I realized the other day that, despite the fact that I’ve been dying to show you around Berlin, we haven’t even made it out the front door! There’s a whole city out there, one that has kept me very well-fed, I might add, but so far, all I’ve managed to give you is a grand tour of our apartment, a tale about a crumble broadcast from our kitchen, and a few sundry grocery aisle items, eaten and photographed at our dining room table. I’ve been holding out on you, and I mean to do something about it. To the streets, friends! To breakfast, lunch, and dinner we will go! Soon. But not today. Because between St. Petersburg and our last few days in Berlin, there was Amsterdam.
Amsterdam! I can’t get it out of my mind, nor do I want to. A brain freshly stuffed with memories of Amsterdam is an exceedingly pleasant thing to have knocking around in one’s head, so if you’ll pardon the indulgence, I’m going to stick with Amsterdam for today. I have so much to tell you about this lovely, lovely city. And to show you. It was all so pretty. Then, I promise: Berlin.
Amsterdam greeted us with dark clouds, the first fat drops of an impending deluge, and a humble yet heart-stopping display of canals and winding streets as far as the eye could see. Every second or third building looked as if it had been squeezed with some effort into the row; the rooftops and shuttered windows tilted this way and that, jostling for space along the water. Right off the bat, Eli said, “This is what Venice is supposed to be.” I knew just what he meant.
It had been hours since our last pelmeni, and we were hungry, perhaps deliriously so. I don’t know how else I can explain our decision to drop our bags at the hotel and, map-less and umbrella-less (unless you consider the broken tangle of a thing we borrowed from the front desk an umbrella; I do not), venture out into the now-pouring rain in search of food. Within seconds, our pant legs were drenched and dragging, and soon my longing to be free of those pants and dry beneath the covers trumped any desire to sit down for a proper meal. There were gummy candies in our hotel room, I remembered. Gummy candies! And green apples at reception! Suddenly, that sounded like dinner to me. We ducked under an orange and white striped awning, as much to keep from drowning as it was to peek inside a small café. I saw soup. That settled it. We were going in. We did our best to make ourselves presentable, Eli wrangling our umbrella into submission while I, blue-lipped and shivering, peeled back the stray, wet curls plastered against my cheek. We shuffled over to our table with as much grace as we could muster which, with our shoes and socks squishing and squelching every step of the way, could not have been very much grace at all.
Our server clearly had some experience with scraggly, sopping wet patrons, because he knew just what to do. Before I said a word, he offered hot water with fresh mint, and soon I was cupping my hands around a tapered glass tumbler, and leaning into wisps of mint-scented steam. The mouth of the glass was wide enough for me to have slipped in a few frozen toes, but I resisted. I am so civilized. With the mint tea – or tisane, I should say – came honey, served in a shot glass, which you can see up there in the photo, in front of the bread basket and butter crock. Honey in a shot glass! Isn’t that great? In my wind and rain-addled condition, that was all it took to coax a minor swoon out of me. Then again, here I am on my sofa, quite dry, and in a fairly calm and rational state of mind, and I’m still thinking that honey in a shot glass is one of the nicest things I’ve seen on a table in a long while. That honey wore its shot glass well. Amsterdam, you’re civilized, too.
I was spreading a hunk of soft, brown bread with even softer herbed butter when my soup arrived. It was a vegetable soup, as simple and clean as vegetable soups come, and exactly what I wanted on that very wet night. It was exactly what I wanted the next, not-so-wet night, too, and so we went back.
Soup and fresh mint and shot glasses aside, I have another important reason for telling you about this place: It was there that I first spotted Dutch Appeltaart. We have much to discuss about this critical topic, and it’s going to be fun. Because, on our second night there (spoiler alert!), I got the recipe. I’ll tell you all about it once I have time to test it, tweak it, and get it just right for you.
The name of the café, by the way, is Villa Zeezicht. Write that down. And while you’re at it, write this down, too: Gebroeders Niemeijer. Now, circle it. Star it. Underline it three times. And with gusto! This place warrants gusto, and lots of it. I don’t know how many times you need to visit a bakery before it becomes “your” bakery, but after less than a handful of breakfasts at Gebroeders Niemeijer, I’m thinking of laying claim to it.
The bakery is set up like several of the cafés and restaurants that we visited in Amsterdam, with the counter and a few tables on the ground floor and, in the back, a larger loft-style eating area half a floor up, above the open basement kitchen. We always sat up top, near the back wall where, despite our distance from the counter and the hum of the morning crowd, we would hear the crackle of knives against crusts, crisp yet delicate, from down below. The sound reminded me of autumn leaves crunching underfoot, an analogy that makes me roll my eyes and snort a little now that I’ve put it in writing, but that felt just right when I said it out loud to Eli during our first breakfast there.
