: if the mixture goes wrong, or sets too quickly as you’re pouring it out, don’t worry. You can just add some water and re-boil per steps 2 and 3.

Flavour variants:

• Chocolate: use golden caster sugar. Add 1 tablespoon of coca powder and a pinch of salt before you start cooking.

• Vanilla: add 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract once the mixture is cooked but before you start mixing.

• Peppermint: add 1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract and some food colouring once the mixture is cooked but before you start mixing.

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{1} Taai Taai

Hello and welcome to 2015’s edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas!  Regular readers might have noticed a bit of a slowdown in posts in the last few months. I’ve not lost my love of cooking, but a recent arrival has been keeping us all rather busy, which has certainly also made Christmas this year a lot more special!

I’m kicking off a little later than usual this year, as my first bake Taai Taai (rhymes with bye-bye) originates from the Netherlands, where today – 5 December – is Sinterklaas (their Belgian neighbours confusingly celebrate it on 6 December, but as these cookies are Dutch, we’ll go with the earlier date). Sinterklaas is the day on which St Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, the origin of the name Santa Claus) is said to come from Turkey to distribute gifts and sweets to children by leaving them in clogs, or these days, more modern types of shoe. Alongside presents, it is traditional to get a chocoladeletter (your initial in chocolate!) as well as pepernoten and kruidnoten (spicy little biscuits – recipe here).

Taai Taai literally means “tough tough” in Dutch, and that name reveals their texture. Whereas the classic speculaas is often crisp and buttery, these are, well, tough and chewy.

taaitaai2

So what is the story behind these little tough guys?

Continue reading

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{3} Kruidnootjes

Christmas would not be Christmas with lots of little spiced biscuits, and this is one that fits the bill perfectly. These are kruidnoten (“spice nuts”) or kruidnootjes (“little spice nuts”) from the Netherlands.

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Kruidnoten are small, crunchy biscuits made with brown sugar and loaded with Christmas spices. They are also incredibly cute – they are actually tiny (less than a small cherry!) and are often given to children in bags, or poured into bowls to munch on while you’re enjoying the festivities.

The good news is they are also incredibly easy to make, great if you’re in a hurry, don’t fancy tackling something too complex or need a quick home-made gift. You just have to whip up butter, sugar and a dash of syrup, then work in some spices and flour. The fun bit was shaping the kruidnoten. I cut the dough into four pieces, and rolled each into a long snake shape. Then (like the geek I am…) I used a ruler and a knife to cut equally-sized pieces, then rolled them into balls. That probably sounds like an unnecessary degree of obsession, but  you know what? All the cookies ended up exactly the same size when they were baked, so I was left feeling rather pleased.

Another real boon is that this is a good cookie choice to make with younger children as there are no complicated steps to follow and, critically, no raw eggs are involved. That means that if little fingers start to stuff the raw dough in their mouths, it will still be perfectly safe (even if the baking powder might not be the tastiest thing they’ve ever eaten). Cutting and rolling the dough into little balls is good fun, and the kruidnoten will cool quickly after baking. This means that little helpers can then eat the fruits of their labour quite quickly, preserving festive kitchen harmony.

Now, you could just leave them as they are and end there. Or…there is one alternative. Dip ’em in dark chocolate. This is definitely not traditional, but I can promise you that this is utterly delicious. The dark chocolate works beautifully with the sweet, crunchy, spicy biscuit, and if they if you add salt to the cookies, this contrasts with the sweetness of the chocolate too. If you have tempered the chocolate properly, they also look really rather stunning when served alongside tea, coffee or hot chocolate.

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One final tip – I’ve had shop-bought kruidnoten in the past, and they stay crisp for a while, but the home-made version can go soft after a day or so if you leave them out. This makes it essential to keep them in an airtight container, but if you don’t do that, you can easily re-crisp them by baking them for a few minutes in a low oven (remember you’re drying out, not baking them). Of course, if they are dipped in chocolate, you don’t need to worry about that…just sayin’…

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To make kruidnoten (makes around 64):

• 125g plain flour
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice
• pinch of ground black pepper
 • 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 50g butter

• 30g soft brown sugar
• 35g muscavado sugar
• 1 teaspoon syrup (golden, treacle or honey)
• milk, to combine
• 250g dark chocolate, for dipping (optional)

1. Mix the flour, spice, pepper, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Put to one side.

2. In a separate bowl, cream the butter, sugar and syrup until soft and fluffy. Add the dry ingredients and mix well. Add enough milk until the mixture comes together (a tablespoon at a time – the dough should be soft, but not sticky). Wrap in cling film and chill for an hour or overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Double-line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Divide the dough into four pieces (mine weighed 271g, so I had 4 x 67g…I’m rather nerdy when it comes to measuring). Roll each piece into a long sausage and cut into 16 pieces (again…I rolled mine out until it was 32cm long, then put a ruler next to it and cut equal pieces of 2cm…).

5. Roll each piece of dough into a ball and place them on the baking sheet with a little space between them. You might have to bake them in two batches.

6. Bake the kruidnoten for around 14-16 minutes (turning the tray half-way) until slightly puffed and a spicy aroma comes from the oven. Remove the tray and put the  kruidnoten on a rack. They should harden as they cool.

7. If you want to, dip the cooled kruidnoten in dark chocolate for a more indulgent festive treat.

Worth making? A definate yes – very easy to make, and utterly delicious and more-ish. A true Dutch delight!

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{2} Janhagel

Today’s festive offering comes courtesy of the Netherlands, which is usually a pretty good bet when it comes to Christmas goodies, such as speculaas (spiced biscuits) and kerstkransjes (almond Christmas wreaths). These are the mysteriously-named Janhagel which are a buttery, cinnamon-flavoured base topped with toasted almonds and pearl sugar.

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I’ve picked this one as tomorrow is Sinterklaas in the Netherlands (although, while the Dutch do it on 5 December, their Belgian neighbours confusingly celebrate it on 6 December. As these cookies are Dutch, we’ll go with the earlier date). This is the day on which St Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, the origin of the name Santa Claus) is said to come from Turkey to distribute gifts and sweets to children by leaving them in clogs, or these days, more modern types of shoe. Alongside presents, it is traditional to get a chocoladeletter (your initial in chocolate!) as well as pepernoten and kruidnoten (spicy little biscuits).

So…these biscuits. They are super-easy to make. Just mix a whole lot of stuff together, sprinkle on the almonds and sugar, and you’re pretty much there. Unlike so many Christmas goodies, you can make these from things in the cupboard and fridge, which is good if you need to whip them up in a hurry. The flavour is fairly simple, just the goodness of butter, sugar, cinnamon and toasted almonds, which does make a nice difference from some of the spice-heavy biscuits and cakes you encounter at this time of the year. However, the name is a bit more of a mystery. They are sometimes spelled as Janhagel, other times as Jan Hagel, which suggests it might have been named after some guy named Jan, with the hagel referring the sugar on top (called hagelsuiker in Dutch). However, this sugary link  is more likely than not a bit of retrofitting a theory to the name. If you’re an expert in Dutch biscuits and you know where the name comes from, do tell!

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Now, a few tips for making this. You make these biscuits as one large sheet, then cut into fingers when it is baked. It is worth letting the sheet cool a little, as cutting too soon will mean they fall apart. You should also use a sharp, serrated knife and gentle pressure so that you can get a sharp cut. I tried a straight knife, and it just pressed down on the almonds, leaving messy edges. And…you can get a bit too fussy by using a metal ruler to line everything up, but it would take a special kind of neurotic to get that obsessed…right?

To make Janhagel (makes 18):

• 225g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 150g unsalted butter
• 100g soft brown sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 50g pearl sugar
• 75g flaked almonds

1. In a large bowl, mix and sieve the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.

2. Put the butter and sugar in another bowl and beat until light and fluffy. Add the flour mixture and half of the egg, then mix until you have a smooth dough. Try to do this with a wooden spoon rather than your hands (they will melt the butter and make the mixture greasy). Cover the bowl and leave in the fridge to chill for an hour.

