For many of us, it’s best to wait until the very last minute before purchasing bags of Halloween candy. Squirreling away cello packages of Hershey’s Miniatures and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups with the intention of offering them to trick-or-treaters, always ends badly. Not personally, but for those hungry candy seekers ringing the doorbell on October 31st.
The bakery has been in the throes of Halloween since pumpkin and chocolate chips wandered into the scones a few weeks ago. Trying to remain current, I pored over a new listicle that popped up in a recent newsfeed, detailing the most and least popular Halloween candies. The fact that peanut butter inspired Mary Jane’s hold the title for least popular, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are the most highly coveted, is no surprise. What I didn’t realize, was the disparity between red Twizzlers and pink and white Good & Plenty. Red licorice, which is composed of corn syrup, sugar, artificial flavor, and other dire ingredients, is wildly popular. Choo Choo Charlie’s artificially flavored candy of choice boasts a whopping “2% or less” of licorice extract, and sits alongside Mary Jane, last pick of the Halloween Candy dodge ball team.
A recent casual search for Good & Plenty found me coming up empty handed. Circling the candy aisles in a number of Manhattan newsstands and pharmacies led me to a sad realization. Charlie, the once popular engineer of a train fueled by pink and white candy coated licorice, must have hung up his striped hat and retired. Save for a few lonely boxes buried on the bottom shelf of the Duane Reade on West 48th Street, black licorice real estate has been elbowed out by everything peanut butter and M&M. Such is not the case in London, Holland, and Norway, where licorice, particularly black licorice, is hugely popular.
Recent travels afforded me time to peruse candy aisles in foreign supermarkets and airport news sellers. Not only is black licorice available straight-up, it is often showcased with chocolate, marzipan, hot pepper, and salt. I can only vouch for the chocolate version, a chocolate bar called Nero. Dressed in dark chocolate, filled with a soft-jelly of black licorice, the candy bar is surprisingly appealing. It hints at the freshness of a Junior Mint, but much hipper, much cooler, very Viking. Although the full name, Lakrissjokolade is easy for Norwegians to say, I found it wiser to point to the sleek black wrapper emblazoned with silver letters, than stumble through an abominable pronunciation.
Licorice is not limited to confectionary lovers, it also commands space in the baking aisles of Norwegian and London supermarkets. Serious bakers swear by a square black tin of Lakrids-pulver (licorice powder) for enhancing baked goods. Several years ago, Nigella incited a run on the high-end larder staple when she featured a licorice and blackcurrant chocolate cake recipe in her book, Simply Nigella. Might I add, Nigella, there’s nothing simple about explaining to customs officials the critical importance of bringing the little black tin out of one country and into another.
Black licorice is clearly more popular across the sea, with Americans lukewarm, or in many cases, downright hostile, towards the confection. The red twisted candy we seem to prefer boasts no licorice at all, but makes a splendid movie-watching companion. It also serves as a tasty distraction when tasked with filling a commercial freezer with several hundred pies shells, and then several hundred more. For those dire late night shifts, I have a lone box of Good & Plenty buried in the bottom of my handbag and a few stray Hershey’s miniatures. If we weren’t a peanut-free bakery, you can bet your licorice I would be popping peanut butter cups from now until Thanksgiving.
I hear the appeltaart calling my name the minute I step off the train in Amsterdam’s Central Station. The barkeep at Café Bozz seats our party of five at a table within view of a cake pedestal weighted down with something clearly baked in a springform pan. With one eye I’m watching the steady parade of market-goers wandering through the unpronounceable De Pipj neighborhood; with the other, I’m fixated on the cake pedestal. My patient travel mates don’t even miss me when I casually leave the table in order to get a closer view of the dessert beneath the glass dome.
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.
In the midst of a quiet hotel dining room, they found me. Three travelers from Gotham City began rearranging tables and chairs, trying their damnedest to create a three-top from a deuce. A well-meaning server attempted to intervene, only to be side-swiped by an incoming chrome-backed chair. A breakfast inquisition followed.
