Dutch cuisine with Yvette van Boven
and her recipe for abrikozenvlaai

Netherlands

Netherlands

If you’re visiting someone in the southern Dutch province of Limburg, it’s best to arrive with an empty stomach. You will likely be met with a slice of the region’s famous pie, vlaai and often more than one variation. Dutch TV host and cookbook author Yvette van Boven shares one of her many vlaai recipes, and takes us on a culinary trip through a country that we both call home.

What food did you grow up eating?
“I was born and raised in Ireland, but my parents are from Limburg. They come from convivial families - typical for the south of the country - and were raised having three courses every dinner and often hot meals for lunch, too. My mother wasn’t particularly fond of cooking, but she did find it important that we would give our full attention to the food. We would sit at the table, not in front of the TV.

“The food leaned more toward classical French or Belgian cuisine, which is quite common in the southern parts of the Netherlands. Not so many stamppots [mashed potatoes mixed with one or several mashed vegetables] that Dutch cuisine is famous for. My mother always thought stamppots are very inelegant. My father fancied a hutspot [stamppot with potatoes, onions and carrots], but we would only eat it once or twice a year. We mostly had food that was common in the ‘70s like stews and lasagne.

“But being raised in Ireland, I obviously grew up with soda bread, Jacob’s Cream Crackers and Marmite…”

It’s funny you mention the difference between the southern and northern parts of the country. People in the south are indeed renowned for their indulgence and generosity, and we’ll get to that later. Your father was a landscape architect - what effect did that have on you?
“I think that sparked my love for plants. It really ‘planted a seed in me’ as they say. Growing up in Ireland, however, where there’s more nature than people, I would have learnt a lot about edible plants, berries and mushrooms regardless of my father’s job. Children would teach each other what you could or couldn’t eat, and that’s always stayed with me. I just like free food!

Kale in winter

Kale, the most popular vegetable for a 'stamppot'

“I try to do it here in the Netherlands as well. I just collected some dead-nettles, actually. I just pick what I see and chuck it in a salad for instance. I moved recently and finally have a garden, here in the north of Amsterdam. We also have a house in Ireland where we have fruit trees. I just like tinkering a bit, seeing how things grow and discovering how things taste different throughout the growing cycle. It’s just so interesting.

”Broad beans, for example, still small enough that you can eat them without peeling them first. That’s such a fun part of home growing; you harvest and can just stick it in your mouth straight away. I remember the first time cutting a piece of lettuce from my garden. It tasted so sweet, it’s insane!”

I recently moved to a place with a garden as well, albeit in Italy and not in the Netherlands, and share your fascination. We have a large hedge surrounding our garden, and I only recently found out it’s laurel … I used a dried bay leaf the other day, while my garden had millions of fresh ones. Embarrassing! What do you love most about cooking?
“It's the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last before I go to bed. It’s hard to explain – I’m always working. I always have to test recipes or just details of recipes. Like yesterday, when I wanted to know how long it takes for fregola [small, round Sardinian pasta] to absorb a broth: well, it’s 12 minutes. Now you know too!

“Yesterday I also wondered: how would rhubarb taste in a chocolate cake? If the acidity of raspberries works so well, then maybe rhubarb does too? It turned out delicious. I gave the cake to my neighbours – I’d get fat if I ate everything I baked.

“In my free time, I really enjoy cooking recipes from other chefs and cultures - just to learn new ways of preparing ingredients. I once cooked a Madhur Jaffrey recipe in which you had to cook spinach for 30 minutes. Half an hour, that’s crazy. When I cook spinach, I just dip it in boiling water for a brief second and that’s it. But I followed the recipe and discovered the totally different texture spinach gets when you cook it for such a long time. It’s so important to step out of your comfort zone, otherwise you’ll just cook variations of your own meals all the time.”

White asparagus

"One of my favourite vegetables is white asparagus. They’re in season now [April] and they are amazing."