3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

4. Place the dough onto the tray. Shape into a rough square, then cover with another sheet of greaseproof paper and use a rolling pin to roll out to around 1/2 cm thickness. The size of the square should be just over 25 x 25 cm (10 x 10 inches). Remove the top layer of paper.

5. Brush the dough with the remaining egg. Sprinkle over half of the pearl sugar, then the flaked almonds, and finish with the rest of the pearl sugar. Run the rolling pin lightly over the top to ensure everything sticks.

6. Bake for 20 minutes until puffed and the nuts are golden. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a moment. Gently trim the edges, then cut into bars using a sharp serrated knife. Aim for around 4 x 8 cm.

Worth making? This is a very quick and easy recipe, and doesn’t need anything too fancy to produce great cookies. You could also make them with different spices according to taste.

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{11} Gevulde Speculaas

When I lived in Belgium, Christmas was marked by the presence of speculoos biscuits. Actually, pretty much every day was marked with speculoos, but at Christmas, they went from being delicious small additions to a cup of coffee to something altogether grander, culminating the two or three foot biscuits that were shaped into the image of Saint Nicholas in December. They are also a feature of Christmas in the Netherlands, where their name is tweaked to speculaas, and they gain more spice than their Belgian cousins. If you want to make the biscuits, I turned my hand to them last year. They can be made either by rolling out the dough and cutting or using the chill/roll/slice technique, but ideally you would use traditional wooden moulds to shape into windmills, chickens, men and women.

There is also a more elaborate version of speculaas, which is called gevulde speculaas, or “filled speculaas”. This is made with a layer of dough, similar to that used to make speculaas cookies, then filled with almond paste, and topped with more dough. The whole is then baked, and finally cut into smaller pieces.

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The dough is a rather straightforward affair, but the filling was more interesting. I always just assumed this was made from marzipan, but this is something that the Dutch call amandelspijs. This is a paste made from almond, sugar and eggs, and in some cases flavoured with a little lemon zest. This was traditionally a high-quality ingredient in baked goods, and using it considered a sign of quality.

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However, it was also an expensive item, and the temptation was inevitably there to use cheaper versions. This resulted in the development of something called banketbakkerspijs (“bakery spijs”) which was made from a combination of weird and wonderful ingredients such as bitter apricot kernels and white beans. I can see why the alternative name developed – croissant aux amandes sounds nice, white bean and ground kernel croissant less so!

Anyway, back to today’s recipe. I made my amandelspijs the posh way (I’ll leave my bean-based confectionery to the Japanese, thanks). However, I felt that the mixture of just ground almonds, sugar and egg lacked sufficient almond flavour (I’ve probably been raised on things flavoured with apricot kernels and have thus had my sense of taste destroyed…). I corrected with a few drops of almond extract. You could also use a spoon or two of amaretto liqueur. I also added some lemon zest, which appeared in a few of the sources I looked at. This is entirely up to you, but it does add a little extra flavour and a certain “freshness” to the filling.

When it comes to the spices, there is traditional Dutch mixture called speculaaskruiden (“speculaas spices”) that can be made from things you probably have in the store cupboard. I find the key flavours in there are the generous use of cloves relative to other spice mixes. However, you could use any spice mixture you like, such as pumpkin pie spices, or even just good old allspice.

The resulting cake is very rich, as the speculaas does not turn crisp like a biscuits, but instead you get a spiced pastry encasing the rich filling. You can really use as little or as much filling as you like (I’ve seen everything from a small sliver to a very thick slab of filling!) but I think a ratio of equal parts pastry and filling seems to work pretty well.