“We need coffee,” two of the three insisted before perusing the concise menu. The third diner emphatically announced that she did not drink coffee, demanding a comprehensive list of herbal teas. I leaned closer into my French press and ‘full English’ breakfast sans sausage. The grilled tomatoes on my oval porcelain plate shuddered, seeking refuge beneath a sunny-side egg and slice of toast blanketed in orange marmalade.
Agonizing over the menu’s omission of egg white omelettes, the conversation at the next table shifted from fruit to yogurt to porridge. “It’s a totally different experience than Quaker Oats…” the woman seated closest to me insisted. “You have to forget about the oatmeal memories from your childhood. This is more of, more like,” she grasped for the appropriate word while I mumbled “gruel” under my breath. Coffee Drinker #2 agreed, “It’s an English thing, porridge.”
Tea Drinker continued to grill the server, asking how the porridge was prepared. Coffee Drinker #1 drowned out the server, insisting the breakfast cereal was sometimes prepared with milk, sometimes with water, but “thinner than Quaker Oats, nothing like steel cut."
“Oh,” Tea Drinker replied. “I’m a little lactose intolerant. Can you make it with half water and half milk?”
“You don’t want it with water,” Coffee Drinker #1 insisted. “Trust me.”
“I’ll take a check,” I whispered to the server.
Wednesday, October 11th was World Porridge Day in the UK, a fundraising event with the primary focus of providing a daily meal to school age children in the world’s poorest communities. Throughout London and Scotland, proceeds from porridge sales are dedicated to this charitable cause. I was happy to participate, tucking a spoon into a bowl of hot oats dotted with banana slices and sticky Medjool dates. True, the porridge was thinner, silkier than its US counterpart, but enormously satisfying. London was not the only place where I encountered serious porridge-ing; Norway boasts its own version.
Rømmegrøt is a Norwegian cream pudding, more of a celebratory porridge than a morning breakfast cereal. Thickened with flour and packing a cholesterol wallop courtesy of sour cream, whole milk, and butter, the pudding/porridge is served at special occasions such as weddings, christenings, and Norwegian Constitution Day celebrations. Tradition encourages gussying up the white-on-white dessert with generous pinches of cinnamon, sugar, plump raisins, pats of butter and splashes of heavy cream. My Norwegian porridge experience was a far cry from a package filled with instant oats spiked with brown sugar and faux maple flavoring. Also absent from the experience was a smiling Quaker fellow in a black hat.
The Rømmegrøt served at the 19th century lodge Frognersteren Hoved-Restaurant boasts all of the trimmings necessary to fully dress your bowl of porridge. It also includes a drop-dead gorgeous mountaintop view overlooking the city, fjords, and forests of Oslo. Located near Oslo’s famous Holmenkollen ski jump, it is well worth the journey, unless of course, you traveled all the way to Europe in search of herbal tea and an egg white omelette.
Two years ago to the day, I participated in a week-long culinary adventure held at a small home in Provence. Shortly after setting down my too-big-to-carry-on carry on, our group of ten assembled in what was once Julia and Paul Child’s living room. Over glasses of wine and local olives, we introduced ourselves. Our commonality was a love of words and images, coupled with a hunger for local food. One of my housemates was Nancy, a well-established photographer, formerly from New York by way of Minnesota, currently residing in Oslo. Nancy and I shared an obsession for exquisite dishware and a love of brunøst, the velvety, brown cheese as common to Norwegians as American cheese to Americans. When our week-long culinary adventure ended, Nancy invited me to visit her the next time I happened to be in Oslo. The chances of traveling to Oslo seemed as realistic as Americans concluding their Thanksgiving meals with cake instead of pie.
Life is full of surprises. Here are a few photos of my first twenty-four hours in Nancy’s fair city. Not only are the views spectacular, the eats are pretty sweet. Click on the photos for a snippet of info. More to follow...
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm