My father is from the Netherlands, and my mother is from the (US) South. The closest we ever lived to either place was France and the (US) Northeast respectively, although we visited relatives in both home milieus with varying degrees of frequency. This means that the majority of my understanding of both Dutch and Southern culture has been filtered through my parents and what they consciously or inadvertently passed on to me about their heritage.
The practical upshot of this is that on the one hand, I occasionally find myself delivering an impromptu lecture on the tangled history of the Netherlands and Spain to the bemusement of my coworkers. This is to say, I made an offhand remark about historical antecedents of the Dutch-Spanish rivalry in the wake of the Netherlands crushing defeat of Spain in last week’s World Cup match, then had to explain what I meant when I was met with a panoply of blank looks from the people around me.
On the other hand, I cannot bring myself to wear white shoes before Easter or after Labor Day (actually in Massachusetts it’s unlikely to be warm enough to tempt anyone into wearing white shoes before Memorial Day, but the principal is the same), and would never put dark meat in my chicken salad.
Culinarily speaking I have firm opinions about the hows, whys, and wherefores of biscuits (and yes, there is a wrong way to make biscuits), and a genuinely like ambrosia salad. I have a cultural appreciation for bitterballen (although not raw herring), and preach the gospel of stroopwafels near and far.
In honor of Father’s Day, for Dinner this week we are traveling across the Atlantic and indulging in a (mostly . . . well, more-or-less) traditional Dutch Breakfast.
Hangop met Rabarbercompote en Verse Aardbeien
Zacht Gekookte Eitjes
Diverse Brood Soorten – Krentenbrood / Witbrood / Mergranenbrood / Roggebrod
Diverse Kaas Soorten – Jonge Gouda / Gerookte Gouda / Harvarti
Diverse Soorten Koud Vlees- Ham / Gerookte Kalkoen
Jam en Honing
Hagelslag / Vlokfeest
Strained Yogurt with Rhubarb Compote and Fresh Strawberries
Soft Boiled Eggs
Assorted Breads – Raisin Bread / White Bread / Multigrain Bread / Black (Rye) Bread
Assorted Cheeses – Young Gouda / Smoked Gouda / Harvarti
Assorted Cold Meats – Ham / Smoked Turkey
Jam and Honey
Hagelslag / Vlokfeest
First let’s address a couple of items that did not make it to my Dutch Breakfast Table.
1 – Margarine
The Dutch like their margarine. I, however, was raised by a woman who thinks that margarine is part of Satan’s master plan for the downfall of humanity. I think that when the report came out that margarine isn’t any better for you that butter (and might even be worse) she did the Snoopy dance of joy, and then employed heroic restraint in not bringing it up every time one of her in-laws served her margarine (actually, I’m pretty sure that my Dutch relatives buy butter just for my mother when she visits and chalk her bizarre preference up to her unfortunate American-ness). Suffice it to say, there was butter not margarine served at Dinner. If you’re curious about the history of the margarine vs. butter wars (in the US at least) here’s a handy article with lots of neat graphics.
2 – Cornflakes / Oatmeal
According to my father the first part of a good Dutch breakfast is havermout (= oatmeal). I thought there was an entirely sufficient quantity of starch on the table, and substituted yogurt with rhubarb compote instead. Entertainingly, while havermout is oatmeal my father choose to translate it as/suggest cornflakes. I suspect that this is because he feels about oatmeal the way my mother feels about margarine.
3 – Karnemelk
Which is to say, buttermilk. My father says that it’s traditional, although I don’t remember my (Dutch) grandmother ever serving it at breakfast (my father says this is because we were American). The only time I have ever heard my father reference drinking buttermilk was on his return from his first Board meeting at a Dutch bank where he was flummoxed by a group of grown men ordering ham sandwiches and buttermilk for lunch. I believe he declined the buttermilk in favor of water.
While I always have a quart of buttermilk in my fridge, and I use it in everything from bread, to salad dressing, to smoothies, I have never been tempted to just drink it. Having had this lengthy email conversation about buttermilk with my father I went home and poured myself a small (very small) glass of buttermilk to try to see if I’d been missing out on some taste treat all these years. It’s . . . . not terrible. It’s not great either, but less unappealing than I’d been anticipating. We finally decided that it tastes like a thin, slightly sour plain yogurt. On the whole I think I’ll stick to using it in things, rather than experiencing it on its own.
