I remember granola

Whenever I return home after living somewhere else for a while, I suffer from a peculiar form of amnesia: What do I eat here, again? It’s a simple enough question. It should be, anyway, for someone who purportedly spends a great deal of time thinking about what she will eat next. But for my first twenty-four to forty-eight hours at home, I am helpless to answer it. It’s a dark day when writers’ block gets between you and a shopping list. A shopping list, people. Not good. I bump around my kitchen, flipping cupboard doors open and shut, but it’s no use. I’m sure there’s a reason for those cans of tomatoes in there, the dried lentils, the chickpeas, but for the life of me, I can’t tell you what it is. Stepping into the supermarket for the first time since I’ve been back only makes matters worse. In case you haven’t noticed, that place is huge. (Whole Foods on River St., I’m talking about you.) I know how to shop for groceries. It’s not that hard. But here, I have no idea what I’m looking for. It’s as if my brain has been rewired while I’ve been away, the pathways of my old routine erased and replaced by my new routine in Berlin. Where’s the quark? Where’s the Pflaumenmus? And what’s with all the breakfast cereal? This place is weird. I may starve.

But then the cart begins to roll, as if on its own, like when I visit my hometown in Ohio, and I can no longer tell you how to get from point A to point B, but if I grip the wheel, the car will take us there. I push through my old haunts – the produce section, the dairy aisle, bulk foods – and slowly, I begin to remember. I remember Greek yogurt. I remember brown sugar. I remember peanut butter. I remember granola.

I go through phases with granola making. That’s true of other things in my life, too, things like adding a glug of heavy cream to my afternoon tea, moisturizing, or going to bed early. I’ll practice these things religiously, for weeks, maybe months on end. I’ll swear by them. Earl Grey is dessert ! My skin is so soft! I’m wide awake! I’ll ask myself why on earth I don’t always do these things. Then, for no good reason, one of these habits will fall of my radar until, for no better reason, I pick it up again somewhere down the line. For me, making granola is like that. It ebbs and it flows.

I was smack in the middle of some serious granola flow when I flew off to Berlin at the end of June, leaving a couple of jars of the stuff behind on the table for the friends who’d be staying at our place. In a developmental psychology class in college, I learned about object permanence, the understanding that a thing still exists even when it can no longer be seen. A ball, for example, is still there, even when covered by a blanket or tossed out the door. Babies have this concept down by late in the first year of life, I was taught, which makes me a little old – approximately twenty-nine years too old – for out of sight out of mind. Nevertheless, when I shut the door of my apartment and turned the key, my granola ceased to exist. In my defense, I did have savory breakfasts of seeded bread, salted butter, cucumbers, and quark to distract me. Give that to a baby and see if he gives a hoot about some ball.

The important thing is that now, I remember. And being prone to bouts of amnesia and unexpected ebbs, I figure that I’d better get the recipe down here, quick. I mentioned a while back that a few recipes followed me home from Ohio last Memorial Day weekend, and the recipe for this granola is one of them. It’s from my stepmom, Amy, the same Amy who’s given us almond tart, toffee squares, cranberry relish, sour cream coffee cake, cream of tomato risotto, potato salad, and vinaigrette, so you know it’s going to be good. When I walked in, the granola was on the table in one of her tinted glass jars with the bent metal lids. I can’t remember if I shook a little into my hand and poured it into my mouth at that moment, but I’m willing to bet that I did. I’m not one to waste time. For the rest of the weekend, when I wasn’t busy with birthday cake, backyard barbeques, board games, Graeter’s black raspberry chip, and crossword puzzles (that’s Amy in the last photo, by the way; hey, Amy!), I was getting acquainted with that granola. Every day for breakfast, I ate granola, sometimes with yogurt, sometimes with a splash of milk. Even when Amy made pancakes one morning, and it looked as if I wouldn’t be having granola for breakfast, I had granola for breakfast. There just happened to be a yogurt-slathered pancake beneath it. And when it came time for a mid-morning snack or an afternoon nibble, granola it was, straight out of hand.

