9.17.2010

It sneaks up

There’s something you should know about Amsterdam, something that you may have already gathered from my breathless account of our visit: the Dutch are good people. I know I’m generalizing here, and that there’s probably an Amsterdam-dweller somewhere out there who thinks his bike is cooler than your bike, and another fellow who’d push you into a canal just for the heck of it, if only he had the chance. But we didn’t meet any of those folks. As far as I can tell, the spirit of generosity and goodwill runs rampant through the streets and alleyways of Amsterdam. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it which, for us, was right outside the train station, when our taxi driver smiled, shook his head, and unloaded our bags from his trunk. We were a mere three blocks away from our hotel, it turned out, and he had a feeling that we might prefer to hold onto our euro and walk it.

Then there were the women, eight of them, who crowded the table beside us at dinner on our first night there. They ranged in age from seventy to eighty-two, I would later find out, and they were beautiful. They sported perfectly coiffed helmets of dyed blond (but not overly platinum) hair, and wore subtle makeup in neutral tones. They spoke quickly, all at once, regularly collapsing with laughter onto each other's shoulders. The woman closest to me leaned over to ask where we were from, and introduced herself and her friends. They had all grown up together in Amsterdam, but today they live in scattered suburbs outside of the city. They were widows, she explained, since men “get dead” before women, and every few weeks, they meet for dinner in the heart of town. The woman on my left nearly leapt into my lap when she learned that we were visiting Amsterdam for the first time. She demanded that we tell her our complete itinerary so that she could make sure we weren’t missing a thing. Did we know that Gay Pride Amsterdam was going on that week?, she wanted to know. The rain was a shame, she said, since it meant that fewer men would be running around in their underwear. She also urged us to visit the Red Light District. Then, she winked, and continued to wink at me every now and then throughout the rest of our meal. These women loved their city, every last bit of it, and they wanted us to love it, too.

When we stood to leave, they waved and blew kisses. I felt a tap on my shoulder a few steps from the café, and I assumed that one of our new friends had remembered yet another corner of Amsterdam for us to explore. Instead, it was our server. We had accidentally overpaid, and he had followed us outside to return the twenty euro bill. From the way that he pressed it into my palm with both hands, I got the feeling that he was genuinely delighted to save us from the expense of our own mistake. His demeanor was not unlike that of the clerk on the tram who appeared quite tickled when he ran out of tickets for us to purchase the next day. He bounced in his seat as he told us that we’d have to take a free ride.

Everywhere we went, it seemed, the people of Amsterdam were tripping over their swollen hearts to wrap up whatever little piece of the city was theirs to give, and hand it over. You already know about the chef who so generously shared his cookie recipe. You also know that that’s not the only recipe I brought home.



I was actually on the lookout for an apple dessert from the moment we landed in Amsterdam. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, was fast approaching. The holiday would fall early this year – one week into September, still three weeks out from the official end of summer – which meant that we had a special situation on our hands, culinarily speaking. We’d be eating our holiday meals right on the cusp, with one foot firmly planted in summer and the other toeing its way over into fall. I wanted a dessert that would honor both feet equally. I also wanted something that would incorporate apples and honey, foods traditionally eaten to usher in a sweet year. The custom is to serve apples dipped in honey as a kind of appetizer, but this year, we’d lock in that sweetness on both ends of the meal. (You never can be too careful.) At 30,000 feet, somewhere between St. Petersburg and Amsterdam, it hit me: Alice Medrich’s honey ice cream over a to-be-determined dessert stuffed with the season’s first apples. I figured that I’d return to Cambridge, flip through my cookbooks and magazines, ask around, put in some calls to a few of my favorite bakers, and work it out. I wanted something not too sweet, something sturdy, like a pie, but with a somewhat cakey crumb for soaking up the ice cream. Little did I know that the quintessential Dutch dessert is this checklist incarnate: Dutch Appeltaart. It is virtually impossible to walk into an Amsterdam café without coming face to face with it.