Yvette van Boven

Well, I couldn’t agree more – broadening your horizon by cooking dishes from different cultures is such a good way to develop new cooking skills and get new insights. Which vegetables do you think are typically Dutch?
“I’ve made a couple of TV shows about Dutch cuisine and produce, for which I’ve seen many corners of the country. For such a tiny country, there is an incredible number of different vegetables and fruits, partly thanks to the different soil types we have. Some areas are perfect for cherries, others for potatoes. A vegetable you won’t see in many other countries is witlof, a type of chicory sometimes called escarole or Belgian endive. These old-fashioned, slightly hard closed heads of witlof are really quite Dutch.

“One of my favourite vegetables is white asparagus. They’re in season now [April] and they are amazing. They’re often hard to find elsewhere too.”

I love white asparagus so much as well. They’re grown in the northeastern part of Italy, around Venice, but are very hard to find here in Tuscany. I found them at a local market a few weeks ago and was so happy I could make my favourite soup again. It’s so simple: chicken broth, white asparagus, a simple roux and some chives. Blitz it up and you’re done, but it’s the creamiest, most delicious soup you’ll ever have. I’m sad the season is almost over again. Speaking of seasons, what about the fruits?
“Yes! I love all the different types of fruits we get: cherries, peaches, apricots. Those are really on point during the height of their respective seasons, often only for six weeks. A Dutch cherry that has had the time to fully ripen before picking and then sent straight to the market… delicious.”

Cherries

I saw you pick sour cherries in Limburg in one of the episodes. Those looked amazing.
“Morello cherries! Those are incredible. They’re very popular in Belgian cuisine and they use them way more than we do. The sweet cherries we normally get aren’t suitable for cooking; they don’t have enough acidity to balance out their sweetness. The Morellos have the same umami quality as olives – those are also the cherries used in the Belgian kriekenbier [a lambic beer fermented with sour cherries].”

We make it sound like the Dutch adhere to a diet of seasonal fruits and vegetables, but I really love our savoury products as well. Which ones do you hold dearest?
“Dutch cheese is great of course. Gelderse rookworst [a smoked sausage, often cooked] is incredibly delicious. If I crave fast food, I just love white bread and half a rookworst with mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup. That’s so Dutch as well, by the way, mixing sauces! We truly have a sausjescultuur.

Maatjesharing [soused herring] is another example. I love herring, but it has to be fresh. I longed for herring when I lived in Paris and made the mistake to order herring with steamed potatoes in a French brasserie. Never make the same mistake! You really need fresh ones, otherwise it’ll get a rancid taste.”

Dutch herring

Herring is one of the first things I have whenever I’m back in the Netherlands. Just grab it by the tail and bite off the fillets.  Another thing very typical for our cuisine is the deep-fried snacks. Kroketten [croquettes of meat ragout covered in breadcrumbs] and frikandellen [a minced-meat hotdog] are famous, and always high on my list whenever I’m around. Obviously with thick crunchy fries, drowned in a pool of – indeed – different sauces. Do you have any favourites?
“It’s funny – I have a cousin who lives in San Francisco and she said: I would kill for a frikandel! What the fuck?! Who wants a frikandel while living in San Francisco? You can literally eat everything you can imagine, but you’re craving a frikandel?! I’ve had it three times in my life but really don’t fancy it.

“The funny thing about the frikandel is that it’s actually quite sustainable. It’s made of minced meat - including mechanically separated meat – that otherwise wouldn’t get eaten. It’s fantastic in the sense that it’s a product in which all leftovers can be used.

“A kroket, on the other hand, is different. Making a good kroket is an art form.”

Netherlands


It is! I’ve always had the feeling that we Dutchies don’t think very highly of our cuisine. What’s your view on that?
“I think that has changed a bit lately; there’s quite a revival of Dutch cuisine going on right now. People are a bit prouder than they were before, and there’s way more attention for our local products and delicacies. You even see it in the supermarkets, where very local products are being advertised more than before. This lemonade has been produced by farmer Frans, who has his farm right around the corner. The appreciation for our food is much better than it was and goes deeper than the stamppots.”

It’s really something I grew up with, the stamppots: potatoes and vegetables that had been boiled for so long you could prak [mash] them yourself on the plate, accompanied by a piece of meat. I personally never associated deliciousness with Dutch food. If it had to be delicious, it had to be exotic, like lasagne or other Italian dishes, or the Dutch adaptations to Chinese and Indonesian food.