To make Gevulde Speculaas

Makes 16-25 pieces

Filling

• 150g ground almonds
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/4 lemon, zest only
• 1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Pastry

• 250g self-raising flour
• 125g dark brown sugar
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice or speculaaskruiden
• 150g butter, cold
• 1 egg

To finish: whole almonds

1. Make the filling – mix all the ingredients to a smooth paste (if too stiff, add a little water). Cover the dish and refrigerate overnight.

2. The next day, make the pastry – put everything apart from the egg into a bowl and work with your fingers until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add 2/3 of the egg (reserve the rest) and work to a smooth, soft dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for one hour.

3. Now prepare the speculaas. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F) and line a square tin with greaseproof paper.

4. Take half the dough. Roll out to a size a few centimetres larger than the base of the tin. Transfer into the tin – press the base down, and leave the edges. Add the filling, smooth down, then fol the edges onto the filling – you want a seam of around one centimetre (half an inch), so you might need to trim the excess.

5. Roll out the other half of the dough, and trim to the size of the tin. With a little water, moisten the seam you’ve left on the base, then add the topping to the tin. Press the edges lightly, then use a blunt knife to score lines to mark the edge of each piece. You can do 4 x 4 (for 16 pieces) or 5 x 5 (for 25 pieces).

6. Take the reserved 1/3 egg. Mix with two tablespoons of cold water and brush to top. Place an almond in the centre of each piece.

7. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then remove from the tin. You can either cut into individual pieces now, or keep whole and cut pieces as needed.

Worth making? This is straightforward recipe if you’ve got the time, and a nice idea if you want something that is almond-based by want to steer clear of using a lot of marzipan. The flavour works wonderfully with the spices in the pastry too.

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Utrechtse Spritsen

I realised today that this is my 300th post! It sometimes seems like I’ve only just started this blog, but then I look back at all those posts and realise just how much I’ve done. You forget a recipe or some special event, and then you see the post and it all comes back. Ah, memories!

Anyway, I promised a few days ago that I would try something from my new Dutch book of biscuits (which was a gift from Ria – thanks!). But which one should it be? I looked at several recipes, but in the end went for Utrechtse spritsen that my friend Sunshine had already spotted in my picture of the book. So that seemed about as good a way to start as any, and I decided to go with that one.

These are very rich butter biscuits which are named after Utrecht. It’s one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands, blessed with lots of history and impressive architecture and beautiful canals. The name means “Utrecht shortbread” but from what I have been able to find out, the name originally comes from German spritzen (to spray) which makes sense when you know that the cookies are formed by squeezing the dough though a nozzle to get the distinctive ridges.

This was a new technique for me – you cream butter and a little egg, then add sugar, and finally work in the flour. The trick is to get a very light, smooth, soft dough that you can then squeeze through a star-shaped nozzle. You then make a wave pattern and bake. This leaves you with a long “strip” of cookie that can be easily cut while hot, but which hardens as it cools.

If you’re interested to see how to make them, there is a video here, but be warned that it’s only in Dutch. However, I think you get the idea of how to do it.

I found making these cookies quite easy, with two small wrinkles that it would have been nice to have known about before I started!

First, the mixture requires quite some muscles to squeeze the bag! The answer to this is probably to use a larger nozzle, but I did not have one to hand, so I just relied on sheer brute force. Also making sure that the dough is sufficiently light and smooth should make it easier to get spritsing.

Second, you need to cut the long strips of baked biscuit into pieces as soon as they come out of the oven. As soon as they come out. The biscuit starts to cool and harden very rapidly, and if you’re not quick enough, you get crumbly cuts instead of nice clean slices. This can be easily overcome by baking one long strip at a time, so that when it comes out of the oven, you can cut immediately with a very sharp knife.

The resulting biscuits are delicious – very simply, but perfect with a cup of tea or coffee. They’re about an inch wide and two inches long (3cm x 6cm) so they’re quite small, but I think that sometimes less is more. They’re the sort of biscuit you often get in a cafe with a cup of coffee – something small to nibble on. And when made yourself, they’re even better.