I spotted my first appeltaart just after we arrived in Amsterdam, on that rainy night at Villa Zeezicht. From above, appeltaart appears positively pie-like, its top crust bronzed and gleaming under an egg white glaze. But in profile, the high, cushy wall gives you the distinct impression that what you’re looking at is cake. Peek around to the front of the slice, and you’ll find apples, piled high. I’m used to an American apple pie that oozes syrupy apples onto the plate. This filling is different. For one thing, it’s drier. The recipe actually involves draining the excess juices from the bubbling, just-baked appeltaart. Yes, it’s treacherous. And yes, it’s as terrifying as it sounds. But have courage. If you’re anything like me, your breathing will start back up again just as soon as you flip the thing back over into an upright position and unmit your trembling hands. In a Dutch appeltaart, the apples are not sliced, but cut into large chunks, or sometimes simply quartered. They remain relatively firm, and when they fall out onto the plate, they tumble more than they slide. There’s also something to be said for the refreshingly straightforward spicing. Apples – in pies, in cakes, in crumbles and crisps – often attract all kinds of things: nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom, mace, allspice, not to mention the flour, tapioca, cornstarch and cheddar that often get thrown in. In Dutch appeltaart, or in this version, anyway, there’s just cinnamon, two spoonfuls of sugar, and a few squeezes of lemon. That’s all.

It was late when I swallowed my first bite, and the café had mostly cleared out for the night. Our server sat at a table across the room sorting silverware and rolling napkins. I asked him if we might be able to get the recipe, and he disappeared into the kitchen. A few minutes later, the chef came bounding up the stairs. He pulled a chair over to our two-person table, sat down, and proceeded to apologize profusely for the sweat on his brow and the stains on his kitchen whites. Because, you know, he had a lot of nerve preparing delicious food for us to eat in that hot kitchen down there! He handed me a slip of paper with the ingredient list, and talked me through the recipe while I scribbled furiously in my notebook. He showed me how to press the crumbly dough into the pan, how to measure the thickness of the sides by imagining my index finger sliced vertically in half, how to mound the apples to account for shrinkage, and how to use my hands to pat the dough into patches for the top crust. He cautioned me against lifting the springform pan from the sides when it came time to flip and drain, and I did my best to explain the differences between his appeltaart and the apple pies I’ve always known. (He’s never traveled to the United States, but he’d like to.) I asked him what he thought of my plan to serve the appeltaart with honey ice cream, and at first his face tightened – in Amsterdam appeltaart is served plain or with a side of whipped cream – but on second thought, if the apples were tart enough, he agreed that it could be lovely. He ducked back into the kitchen, and I told Eli that maybe serving this dessert with ice cream wasn’t such a good idea. I didn’t want to bastardize it. “It’s not bastardizing,” Eli said, “it’s fusion!” Good man.



I’ve never thought of it this way before, but I do a lot of re-gifting on this site. Only instead of passing along a horrid polka dot pitcher or a heart-shaped frosted glass figurine (actual wedding gifts, both), I gather up the best of the recipes I’ve been given and let you decide which ones to make your own. This one, I really hope you’ll take. I exaggerate only mildly when I say that I think all of Amsterdam would want you to have it.

Dutch Appeltaart (with Alice Medrich’s honey ice cream)
Adapted from the restaurant, Villa Zeezicht

I want to say a little more about the crust before I send you on your way: The dough doesn’t come together like typical pie dough, so don’t expect it to. It’s crumbly and coarse, and only begins to look like real dough when you’re pressing it into the pan. Once baked, it’s like a cross between a cookie and a cakey pie crust. Also – and pay attention here, because this is important – Don’t forget to vent the top crust, or you’ll end up with applesauce for filling. I prepared this appeltaart three times to make sure to get it just right for you, and one of those times I got so caught up in tweaking the oven temperature and the flour and fat quantities, that I completely forgot to make sure that the steam from the cooking apples would have somewhere to go. The crust was gorgeous, but the inside was mush. So vent, vent, vent!

