Friday, December 30, 2011

New Year's Relovution

On the short stretch of street between here and the nearest supermarket, there are numerous (now) living quarters, bearing the remnants of a more commercial past. Big (shop) windows suggest small businesses; grocer's, bakers, plumbers, furniture makers. Little details give away their history. Neighborhood shops, catering to the locals. Very few have survived. Most turned into hip studios.

The world decided it was not a good idea to have neighborhood shops any more.

In Amsterdam, as in other European and American cities, there were times, a shop would be where it was needed . Your baker was around the corner. You would smell his bread waking up in the morning. The veggies were local, as was the meat from the butcher. The milkman made his rounds. Pretty much enough fare going around close by to cater for the basic human needs. If you throw in a local watering hole, or two.

In the times the world decided we didn't want all of that in our back yards any more, things tended to burn a lot easier, fish was stinky, and garbage was collected only once a week. So who wouldn't want to move forward on that new concept going around;  the supermarket!

Supermarket & the Internet

The supermarket was a glorious idea; instead of having to rummage around the neighborhood scrambling together bits and pieces of the daily necessities in life and getting rained on doing so, we could push around a cart, get our stuff in a jiffy, look really classy doing it, go home, and spend the rest of the day smoking cigarettes, watching TV-shows with people smoking cigarettes. Perfect!

A supermarket is like the Internet. They have gone through the same motion. They both are promising advances in civilization. Everything we are looking for in one place and at our fingertips (be it a pork sausage or information on how the birds fly).

Both inventions are now reading us like a book, and rather than them giving us what we're looking for, we are providing them with all the information on how they can come up with yet another run on our money, privacy or open sources of information, or all of the above.

The concept remains equally promising, and maybe it helps to realize that the power, in the end, is completely with the consumer.

New Year's Relovution

This afternoon, arriving in that dreaded supermarket in my neighborhood, I imagined the space empty. Then I imagined it fill up again; with a (micro) bakery, veggies,  the milk- cheese- and butter- man, a butcher shop, a fish monger and anything any one could ever need really.

It was almost like a market... with a roof on it... a super market...

Marqt in Amsterdam works pretty much on this premise, and all around the world initiatives like this find solid ground. Reclaiming good ideas works, apparently.

My New Year's resolution for 2012 is going to be more like a "relovution"; renewing my vows, proclaiming, once more, the need to divert towards more sustainability. Let's continue to give our food a face.

Bakers or Bankers

None of the bankers will tell us what to do in the difficult times ahead of us. They most certainly won't tell us it might be a good idea to stop shopping at multinationals. Let us turn to the bakers instead. Not so much the actual guy, but all what a baker represents; providing a community daily with honest real bread, caring for and guarding the most basic of foods, helping each other ahead rather than have your money sucked out of you by a faceless corporation.

I was at my oldskool supermarket to get myself some of the flour that I use a lot. It normally sells for 0.59 € per 2 kg.  Now, with all the world wanting flour for their oliebollen in this country, it was of course, on sale! Now for €0,79 per 1 kg! Yes people, Happy New Year! Give me a baker over a banker any time.

Wishing you health, wisdom, strength, love, friendship in a 2012 that isn't going to be half as bad as they want to make us believe!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Taste of Happiness


Look at it and most of you will probably know what it tastes like. It's a flavor that is strongly connected to a geographical place for me. And it's not the second biggest city in Croatia. This "split" is a combination of creamy vanilla ice cream, covered with a layer of orange sherbet. The place my brain immediately takes me to is the house of the guy with the freezer in the shed, just over the railroad track, passing the soccer fields, about halfway the street where my aunt and grandfather are living, on the far corner.

I'm coming in from the railroad tracks. Best bet is that I've visited my middle class grandmother who gave me some money.

I had the privilege to grow up on a cross section in society. My mother's parents were plain and simple people who worked the land. My father's parents were middle class and had a butcher shop. After a visit to my "poor" grandmother, I would come home with flowers from the garden, eggs, beets, or a peacock feather. The "rich" Gran would give me money.

And money meant being able to choose to spend it on stuff for yourself instead of sharing let's say... the beets!, or oh, why not, you can have ALL of the eggs dear mother...

