Tag Archives: sinterklaas

{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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{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!

janhagel1

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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{4} Speculaas

A couple of weeks ago I made a batch of speculaaskruiden. Now here is a way to use them up – Dutch speculaas cookies!

I feel I need to point out that these are not strictly Christmas biscuits per se, as you can get hold of them all year round, but the crisp buttery spiced flavour does suit this time of year particularly well. Imagine yourself sitting on a café terrace on an old market square on a chilly day in December, coffee or mulled wine in one hand, and one of these cookies in the other.

Now, this post has a number of interesting things related to speculaas. To start with, this is a very special recipe. It’s not one that I made up, nor it is one that has come from some random website. Nope, it comes from Het Haagse Kookboek (“The Hague Cookbook”). I am assured that this was, back in the day, basically the cookery bible of Dutch housewives. As you can see below, the version I have had access to is clearly from the 1970s, and I love the retro front cover.

Another interesting aside is that the origin of the word “cookie” also links back to the Dutch. It isn’t a British word – we have biscuits, cakes, tarts, traybakes and so on. But the cookie is an American “thing”. It comes from the Dutch word for a small cake. Cake is koek (say it like “cook” in English), then make it small by adding the diminutive ending -je – and that’s how we get to koekje (say “cook-ye”).

And finally…as another interesting aside, I come back charged with inspiration about all things from the Low Countries following a recent trip to Belgium. While in Brussels, I was persuaded to buy some classic moulds for speculaas – a man and a woman, a bird and, of course, a windmill. If these cookies are going to be Dutch, they are going to be very Dutch. Even if they were made with Belgian moulds…

My unwavering belief that speculaas is a legitimate festive bake is also supported by the fact that it appears in the window displays of lots of bakeries and chocolatiers in Brussels. These range from the size of your palm to the size of a small child (really). My favorite is from Maison Dandoy. If you are there, do go in and enjoy the aromas and flavours. You may also wish to buy something, mainly because you will go nuts thinking about speculaas after you leave there.

That’s the background, the theory and the linguistics lesson. How are they to make?

The recipe is pretty easy – put everything in a bowl, work to a dough, allow to chill and that’s it! OK, that’s not quite it. If you are making these in the proper way, you use a type of sugar the Dutch call basterdsuiker. Yes, very giggle-inducing, but it turns out to be a sort of brown sugar. I’m not sure there is an exact substitute in Britain, but I used soft brown sugar and they worked out a treat.

But…but…we just have to admit that the real fun is using the moulds. No messing around with a rolling-pin. Just press pieces of dough into the moulds, then flip them over and whack them on the table to release them. And there we have it – lots of little gingerbread people, birds and windmills!

I do have to admit that these cookies were the result of some trial and error. The moulds were new, and probably need to be “seasoned” or similar. At first the mixture stuck badly, but I think after a while, the butter made for some sort of natural non-stick, and combined with a light coating of flour, they started to come out very easily indeed. By the end, we were experts!

And…after all that…here are the finished biscuits. Not quite as perfect as they looked before going into the oven, but they taste great – crisp, spicy and buttery – and they do have a certain rustic charm.

If you are tempted to have a go but lack suitable moulds, then have a look at this great version of speculaas from a Dutch girl living in London (here).

To make speculaas:

• 100g soft brown sugar
• 100g butter
• 1/2 teaspoon salt, finely ground
• 200g self-raising flour
• 2 teaspoons speculaaskruiden or mixed spices
• cold water
• 25g flaked almonds (optional)

To make the dough:

Sieve the sugar to get rid of any lumps. Put the sugar, butter, flour and spices in a large bowl. Use your hands to rub the ingredients together until they resemble breadcrumbs. Add just enough cold water (1-2 tablespoons) until the mixture comes together into a smooth dough. Work in the flaked almonds (if using). Wrap in cling film and chill for two hours or overnight.

To bake the cookies:

Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

If using speculaas moulds: sprinkle the moulds with flour, tap out any excess, then press pieces of dough into the moulds. Then – in theory – they should come out of the moulds easily when you flip them over. Arrange on the baking sheet at least 2 cm apart.

If you don’t have the moulds: roll the dough out to 1/4 cm thickness and use cookie cutters to shape the speculaas. If you like, brush them with milk and sprinkle with some more flaked almonds. Arrange on the baking sheet at least 2 cm apart.

Bake the cookies for 25-30 minutes until the speculaas are firm, but have not started to darken.

Worth making? This is a very quick, straightforward recipe, and the resulting biscuits are great on their own, or can be used crushed over desserts, in crumble toppings or as part of a biscuit base for cheesecakes. You can also vary the spices depending on what is to hand and your own preferences – not bad for cookies made from simple ingredients you’re likely to have to hand!

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