And about the apples: I use Cortland apples. I like that they’re the slightest bit tart, and that they stand up well to the long baking time. I’d also like to try even tarter apples, like Granny Smiths.

Finally, the ice cream: I was going to include the recipe for Alice Medrich’s honey ice cream here, but I did a search, and found that Molly wrote about it a couple of years back. Click on over to her site, and she’ll tell you all about it. It was, for the record, a hit with the appeltaart.

For the dough:
4 cups flour
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 sticks + 2 Tbsps. cold butter, cut into small cubes
2 eggs
1 egg white, lightly beaten, for the glaze

For the filling:
3-4 pounds apples (8-10 medium apples); I recommend Cortland or Granny Smith
1 ½ tsps. cinnamon
2 Tbsps. sugar
Half a lemon

In the bowl of a large (14-cup) food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Pulse to blend. Add the cubed butter, and process for about ten seconds, until the dough looks like a coarse meal. Add the two eggs, and pulse to incorporate. Dump the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap, push it together into a lump, wrap tightly, and refrigerate for 1-2 hours.

While the dough is chilling (or, during the last half an hour of that time, anyway), butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan, peel, core, and quarter the apples, stir together the cinnamon and sugar in a small bowl, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Press about three-quarters of the chilled dough into the bottom and up the sides of the prepared pan. The thickness of the dough along the sides should be about a quarter of an inch or, as the chef explained, the thickness of half of your index finger, sliced vertically, from knuckle to nail.

Place a layer of apples into the pan, squirt them with a few squeezes of lemon, and sprinkle them with half of the cinnamon and sugar mixture. Repeat with another layer of apples, lemon juice, cinnamon, and sugar. The apples will lose some of their liquid and shrink as they bake, so you’ll want to mound them an inch or so higher than the top of the pan.

Use the remaining dough to form a top crust: Rip off a handful of dough, press and pat it flat between the palms of your hands, and drape it over a portion of the apples. Repeat until you have covered all of the apples. I leave enough space between some of the dough patches to serve as “built-in” vents for the steam. If you’re very thorough in covering every last bit of apple, you’ll need to vent the top crust with a knife before you bake it. (See my recipe note, above.) Paint the top crust with the lightly-beaten egg white.

Bake at 350 degrees for one and a half hours, turning the pan once half way through. My springform pan has never leaked, but I hear that they do sometimes, so I place mine on a baking sheet before I slide it into the oven.

When the appeltaart is golden and the juices are bubbling up through the vents, remove it from the oven, cover it with a plate (our salad plates are the perfect fit), flip upside down over the sink, and press the plate into the top crust to drain. Never hold the pan by the sides alone! (This dessert is heavy, and I’m afraid that the sides of the springform pan could pop right off. Support the weight from the bottom, always.) Increase the temperature of the oven to 400 degrees, and bake for an additional ten minutes to caramelize the syrup that’s still clinging to the edges of the crust.

It’s best to wait until the appeltaart has cooled to room temperature before slicing into it so that the filling can set, but I’ve had success slicing it when it’s still just slightly warm. If you want to serve it quite warm, your best bet is to slice the appeltaart when it’s cool, and heat the slices individually.

Serves 10-12.

27 comments:

Char said...

sounds like what i wish we could have more of over here - friendly smiling faces. i love it.

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

I can't imagine a more lovely group of dinner guests than the ones you describe. And I can only imagine all the things they've seen in their years (wink, wink). As always, as timely and lovely as ever.

megan said...

Wait, Jess - a whole city of people just like /you/! Let's go back when we're eighty!

In the meantime, I'll look forward to the appeltaart - I've never liked apple pie very much, for the reasons you mention. This sounds perfect!

xx
megan

Maggie said...

Regifting! I love it.

Steph (le Brunch Club) said...

Thanks so much Jess, that was a great read to kick start my baking day. What I miss about my time in Europe is what you love about your time it seems. The joy around food, the pride of people and where they are from. Its so beautiful... thanks for sharing with us and giving people a bit of fire to create this way of life you talk about. Thanks again! Really lovely.

anya said...

