While researching sweet things in Brussels, I consulted just about every reputable Belgian friend and colleague that I have, and several of them mentioned a dessert previously unknown to me. Well, when I write dessert, I should actually write ‘breakfast item’ as the Belgians enjoy this lovely food in their time-honored tradition of beginning the day with a touch of sweetness. So without further ado, I present the craquelin, a type of brioche found only in Belgium.*
Always happy to discover something new, I decided that I would head to my fantastic bakery on the rue Ste Catherine, Charli, to purchase a craquelin for breakfast. I buttoned my coat, donned my scarf and prepared myself for the onslaught of disgusting weather we have experienced here in Brussels for the past month or so. Shivering in the damp cold on short trip to the bakery, I thought about the brioche I was about to purchase. Expecting something light and airy, tasty but otherwise nothing particularly interesting, I was pleased to try the craquelin but not overly enthusiastic. Frankly, I’ve had so many scrumptious French brioches over the years that I wasn’t expecting anything unusual or special. And really, the craquelin looks like any other sort of brioche, except decorated with nib sugar, which Belgians tend to put on anything they can: waffles, pain à la grecque…. I therefore had assumed in the past – and seeing the craquelin in other, inferior Brussels bakeries – that the bakers had simply tarted up a normal brioche with a few chunks of sugar and gave it a fancy Belgian-sounding name. Furthermore, brioche doesn’t keep well and unless there are several people around to gobble the thing up quickly, it is necessary either to place it in the trash – sadness – or to consume enormous portions. Careful of my waistline, I try to avoid gorging myself, especially with something as calorie-rich as brioche.
Upon reaching home, I removed my coat, prepared some tea, and placed the craquelin on my kitchen table. Removing the craquelin from its paper bag, it stuck to my hands, and I instantly realized that this was no ordinary brioche. Cutting into it with my bread knife, I heard a slight crackling noise – hence the name – and felt a satisfying crunch as my knife penetrated the crispy top and then sunk effortlessly into the buttery yellow interior. Placing a hearty slice on my place and taking a sip of tea, I took my first bite of craquelin. Let me just say, nothing could prepare me for the nirvana on my taste buds. The craquelin was simply phenomenal! I quickly cut myself a second piece, and then a third: I was hooked!
The craquelin seemed to have performed the impossible: the texture was feather-light and airy, like any brioche, but also more complex, as there were slightly squidgy sugary bits throughout the slice that simply burst with flavor on the tongue. Furthermore, the crispy crust was deliciously crackly, slightly caramelized, but not overly sweet at the same time. The craquelin managed to be light and airy, gooey, and crunchy at the same time! Most impressive.
So how is this mixture of textures possible? Essentially, the base of the craquelin is similar to any brioche mixture, but then comes the secret: nib sugar is kneaded into the central part of the dough, and then the whole thing is surrounded in a standard brioche dough, brushed with egg whites, and then sprinkled with more even more nib sugar. While the brioche bakes, the nib sugar breaks down mostly but not entirely, making the surrounding brioche sweeter, but also contributing a subtle depth and oomphy consistency.
The result is delightful: a great start to the morning with a nice cup of hot chocolate or tea. So it just goes to show, don’t judge a book by its cover. The craquelin is much more than just a simple brioche.
See below for a recipe.
*Before any of my French readers tell me otherwise, I am aware that there is something called a ‘craquelin‘ produced in St. Malo, in Brittany. The Breton craquelin is entirely unrelated: a sugar-less, salt-less, character-less cracker, meant as a recipient for butter or jam. Yuck. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of many things from Brittany (les galettes de Pont-Aven, les kouign-amann, le far, les traou-mad, cider, lobster….), but NOT their craquelin. Try the Belgian brioche of the same name, you will not be disappointed.
Here’s a recipe for the craquelin, which I adapted from one I found here:
- 15cl water
- 2 eggs
- 20g baker’s yeast
- 125g softened butter
- 15g caster sugar
- pinch of salt
- 100g nib sugar
- optional: citrus juice of some sort, to marinate the nib sugar
Separate the egg whites/yolks and place the whites in the refrigerator; you’ll need them later.
Place the nib sugar in the freezer for about 30 min.
In a large bowl, sift the flour and make a depression in the middle. Prepare the yeast by letting it sit for a few minutes in tepid water, then place the mixture in the flour depression you created. Then add the egg yolks to the yeast/water in the center of the flour. Place the caster sugar and salt on the edge of the flour – if the yeast touches the sugar prematurely it won’t react properly.
Mix the flour, yeast, water and egg yolks little by little, and eventually add the softened butter. Knead the dough until it becomes smooth, soft and homogeneous.
Form 2 balls of dough, one large ball of about 500g, and the other smaller, about 150g, cover them, and set them aside for about 10 minutes.
Take the nib sugar out of the freezer. In one description of the craquelin that I consulted, the author marinated the nib sugar in some sort of citrus juice, and indeed, the craquelin I tasted at Charli had a slight lemony taste. I didn’t want to marinate my sugar too much, because I didn’t want the sugar to break down. So I simply froze the sugar for about ten minutes to make sure it was nice and hard, then splashed it with a dash of orange flower water, let everything macerate for a minute, and then drained the sugar before using it. This was not sufficient, as my nib sugar melted during cooking and I didn’t taste any orange flavor at all. Freeze more, and use more citrus juice, I say.
Most people who make the recipe, however, don’t bother with the citrus part.
Once your nib sugar is ready and you’ve let the dough sit for a bit, take the large ball of dough and incorporate the nib sugar into the dough, kneading slightly as you go. DO NOT incorporate the nib sugar into the small ball.
WIth the small ball of dough, roll it out flat and form an envelope of about 20cm diameter. Make sure that this envelope is quite thin. Wrap it around the large ball of dough. Then place the whole thing on a greased/parchment paper-covered baking sheet, cover it, and set it aside for 60 minutes.
Take a pastry brush and cover the whole top of the craquelin with egg white. Then make an indentation on top of the craquelin dough, as if you were making a star, and garnish with more nib sugar.
Preheat oven to 220°C/430°F, and bake for about 20min.