This granola has a lot going for it, but one of my favorite things about it is what it doesn’t have: an overdose of sweetness. It’s lightly sweetened with just a couple of tablespoons of maple syrup which, in a recipe that produces upwards of five cups of granola, is not very much at all. Whatever sweetness the syrup does impart fades in the oven, together with the strong maple flavor, so that only the merest suggestion of sugar and sap remains. All of the good stuff that you normally associate with making granola – the heady aroma of cinnamon and toasting nuts, the way the dried fruit plumps and softens against the just-baked oats and seeds – is true about making this granola, too, so there’s no need for me to go on about it. But I do want to talk to you about one thing, namely, the coconut in this recipe.

I don’t particularly enjoy coconut in my breakfast cereal. If I hadn’t just downed a bowlful of this granola when I found out that it’s laced with three-quarters of a cup of coconut, I probably would have passed on the recipe. That would have been quite sad of course, because then, I wouldn’t be writing this, and you wouldn’t be reading it, and we’d all be missing out on some seriously stellar granola. The point is this: until Amy pointed out the coconut, I was oblivious to its presence. Then, once I knew to look for it, I realized that I could taste the coconut, just not how I would expect to taste it. The best way that I can explain it is that, in this recipe, coconut functions more like a spice than a dry ingredient. It’s true that if you reach for it, you’ll find that the flavor that toasted coconut adds to this granola is indeed that of – surprise!—toasted coconut. But for some reason, something having to do with the particular combination of ingredients maybe, what you taste is a whole lot of “toasted” and not so much coconut. I’m not sure that “toasted” can be considered a flavor independent of the toasted thing itself, but the disappearing, reappearing coconut in this recipe has me convinced that maybe it could be. It’s pretty amazing. In other words, coconut haters, think twice before skipping this recipe. No, scratch that. Don’t think. Give it a shot and then decide.

As for me, I’m back to chomping through the stuff at the rate of about one batch per week, and wondering how I possibly could have forgotten that this granola is “what I eat here, again.” And again. And again.

Jamie’s Easy Granola
Adapted from Jamie’s Food Revolution, by Jamie Oliver, and printed in the October 2009 issue of Health.

This recipe lends itself to all manner of tweaking. I reduced the amount of oil and maple syrup in the original recipe, and loaded it up with my favorite seeds, nuts, and dried fruits. I’m addicted to the formula that you see here, but you should personalize it however you see fit. Sesame seeds, perhaps, instead of flax seeds? Walnuts instead of almonds? Have fun with it.

2 cups whole rolled oats
¾ c. whole almonds
2 heaping Tbsps. each pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and flax seeds
¾ c. unsweetened shredded coconut
1 tsp. cinnamon
1-2 generous pinches of sea salt
2-3 Tbsps. maple syrup
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1 c. dried California apricots (they’re more tangy than sweet)
½ c. unsweetened dried cherries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the oats, almonds, seeds, coconut, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl. Add the maple syrup and olive oil, and stir. Spread evenly on a baking sheet (I usually line mine with parchment paper, to prevent sticking), and bake for approximately 25 minutes. Open the oven door every 8-10 minutes and push the granola around with a wooden spoon to encourage it to brown evenly. Be sure to watch it toward the end of the baking time, as it tends to go from perfectly golden to burnt very quickly. While the granola is baking, slice the apricots into small strips. Remove the granola from the oven, dump it back into the mixing bowl, add the dried fruit, and stir to incorporate. This granola, like most granola, is probably meant to be enjoyed once it has fully cooled, but I highly recommend that you treat yourself to a bowl of it warm, with a dollop or two of cold yogurt.

Yield: “Makes enough to fill a large jar,” says Jamie Oliver, which is to say, about 5 cups.


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.


Hello, tomatoes

Leaving Berlin wasn't easy. There were many goodbyes. Goodbye, Sonnenblumenkernbrot! Goodbye, Schoko-Reiswaffel! Goodbye, disembodied fake leg! But coming home to Boston in late August means coming home to tomatoes, the good ones, and plenty of them.

Hello, tomatoes.

They met me at the market just a few hours after our plane landed. I was pale and puffy-eyed, they were scarred and seamy. It was an unglamorous reunion, but I didn’t mind. I bought more than I had intended, and tottered home.

