Christmas Cooking: Almond Paste Letters

December 18th, 2013

An almond paste letter

Photograph Wikimedia Commons, IraDo

Around 11 AM most Dutch have a break for a cup of coffee with a cookie. In the festive month of December, however, the cookie is often replaced in weekends with a slice of almond paste letter also known as “boterletter” or “banketletter”. This is a roll of puff pastry filled with sweet almond paste, shaped as a letter.

Although most Dutch will claim that a “boterletter” is a typically Dutch treat the custom of serving cookies or pastries shaped as letters is known throughout Europe and dates back to at least Roman times. Letter shaped candy was traditionally used to teach children the alphabet. Once a child was able to either recognize or write a certain letter correctly the corresponding candy or cookie version was given as a reward for the child to eat.

Both puff pastry and almond paste are most likely of arabic origin. It is unclear how exactly it spread to northern Europe. One possible explanation is that the recipes were brought to southern Spain during the arab occupation (711 to 1492 AD), also known as Al-Andalus. When the Christian kings Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Arab and Jew communities in 1492 many fled to the more tolerant Low Lands taking of course their recipes with them. Over time the recipes found their way into Dutch homes and were adapted to Dutch tastes and customs. Originally “boterletters” were mainly associated with the feast of Saint Nicholas (celebrated on December 5th). Nowadays, however, it is a common treat througout the whole festive month of december.

Real “boterletter” is made with dairy butter, almonds and sugar. These are relatively expensive ingredients and mainly used by traditional pastry bakers. A cheaper variant can be bought in the supermarket, however, where the dairy butter is replaced by margarine and the almonds with white beans or apricot stones.

Below you’ll find a recipe to bake your own luxury version of a “boterletter”. You can use this conversion tool to convert metric kitchen units to other units used in your country.

For the almond paste:

  • 150 gr white almonds
  • 25 gr dairy butter
  • 50 gr flour
  • 300 gr fine sugar
  • 3/4 dl water

    Fore the puff pastry (you can replace this with a package of freezer puff pastry if you want to make things easier)

  • 120 gr flour
  • 120 cold dairy butter
  • 1,5 gr salt
  • 1/2 dl water
  • 140 gr almond paste

    First prepare the almond paste:

  • Cook the almonds for several minutes.
  • Drain water from almonds and place in food processor.
  • Grind the almonds until very fine.
  • Put butter in saucepan with 75 ml water and make to boil. Then add the flour through a sieve.
  • Let boil softly whilst stirring until the formed mass losens from the bottom of the saucepan. Turn of the heat.
  • Add the buttermass and sugar to the grinded almonds in the food processor and mix until obtaining a smooth mass.
  • Keep the almond paste in the refrigerator until needed.

    Prepare the puff pastry (if frozen pastry is used you can skip this):

  • To succeed, work fast and make sure the dough does not get warm from kneading!
  • Sieve the flour in a bowl and ad the cold butter and salt.
  • Cut the butter through the flour with two knifes until you get a mass with bits of butter still visible.
  • Cover hands with flour and form a ball from the mass (do not knead!).
  • Cover a clean counter with flour, put the ball on top and lightly cover with flour.
  • Roll out the ball on the counter until flat but still quite thick.
  • Fold the dough in three and roll out again in the direction of the fold. Repeat this another two times
  • Wrap the dough in plastic and put it in the fridge to rest for about half an hour.
  • Repeat the last three steps another two times.

