Christmas is rapidly approaching, and in this part of Europe, December also means Christmas market season. Over the next few weeks, I will head to a few of the more well-known holiday markets, namely those of Eupen (Belgium) and Liège (Belgium), but I’ll begin my Christmas market travels just a stone’s throw from my apartment, where one of Europe’s largest and most distinctive Christmas markets is to be found. The Brussels Winter Wonders’ Festival – surrounding the Place Sainte-Catherine, the Bourse, and the Grand-Place – is truly gigantic, with more than 240 market stalls, an ice-skating rink, a ferris wheel, a light show, a luge, several concert venues, and in a particularly bizarre holiday spirit – by now, you’ll have realized that Belgium is a most unusual country – a gigantic child-eating inflated dinosaur designed to scare the living daylights out of passersby.
Unfortunately, the weather has been absurdly miserable this year, and I haven’t spent as much time at the market as I would like. A recent snow-and-ice storm, accompanied by bitter, damp cold, has made spending time outdoors a most treacherous and unpleasant activity. I’m told that more reasonable temperatures will return in a few days, and I welcome them wholeheartedly, but for the moment time is best spent inside, shivering under a blanket with a warm drink and a few tasty desserts to improve the general mood.
That being said, Christmas markets are a wonderful place to discover local specialties, as many of the vendors travel from villages across the country and northern Europe. In particular, several desserts are mostly consumed around this time of year, namely (and stay posted for future articles) bouquete in Liège, beschwipste Printe in Eupen, cougnoux throughout Wallonia, and so forth. These sweets are happily gobbled up on stools and bar tables in front of market stalls, the seductive smells and beckoning warmth having attracted frozen customers like moths to a flame.
Today I’d like to tell you about one such Christmas specialty, found throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, and even the north of France. But nowhere is it more common than in Brussels: the smoutebollen, literally translated from Flemish as ‘lard balls.’ Though the name might seem unpalatable – and indeed, the smoutebollen are alternatively known as oliebollen (oil balls) or in French, as croustillants, (crunchies) – the smoutebollen are extraordinarily tasty, the perfect antidote to freezing winter weather.
Sometimes simple pleasures are the most enjoyable, and the smoutebollen are indeed not at all complicated: they are simply balls of dough – anywhere from the size of a golf ball to that of a tennis ball – that have been deep fat-fried and doused in powdered sugar, to be devoured whilst they are piping hot. The dough itself is perfectly straightforward: flour, egg, baking powder, sugar, butter, and – the secret ingredient – blond pils-type beer, which adds depth of flavor and a hint of yeastiness to the batter. In recent years, tarted-up versions of smoutebollen can be found in the Brussels Christmas markets, including those stuffed with a variety of fillings, from apple to chocolate to speculoos (see photographs of the speculoos-filled smoutebollen).
Though these ‘sophisticated’ versions of the smoutebollen are indeed pleasant, I very much prefer the plain examples. A simple bite, and an orgy of taste descends upon the tongue. A crunchy, greasy outer layer yields to a dense core of buttery dough. The whole thing is so lip-smackingly delicious that you’ll soon be reaching in the cone-shaped bag for another; careful though, don’t eat too many! These little balls of fat expand quickly in your stomach, and the combination of fat and oil aids digestion, if you catch my drift….
Nonetheless, accompanied by another traditional Christmas market item, some vin chaud or mulled wine, the smoutebollen are a wonderful way to survive the winter chill, and, enjoyed once a year, will bring holiday spirit to even the most determined of Christmas curmudgeons. Bon appétit and joyeux Noël!
You’ll need a deep-fat fryer for this recipe. Almost everyone in Belgium has one.
- 200g sifted flour
- 15g baking powder/baker’s yeast
- 10cl blond beer (pils type)
- 750ml whole milk
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- 1 egg
- 25g unsalted butter
- powdered sugar
Melt the butter in a small pan. Take off the heat and set aside.
Place the milk in a medium-sized pan and heat it on low. Make the milk luke-warm, and then dissolve the baking powder/yeast in the milk. Then add the flour bit by bit and stir vigorously with the help of a whisk. Set aside.
Separate the egg yolk and white. Set aside.
Then add to the milk mixture: salt, caster sugar, egg yolk, beer. Whisk. Once the mixture is smooth, add the butter in installements. Beat well. Set aside.
Whisk the egg white with an electric mixer or by hand until it forms soft peaks. Then fold the egg white into the batter in several installements with wooden spatula. Make sure everything is well-mixed.
Cover the dough and let it sit for approx. 90 min. The dough should double in size.
Then heat the oil in the deep-fat fryer to 180°c/360°F. Mix the dough again after it has had time to rise.
With a tablespoon, form small balls of dough and place them one by one in the fryer. Let them fry for about a minute. After a minute, turn them over with a strainer and let them fry for 1 more minute. Once they have turned a nice golden color, remove them from the fryer and drain any excess oil. I recommend placing them on paper towels to soak up any extra oil.
Then cover with powdered sugar. Enjoy.