Interestingly, my (maternal/Southern) grandmother did drink buttermilk most mornings. Sometimes she’d mix it with a little sweet milk, and sometimes she’d just drink it straight. Perhaps it’s a generational thing?
4 – Beschuit
If I could have found beschuit you can believe they would have graced my table. Beschuit gets translated into English as rusks, but the things that I have seen in stores and online sold as rusks don’t look like beschuit to me.
Hangop met Rabarbercompote en Verse Aardbeien
(Strained Yogurt with Rhubarb Compote and Fresh Strawberries)
My father expressed a certain skepticism at the thought of having hangop for breakfast. Okay, actually when I first floated the idea he disavowed any knowledge of what hangop was, and then when my mother explained it to him he allowed as how he’d heard of it but thought it was a deeply exotic concept for breakfast.
Literally hangop means hang up and comes from the process of straining the yogurt (or apparently buttermilk?) though a muslin bag in order to thicken it. Traditionally hangop is a simple dessert and is usually sweetened with a little honey or sugar either during the straining process, or afterwards. I made my life easy and used Greek Yogurt which is basically already thickened, and did not sweeten it. Mostly I was looking for a way to include something in Dinner that wasn’t bread related.
My mother expressed skepticism at the idea of a Dutch breakfast table featuring fresh strawberries, but I ignored her because strawberries are in season here and I wanted something fresh tasting on the table.
The rhubarb compote is quasi-traditional, rhubarb is certainly grown in the Netherlands (in fact out of season all the rhubarb you see in stores is imported from the Netherlands) and my father grew up eating rhubarb in a variety of sweet and savory forms, although possibly it’s a little fancy for a traditional Dutch breakfast.
6 cups fresh rhubarb, chopped
½ cup apple juice (or orange juice)
¼ cup honey (or more to taste)
½ tsp cinnamon (or more to taste)
Splash of vanilla
Bring the apple juice and honey to a simmer in a sauce pan. Add the rhubarb and cinnamon and simmer over a low heat until the rhubarb is just tender – about 8-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the vanilla. Adjust the sweetness to your desired level. Serve warm or cold.
Note: I used apple juice and ended up needing more honey to get the compote from bitter to tangy. I’m betting that if you use orange juice this won’t be quite as much of an issue. In the end I thought the compote worked really nicely against the sweetness of the strawberries and the creaminess of the yogurt – the natural acidity of the rhubarb cut through some of the heavy starchiness of the rest of the meal.
Zacht Gekookte Eitjes
(Soft Boiled Eggs)
My father was most insistent on two points here.
Firstly, that it was very important that breakfast feature soft boiled eggs, not hard boiled eggs – and since I don’t own any egg cups, much less a sufficient quantity to serve soft boiled eggs to a Dinner-table’s worth of people, this had me getting creative about an egg cup substitute (a set of napkin rings turned out to be the perfect size).
Secondly, they are zacht gekookte eitjes, but harde eieren. The difference being that for some mysterious Dutch reason soft boiled eggs are diminutive (the ‘tje’ on the end of ei), but hard boiled eggs are just eggs. I asked my father to clarify this linguistic point and he posited the notion that hard boiled eggs are a symbol of virility (?) and thus masculine and not diminutive, while soft boiled eggs are clearly gooier and feminine and diminutive. I offer no comment on this explanation.
Everyone has their own method of cooking eggs. There is an entertaining essay by Sylvia Townsend Warner* in which the merits of using the Miserere Psalm (51st Psalm) as a method of timing soft boiled eggs are investigated – begging the dual questions of whether it is possible to get through a recitation without interruption, and equally importantly what – if any – translation should be used. They settled on the Vulgate Latin version, if anyone would care to test the method for themselves (link to English and Latin text here – confusingly listed as the 50th Psalm in the Greek version, but known in English as the 51st Psalm). Although given the age of this particular piece of folk wisdom, perhaps an Anglo-Saxon vernacular translation should be deployed.
I opted for a more scientific approach, which is to say I deferred to America’s Test Kitchen and their exhaustive 1000+ egg trial and error perfected recipe.
* “Fried Eggs are Mediterranean” by Sylvia Townsend Warner, included in her book “Scenes of Childhood”.
Soft Boiled Eggs (good for 1-8 eggs)
In a saucepan just large enough to fit all your eggs in a single layer, bring ½” of water to a simmer. Gently lay your eggs into the water and cover the pot. Steam the eggs for 6-6 ½ minutes (depending on how runny you like your yolks), and then immediately run under cold water for 30 seconds. Serve.