Now that I’ve mentioned it – that Chinese Indonesian cuisine has a long history and is deeply ingrained in Dutch society today. In the beginning of the 20th century, cheap labour was recruited in China, and Rotterdam in particular housed a large Chinese community. The first Chinese restaurant opened in 1920, but it wasn’t until after World War II that interest in east Asian food spiked - partly because of Dutch soldiers returning from Indonesia (a Dutch colony back then), but also because of the influx of Indonesians to the Netherlands.

Chinese-Indonesian restaurant in Maasbracht, The Netherlands

© Mark van Wonderen

When Chinese restaurateurs noticed the popularity of Indonesian food, many recruited Indonesian chefs making the Indonesian cuisine an important aspect of their Chinese restaurants. The food was made less spicy and portions were made bigger to adapt to the Dutch palate, and a ‘Chinese-Indonesian’ cuisine evolved – with many dishes only vaguely resembling authentic meals in either country.
“I’ve worked in one of these Chinese-Indonesian restaurants for a long time, and there were actually two separate kitchens: one for the Dutch, and one for the Chinese. The Chinese people working there were often quite surprised by the taste of the Dutch guests. Many (older) Dutch people would often come for takeaway on Sundays, bringing their own pans to have them filled with bami [fried noodles] or babi pangang [grilled pork in sweet sauce], thinking it was a waste to use plastic containers.

“This type of restaurant is slowly disappearing now. You’ll still find many of them in the countryside, but I think that there’s a lot of attention for authentic Asian cuisines right now, with restaurants actually serving Cantonese or Sichuan food for example.”

Another popular food tradition in the Netherlands, which may have its origin in Asia, is gourmetten, where everyone has their own tiny pans cooking their own miniature pieces of meat on a tabletop grill, reminding a bit of Swiss Raclette. Is that something you’re fond of?
“Sorry, but you cannot call that dining, can you? I get asked by magazines to write recipes that are ideal for gourmetten, but I always decline. I just refuse to eat half-raw pieces of peppers, cooked in tiny Tefal pans. And the host thinks it’s ideal because: he doesn’t eat that, she doesn’t like that – I’m not going to come up with a meal that suits all tastes, you just do it yourselves. That’s just not my style.

“But I must admit, I’ve done it once in France where they have a similar tradition, and of course it’s a fun activity. Fun, but lazy!”

Valkenburg in Limburg, The Netherlands

"People in Brabant or Limburg won’t let you leave with an empty stomach."

Yvette van Boven

We still do it every year for Christmas and I couldn’t live without it, I must admit. It’s also something that’s popular throughout the country, which I think is cool. We’ve talked a bit about the differences between the north and the south of the country, where the south is known for its abundance of food and drinks, but what other regional differences are worth highlighting?
“Yes, the fact that everything is just a bit more generous south of the rivers is something I’ve seen many times. People in Brabant or Limburg won’t let you leave with an empty stomach. Not that people north of the rivers are less hospitable, but the chances of you running into someone who shuts the cookie jar after giving you the second biscuit is just a bit bigger in the north than in the south.

“If you look closely, every single region has its prides and delicacies. De Achterhoek is known for its krentenwegge, a raisin bread with a length of up to two metres. That’s rather generous as well, don’t you think?”

Abrikozenvlaai

© Oof Verschuren

The Dish

What makes a vlaai a vlaai?
“Well, it’s a wagon wheel actually. They’re huge and generous, and they’re cut up in huge pieces. I think it’s one of the few sweet cakes made with a yeasted dough, which gives it a bit of a bready, brioche-y flavour and texture. There are many different fillings, from fruity-acidic, to very creamy or even with rice porridge. I think there are around twenty traditional ones, but then there are so many different other varieties, also depending on the region and season.

“Another thing that’s very typical for vlaai is that they’re seldom served alone and can be bought as halves as well.”