Hi Jess!

I'm Anya. I've been trying to post a comment on your account about Amsterdam for three days in a row now, but it just wouldn't come through. So here I'm trying again. And how couldn't I if you are writing about my adopted city and about that French-style bakery Gebroeders Niemijer, which is where I'm working. I could hardly believe my eyes when I chanced upon that post. A strange, but rather common, thing is that when you are in the middle of something, it is so easy to stop noticing it. What I mean is that Amsterdam is my city now, but being caught in the day-to-day routine, so often I forget to pay my attention to what's around me. The same with the bakery. I work there fives days a week. It's my job to make those pastries and breads (I'm so chuffed you loved our pains au chocolat; we use Valhrona chocolate for them). Although baking is one of my fondest passions (as is writing), in the middle of a rush to keep up with all baking tasks at hand, it is not uncommon for me to yield to stress and pressure. A point I'm trying to make here is that your post(s) made me snap out of my temporary oblivion about where I am, and what I'm doing.

Thank you for your beautiful writing!

buttersweetmelody said...

Yum! that sounds soooo god. I have a bunch of granny smith! Maybe I should use them in this (: thank you so much for the recipe it looks gorgeous and the story is so pretty! (:


Amalia.


http://buttersweetmelody.wordpress.com

Jess said...

Hi, all. I hope you're having a great weekend.

Char - There's a whole lot of Amsterdam that I'd like more of over here! Of course, I'm also more than willing to travel back to Amsterdam to get my fix, if that's what it takes. A girl does what she must!

A Plum By Any Other Name - Ha! Wink, wink, indeed! They were a riot. And I know I've already said this, but really, so beautiful.

Megan - Yes! I love it. Though fifty years is an awfully long time to wait. Maybe we could squeeze in a trip a little sooner? (And again when we're eighty.) I didn't know about you and apple pie, but I totally get it. This appeltaart may be just the thing for you.

Thanks, Maggie!

You put it so beautifully, Steph. Thanks for that, and for your kind words.

Anya, wow, your note made my day! I don't know what to say! I suppose I should start with a from-the-rooftops thank you for those pains au chocolat. Valrhona - of course! I'm not surprised.

As you know, Gebroeders Niemeijer stole my heart away. It's such a special place, and I can only imagine how much energy it takes to make it so. Your job - no matter how much you love it - must be utterly exhausting and stressful sometimes. I know what you mean about getting so caught up in what we're doing, being so in the thick of it, that we lose sight of what's really going on. It's my pleasure to remind you - and surely, I can't be the only one! - that where you work is pretty darn amazing. I'm so happy that you happened upon that post, and grateful that you took the time to write. Thank you! (And have a pain au chocolat for me, please!)

Hi, Amalia, and thanks. Yes, yes! This dessert would be the perfect resting place for those apples, in my humble (and appeltaart-obsessed) opinion. If you do give it a go, I'd love to hear about it.

Julie said...

LOVE LOVE LOVE this post. I think I'll read it again. Then bake a cake.

molly said...

As luck would have it, we are going apple-picking tomorrow, our first go in Ohio. Tucking this away under "apples: a fine fate"

Rogue Unicorn said...

" 'It's not bastardizing, it's fusion' " Love it!
Hope your Rosh Hashanah was wonderful.

Jess said...

Good morning!

Julie - "I think I'll read it again. Then bake a cake." That is nothing less than exactly what I hope for. Thank you for what is, in my book, the highest praise!

Molly - You know, you make me homesick for Ohio sometimes. Have a wonderful time in the orchards! I love the name of that file. If I were an apple, I think I'd choose this appeltaart as my final resting place. It wouldn't be a bad way to go.

Hi, Rogue Unicorn! I'll tell Eli that you approve of his logic. We had a lovely holiday, thank you! I hope you did, too. Though I have to say, I think I'm still recovering from all of those holiday meals - the cooking and the eating. It's exhausting!

