From the heart of the Low Countries of northwestern Europe, Belgium has long forged a distinctive culinary identity through its seasonal feasts and festivals. In this follow-up to her internationally lauded Pride and Pudding and Oats in the North, Wheat from the South, Regula Ysewijn turns her attention to the baking traditions of this unique country - the place of her birth.
Regula uses history and art to guide the reader through a fascinating period, and paints - through her stunning photography and recipes - the landscape of the region's rich baking culture. Dark Rye and Honey Cake explores a whole year of rustic bakes, unearthing long-forgotten recipes and reviving treasured favourites.
From as soon as humans figured out you could cook something in scalding hot fat, people have fried food. And for as long as people have been frying dough, so long has it been connected to a celebration. We might take a full pot of fat or oil for granted these days, but in the past frying was a costly affair. Common people could not afford to use up that amount of fat or oil so frying dough was connected to days when people came together to share; hence, oliebollen or doughnuts are connected to New Year celebrations, Carnival, Mardi Gras and village fairs or kermis. This was a special treat, even though the fried dough was made of humble ingredients.
This recipe was developed with the help and approval of Gebakkraam Abel from Ghent. They bake my favourite oliebollen, so it was wonderful to have their assistance. They did mention that at home they never taste the same as from the kermis, since the atmosphere of the kermis and the paper cone they are served in are part of the experience, but also frying in extra-large kettles means the temperature of the oil doesn't drop as soon as you pop in the dough, which is essential to a perfectly fluffy oliebol.
While these fritters are usually eaten just as they are with sugar, the celebrated author Jan de Gouy of De burgerskeuken en pasteibakkerij in ieders bereik, published in 1924, suggests serving them hot or cold with a fruit or cream sauce. This reminds me of delicate cheese fritters I had in Hungary. In the carnival town of Aalst, oliebollen are often served covered with Flemish beef stew, resembling the dumplings served with stews in Eastern Europe. Carnivalists have told me it creates an excellent layer to welcome copious amounts of beer.
De Gouy finds it necessary to note that these fried dough balls are Flemish cuisine. In Flanders these days we often call them smoutebollen, after smout, the animal fat that was for a long time used to fry them. Although today most waffle palaces or gebakkraamen at the kermis are offering Spanish churros, de Gouy gives a recipe for "Beignets Seringues" in his book; batter piped into hot oil using a syringe, so can churros also be considered a traditional Belgian treat? In any case, if you visit Belgium or the Netherlands, don't pass on the opportunity to treat yourself to a large pointy paper bag with hot sugar-dusted oliebollen from a gebakkraam.
1. Use a deep-fryer or a deep heavy-based saucepan.
2. Combine the flour, sugar, salt and yeast in a large bowl, or the bowl of an electric mixer. Pour in the milk, the water and the melted butter or oil, and whisk until your batter is smooth. It should be wet and scoopable, but it shouldn't pour from a spoon like pancake dough. Cover the bowl and set the batter aside to rest for 45 minutes.
3. Heat the oil to 180C in a deep-fryer or deep heavy-based saucepan. The oil is the correct temperature when a cube of bread is added and turns golden brown in 60 seconds. Use an ice-cream scoop to make nice scoops of the batter and let them slide into the hot oil. Fry for five to six minutes on each side or until golden brown: use your visual cue and don't leave the fryer unattended. Transfer to a tray lined with paper towel while you cook the remainder, then pop them on a serving tray - or, if you want to go traditional, put them into a paper bag or paper cone - and dust generously with icing sugar. Eat them hot and with your hands: licking your fingers is essential.
Variation: Mix caster sugar (I have a stick of vanilla in my jar of sugar) with a little cinnamon and use that instead of icing sugar to dust the oliebollen. This is not traditional at all but very nice indeed!
Makes 12 oliebollen.
These waffles are the best savoury waffles you will ever make - in my humble opinion, anyway. The spices provide a subtle flavour in the background: they aren't meant to be pronounced, just to support. I serve them with our traditional platte kaas (quark or fromage blanc), which is also used in the cheesecakes of Wallonia or smeared onto bread, topped with radishes and served with Gueuze beer.
1. Use a plain waffle iron.
2. There are two ways to go about cooking the sweet potato: if you are feeling organised you can put the whole unpeeled potatoes into the oven along with your evening meal and bake them until soft (this is the way that will yield the most flavoursome result and it's so easy you will definitely remember to pop in a sweet potato or two next time). The oven temperature isn't important as long as you don't go over 200C - just squeeze the potato after 30 minutes to see if it is soft; the skin will be wrinkly if it's ready. You can keep the cooked potato in the fridge for up to three days after cooking.
3. The second way is to cook the sweet potato on the day you're making the waffles. If you can find small ones, cook them whole as it will improve the flavour, but if they're large cut them into cubes and keep an eye on them so they don't fall apart. Depending on the size of the potatoes, cooking them will take about 20 minutes.
4. Scoop the flesh out of the potato peel or toss the cubes into a food processor and blend to a puree, then let it cool.
5. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat so it doesn't bubble, then let it cool. Grate the cheese.
6. Put both the flours, baking powder, salt, spices and herbs into a large bowl and mix well.
7. In a separate bowl, whisk the sweet potato puree and the melted butter together until well incorporated. Add the egg yolks and milk, then add this mixture to the flour mixture. Stir until combined, then whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks and fold them into the batter with the grated cheese.