Literally ontbijtkoek means breakfast (ontbijt) cake (koek). Koek is ubiquitous and every city and hamlet has their own mild variation on the recipe – some of the more famous are Deventerkoek or Groningerkoek (koek from the cities of Deventer and Groningen respectively).
There are also fancier iterations of koek, like Gemberkoek (literally ginger cake – which, as the name suggests, is studded with large chunks of candied ginger – I did not like this as a child because the ginger interfered with the purity of my koek experience, but suspect I should try again now that I have discovered the wonder that is candied ginger). Something like Gemberkoek is more likely to be served for elevenses or afternoon tea than it is to appear on the breakfast table.
The really salient point about ontbijtkoek, however, is that nobody in the Netherlands actually makes it at home. You buy it at the grocery store. Possibly there are bakeries that make ontbijtkoek, although I can’t say as I’ve ever encountered koek that didn’t come from a package. To put it in a US context, making your own ontbijtkoek is a little like deciding you want to make homemade twinkies (except much much better, because twinkies are revolting and koek is delicious). Even fancy artisanal koek comes in a package.
However, lacking a convenient Dutch grocery store nearby I scoured the internets for recipes to bake a home made version (because people must have made it at home at some point in time in history, surely?).
The key flavor notes of ontbijtkoek are rye flour, honey, and spices. Any recipe you see that doesn’t include rye flour and a laundry list of spices should be bypassed. The recipe below is delicious, and I highly recommend it, but it’s not quite koek like. It’s more like koek’s distant cousin; you can see the family resemblance, but nobody would mistake them for twins.
I think there needs to be a higher proportion of rye flour to white flour, and next time I would replace the molasses with additional honey. Also, I think there’s some spice that either needs to be increased or is missing altogether (possibly anise?). Clearly I need to make it again to try and achieve the true ontbijtkoek experience.
1 cup rye flour*
1 cup all purpose flour*
3 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp each of cardamom, ginger, coriander, ground cloves (optional – ground anise seeds)
½ cup dark brown sugar
¼ cup molasses
½ cup honey
1 cup milk
Pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 300.
Sift the dry ingredients together. Whisk together the wet ingredients and then combine to form a smooth batter. Pour into a greased loaf pan** and bake for about 60-70 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, and then transfer to a rack to finish cooling. Wrap tightly and keep at room temperature (gets better if you let it rest overnight). Slice and serve with butter.
* Friend who is a trained pastry chef suggests trying 1.5 cups rye flour + 2/3 cup all purpose flour, and then possibly going as high as 1 2/3 cup rye flour + 1/2 cup all purpose flour to get the firmer springier crumb I associate with ontbijtkoek.
** You can either bake it in a 8×4 loaf pan or in a 9×5 loaf pan. The larger pan will result in a wider flatter loaf, and will bake slightly faster. Packaged ontbijtkoek is a long squat shaped loaf, so I opted for the larger loaf pan.
Diverse Brood Soorten – Krentenbrood / Witbrood / Mergranenbrood / Roggebrood
(Assorted Breads – Raisin Bread / White Bread / Multigrain Bread / Black (Rye) Bread)
Everything is served on bread in the Netherlands – my mother maintains that if you’re really Dutch you put your ontbijtkoek on a slice of bread before you eat it, but I think she’s exagerating for effect here. That being said, your meat goes on bread, you cheese goes on bread, and you need bread as a vehicle to convey hagelslag and vlokfeest from plate to mouth. If you’re Dutch you arrange your open face sandwiches on your plate and then you neatly slice off bite size pieces and eat your meal with a knife and fork. I did not try to enforce this etiquette at Dinner, although I did explain and demonstrate it to general amusement.
The catch phrase (aphorism?) brood met tevredenheid means bread with satisfaction. This refers to eating your bread plain with nothing on it, either because you are Calvinistic and don’t believe in enjoying life, or because there is nothing to put on the bread, such as during the deprivations during both world wars.
It’s important to serve a variety of breads to compliment the different things you are offering as toppings. You want a plain bread (or beschuit – sigh) for your hagelslag or vlokfeest. Raisin bread is spectacular with cheese (try it). And, a black rye or hearty wheat bread offers a nice backdrop for cold cuts (and cheese).