    Make the letter:

  • Roll out the dough on a floured counter in a long rectangular shape about 1,5 cm thick, 10 cm wide an 60 cm long.
  • Cut the short edges straight.
  • Get the almond paste from the fridge and from a thin roll with it in the middle of the piece of dough.
  • Fold the short edges inward.
  • Fold one long edge over the filling.
  • Make the long edge slightly wet with water or, even better, egg-white.
  • Fold the other long edge over the wetted part to make it stick.
  • Shape the roll in the form of the letter of your choice.
  • Cover the roll with some yolk.
  • Let the letter rest in the fridge for half an hour.
  • Meanwhile preheat the over to 200C.
  • Get the letter from the fridge and add another layer of yolk.
  • Bake the letter for about 30 to 40 minutes at 225C.
  • Make sure not to open the oven door during the first 15 minutes of baking!
  • Let cool down and ENJOY!
  • Poor Relief Registers

    December 9th, 2013

    The “Huiszittenhuis” at the Waterlooplein inAmsterdam.

    Photograph Wikimedia Commons

    With Christmas drawing nearer, our thoughts go out more often to the poor than at any other time of year. We have grown used to governments taking care of the poor in our Western societies. Even in times of crisis, governments cover at least the most basic needs of the poor. But what was it like for our ancestors? Could they rely on some sort of poor relief? And can we still find evidence of this in the archives?

    From as early as the 1400s there was a system of poor relief available in the Low Lands. This usually took on the form of little clusters of small houses on the premises of a church or a convent. These were called “hofjes” (lit. courtyard, because they used to be arranged around a little yard with common facilities such as the latrines). These houses were appointed by the church to selected poor and elderly people. Staying was free but required impeccable behavior from the residents. Yard doors were closed at ten o’clock in the evening, church visits were compulsory, no alcohol was permitted within the premises as was drunkenness or any other kind of frivolous behaviour.

    Over time, the “hofjes” were mainly reserved for poor and/or elderly women. From the 1500s on poor and elderly men could take shelter at the “oudemannenhuis” (lit. old men’s house). These were mainly erected because practice proved that elderly men were less capable of properly taking care of themselves as was required in a “hofje”.  At the “oudemannenhuizen” these men not only got a free bed, but also free meals and clothes. These old men’s houses were also kept by the church or a convent and required the same impeccable behavior from it’s inhabitants as the “hofjes” did.

    Slightly less poor people that whished to be looked after in a more comfortable way than at the old men’s house, could buy themselves into a so-called “proveniershuis” (lit. charity house).  The care was similar to that of an old men’s house but the beds, food and clothing were all of a slightly better quality.

    This system worked quite well until the Renaissance. Until then, the rich hoped to buy themselves a place in heaven by giving generously to the church’s charity works. However, the Reformation introduced the idea that a place in heaven could not be bought through charity. Little by little the care for the poor was taken over by municipalities which were funded by the rich and middle classes which saw it as their moral duty to take care of the less fortunate. This resulted in the 1600s in the founding of the so-called “huiszittenhuizen” besides the already existing municipal poor houses. “Huiszittenhuizen” (lit. stay at home houses) provided relief in the form of food and fuel to those people that were able to provide with their own shelter but lacked the money to buy the rest of their basic necessities.

    The relief offered by “huiszittenhuizen” was available to both men and women regardless of their faith (which was a new idea!). They could mainly be found in the big cities and they usually kept quite meticulous records of whom they provided with bread in summer and bread and fuel in winter. Most records cover roughly the early 1800s. If your ancestors lived in a big Dutch city and the head of family had humble or unsteady work such as season work or work at the docks, it is worth checking these registers. Especially if they had many children, in which case chances are that the money earned was not by large enough to feed that many mouths.

    Some families pop up in the registers year after year, while others only do so occasionally. When people are removed from the register often a reason is given (many times this was the death of the person in question). These records are a valuable source in getting a more detailed idea of how poor your ancestors actually were. If your ancestors are from Amsterdam, you are lucky, since this city has indexed and scanned its “huiszittenhuizen” registers and put them online here (small fees apply to see the actual scans, but you can browse the index for free): Huizittenhuizen registers Amsterdam .

    “It Giet Oan”: Eleven Cities Fever

    February 8th, 2012

    The “Elfstedentocht” of 1997.

