The barkeep, also our server, nods when I ask him about the cake. “Appeltaart,” he replies, subtly rolling the “r” in t-a-a-r-t.. His command of English is quite good but as is the case in most romanticized travel instances, everything he says sounds intoxicatingly European.
“The appeltaart is made here, in this kitchen,” he gestures with the one hand void of a beer glass. “All apples,” he says. “And raisins, and vahlnuts and…” his voice almost conspiratorial, “ruhm.”
“Rum?” I ask.
He nods solemnly, indicating with his free hand a sizable pour over the top of the cake. “A good rum, and then plenty of custard, or maybe slagroom. Whipped cream.”
I shake my head no and then yes and before we’ve emptied our beer glasses, a behemoth wedge of appeltaart has claimed the center of our table. The slice is accompanied by an enormous sidekick of slagroom, and five dessert forks. The dessert instantly conjures a ruddy-cheeked grandmother, her apron dusty with flour, taking the taart out of the oven before resuming apple peeling. I am conflicted; am I eating a cake or is it a pie? Dousing another forkful in slagroom, I decide it’s quite a lot of both.
Appeltaart in Amsterdam is one of those highly debatable topics, sometimes talked about in hushed whispers, other times causing voices to escalate, fingers to wag, hands to gesture wildly. Locals assure me it is one of the first things a youngster learns how to bake, usually under the tutelage of a grandmother. Sometimes the taart boasts a lattice top, but often it is double crusted. It should not be confused with what we often call ‘Dutch Apple Pie’ in the states, which is more Germanic in origin, often swimming in cream, and much shorter in stature.
Traditional Dutch appeltaart stands tall, usually about 3 inches in height because it is baked in a springform pan. Lined with a sweet cookie-dough crust, the pie is overfilled with apples and studded with raisins spiked in some kind of spirits. There’s a slight crunch from walnuts and the apples are flavorful from a spice mix known as ‘speculaaskruiden.’ The spice mix is available in Dutch markets and grocery stores, but customs officials frown on anyone toting it back in their carry-on luggage. Trust me on that.
Chalkboards strategically posted outside cafés pepper the streets of Amsterdam, tempting with hand-drawn illustrations of appeltaart mit slagroom. Served with cups of strong, dark kaffee, it is similar to Vienna’s kaffee kultur, forcing people to pause for a little caffeine and a little cake. I’m still not convinced the Dutch taart falls strictly under the pie category, thinking it’s more of a pie/cake hybrid, one of those crazy turducken-y desserts incorporating fruit and crust with a splash of tipsy.
The most talked about appeltaart in Amsterdam is sliced up at a café called Winkel 43 located on the Noordemarkt. The café sits on the edge of two farmers’ markets, and is a great place to people-watch, if you can snag a table. Again, the taart is baked in a high-sided springform pan and served with an obscene amount of whipped cream. Many smaller off-the-beaten-track cafés offer equally tasty offerings with shorter lines and humbler prices.
Baking your own appeltaart is less daunting then it seems, and an excellent way to battle lingering jet-lag. Once you’ve peeled four pounds of apples you can let them lounge in a splash of lemon juice while you take a nap. Or you can soldier on and bake the pie/taart, set it to cool on the kitchen counter and go to bed. When you wake up in the middle of the night thinking it’s time for breakfast or lunch, you can sneak downstairs, emancipate the dessert from the springform, and slice yourself a nice wedge. It may not be taart time in the states at that exact moment, but it certainly is in Amsterdam. And as long as you’re in the throes of jet-lag, you might as well take advantage of the opportunity.
I’ll leave you with the recipe for the Amsterdam-inspired Appeltaart. I’m going back to bed.