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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?

borstplaat3
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…

brostplaat4
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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{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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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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Koninginnedag: Oranjekoek

You might have noticed that I’ve changed the blog header again. Do you recognise the famous figure?

If you’re still guessing, it’s Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Yes, we’ve reached that time of year again when we go all orange to celebrate the de facto Dutch National Day, Koninginnedag or Queen’s Day. We’ve seen orange-themed mini-cupcakes and boterkoek in previous years, and this time we’re taking it to the maximum – Queen Beatrix is  part of the House of Orange, so what could be more fitting than a cake named after them, the Oranjekoek?

So…Oranjekoek…that’s an orange cake, right? Well, it is and it isn’t. It’s orange in the sense that it is named after the Principality of Orange (Oranje in Dutch) now located in France, rather than the fruit. However, to further confuse matters, it does contain lots of candied orange peel and orange zest, so it’s fair to say that it’s an orange Orange cake. Still with me?

The Oranjekoek itself originates in Frisia, the coastal region in the north of the Netherlands, and was traditionally served at weddings. And if you’re wondering, yes, Frisia is the place that gave the world the famous black-and-white Friesian cow.

In terms of texture, this is not a cake as we might think (soft, fluffy, clad in icing) but more like a firm traybake. You make a rather stiff dough, then knead in the orange peel and flavouring, and during baking, it puffs up a little. Traditionally it’s just the cake and a simple glaze, served with some cream. However, more modern versions also use marzipan in the middle, and I’ve got for this more bling-bling version.

So what do we put into Oranjekoek? I’ve mentioned the candied orange already, but another flavour is aniseed. Obviously you could use aniseed extract or powder, but you could get traditional and use gestampted muisjes (“crushed mice”). Now, rest assured this is less alarming that it first sounds. Muisjes are like sugared almonds, but much smaller and made with aniseeds. The stalk of the seed sticks out, so they look like mice. So these “crushed mice” will give the cake a light aniseed flavour. You may prefer to omit it, but I think the aniseed is essential to give the cake its flavour. Just the orange and marzipan would seem a little bit too much like a Christmas treat.

The glaze on top of this cake might look a rather shocking hot pink, but it’s actually all-natural thanks to a dash of beetroot juice. However, do be careful how much you use – I added a teaspoon of fresh juice, then discovered that it was concentrated. So keep that in mind, and aim for the traditional light pink, unless you’re a fan of the 80s neon look. And don’t worry – you don’t taste the beets.

When it comes to serving this cake, you need to go with tradition – cut into squares, then finish off with a squirt of whipped cream and a little candied orange peel. The Oranjekoek is fine on its own, but it’s even better with all that cream on top. Chances are you won’t make this often. So go with the cream.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, this is one of those recipes that is quite easy, but does take a little time, so I’ve posted it in the run up to Koninginnedag rather than on the day itself. So if you are tempted to make this one, you’ve got a bit of time to get organised. And while you’re at it, don your orange clothes and get celebrating!

To make Oranjekoek:

For the dough:

• 350 grams self-raising flour
• 225 gram caster sugar
• 25g butter
• 1 egg
• 50-100ml water (as needed)
• pinch of salt
• 2 teaspoons “gestampte muisjes” or 1 teaspoon ground aniseed
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1 orange, grated zest only
• 75g candied orange peel

For the filling:

• 250g marzipan
• 3-4 teaspoons orange juice

For the glaze:

• 100g icing sugar
• few drops of beetroot or red grape juice
• water

To serve:

• 250ml double cream
• candied orange peel

Step 1: Make the dough.

Put the flour, sugar, butter, egg, water, nutmeg, salt and aniseed/crushed muisjes in a bowl. Knead with your hands until you have a smooth dough. Add the orange zest and candied peel. Mix well, wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Step 2: Prepare the Oranjekoek and bake it!

Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and grease lightly with butter.

Roll out half the dough into a square and place on the sheet. Roll out the filling to the same size, and lay on top of the first dough square. Now roll out the rest of the dough, and place on top of the filling.

Bake the Oranjekoek for 30 minutes, then remove from the oven, cover with a clean tea towel and leave to cool. This will catch the steam and help keen the top soft.

Step 3: Glaze the Oranjekoek

Mix the icing sugar, juice and enough water until you have a thick but spreadable icing (add a little water at a time – a few drops make all the difference). Spread over the cake and leave to dry for an hour.

To serve:

Cut into squares, and finish with whipped double cream and a few pieces of candied orange peel.

Worth making? This is quite an unusual cake, but it’s actually rather easy to make. The combination of white cream, orange peel and pink icing also means the whole thing looks great when you serve it. I might even go so far as to say that it’s fit for a Queen. Or at least Queen’s Day.

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Boterkoek (Dutch Butter Cake) for Koninginnedag!

Whew! We’ve just had all the excitement of the Royal Wedding in London (congrats to Wills and Kate!), so now we look across the water to the Netherlands. Yes, we are celebrating Koninginnedag, the official birthday of Queen Beatrix.

And in honour of that, we’re also got a funky Dutch-themed header, with windmills and tulips in the Dutch national colour, orange.

Like our Queen Elizabeth II, Beatrix’s actual birthday is sometime in February January, but she wisely decided that if her birthday was to be a public holiday, it was much more sensible to stick with 30 April, the birthday of her mother, Queen Juliana, given that there is at least a sporting chance of nice weather, and a resulting happier population.

If Dutch food is something you’re not too familiar with, a selection of foods include anijsblokjes, poffertjes, appeltaart, muisjes and mini Queen Beatrix cakes. OK, that last one is made up. Possibly. And then there are the usual suspects – stroopwafels, fries with mayonnaise, plus gouda and edam cheese. But today we are looking at boterkoek, roughly translating as “butter cake”, which is a bit of a hidden gem of baking in the Low Countries.

Boterkoek is a traditional Dutch recipe, somewhere between a tart and shortbread. It’s got lots of butter and has an almond flavour, reminiscent of frangipane, and makes a great mid-morning treat with a cup of coffee. But given just how key butter is the flavour of this recipe, really, really try to use the best, freshest butter you can, and don’t even think of cracking open a packet of margarine or (shudder) non-dairy spread. If you’re trying to be healthy, make it properly, then just enjoy a small slice of the real thing.

It’s also simple to make, so perfect if you’ve got to produce something at short notice. Eet smakelijk!


To make boterkoek:

• 150g butter
• 200g caster sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
• 1 egg, beaten
• 200g plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 20g flaked almonds

Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a 23cm (9 inch) cake tin with greaseproof paper.

In a medium bowl, cream the butter, sugar and almond extract until light and fluffy.

Remove one teaspoon of the beaten egg and set aside. Pour the rest of the egg into the mixture, and stir well. Add the flour and baking powder, and mix until you have a smooth dough.

Transfer the mixture to a baking tin, and pat down with the back of a spoon until smooth (you might find it easier to use clean hands to smooth the mixture). Mix the teaspoon of egg with a teaspoon of water, and brush on top of the boterkoek. Sprinkle with the flaked almonds, and bake for 25-30 minutes until just golden and firm to the touch.

Worth making? Boterkoek is a really simple recipe with surprisingly good results for something so easy. I’m also happy to report that this recipe has been tested on real life Dutch people, who all agreed that it did indeed taste like grandmother’s version. Definitely give this one a try, and great to mix up in a hurry when you have surprise visitors.

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