Tag Archives: Grand Place

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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Pain à la Grecque, Brussels (Belgium)

15 Nov

Brussels Central train station.

 

For the next few posts, I’ll be exploring the specialties in and around Brussels, for a variety of reasons. First, I live here in Brussels, and my current work schedule is quite hectic. Second, after ten days of more or less non-stop rain, much of Belgium – including the lovely Geraardsbergen that I visited in my last post –  is flooded, which discourages me from venturing very far. Finally, and most importantly, there are some lovely treats to be found here in Brussels. Many of these desserts are virtually unknown outside of Belgium, and even I had never sampled many of them before beginning my research.

When planning my Destination Dessert blog it didn’t occur to me that my adventures could begin so close to my home, but upon further reflexion I realized that while I readily gorge myself with various and sundry desserts in other cities, I rarely seek them out in Brussels. Why? A few reasons come to mind: a) I don’t want to become obese, and so I need to retain at least a semblance of self-control b) dessert should be a special pleasure, and not an obligatory quotidian activity c) I often bake if I want something sweet and d) many of the desserts available in my neighborhood are simply not to my taste. Taste is, after all, intimately personal.

Grand-Place in the sun! Dandoy is off to the right.

 

That being said, my first bruxellois destination, located just a few blocks’ walk from my apartment, is most enjoyable. Dandoy, located just steps from the famous Grand-Place, is a veritable temple of Belgian specialties. Delicacies available at Dandoy include a variety of cookies, such as speculoos, pain d’amandes, and dentelles de Bruges, as well as bread such as pain d’épices (gingerbread) and pain à la grecque, the subject of today’s article. My next post will also feature Dandoy, and two of my favorite goûters: speculoos and pain d’amandes.


Some of the items on offer at Dandoy.

 

Located in the heart of Brussels since 1829, Dandoy has enjoyed an excellent reputation since its opening. Apparently, even Charles Baudelaire was an enthusiastic client during his time in Brussels, which is most surprising as anyone familiar with Baudelaire will know that he simply loathed Belgium. Indeed, in his aggressively virulent pamphlet Pauvre Belgique, or Poor Belgium, he called the country a bâton de merde or in plain English, a sh*t stick. Given what truculent old Charles has to say about Belgium, his praise of Dandoy seems that much more impressive, no?


Enough said.

 

Dandoy has also endured throughout the years: during the Second World War, rationing meant that the production of pastries and most baked goods were forbidden, forcing most bakeries to close. Fortunately, Dandoy survived; the bakery was allowed to use flour for the production of their biscottes or zwieback biscuits. After the war, Dandoy resumed and expanded production of their various baked goods, becoming the internationally-known biscuiterie that it is today.


Yummy biscuits at Dandoy.

 

One of their most famous specialties, and one that I have never seen available anywhere else, is pain à la grecque, or, Greek bread in English. The name is quite odd, as the bread has nothing to do with Greece or Greek origins. Where does the name come from? I learned a bit about the history of the bread in an article from Le Soir. Pain à la grecque is quite simply a mistranslation from the Flemish Brusseleir dialect bruut van de Grecht.  In the 16th century, Augustine monks from the nearby Wolvengracht (Wolfgrecht/gracht in Brusseleir, also known as Fossé-aux-loups in French) – today located next to the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie – distributed this bruut van de Grecht to the poor. Over time, as more and more non-Flemish speaking French speakers settled in Brussels, the bread became known as pain à la grecque, since to them grecque sounded like Grecht.



Pain à la grecque in the Dandoy display window.

 

What is this pain à la grecque, then? The ingredients, a list of which Dandoy places in the display window of their shop, are very simple: flour, sugar, milk, butter, baking powder, salt, and spices (which include a generous dose of cinnamon). The fabrication also seems deceptively simple: the pain à la grecque is basically an inch-thick mini-loaf of sweetened bread, coated with layer of nib sugar and brushed as soon as it leaves the oven with a simple sugar syrup.


Bottom and top of Pain à la Grecque.

 

Ah, but the taste! A generous bite into the bread reveals a slightly chewy interior with a cautious explosion of cinnamon and brown sugar, a crispier exterior made deliciously flavorful by the sugar syrup, and a pleasantly crunchy top layer from the nib sugar. The end result is a satisfying and not-too-sweet treat that makes for a perfect afternoon snack. In the following post, you will see that I have included a recipe for the pain à la grecque, which I adapted from several recipes I consulted. I made the recipe myself, and though my homemade versions were certainly tasty, I found that I did not appreciate them as much as the pain à la grecque I occasionally purchase from Dandoy. Indeed, what I enjoy most is going to the shop on a sleepy Saturday afternoon, picking out a few pain à la grecque, and then happily munching on them as I stroll around the Grand Place and neighboring streets. I always purchase two of them, because after finishing my first, I immediately have a hankering for seconds. But then again, as the French say, jamais deux sans trois…..

There is a time and place for everything, I suppose, and sometimes the way a dessert is enjoyed can be equally important as the dessert itself.