Thus my mind and body are somehow conditioned; the "split" ice cream, even if now dangling somewhere in the nether regions of what the ice cream industry has to offer, was, is and always will be the most luxurious taste in the world for me.

Mind you, not necessarily because it IS the most luxurious taste in the world. But that first time (oh yes, food and fair maiden, they are so alike), it was the ultimate; I would have married that ice cream if I could have, right there on the field where the gypsies always come and put up their camp.

Fiori di Sicilia

To take a BreadLab-project a step further, I was curious what flavor combinations of macarons my readers would prefer, and one of them commented about "Fiori di Sicilia", flowers of Sicily. I had no clue what it was. You can imagine my utter delight when I read the following description, given by our trusted friends at King Arthur Flour:

"You know that wonderful marriage of flavors you taste when you combine vanilla ice cream and orange sherbet in the same bowl? That’s what Fiori di Sicilia tastes like."

Upon further perusal, there seems to be a hint of orange blossom in there as well.

Reasoning with myself that I need at least a sample of something if I was going to possibly recreate it, I ordered a small bottle of boldly prized essence, that promises to taste like what some consider to be "the taste of happiness".

The taste of happiness

Chasing down one's own satisfaction, or bringing home a dozen of eggs freshly plucked from a chicken's cloaca...

Tough choice for a kid, huh?

Both grandmothers were gateways to different destinations in my little universe. I guarded my "poor granny's" peacock feathers as treasures. Rummaging around in my grandfather's garden and mysterious shed, with all the feathers, cages and unknown tools, sparked creativity and imagination in me. Their most precious possession, a pink bathtub set up in the garage, that connected to the kitchen tap by way of a garden hose, always remained off limits for me. I saw it only the one time, when it was wheeled into the garage by slightly puzzled delivery guys.

My other grandmother had paintings. They never failed to fascinate me. And yes, the money came in handy in exploring beyond the obvious. I'm quite sure we all get used to the practice of getting "free money" as a kid quite soon, but I remember feeling rather guilty at first with that coin clenched in my fist on my way to some form of "taste of happiness".

I already feel rice pudding, apricots, pandoros (!) and probably another order of this stuff coming up if it is only half of what I expect it to be. Thanks Ria, for pointing out something that I didn't know yet!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Pan de Jamón

 A crappy bike and 6.4 ft of pink flesh

A long time ago we were working on a movie in Bogor, Java, Indonesia. Our hotel was up on a hill, the set down in the valley. There were guys, with bicycles, that would take you up and down for a nominal fee. A very nominal fee for Western standards.

We were very happy the guys were there; they were part of the local infra structure and knew their way around like no one else; perfect! So, we decided to reward them for their services with a fee, three times the amount they were used to.

The next morning, depending on our cyclists to get to set on time, we found they had gone. And we didn't see them again until we were almost done shooting on that specific location, about three days later.

When I saw one of them, swinging in his hammock on the porch of his house, and asked him why he didn't come back, and make more money, he seemed puzzled and answered: "Why? I have enough for 3 days".

Suddenly I realized the crossed looks that I thought we had been getting from the other locals using the cyclists' services were very much reality. We had seriously interfered with the town's mobility, and our incentive backfired, or rather... just didn't work.

These guys didn't want to gather capital, they didn't go out to buy a bigger bike, or another one and rent it out, like you and me probably would have done. They just worked as much money together as they needed to support themselves and their loved ones, and were happy they could spend time with them instead of dragging 6.4 ft of slightly pink young Dutch adult flesh up on a hill on the back of a crappy bike.

Take as much as you need

Pan de Jamón is a traditional Venezuelan bread served around Xmas and New Year's Eve. It originates from the times of slavery and was made with the plantation owner's Xmas dinner left overs. Another Venezuelan dish, hallacas, stems from the same tradition and can also be found on many a dinner table around this time of the year.

Pretty much every family in Venezuela has their own Pan de Jamón recipe that they cherish. Being married to a Venezuelan myself for almost two years now, I have been making my share of Pan de Jamóns. It is still pretty much a work in progress and light years away of ever becoming as legendary as Granny's, but I'll get there over the years, I guess.