We went to “our” bakery for breakfast every morning, or at least we tried. It is worth noting that Gebroeders Niemeijer is closed on Mondays, mostly so that if you’re planning a trip to Amsterdam that will last under a week, you can arrange to be there from Tuesday through Sunday. (You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.) I’d rather not relive the moment when we showed up for breakfast, only to find a darkened storefront lined with empty bread baskets. The disappointment of arriving at a closed bakery when you fully expect it to be open is a special kind of disappointment, the kind that no one should have to endure so early in the day, let alone on a Monday. The following morning, we told our server, the same sunny young woman who had been bringing us our breakfast all week, about our abortive attempt to return the day before. Her face clouded with genuine sympathy. “Shit,” she said in English (which, with her adorably short, barely-there “i” sounded more like “sht”). She totally understood.
On the first morning, I ordered a cup of tangy yogurt with fruit and – uncomfortable as I am speaking in superlatives about such things – the best pain au chocolat that I have ever eaten. Now, before all of you Francophiles out there tie me up and cram your favorite Parisian specimens down my throat (actually, that doesn’t sound so bad; carry on), I should admit that when I visited Paris, I was so distracted by the banana and Nutella® crêpes on every street corner that I never got around to the pains au chocolat. However. I have eaten in many a Parisian-style (or so they say) bakery in a handful or two of first-rate cities, and I’ve never encountered anything like what I tasted that morning in Amsterdam. I think it’s the texture of the chocolate that often troubles me. The chocolate baton is sometimes too, well, baton-y. It snaps between the teeth in a way that, to me, feels off against the fragile puff pastry. Or, just as often, the chocolate’s too soft. It settles in glops on the tongue, and I end up scraping what’s left of it out from the belly of the pastry and into the garbage, all the while cursing myself for having strayed from my usual plain butter croissant with jam. The chocolate’s too sweet, or too grainy, or too oozy and, consequently, too burn-y on the outside of the dough. I don’t know if I’ve seen it all, but a while back, I decided that I had seen enough to give up on the pain au chocolat entirely. I hadn’t ordered one in years, and I’m not sure what possessed me to go for it. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I did.
I leaned over my plate and bit into the crackly outer layer, which immediately shattered, and gave way to supple inner folds that began dissolving in my mouth before I had a moment to chew. And then there was the chocolate, dark and smooth. The consistency was perfect, like a stick of butter left out on the counter to soften. For his part, Eli would order some version of the “petit déjeuner,” which consisted of three crusty rolls, a croissant or brioche – yes, bread with a side of bread – butter, jam, fruit, and sometimes, cheese. There was nothing “petit” about it.
As I was swiping the crumbs from my lap one day, I looked up at Eli and said, “I think it would be impossible to have a bad day after a breakfast like that.”
We spent most of our time in Amsterdam wandering the streets, falling hard for Dutch design, Dutch bicycles, Dutch art, and Dutch people, and secretly wishing that we could be a little bit Dutch, too. Sometimes, we’d take a break along the canals. Or, more accurately, Eli would take a break, while I circled the block with my cameras.
It’s getting late, so I’m going to fast forward over Rembrandt, Van Gogh, pancakes, and cheese, wonderful as they all were, and skip right to our last dinner in Amsterdam.
It was in a candlelit greenhouse.
It’s hard to know what to say after that since, I mean, a candlelit greenhouse. In the middle of Frankendael Park. Which, to make matters worse (and by worse, of course, I mean better) is actually a 17th-century country estate. When we arrived, raindrops were plinking on the glass rooftop and trailing down the glass walls like so many cellophane streamers. The light through the clouds was gauzy and cool. It was magnificent.
The name of the restaurant is, fittingly, De Kas (which means “the greenhouse” in English). To get there, you walk over a footbridge, down a short path, and through the surrounding herb gardens up to the glass front doors. You step inside, and then, if you ask nicely, your husband will hold your bag for you while you crouch to photograph the basil – twenty-five different kinds, our server told us! – that grows in the greenhouse right there beside the dining room.
The tables are preset with crusty boules and shallow white dishes of olive oil, thick with fresh basil. Everything glows, and your eyes do the only thing they can do in such a setting, which is to look, and look, and look some more. Once you’re seated, someone will bring you two more of those shallow white bowls, one filled with olives, and the other with zucchini, grown on the premises, sliced, and pickled with mustard seeds.
The meal itself was as special as the setting. There’s one fixed menu available each day: an appetizer of three small plates, a main course, and a dessert. (The chef is happy to accommodate vegetarians and those with dietary restrictions.) Vegetables are the stars of this kitchen and, like the salad greens and celery hearts that we ate that night, they’re pretty much left alone to do their thing. Everything on our plates was simply and, it seemed to me, gently prepared. If you’re looking for further proof that the best food is food that tastes like itself, De Kas is it.
I could easily go on for another thousand words, at least, but I don’t want to bore you, so I’m going to rip my fingers from the keyboard and stop here. For the odd insatiable reader (and because, let’s face it, I can’t help myself), I’ll cram a few more recommendations into the list of addresses, which you’ll find below, after the recipe.