8. Heat a plain waffle iron. Place a dollop of batter on the iron and bake each waffle for three minutes or until golden.
9. Chop some parsley and add it to the cheese or sour cream. Add the pepper, as much as you like, and stir to combine.
10. Serve the waffles with the cheese mixture, scattered with the dainty leaves of chervil, which will give a delicate flavour. Other delicate salad leaves will work too.
11. Freeze leftovers or keep in an airtight container. The next day, or after thawing, simply heat up in a hot waffle iron or a toaster.
Makes 10 medium waffles.
I discovered this recipe for apple pie connected to the city of Doornik in a cookery manuscript from Ghent; it was then copied into the Cocboeck published in 1593 by Carolus Battus, who also shared a recipe for an apple pie "in the Wallon fashion". Both these recipes in their turn were then reproduced in De Verstandigen Kock (The Clever Cook), which was published first in Amsterdam in 1667, but had several editions published in Antwerp, and editions in Ghent and Brussels. This cookbook travelled to America with many settlers from the Low Countries in the 17th century, as is shown by the many copies held in libraries there.
Although today Doornik is a Walloon town not far from the French border, in the 5th century it was the capital of the Frankish Empire. In the 15th century it was part of the Duchy of Flanders under French rule and an important centre of the wool trade. In 1513, the English King Henry VIII conquered Doornik, which makes it the only Low Country town that was ever under English rule. So the town was indeed important enough to have a tart connected to it. Yet this recipe is completely forgotten about; in fact, it only appears in these three texts.
In the 1950s edition of Ons Kookboek from the Farmers' Wives' Union is a recipe for "Luikse Appeltaart" which is almost identical, with almond macaroons added to the mix and the cinnamon moving from the filling to the crust. This is my recipe based on the 16th-century recipes for Doornikse appeltaart.
For the pastry:
For the filling:
1. Use a 27cm top diameter x 23 m base diameter x 3cm depth pie tin, greased and floured.
2. For the shortcrust pastry, combine the flour, sugar, salt and butter in a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Pulse for eight seconds or until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and water and pulse again until the dough forms a ball in the bowl. Remove from the bowl and knead briefly.
3. Wrap the pastry in plastic wrap and let it rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
4. For the filling, slice the apples into rounds and then into thirds. You need 230g of chopped apple.
5. Add the icing sugar to the melted butter and beat until smooth. Add the egg yolks and the egg and beat well, then stir in the cinnamon. Set the filling aside to rest while preheating the oven to 180C. Do not use the fan setting.
6. Briefly knead the pastry until smooth, then pat it into a round disc and roll it out onto a floured work surface to a thickness of 3mm. Lay the pastry in the pie plate or tin. Trim off excess pastry.
7. Coat the apple slices in the rice flour and arrange in the pie plate or tin. Stir the filling well, then pour it over the apple slices and gently shake the tart so the filling can get all around the apples.
8. Place the tart in the middle of the oven and turn down the heat to 160C. Bake for 40 minutes until the filling is set, then increase the oven temperature to 180C and bake for an additional 10 minutes until the pastry is golden brown and the filling golden.
This recipe started with one I found in the single tattered cookbook we had at home when I was growing up. Only having a handful of recipes at my disposal meant that I always felt the recipes were there as a guide only, and I could experiment to create my own result. My mother helped me make the first batch according to the recipe, which was just a few lines, and I went on from there, experimenting. The result was these soft waffles. They are often known as household waffles in Belgium, because they keep for over a week when properly stored. This means they are perfect for wafelenbak, a festivity where waffles are baked and sold. They are also often baked at children's parties and small fairs, where local women are doing the baking on domestic irons. Waffle trucks baking this kind of waffle have popped up in recent years at antique and garden fairs: they are a different breed than the waffle palaces of the kermis, in that they are usually not passed on through generations of the same family. A bakery stall at the weekly market in the Flemish town of Mechelen is revered for its waffles, which are just like these, baked on the spot on several irons and sold by the weight.
I've halved the recipe here. As a child I always forgot to halve the recipe and the whole of our tiny flat would be full of trays of cooling waffles. I'd then make my own wrapping and boxes and give the waffles to elderly family members as "Regula's waffles" with hand-painted labels.
I always made the waffles quite small to bake four in one go and eat two rather than one large one, but recently I've started making them larger. This is the recipe that has evolved the most throughout my life and it had its final tweak while I was writing this book.
1. Use a plain waffle iron.
2. In a small saucepan, melt the butter in the milk and let the mixture cool. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar and vanilla until the mixture is light and creamy.
3. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt, pour in the milk mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until smooth and no flour pockets remain. Now work in the egg yolk mixture, stirring until well combined.
4. Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks and fold into the batter in large slow movements, because you want to keep the air in.
5. Heat a waffle iron with the plain waffle attachment. Have a bowl of oil and a brush ready to grease the iron between bakes. Use one or two tablespoons of batter and see if you like the size. Bake the waffles to a pale golden brown colour and transfer to a wire rack. How long this takes depends on your iron, so please test the cooking time with the first waffle.
6. Eat them warm, preferably, but they are also very good cold, though they will be less fluffy. Reheating cold waffles in a hot waffle iron revives them beautifully and gives them a little crisp exterior.
7. Keep leftover waffles in an airtight container for up to one week; they also freeze very well.
Makes about 14 large waffles.
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