There are beautiful specimen of Pan de Jamón floating around out there, intricately shaped, upgraded to fit the festive dinner table of the 21st century. It's a basic white dough with a nice filling of ham, olives, raisins and sometimes smoked bacon. The bread in the picture is made by Nelson Alfonso Suarez Navarro, from Venezuela.

Eating Pan de Jamón always reminds me of the cyclists in Indonesia. This bread, lovingly put together from bits and pieces by people who owned nothing. Those cyclist guys that didn't even bother trying to get the concept of taking more than you need.

And, oh yes! It also reminds me of the little girl in Benin, Africa, a few years ago. On the back of a moped this time on the way home from a shoot, my "driver", who had been speaking the local language to me for the last two weeks and hadn't showed the slightest sign of being bothered about the fact I couldn't understand a thing he was saying, suddenly hit the brakes.

There was a little girl, walking home from school. And my driver decided to give her a lift. The girl was smiling from ear to ear and handed to me on the back of the moped. I gave her back, because I had no clue what to do with a smiling African child on the back of a moped at 45 miles an hour.

When she eventually found her space, standing between the legs of the driver, barely looking over the steering wheel, and holding on with dear life, all the time with that full blown smile over her face, she started humming. The driver finally shut up and started humming with her, and I've never felt more content than with those two on that moped on the "Route de Pêches" in Cotonou now 6 years ago.

Pan de Jamón

1 loaf (4 to 6 people)


    •    3/4 cup (185 gr.) warm milk
    •    4 tablespoons (60 gr.) unsalted butter
    •    2 tablespoons (25 gr.) sugar
    •    1 teaspoon (6 gr.) salt
    •    1 (1/4-ounce) package (7 gr.) active dry yeast
    •    1/4 cup (60 gr.) lukewarm (110°F/43°C) water
    •    3 1/2 cups (450 gr.) all purpose flour
    •    1 beaten egg
    •    2 tablespoons (30 gr.) melted butter 
    •    1/2 pound (225 gr.) ham, thinly sliced
    •    1/2 cup (80 gr.) raisins
    •    1/2 cup (225 gr.) Pimento-stuffed olives 
    •    2 egg yolks


1.    Add the milk, 4 tablespoons butter, sugar and salt to a saucepan and heat, stirring until the butter is melted and the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and set aside to cool to lukewarm.

2.    Mix the warm water and yeast together in a small bowl and set aside for 5 to 10 minutes to activate the yeast.

3.    Add 3 cups of the flour to large mixing bowl. Add the yeast mixture, warm milk and beaten egg. Mix and bring the dough together. Knead by machine or hand until it's elastic and silky and doesn't stick to your hands any more.

4.     Transfer the dough to a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a clean towel or plastic wrap and set in a warm corner until about doubled in size, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

5.     Preheat oven to 375°F/190°C. Roll the dough out into a rectangle about 12 inches wide and 15 inches long. Brush the top surface of the dough with the 2 tablespoons of melted butter. Spread the the ham, raisins and olives evenly over the dough, leaving a margin of about 1 inch/2½ cm around the edges. Starting from the bottom, roll the dough up into a loaf. Pinch the seam and fold under the ends to seal.

6.     Place the loaf seam-side down on a baking sheet and cover it lightly with a clean towel. Set aside to rise for another 30 to 45 minutes.

7.     Beat the egg yolks with a tablespoon of water. Brush the top of the loaf all over with the egg  wash. Place the bread in the oven and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown on top and has a hollow sound when you tap on it. Remove and cool before serving.


    •    Some recipes include smoked bacon in the filling.
    •    Try adding some sliced Cheddar, Old Amsterdam or Swiss cheese to the filling.

Enjoy! Please endorse my BreadLab initiative on Facebook

Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas Squared

Chestnut-Mincemeat Monkey Bread

Baking is getting more festive by the day. The BreadLab is a mess after a trial bake for the X-mas specials that are up for the coming two weeks.


The flavor and texture of chestnut can really lift a dish, when used in moderation. The other week, running through Amsterdam's hottest local produce supermarket Marqt, there were some fresh chestnuts available. They would look real rustic, together with the red onions and roseval potatoes in the basket on the kitchen table...