Through my ripening fatigue, I remembered that there was a recipe, one that had languished on deck in my kitchen last summer until the season had passed. A tomato crumble, or something like that. My sleepy tongue could hardly be bothered to spit out words in their proper order, but I did know just where to find the recipe, in last year’s August Gourmet. My brain has its priorities.

It is indeed a dish in the crumble family, the sweet crumble’s savory cousin, perhaps. First, you butter a baking dish, and line it with thick rounds of tomato. You sprinkle the tomatoes with thyme and lemon zest, and then bury them under a blanket of toasted hazelnuts and pebbly breadcrumbs. The tomatoes melt and shrivel, slump and bubble up through the crisp crust, and when, forty minutes later, you open the oven door, it's hello, tomatoes all over again.

We did the dishes to force ourselves awake for an extra twenty minutes. I didn’t dream of tomatoes, but I did have one for breakfast the next day.

Baked Tomatoes with Hazelnut Bread Crumbs
Adapted from Gourmet, August 2009

A few quick notes about my adaptations: The original recipe calls for lemon thyme. I didn’t have any, so I used your standard thyme and added some lemon zest. I tried a mix of heirloom tomatoes the first time that I made this dish, since that's what we had on hand, and beefsteak tomatoes the second time, as the recipe suggests. I loved both versions equally, but Eli preferred the beefsteaks. He thought there was something lost in the particular heirlooms that we used – mostly pineapple and Aussie tomatoes – when they were baked for so long. If there are any tomato experts out there, and you’d like to suggest an ideal tomato for this dish, I’m all ears.

About the breadcrumbs: Instead of making my breadcrumbs first and then toasting them, I toast several slices of bread, cut off the crusts, and then pulse the already toasted bread in a food processor. The breadcrumbs are perhaps a little chewier than they would be if you pulsed first, and then toasted, but they crisp up the rest of the way in the oven later on.

Finally, the oven temperature. The original recipe suggests baking the tomatoes at 450 degrees for 15-20 minutes, but I wanted my tomatoes to melt a little more. The problem is that at 450, the topping will burn if you leave it in the oven for much longer. The second time around, I baked the dish at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, and then I turned up the heat to 450 for another 10. Perfection.

2 cups toasted whole-wheat bread crumbs (see my toasting method in the notes, above)
4-6 large, ripe beefsteak tomatoes (Or use what you’ve got. It’s all good.)
1 ½ Tbsp thyme, divided
½ tsp lemon zest
½ stick unsalted butter
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped. (Rub off any loose skins with a dish towel before chopping.)
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Butter a 2-quart shallow baking dish. Thickly slice the tomatoes and arrange them, overlapping, in the dish. Season the tomatoes with a few grinds of salt and pepper, and sprinkle the lemon zest and one tablespoon of the thyme over top. Set aside.

Melt the butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Cook the nuts and the crumbs, stirring frequently, until golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and spoon the topping over the tomatoes.

Bake for 30 minutes at 400 degrees, until the tomatoes are bubbling and melting into each other, and the crumbs have browned a shade darker. Turn up the heat to 450 degrees and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Cool the dish for a few minutes, and just before serving, sprinkle it with the remaining half a teaspoon of thyme.

Serves 4-6 people as a main dish, and 8 as a side.


There was Amsterdam

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.

Spelt Cookies
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.



Gebroeders Niemeijer
Nieuwendijk 35
Phone: 06 51087148

De Kas
Kamerlingh Onneslaan 3
Phone: 020 4624562

Nieuwe Spiegelstraat 5A
Phone: 020 4207022

Villa Zeezicht
Singel 161
Phone: 020 6267433

Not mentioned above, but recommended:

Buffet van Odette (Salads, soups, sandwiches)
Herengracht 309
Phone: 020 4236034

De Kaaskamer (Wonderful raw milk cheeses)
Runstraat 7
Phone: 020 6233483

Pancakes! Amsterdam (Pancakes, obviously.)
Berenstraat 38
Phone: 020 5289797

Winkel (More sandwiches, more soups, more sandwiches!)
Noordermarkt 43
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.