Over the years we have discovered that one of the most universally beloved foods is the fried dough ball. In the Netherlands, fried dough balls are a traditional New Year’s food called Oliebollen (which translates to “oil balls” – the singular is oliebol). They have been variously known in the US as “Dutch doughnuts” and are called smoutebollen and croustillons in Belgium. Oliebollen have a long history in the Netherlands and were part of Germanic Yule celebrations, and the first written recipes date from the 1660s. The painting below, “Meid met oliebollen,” by Aelbert Cuyp is from 1652.
The legend behind Oliebollen is actually more morbid than I was expecting. According to Paste Magazine:
Eating oliebollen was considered a surefire way to ward off the whims of a cruel pagan goddess named Perchta. Her Teutonic name meant bright or glorious, but she was not always friendly. During the 12 Days of Christmas the goddess was said to fly around with evil spirits looking for something to eat. In her quest she might even use her sword to slice open the stomachs of those who’d already eaten to get at their food. Tradition said that eating oliebollen protected you because the fat absorbed from the cooking oil made Perchta’s sword slide off of her victims.
Oliebollen doesn’t stick to its fearsome origins anymore, and is mostly sold on the streets, accompanied by fireworks! There are tons of recipes for Oliebollen online including The Dutch Baker’s Daughter, Allrecipes and The Dutch Table.
For a bit of a midweek break, have your mind blown by a film of a tiny chef cooking Bouillabaisse by the Belgian Skullmapping collective. Trust me, it is a lot more entertaining than you may think.
St. Nicholas Day (December 6th) is right around the corner, and that means it is time for speculoos! These crispy brown sugar and spice cookies, popularized in the US by the brand Biscoff, are extremely popular in Belgium and the Netherlands at this time of year. Though you can get speculoos stateside, if you are Brussels, you can try a taste of the original old-style speculoos at Maison Dandoy, who has been baking them up since 1829. Speculoos are traditionally eaten with tea and are associated with advent time and especially St. Nicholas Day.
There are Maison Dandoy locations sprinkled throughout Brussels, and we went to the Tea Shop location (Rue Charles Buls 14) in the center of the old town. The tea shop has a restaurant upstairs (another post on this to follow) and a lovely store on the first floor filled with beautifully displayed and packaged Belgian cookies. The speculoos at Maison Dandoy are stamped with a windmill, shaped by traditional molds or even by special springerle rolling pins with designs imprinted on them. You can also get a vanilla or chocolate version of speculoos at Dandoy if you are so inclined, though we are purists and prefer the original. Though of course the original recipe is secret, you can try an imitation Dandoy recipe from Un déjeuner de soleil (in French – auto-translated here. Eat the Love has another speculoos recipe and even more history. We can’t think of a better way to celebrate St. Nicholas Day than with cookies and tea!
If you do not know where to look, there is absolutely no way that you would find Hendrickx Belgian Bread Crafter by chance (100 E Walton St.). It is located half of a story up on the ground floor of a large concrete condo high-rise and is mostly hidden from view. The store itself is tiny (though it appears they have a pretty big kitchen) and consists mostly of a small counter and a few tables. However, despite its small size, this place is a serious bakery helmed by Belgian breadmaker Reynaud Hendrickx. Another hint of its authenticity, each time we visited, we were served by a delightful Francophone woman and the place was chock full of Francophone customers.
The breads – Belgian country, brioche and challah to name a few – are certainly the main draw, but we were also seeking something a bit sweeter – a purportedly authentic Liège Waffle made with Belgian pearl sugar. We absolutely had to try it! Unfortunately, our trip to Hendrickx came at a somewhat inopportune time – 7 PM. We realized this was certainly not the best time for a bakery at all, and there was only one waffle left! Our lone survivor waffle was very tasty, and we appreciated the signature bursts of caramel-like sweetness from the pearl sugar, though we were a little disappointed that it had not been made fresh. We definitely would have waited a few minutes for a waffle hot off the iron…maybe next time? The croissants are also excellent and come in both plain and more unique flavors like apple turnover and cherry/chocolate ($2.85 for plain, extra for fillings).