They have been screaming not be wasted for looking pretty ever since, and today, when the sour cherries on syrup started their siren song, things started coming together. The theme clearly being nuts and fruits, let's cross the channel and ponder on that typical British dish;

Something allegedly edible that I managed to avoid for its name alone in the first two decades of my life. To the foreign ear it sounds like something with mutton sausage and a lot of gravy in it, that has been sitting in the cellar for three months. There is a lot of that where I come from. No need to explore.

Only to find out in the next decade that there is actually no meat involved at all, well... suet. But that was way back when. I do sometimes use lard and suet and the likes, but this sweet bread needs to go down easy with every one.

After making a basic mincemeat, boil the fresh chestnuts in their skins until tender, but still chewy. Chopping them up I decided to just chuck them in with the mincemeat, and that worked wonderfully well.

Sour cherries

Sour cherries belong to New Year's Eve for me. I never knew that until I rediscovered the taste of them recently, the syrupy variety. I was immediately taken back; in my young years, when the adults would be seriously boozing in the New Year, the kids were allowed to drink something that was called "children's-liquor" (No, I kid you not). It came in a bottle that vaguely resembled the grown-ups' version. It was a deep red, sweet as hell and... without alcohol (I guess the marketing guys drew their lines somewhere in the sixties...). But that didn't seem to matter to us, as I remember. For me it was one of the high lights; that entire day, going around the neighborhood to wish every one a Happy New Year, and every house I entered had a glass of that stuff waiting. My Italian shop around the corner carries some nice jars with sour cherries on syrup, the blue one;

Raisins, apples, lemon zest, currants. Take whatever you have lying around to whip together a fruity, spicy layer of mincemeat that will ooze through the monkey bread during the bake. The chestnuts are optional if you are an avid hater (there seem to be quite a few out there), but it does give the flavor a nice twist, and, if chopped coarsely and not boiled to pieces, a different texture that works well with all the sticky caramel and the soft buns.

Since my first monkey bread, traditionally round, was rising all over the place, out of its baking tin, I decided the second bake would have to be in the biggest tin around... and that happened to be a square one. A happy accident, I would say!

Square Chestnut-Mincemeat Monkey Bread

For the (mini portion) mincemeat:

1 small apple
100 gr. boiled chestnut, coarsely chopped
30 gr. raisins
25 gr. currants
30 gr. prunes
20 gr. sour cherries (on syrup)
dark beer, about 60 ml.
75 gr. brown sugar
pinch of lemon zest
dash of lemon juice
a nob of butter
pumpkin pie spice to taste, about ¾ tsp

If you like your apple firm, leave them out, while you bring the beer and all the other ingredients to a slow boil. When everything comes together and the butter is mixed in, add the apple and turn off the gas. Stir and cool.

You can find some good tips over here on how to boil your chestnuts, if you chose to go DIY all the way.

For the dough:

500 gr. bread flour
14 gr. instant yeast
150-175 ml lukewarm whole milk
2 beaten eggs
50 gr. butter
2 tbs honey
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1½ tsp salt

to sugar the monkey dough:

100 gr. caster sugar
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice

For the caramel sauce:

100 gr. butter
50 gr. dark brown sugar


Mix the dry ingredients together in a stand mixer. Add just enough milk for the dough to come together. Add the eggs and the butter little by little after about 4 minutes. Mix on low speed for about 15 minutes to develop an elastic dough. Transfer to an oiled container, cover and rest until double in size, for about an hour to one hour and a half at room temp.

Mix together the fine caster sugar with the spices. When the dough has risen, deflate it gently and shape into a cylinder. When the dough resists, give it a few minutes rest before you continue. Cut up the doughroll in small pieces, deliberately uneven in size and shape. Toss the dough pieces in the sugar and place in the oiled tin. They will expand considerably; loosely spread the first layer around your BIG (improv) monkey bread pan.

Scoop the cooled down chestnut-mincemeat over the first layer of dough, and then cover with a second layer of sugared dough bits. Cover and let proof untill the dough has puffed up.

Preheat the oven to 180° C. Heat the butter with the brown sugar and gently pour this over the proofed dough.

Bake for about 35 minutes, turning it halfway into the bake to ensure even browning. Be careful with the top; don't let it burn!

After the bake, let the bread cool for about 10 minutes before inverting the monkey bread onto a rack. Leave to cool completely before slicing.