    Photograph Wikimedia Commons

    Ever since unexpectedly, after a very mild December and dreary gray Christmas, Jack Frost decided to pay us an extended visit, there is a buzz of excitement going through the Netherlands. Now that the ice has reached a thickness of about 10 centimeters (4 inches) some even dare whispering “it giet oan”. “It giet oan” is Frisian for “it’s on” and they are the magical words that announce that the infamous “Elfstedentocht” (Eleven Cities Tour) is on. 

    Once the words are officially spoken by the chairman of the Eleven Cities Tour organization it seems all Dutch go mad (even those not really into the event, can’t help making comments about it). They collectively pack up some warm clothing and skates and head for the north, to the city of Leeuwarden. Shops manage to get all things orange and Frisian on the shelves within a day and skate sharpeners make over hours.

    Now what is this fuzz all about? What is this “Elfstedentocht” that gets a whole country into a frenzy also referred to as “Elfstedenkoorst” (Eleven Cities Fever)?

    It is an epic speed skating tour of 200 kilometers (that’s about 125 miles and a minimum of 7 hours of skating!). It runs along lakes and canals with natural ice that pass through all eleven Frisian cities. The tour starts in the Frisian capital of Leeuwarden, then passes along Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker, Dokkum and ends up in Leeuwarden again. For the tour to take place, the ice needs to have a thickness of 15 centimeters (6 inches). Only then it is strong enough to carry the thousands of skaters that will join the race. Since a winter that cold only happens once or twice a decade in the Netherlands, the race is quite a rare event.

    The first official organized “Elfstedentocht” took place in 1909. It was organized by Pim Mulier who became inspired to do so when he skated along all eleven Frisian cities himself in 1891. He also designed the cross that all participants, that manage to reach the finish, get. He was, however, not the first to skate that route. For centuries, skating had been a very practical means of transportation in cold winters for the Frisians. Skates were a cheap and fast alternative to walking on slippery roads. As early as the 1700s there have been reports of young men challenging each other to skate along the eleven Frisian cities as a proof of their strength, endurance and bravery (and I guess that impressing the girls has played some part in it as well ;o)).

    Nowadays, the event is extremely popular with both men and women. Every time thousands of people show up at the start to prove themselves. Since the route has a limited capacity, however, the number of participants is now topped at 16,000. To prevent that many participants start but do not finish because they are physically unfit to ride the tour, some selection has been introduced by the organization. Only those who are a member of the “Elfstedentocht” association can join the tour. The only way to become a member is to have two members vouch for your capabilities to ride the tour.

    Since cold winters are such a rare event in the Netherlands the official “Elfstedentocht” has only been held fifteen times: in 1909, 1912, 1917, 1929, 1933, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1947, 1954, 1956, 1963, 1985, 1986 and 1997. The most famous, or perhaps better infamous, of these tours was the one of 1963. During that tour weather conditions became very grim. There was a stormy east wind sweeping up drifting snow, the ice was full of cracks and temperatures plummeted to minus 18°C (that’s about 0.4 °F). Of the 10,000 participants that showed up at the start, only 69 made it to the finish and many had to be treated for frostbite.

    The 1963 tour even inspired a movie “The Hell Of 1963″. If you like you can watch a trailer to get an idea or listen to the title song “De Hel Foarby” (Beyond Hell) sung by the popular Frisian pop group “De Kast” (also a nice chance to hear some Frisian singing! It’s a really beautiful language, at least to my ears). If you are wondering what the lyrics of the song are about, this rough translation by Google Translate will give you an idea. It beautifully illustrates the skating-to-prove-yourself-worthy-of-a-girl’s-love-theme that dominates the movie and shows that those Frisians can be very romantic indeed!

    Personally I am not into skating that much (too cold!). But since so many people take much pleasure in the event, I sincerely hope that in spite of the announced short thaw period this weekend, the ice will keep on growing and soon we will hear: “It Giet Oan”!