Tag Archives: Brussels

Smoutebollen (Belgium)

5 Dec

The Brussels Winter Wonders festival

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.

The scary dinosaur. Christmas carols, anyone?

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.


Horrible winter weather in Brussels. Brrrrr.

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.


Waiting for my smoutebollen. MMMM.

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).


Smoutebollen. Note the golden color.

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!

Speculoos-filled smoutebol. Yum.

Smoutebollen recipe
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.


Me, shivering in the cold, with a package of delectable smoutebollen. Eyes on the prize!

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Cramique (Belgium)

30 Nov

This morning, I glanced outside of my bedroom window to discover that the ground was covered with a layer of ice and that snow was still falling from the broodingly dark mass of clouds overhead. Grumbling – as this sort of weather is most definitely not to my liking – I managed to force myself out of my warm bed and to stumble into the kitchen in search of sustenance, only to discover that my cupboards and refrigerator were empty. The horror. With a whimper, I realized that it would be necessary to venture out into the blustery chill to find something edible before heading off to a rehearsal of La Bohème. Well, I thought, I might as well take advantage of the occasion to try one of Belgium’s most well-known breakfast foods, Cramique, or Kramiek, in Flemish. So I headed down – well, more like slipped and slid on the ice, shivering and muttering to myself – to my trusty local bakery, Charly, and purchased the round brioche-like bread before scuttling back to my apartment as quickly as possible.

Cramique. You can see some raisins sticking out on top.

As I mentioned in my previous post, on the craquelin, I’m not much in the habit of purchasing brioche, as I live alone and brioche a) tends to be quite large and b) doesn’t keep. Furthermore, I must admit that I didn’t really know why a cramique was called a cramique and neither brioche nor craquelin. After doing a bit of online research, I discovered that cramique is ubiquitous throughout Belgium, and, according to its French Wikipedia page, the ‘symbol of Belgian baking unity’ – a lofty claim if ever I read one! For my readers who might be unaware of the ins and outs of Belgian life, I’ll just quickly mention that the country has 3 linguistic groups (Flemish, French, and a small German community), and there is – it is claimed, especially by the Flemish – precious little in common between them, besides most of the other things the outside world associates with Belgium: waffles, chocolate, beer, fries, linguistic squabbling…

So what is this ‘symbol of Belgian identity’, you might ask? Well, cramique is simply a brioche filled with raisins. That’s it: Punt aan de lijn, Point à la ligne, Punkt auf der Linie…. well, you get the picture. Anyway, the cramique is quite similar to the craquelin, but with some crucial differences: the craquelin has all of that lovely nib sugar in it, which delivers an exhilarating combination of crunchiness, airiness, and gooeyness, whereas the cramique is sadly deprived of nib sugar, has just a dash more milk and contains a great heap of raisins. Might I mention that I don’t really enjoy raisins, unless they’ve been plumped up in some sort of tasty liqueur, or perhaps some rum?

My slice of cramique. Just look at all those raisins everywhere!

In light of this, I was quite disappointed when I bit into my cramique this morning. I don’t wish to criticize the bakery – au contraire, I know that the slice before me was expertly crafted – but the experience was not pleasant. Here was some otherwise delightful brioche, with a nice crispy exterior and a buttery, fluffy interior, overrun by chewy, gnarly raisins! Ack!

Before I go any further, might I just say that I know I am being unfair. Oh well. For those of you who enjoy raisins, the cramique is a lovely breakfast treat, I’m sure. Moreover, after consuming my cramique – well, most of it, anyway, as I gave away the rest – I discovered that I had not eaten the thing in the proper way! It would appear that most Belgians prefer to toast their cramique, drench it with salted butter, and then dip it in hot chocolate. Others like to place cheese on their cramique, or serve it with foie gras, but why not just serve the foie gras with a few slices of lovely raisin-less brioche or – even better – gingerbread?

Maybe I should give the bread a second chance, and try it the ‘recommended’ manner, but life is short, and there are so many other tasty treats to consider! Next!

For anyone who would like to make their own cramique, stay posted: I’ll be adding the recipe in a few days, when I recieve my fantastic cookbook In Belgium Everyone Eats Well by Ruth van Waerebeek and Maria Robbins!

Craquelin (Belgium)

24 Nov

Craquelin, from Charli. Amazing.

 

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.


Charli: a fantastic bakery. Want. More. Now.

 

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.


A slice from the craquelin. Note the texture of the 'sugary' bits in the middle.

 

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.

 

Recipe

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.

Enjoy.