Sunday, August 21, 2011

Belgian Food

So after two weeks in Belgium (missing my kitchen so much!), what do I have to say about Belgian food? Well, first of all, when you travel you will notice that locals always want you to try this and that but really, in Europe at least, local food is rarely as unique as the locals seem to think. No matter where you go there are pancakes, and potato pancakes, and after a lot of confusion due to the language difference you finally get it across that we actually have the exact same food at home. So I didn't bother with pancakes here, but was told I must try the fries. Why? Apparently they are something special and different. The truth - they are just fries. Belgium claims to be the real inventor of french fries, in Bruges there is even a musuem about it. But fried food is never really my cup of tea and these did not change my mind.

So of course everybody knows that Belgium is famous for chocolate. Certain cities especially have loads of little chocolate shops. But, as is to be expected with artisan, hand-made sweets, they are rather pricey. And there are no free samples. Of course, you don't even really need to try them, there is so much there that if you let yourself you would just make yourself sick. All you really need to do is step into a nice little chocolate shop and you will be overwhelmed by the wonderful smell of delicious chocolate. I did of course buy some as gifts and sample a little - it is good. If I had the money and the stomach capacity I would love to sample all of it, but I guess that will have to wait for another occasion.

Another properly famous item of Belgian gastronomy is the Belgian waffle, here in Mons known by the French word 'gaufre'. They are sold by street vendors and are really thick and sweet and cake-like. They coat them in sugar, which gets caramalised when they reheat them. Then if you like they cover them with sauce or cream. They are really good, but you can't even really make them yourself at home because those waffle-makers that you can buy do not make such thick waffles, they would never really turn out quite like this.

The last thing that deserves a mention is not strictly a Belgian speciality, I think they are sold in many places in this part of Europe. They are a type of cookie, and here at least are called 'speculoos'. On this side of the world  you often get a small individually wrapped cookie when you buy a cup of tea or coffee, and when I first had one they were so good I had to find out what they were! In English they are just called 'caramelised biscuits' but I looked up the brand name and found that they are speculoos, like gingerbread but with different spices and darker sugar. They are so yummy that I even looked up recipes and from there was born my recipe for Christmas cookies, which I am going to share today because they don't just have to be for Christmas and they are really yummy! Here you can get a spread of the same flavour, I haven't tried it yet but if it's good I'm sure it will get eaten really quickly!

Spiced Christmas Cookies

150 grams butter
1 egg
300 grams dark brown sugar
500 grams plain flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius and grease or line a cookie tray.

As usual for cookies, cream the butter and sugar together as well as you can, then mix in the eggs and the spices. The flour must be added gradually, until it is quite a solid dough and you are having to knead it to mix more in. At this point it is time to turn your dough out onto a floured surface. Keep on kneading the flour in until it has all been incorporated, and the dough should be stiff and shiny.

Roll your dough out until it is about 5 mm thick and cut it into shapes (you could just cut rectangles if you have no cutters or if it is not Christmas time!). Now my recipe says to bake for 15 minutes but I'm not really sure how accurate that is. I would probably just go with it and if the first batch is overdone then cook the next for a shorter time but these should be quite solid and hard. After a day or two they will soften. And of course if these are for Christmas or some other occasion you may at this point want a recipe for the icing, like the one that I used in the image below!

Royal Icing

This is what you need to use to get shiny hard icing for decorating. It is very simple.

1 egg white
250 grams icing sugar

Simply sift the sugar over the egg white and mix it into a thick paste. It will be white and takes food colouring really well, giving you nice bright colour. It spreads and pipes easily and dries very quickly to give a shiny surface. It is very sweet though!

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