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
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.