We were also delighted to find a hearty menu of soups, salads and sandwiches in addition to bread. The particularly generous sandwiches are served on thick slices of the signature homemade Belgian country bread, which makes a HUGE difference, and include such varieties as goat cheese/honey and curried chicken salad (Each $7.25). The “Belgian” salad ($9.25) was similarly fresh, and consisted of a composed plate with arugula, tuna, bread and capers. Our friends also had the soup of the day – split pea – that they greatly enjoyed. Over the course of a few visits we sampled some of their savory offerings, and each time we were impressed by the fresh and simple ingredients. No filler here, and there will surely be leftovers due to the generous portion size. We also like that they wrap up the leftovers in wax paper for you.
The first time we visited it was pleasant enough to sit outside, however there was also a little fishbowl-like sitting area, which, curiously, you have to go through the kitchen to access. Overall we highly recommend Hendrickx, and are glad to have found an independent option in the area. Hendrickx is a perfect place to stop for a little lunch before/after a day of shopping in the Gold Coast/Michigan Avenue or after an afternoon at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Though there may be some lingering animosity towards Belgian waffles after the fateful US/Belgium World Cup game (and with the Waffle House restaurant chain declaring war on Belgian Waffles), waffles seem like an everyday part of life in the US. However, it turns out that Belgian waffles were first introduced into the US in 1962! That seems awfully recent, don’t you think? They first turned up at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair at a stand run by the Belgian Vermersch family, where the waffles were marketed to Americans as “Bel-Gem.” The main difference between Belgian waffles and “regular” waffles is that Belgian waffles have a yeast batter, while the other has a pancake batter. The Bel-Gem waffles, a hit in Seattle, were sold again at the much larger 1964 World’s Fair in Queens. Many people believe that they were first introduced at the NYC World’s Fair, but that credit actually goes to Seattle. However, it was at the 1964 Fair that the waffles really caught on…and the rest is history. Good Food Story has even unearthed an original Bel-Gem recipe.
Bel-Gem Waffle Stand at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens
This New York Times piece about searching for the perfect frites in Brussels, Belgium is right up our alley. We are quite fond of Belgian fries, or “frites” and also of quests. Though we have never been to Belgium, some of our favorite places for Belgian fries in Chicago are Frietkoten Belgian Fries in the Chicago French Market (131 N Clinton St.) or Hopleaf (5148 N Clark St). We also learned that there is now a late night Belgian fry take-out, Backwoods (3335 N. Halsted St.), though we haven’t tried it yet. Anyone have any other frite favorites in Chicago?
Called alternatively “noses” or “preists’ hats” for their distinctive shape, the Belgian cuberdon is certainly eye-catching. Waxy, burgundy and shaped like a cone, the cuberdon is traditionally filled with sweet raspberry syrup, though other colors and flavors are now available. Due to its popularity and longevity, cuberdons have been named one of the official cultural foods of Belgium. Despite its popularity in Belgium , the cuberdon is mostly known outside of the country since they have no preservatives, and are tough to transport and store. Moroever, the production process is quite intense. So if you want to enjoy this taste of Belgium you’ll likely have to visit!
Cuberdons from Leuven, Belgium by Carolien Coenen
One of our favorite treats to have at tea-time are Biscoff cookies, which are kind of a riff on Dutch/Belgian Speculoos. However, we have recently been made aware of an amazing new Biscoff product – Biscoff spread! Basically, this is a peanut-butter like spread made OUT of Biscoff cookies. Though it seems to have been available in Europe for a while, the product has only recently become popular in the states. Trader Joe’s even has a knock-off version called Cookie Butter. Enchanted by the Biscoff spread, naturally our first order of business was to make a Biscoff sandwich, combining 2 Biscoff cookies and Biscoff spread, which even though it seems hopeless redundant, was very delicious. For the more ambitious, you can make your own spice cookies with Biscoff filling or Biscoff truffles. M will also be happy to note that they make a crunchy Biscoff spread, which I have never seen in the wild, but is available on Amazon.
Belgians are known for their chocolate, but maybe they should be known for their cookies as well. Belgian-made Biscoff cookies are so addictive it is ridiculous. In Belgium they are known as “speculoos” (This site – On Food and Wine – also has an easy recipe).
The only ingredients in the cookies are Flour, Sugar, Oil, Brown Sugar and Cinnamon. Deceptively simple. The cookies are very crisp -almost graham cracker-esque- and taste of cinnamon, but not too strongly. Speculoos are great to eat alone, or, as we have found, to dip in chocolate fondue. Happily, they are pretty easy to find in America – even Walgreen’s has them.