Wait, did I just say recipe?
Yes, recipe! After chewing your ear off about shots of honey, and perfect pastries, and greenhouse dinners, the least I can do is offer you a taste. (Of Amsterdam; not the ear). So. I’m going to tell you just one more thing. Then, for the love of your sock drawer that, no doubt, needs organizing, I’ll stop there.
One night in Amsterdam, Eli and I went to a restaurant called Spelt. The chef, as you might suspect, features spelt in many of his dishes, including a startlingly magenta spelt and beet risotto that had me scraping my plate. The pacing of the meal was unusually slow, but I had a very nice forehead to keep me company between courses, so I can’t complain.
My favorite bite of the evening – two bites, really – was an unassuming little cookie that came with my hot water and mint. (If it seems as if I drank hot water and mint everywhere we went in Amsterdam, it’s because I did.) The cookie, a sturdy thing that snapped like a cracker, was made of spelt flour, of course, and chopped sunflower seeds. What’s remarkable to me about this seemingly unremarkable cookie is how the flavors hang together in a way that makes it tricky to tease them apart. For such a plain-looking, approachable cookie, it’s surprisingly complex. There’s cinnamon, ginger, lemon zest, and vanilla in there, but at first, all I knew was that I was tasting something familiar, something kind of like a Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux® cookie (remember those?), something rich with butter, something hinting of caramel, or maybe toffee, something delicious. By the time I jumped up to photograph our table in the fading light, that cookie was long gone. Maybe you can imagine it there on the saucer, leaning against the steaming mug. I hope so.
If you’re having trouble imagining, a batch of these cookies from your very own oven should do the trick. Thanks to the generosity of the chef, I have the recipe for you. At the end of our meal, he disappeared into the kitchen with my black pocket notebook, deposited the recipe, and returned to our table to talk me through it. So kind! I tucked my notebook back into my bag, and thought, “That’s my kind of souvenir.” I hope you’ll like these cookies as much as I do.
Oh, Amsterdam! I never would have chosen you – you were Eli’s pick, not mine – but now I’d choose you every time.
Adapted from the restaurant, Spelt
I’m afraid that some of you might be scared off by the mention of spelt flour, an ingredient that sounds like something out of the hippie handbook. But please, hold your clicks! I wish you could have seen the chef that night enthusing about spelt flour. You'd be instantly reassured. That man is crazy about spelt, and I’m beginning to understand why. If you’ve ever baked with oat flour, I think you’ll find spelt flour to be somewhat similar in flavor. There’s a sweetness and a nuttiness to it, so when you’re after a sweet and nutty cookie, it’s the perfect choice. In case you’re wondering, I buy the Arrowhead Mills brand.
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 stick + 5 Tbsps. butter
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups + 2 Tbsps. spelt flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ground ginger
½ tsp. lemon zest
¼ cup plus 1 heaping Tbsp. salted sunflower seeds, coarsely chopped (If you use unsalted seeds, add a couple of generous pinches of salt to the dry ingredients.)
Mix the flour, cinnamon, ginger, zest, and chopped sunflower seeds in a large bowl, and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and the sugar. Mix in the vanilla, scrape down the sides of the bowl and, with the mixer on low, add the dry ingredients. The dough will start off looking crumbly, but will smooth out once the flour and spices are fully incorporated into the fat. You’re good to go when the caramel-colored dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and hugs the spinning paddle.
Scrape the dough into a lump in the center of the bowl, and divide it into two more or less equal mini-lumps. Roll each lump into a sausage about one and a half inches in diameter. Wrap each sausage in wax paper, and twirl the overhanging paper at each of the ends so that the dough won’t dry out. Chill the dough for at least an hour. (You can keep the dough in the fridge overnight, if you want, and bake the cookies the next day.)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Unwrap one package of dough and slice it into cookies about a quarter of an inch thick. Bake on a parchment lined baking sheet for 16-18 minutes, until the cookies are a toasty, golden brown. Transfer immediately to a rack and cool to room temperature. The cookies will be soft when you first remove them from the oven, but they’ll harden up as they cool.
Yield: 80-90 cookies, which sounds like a lot, but they’re small, and best enjoyed in multiples of three.
Recipe updated 9/6/2010.
Phone: 06 51087148
Kamerlingh Onneslaan 3
Phone: 020 4624562
Nieuwe Spiegelstraat 5A
Phone: 020 4207022
Phone: 020 6267433
Not mentioned above, but recommended:
Buffet van Odette (Salads, soups, sandwiches)
Phone: 020 4236034
De Kaaskamer (Wonderful raw milk cheeses)
Phone: 020 6233483
Pancakes! Amsterdam (Pancakes, obviously.)
Phone: 020 5289797
Winkel (More sandwiches, more soups, more sandwiches!)
Phone: 020 6230223
For (much, much) more on what to eat in Amsterdam, and where, click over to Vicky Hampton's lovely site, Amsterdam Foodie.