To make Utrechtse spritsen (makes approximately 30):

• 1/2 egg (30g), beaten
• 160g butter
• 100g light brown sugar
• 3g salt
• 15g vanilla sugar or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 250g plain flour

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. In a bowl, beat the egg and butter until fluffy – keep beating, it will happen! Mix in the sugar, salt and vanilla sugar or extract and beat for another minute.

3. Add the flour and mix well – towards the end you might find it easiest to mix with your hands. The mixture should be quite soft and light.

4. Put a star nozzle into a piping bag. Fill with the dough, then start to pipe a wave pattern – but there should be no gaps in the strip of dough. If you find that the piping is not working well, just scrape off the baking sheet and put back into the piping bag and start again.

5. Bake the spritsen for around 15 minutes until golden brown (turn the sheet if necessary to ensure even colouring).

6. Remove from baked spritsen from the oven and immediately cut into 3cm (1.5 inch) pieces with a very sharp knife

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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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Koninginnedag: Ontbijtkoek

I’ve already featured a fancy recipe if you’re in the mood to celebrate Dutch Queen’s Day, so today I’ve gone to the other end of the spectrum and made something super-easy. It’s called ontbijtkoek which literally means “breakfast cake”.

You can think of this as a very simple gingerbread recipe, but one that’s on the healthy side. Yes, there is some sugar in there, but no eggs and no butter (just milk to bind it), so it’s low in fat. Heck, there is even rye flour in there! This does mean, of course, that it’s actually rather well-suited to being spread with butter and topped with jam or honey. I realise this defeats the object of making such an otherwise healthy loaf, but then – if you’re going to celebrate Queen’s Day by jumping up and down on a canal boat while dressed from head to toe in orange, all that energy is probably essential.

This is something that I used to buy a lot when I lived in Belgium, as I went to the Netherlands rather often. This is something that people tend to buy rather than make these days. However, given how simple the recipe is, there is no reason not to give it a try, especially if you don’t have easy access to the commercial versions or you want to be free-and-easy with the spices.

The only real “prep” work is to scald the milk and then let it cool before mixing for a more tender loaf (and even this step can be skipped if you’re in a rush). Then you just mix everything together until you have a smooth – but still thick – dough, scrape into a loaf tin and bake. You’ll be rewarded by a rich, spicy aroma during baking, but if you want to dive right in, you’ll sadly need to hold off – this needs to be left to cool, then stored for a day. This means the loaf will be soft and slightly sticky on top. It also cuts easily and keeps really well, so it is perfectly suited as something to nibble on during the week for breakfast, but it’s also tasty enough on its own to enjoy with a cup of tea or coffee as an afternoon snack.

I’ve mentioned the spices, and here I’ve gone with a rather traditional mixture that includes a lot of cloves, plus cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. However, you can tweak them to your heart’s content, adding more of what you love and less of what you’re not so keen on. You might like to try other Dutch spice mixtures like speculaaskruiden used in traditional biscuits, or perhaps omit the cloves and use more cinnamon and nutmeg. You can also add nuts, dried fruit or preserved ginger. I think these could all work really well, even if they would mean that you’re getting a little away from the traditional recipes. But by all means – experiment away!

So I hope you’ve enjoyed these little Dutch delights! If you’re still curious about the cuisine of the Netherlands, you can have a look at my recipes for poffertjes (mini-pancakes) or apple tart, as well as aniseed sprinkles and aniseed milk.

To make Ontbijtkoek

 • 120g self-rising flour
• 130g rye flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 100g brown sugar
• 1 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

• 1 pinch salt
• 80ml golden syrup or other syrup

• 1 teaspoon treacle or molasses
• 240-300ml milk, scalded and cooled(*)

Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line a loaf tin with paper and grease with butter.

Put the flours, baking powder, sugar, spices and salt in a bowl. Mix well. Add the syrup, treacle/molasses and enough milk to make a smooth batter (it should be soft but certainly not runny). Add any dried fruit, nuts, ginger etc. if you’re using that.

Pour into the tin, and bake for an hour. Once baked, cover loosely with a clean tea-towel. When cool, wrap in cling film.