Do you think it’s popular in other parts of The Netherlands as well?
“There’s not nearly the same amount of vlaai elsewhere as in Limburg. There is a chain selling them throughout the country, but they’re not as pretty as the authentic ones in the south. I generally think that vlaai is popular everywhere in the country, but seen as something for special occasions outside of Limburg. In Limburg it’s way more common – you won’t find a bakery not selling vlaai in Limburg.”

So this is an abrikozenvlaai, with apricots. Is there an alternative for apricots?
“The recipe for abrikozenvlaai is nice because it’s very easy to substitute the apricots with another fruit, like sour cherries. Just make sure the fruit you use is in season and has some acidity, to balance out the sweetness of the dough.”

The Ingredients

Dough
150 ml
milk
10 g
instant yeast
450 g
all-purpose flour
pinch
salt
50 g
butter
3 tbsp
packed light brown sugar
1
egg, beaten
Filling
30 g
cornstarch
80 g
sugar
3
star anise
750 g
fresh apricots, halved and pitted
0.5 tsp
cinnamon
pinch
salt
small handful
bread crumbs (optional, if the filling is too wet)
Assembly
butter, for the pie pan
1
egg, beaten
2-3 tbsp
coarse sugar
Dough
10 tbsp
milk
1 tbsp
instant yeast
3.5 cups
all-purpose flour
pinch
salt
3 tbsp
butter
3 tbsp
packed light brown sugar
1
egg, beaten
Filling
1/4 cup
cornstarch
6 tbsp
sugar
3
star anise
26 oz.
fresh apricots, halved and pitted
0.5 tsp
cinnamon
pinch
salt
small handful
bread crumbs (optional, if the filling is too wet)
Assembly
butter, for the pie pan
1
egg, beaten
2-3 tbsp
coarse sugar

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 3.5 hours | Yield: 1 big vlaai | Category: dessert

Dough

  • Heat the milk until lukewarm, then add the yeast, and leave for 20 minutes until the yeast has dissolved.
  • Sift the flour with the salt over a bowl. Add the butter, brown sugar and egg. Make an indentation at the centre and pour in the lukewarm milk. Stir with a spoon until all the flour has been incorporated. Then, with flour-dusted hands, work into a smooth dough. If necessary, add a little flour or milk. Knead for about 10 minutes. Divide into two portions: one of two-thirds and one of one-third. Let rise for one hour.

Filling

  • Meanwhile, make the filling: in a small saucepan, dissolve the cornstarch in 200 ml (3/4 cup plus 1 tbsp) cold water and add the sugar, star anise and apricots. Bring to a boil and stir with a ladle until the sugar has dissolved and the fruits have softened a little. Season with the cinnamon and salt. Let the mixture steep for 10 minutes over low heat, then turn off the heat, allowing the filling to completely cool off.
  • Grease an 28- to 30-cm (11- to 12-inch) pie pan with some butter. Roll the larger portion of the dough into a round slab the size of the pie pan and press the dough slab into the pan. Neatly trim the edges and use a fork to prick some holes into the bottom. Cover the dough with a dish towel and allow it to rise for another 30 minutes.

Assembly

  • Preheat the oven to 180C (360F).
  • If needed, dust the crust with some bread crumbs. I do this when the fruits are too juicy (cherries have this tendency). Usually it isn’t necessary, but it’s still a useful trick. Remove the star anise from the filling and pour it into the dough-lined pie pan. Set aside.
  • Roll the other one-third of the dough into a circle about 1 cm wider than the rim of the pie pan. Cut out a nice pattern of holes using a small cookie cutter or apple corer. (You can also easily cut the dough into strips and weave a lattice top.)
  • Carefully roll up the dough in about three turns, then swiftly lay it on top of the pie. This shouldn’t be too difficult, as this elastic dough is very forgiving. Brush the dough with the egg and sprinkle with the coarse sugar.
  • Bake the pie for 20 to 30 minutes. Rotate the pie halfway through to make sure it will brown evenly.
  • Your pie is ready as soon as you can easily loosen the crust from the pan. Before cutting it, first allow the pie to fully cool off on a rack.

Extracted from Home Baked by Yvette van Boven (Abrams Books, New York City)

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