El said...

Sounds like a wonderful place. There's no more fitting tribute than dessert. It looks delicious!

Tracy said...

I think the chef would be proud of your results. It's beautiful.

Paulina said...

What a lovely post! And Jess, I am SO excited about this recipe! I traveled with a friend around the Netherlands two summers ago and I have been (wistfully!) thinking about appeltaart ever since. I am determined to make it this weekend (and I intend to bury it under a mountain of unsweetened whipped cream, of course only for authenticity's sake...)! :-)

Jess said...

I couldn't agree more, El!

Thanks, Tracy. I hope so! I was doing my best to channel him as I pat-pat-patted all of that dough.

Hello, Paulina! Yes, appeltaart's the kind of thing that gets under your skin, isn't it? I'm so happy that you'll get your fix soon (after two years?! I never would have made it that long), and I only hope that this recipe will live up to your expectations. And yes, bring on the whipped cream! Just promise me that you'll try that honey ice cream another time. It's not to be missed.

linda said...

this looks like a really, really special baking experience & i cannot wait to re-create this appeltaart!
i used a variety of apples as my centerpiece for the holiday so i have a lot to choose from…thanks for the re-gifting, i kinda like that concept!!

Jess said...

I love your apple centerpiece idea, Linda. (For our late October wedding we used baskets of pomegranates as centerpieces, and it was beautiful.) Those apples will find a very happy home in this appeltaart, I think. Happy baking!

Stephanie said...

Oh Jess, I am so smitten with your writing. I cannot wait to try this recipe (ovenless kitchen notwithstanding).

Rogue Unicorn said...

Recovery from the holidays-that's what Yom Kippur is for. :)

Nishta said...

yes. sooooo much yes.

Jess said...

Thanks, Steph. So much. I have to tell you, every time you say "ovenless kitchen" I snort a little. Call me culturally ignorant, or a bratty American, or whatever you want, I can't help but think it: That is just so wrong.

Rogue Unicorn - Ha!

Nishta - Hi! And thanks! And I miss you!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting such a delicious and accessible recipe. I approached it with anxiety and doubt (the pastry's too crumbly! the springform might slip!), but, thanks to your thorough instructions, my appletaart turned out perfectly on the first try. Now that it's cooling on the counter, I'm realizing that I don't want to cut into that masterpiece quite yet. For how long and under what conditions will it stay fresh?

Jess said...

Anonymous - Success! I'm so happy to hear it. As for your question, let's see... I've baked it in the morning and left it uncovered on the counter to serve with dinner at least eight hours later. I'm not sure what the food safety specialists out there would say about that, but that's what I've done. Any leftovers I've covered and refrigerated. It will keep that way for at least a few days, though the crisp bits of the crust will go a little soft. If you plan on serving it tomorrow and you're nervous about leaving it out, perhaps you could refrigerate the whole thing, then crisp it back up in the oven before serving. Enjoy!

Christine said...

Thanks so much for the suggestions. Since I don't want those beautiful caramelized crisp bits of crust to go soft, I'll try to polish off all of the crumbs within the next few days --- but I'll need some assistance. I guess that it's time for a dinner party! Thanks for inspiring that, too.

-Christine, listed as Anonymous above (I'm a loyal reader, but I hadn't realized that I could post my name without a URL.)

Tracy said...

Thank you for this amazing recipe - the cake turned out awesome! I very nearly made a different apple cake (the flipping thing really freaked me out - thank you for your email assurances!) and am so glad I didn't!

Anonymous said...

Jess,

Thanks for posting this. I lived across the street from Villa Zeezicht in 1994–1995, and I used to eat breakfast there almost every Saturday (lots of uitsmijters), and had the appelgebak many, many times. In fact, I have been recommending their appelgebak to anyone and everyone for the last 15 years. This recipe — which I have made several times — is a pretty good replica of what I remembered. Wonderful!

PS Did you go to the brown bar (Van Zuylen) across the street also?

Andrew