My father wanted me to note that having krentenbrood with breakfast is a very special occasion kind of thing. My mother rejoined that Dinner is a special occasion, and any way every time she had visited her mother-in-law (i.e. my grandmother/father’s mother) she’d been served krentenbrood with breakfast. I could hear my father raising his eyebrows from 6000 miles away as he pointed out that this was because she was the daughter-in-law (and an American at that). I opted to include it on the table because I think that krentenbrood with cheese is delicious and wanted to introduce the taste sensation to Dinner, and also because I was the granddaughter and also remember krentenbrood being a standard part of breakfast at my grandmother’s. Actually I remember being served paasbrood which is a special Easter version of raisin bread that is baked with a log of almond paste in the center, and is crazily delicious, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to find this side of the Atlantic.
My mother also noted that while krentenbrood is more common, that rozijnenbrood is nicer. The difference being that krenten are currants, and rozijnen are raisins – I’m a little fuzzy on the exact difference between currants and raisins (and let’s not even get into the complications of sultanas), but in practice currants tend to be smaller and more dried than raisins. Or, to quote my mother: “Indeed, krenten brood is more common (note the more “common”). Krenten are harder little pellets, nowhere near as nice as rozijnen which impart a much nicer (and more cultured) taste to bread which is always of a superior quality to the krentenbrood (or the rather pasty white krenten buns).” My father declined to respond to this salvo.
Diverse Kaas Soorten– Jonge Gouda / Gerookte Gouda/ Harvarti
Diverse Soorten Koud Vlees- Ham / Gerookte Kalkoen
(Assorted Cheeses – Young Gouda / Smoked Gouda / Harvarti
Assorted Cold Meats – Ham / Smoked Turkey)
Harvarti included here mostly because there are a limited number of Dutch cheeses that I have access to this side of the Atlantic, and they more or less begin and end with gouda of different ages (and occasionally different milks – goat’s milk gouda is something I’ve only ever seen in the US, but it is very tasty). I opted for a young Gouda and a smoked Gouda this week purely because I usually buy aged Gouda and wanted something different. Harvarti is a mild creamy Danish cheese, and seemed like a reasonable and somewhat geographically proximate addition to the table.
Jam en Honing
(Jam and Honey)
My father was insistent that these be included. I almost didn’t because I do not own a dipper with which to twirl honey from pot to bread, but the force of his horror at the very thought of this lapse made me reconsider.
Hagelslag / Vlokfeest
And here is the pinnacle of the Dutch breakfast tradition.
On your bread.
Do I need to say more?
Hagelslag literally translates to hailstorm. This product is also more or less interchangeably referred to as muisjes (= little mice). I did come across something online that suggested that the term muisjes refers specifically to the sugar coated anise seeds that are traditionally served at christenings – they come in pink and white, or blue and white varieties, and you use the appropriate mix of colors to indicate the sex of the child in question (the little mice descriptor refers to the small tail of the anise seeds). A special orange and white variety was released to celebrate the birth of the Crown Princess Amalia in 2003.
When I saw this I asked my father if I’d been using the wrong word my entire life, but he reassured me that hagelslag and muisjes are interchangeable terms, and that the sugar coated anise seeds are a specific kind of muisjes.
Vlokfeest (= feast of flakes – the flakes in question being chocolate) is another variation on a means of eating chocolate on your bread.
The means by which either hagelslag or vlokfeest is consumed is as follows:
1 slice bread (or if you’re lucky enough to be able to find it, a beschuit)
Sufficient softened butter (or margarine, if you must) to smear evenly and thinly across the bread
Enough hagelslag or vlokfeest to cover the bread and butter in a single layer.
My father’s rule of thumb for the application of hagelslag was that if you turned the piece of bread upside down all of the hagelslag should stick to the butter, if a rain of sprinkles fell off the bread you’d used too many (note, this test doesn’t really work with vlokfeest which doesn’t stick to the butter quite as well as hagelslag does). My hagelslag bestrewn bread invariably fails this test.
I also enjoy hagelslag or vlokfeest on toasted bread still warm from the toasting because makes the chocolate melt a little, but this is untraditional and my father always made a face at me when he saw me doing it as a child. It seemed impractical for Dinner – but if this has inspired you to run out to your local specialty food emporium (or order some online from a mail order company – or importune friends who are visiting the Netherlands to bring some home with them in their suitcase) I recommend trying it.
I have heard that in this hedonistic modern era people sometimes substitute peanut butter (pindakaas – literally peanut cheese – which the Dutch are quite partial to, unlike most of the rest of Europe which does not share the American obsession with peanut butter) for the butter. While I am sure my father is making a horrified face right now at the very idea, I think sounds like an excellent, if decadent, idea.