Tag Archives: Christmas

Massepain Cuit, Liège (Belgium)

12 Jan

Massepain cuit in various shapes, in Liège.

 

Rather cold after perusing the Christmas market in Liège, I decided to take a break from the frosty weather and check out the Passage Lemonnier, the oldest covered passage in Belgium and reputed for its chic shops. Constructed in the 1830’s, this gallery is nearly as old as Belgium itself. The gallery was simply mobbed with holiday shoppers, making window-shopping difficult, but I quickly stopped in my tracks as I smelled something sweet and freshly baked. As luck would have it, I found a rather modestly decorated shop simply gorged with customers and serving a traditional liegeois (and Belgian) holiday treat: massepain cuit.

Massepain, otherwise known as marzipan, is quite simple, but most delicious: a combination of almond paste and sugar. In Wallonia, it is quite commonly served at Christmas-time, often in a variety of decorative shapes, notably in the form of cochonnets roses or little piggies, in English. While most massepain or marzipan is simply served when the paste dries, in Liège and surrounding areas, it is quite common to actually bake the marzipan with a touch of orange blossom water, and to serve it as ‘massepain cuit‘ or ‘cooked marzipan.’ The massepain cuit that I was able to sample was served in large blocks shaped like leaves.


Massepain cuit.

 

Cooked on low heat for about 20 min, the cooked marzipan forms a thin, slightly crunchy crust, and the interior retains the same texture as  raw marzipan. I love the  lovely combination of textures: a lovely crunch from the crust, and then a smooth, slightly sour middle layer from the marzipan loaf, and then a lip-smacking citrus-y aftertaste from the few drops of orange blossom water. Cut into small pieces, this massepain cuit is a perfect accompaniment to coffee, as the hint of bitterness from the almonds pairs well with a rich, strong, inky black espresso. Keep a block or two on your countertop, and it’ll be difficult to resist!


Cross-section of the massepain cuit. Note the thin crust, and the more traditional-looking marzipan center.

 

For those of you who’d like to create massepain cuit, albeit not necessarily moulded into a decorative shape, at home, the recipe is MOST simple:

  • 125g (4.4oz) almond powder (crushed almonds)
  • 125g (4.4oz) caster sugar
  • 3 or so drops orange blossom water, to taste
  • 80g (2.8oz) softened butter
  • 1 egg white, lightly beaten

In a large bowl, knead the butter with the almond powder and sugar, in order to form dough. Then add the egg white and orange blossom water and knead the dough until it is firm and not very sticky. Then cover and refrigerate for about 2 hours.

Once the dough has been refrigerated, preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F. Then roll dough out with a rolling pin and place the dough on a lined and greased baking tray. The dough should be about 5cm/2in thick.

Bake the dough for about 5 min, and then turn off the oven. Let the dough sit in the oven for about an hour. Then take out the massepain, and cut it into 6 to 8 pieces.

Then preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F and place the rack in the grill position. Bake the massepain for about 5 min in order to make the top golden, and then flip over the massepain and let the other side grill for 5 min. Then let cool and serve…yum!


Couldn't resist cutting a few slices for myself....

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Boukète, Liège (Belgium)

28 Dec

Boukète, next to the crêpe with Nutella.

 

After my brisk walk from the Liège-Guillemins station to the center of Liège, I was feeling a tad peckish and in need of a nice mid-morning snack. The streets of the Carré and surrounding areas were in holiday mood, and the Village de Noël was in full swing, so I decided that the best place to find something tasty would be at one of the many market stalls, found either surrounding the holiday ice-skating rink in the Place de la Cathédrale or a few streets away in Liège’s main square, the Place St Lambert.

While many of the Christmas markets I’ve been to seem to specialize mostly in selling cheap tat, I was pleased to discover that in Liège, the market was quite different. I thought to myself, Liège has the right idea, for the city’s reputation as a food-and-drink loving place was certainly à l’honneur here: the stalls seemed to simply ooze with a mind-boggling collection of fattening foodstuffs and heavily alcoholic beverages. Though I arrived at the market at a mere 11 o’clock in the morning – in most places, even in Belgium, considered a bit too early to tuck in to a hearty portion of fries or to down the first beer of the day – the stalls were filled with market-goers happily guzzling beer and pekèt, a locally distilled jenever mostly served in shot-glass form. As these customers imbibed, they also availed themselves of the many foods available at the market: huge sausages served with onions, giant portions of fries, smoutebollen (here known as croustillants), waffles, crêpes, churros, empanadas, massepain….

 

Traditional Liégeois waistline.

 

Though I tried to convince myself that I should follow the locals’ example and have a nice heavy dish, I was more in the mood for a light snack to tide me over until I could sit down for a more hearty lunchtime meal. I decided that a crêpe would be perfect. But not just any crêpe: a boukète, a Liégeois specialty, would be my selection of choice. Typically consumed either at the Fête du 15 Août, the traditional celebration of Liège, or around Christmas-time, the boukète is a simple buckwheat-and-egg crêpe, pan-fried with a bit of lard, and covered with plump Corinthian raisins and dusted with cane sugar. Alternatively, the boukète is filled with sirop de Liège, a form of apple and pear butter that I find to be diabetes-inducingly sweet, but fortunately there was none to be found in the delicious crêpe at the Christmas market stall.

 

Preparing the boukète.

 

Formerly known as the ‘boukète à rètchon‘ or ‘spit crêpe’ in Wallon, referring to the rather disgusting way that crêpe makers used to spit in the pan to make sure it was hot before pouring in the dough, boukète is derived from the Dutch ‘boekweit,’ or buckwheat in English. Often used in savory crêpes in France, buckwheat creates a mixture much less sweet than the traditional crêpe dough, made using plain flour, milk, butter, eggs and sugar. Pairing the more savory buckwheat with a dusting of sugar is a lovely combination, as the sugar provides just a smidgen of sweetness, without becoming overpowering. Though I’m not at all a fan of raisins (see my post on the cramique bread), the Corinthian raisins in the boukète I tried were plump and juicy, and did not have the gnarly, chewy texture that I so dislike. Indeed, they burst with flavor in such a way that I suspect that they had been soaked in liqueur for a few hours, which is generally the only way that I’ll even consider eating raisins. The boukète is thus simple but tasty, and I very much enjoyed the subtle layering of textures: the eggy smoothness of the crêpe, the juicy, yielding flesh of the raisin, and the oomphy crunch of the cane sugar.

As the crêpe mixture used to make boukète is fairly standard, I will not provide a recipe here. If you desire to make boukète at home, simply substitute regular flour for buckwheat in your dough, soak juicy raisins in liqueur (preferably rum or a white eau-de-vie) for as long as possible, and dust the whole thing with brown sugar. Voilà!

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!