(*) This means bring the milk to the boil, then let it cook. I makes for a softer loaf. You need to let it cool because if you add the hot milk to the mixture, the baking powder will get to work before you can put the mixture into the pan. If you’re in a hurry, just use cold milk.

Worth making? This is a nice, easy recipe that gives you a lovely spicy cake. I think the flavour is spot on, but of course tweak the spices to taste. This is also a good one to make with kids, as the recipe is quite easy, and the lack of eggs means that they can lick the spoon and the bowl as much as they want to.

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{9} Kerstkransjes

Oh my…I remember when I embarked on my endeavour to do 12 festive goodies. It was the middle of November, I had loads of time and dozens of ideas. And, of course, I now realise that I didn’t know quite what I was undertaking. The result? I’ve been very busy and pretty much up to my eyes in baked goods.

Needless to say, colleagues and friends have been frankly pretty delighted at the seemingly never-ending flow of treats. This little challenge has also led to a reawakening of my competitive side – I’ve got a new-found determination to finish the project before Christmas Day!

By now, there are Christmas trees everywhere and the city is decked in lights. And while I know it’s rather twee, I do like edible decorations on trees. Chocolate decorations? Check! Biscuits? check! Even candy canes (even if that’s too much sugar for me).

So why not try making them myself? Well, no reason no to, so I revisited the old Dutch cookbook I used recently to make speculaas, and that’s how I hit upon the idea of making today’s recipe: kerstkransjes.

Kerstkransjes are a Dutch treat which means “little Christmas wreaths”. They are simple crisp butter biscuits, which are cut into the ring shape, then finished in whatever way the cook of the day feels like. You can leave them plain, glaze with milk or egg wash, get smart and match with your tree decor (red? metallic?) or simply apply different toppings (such as pearl sugar, icing, chocolate). Personally, I think almonds are best. I love the rich flavour and intense savouriness they have when they have been toasted in the oven.

The shape of these cookies is traditional, and while it might look rather elaborate, there’s a simple trick to it – remember that the Dutch are one of the few peoples able to rival the Scots for thriftiness (we, of course, win). Use a fluted scone cutter for the outside ring, transfer to the baking sheet, and then use a smaller cutter to remove the centre. Simple!

Now, you may be one of those people that worries about the inherent flaw in edible decorations – they get eaten! You go to all that effort to create some sort of festive arrangement on the tree, only to find that your efforts have been munched away, leaving the tree stripped.

Well, just follow the example of smart Dutch bakers and make more than you need to put on the tree, so that you can replenish regularly. A whole lot tastier than walking in to find someone munching on a glass bauble, eh?

If you’re not so keen to pop them on the tree, kerstkransjes also make an attractive addition to a platter of festive cookies just as they are. However, I think that they do look rather fetching on the tree. What do you think?

To make kerstkransjes (adapted from Het Haagse Kookboek)

For the dough:

• 100g light brown sugar, sieved
• 200g plain flour
• 150g cold butter, finely chopped
• 1 egg white, lightly whisked
• 3-4 drops vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon salt, finely ground

To finish the cookies:

• Milk
• caster sugar
• flaked almonds

Preheat the oven to 160°C. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

Put the sugar, flour, butter, egg white, vanilla and salt into a bowl. Use your hands to quickly knead to a smooth dough. If you have time, wrap the dough in cling film and chill for 30 minutes. You can skip this, but it’s just a bit easier to work with chilled dough.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface until just less than 1/2 cm thick. Use a large fluted cutter to make the biscuits and transfer to the baking sheet. Use a smaller round cutter to remove a disc from the middle of each biscuit.

Brush the biscuits with milk and sprinkle with flaked almonds and sugar.

Bake the cookies for around 20 minutes until lightly golden, turning half-way to make sure they colour evenly.

Worth making? Yes! This is a very easy recipe, and although made with store cupboard ingredients, they look very pretty and taste great. The dough is also an excellent standby all year when you want to make simple thin, crisp biscuits.

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