Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

If you are like me, you may need some help with the pronunciation of that title. One of several ways to say "Merry Christmas" in Dutch, it sounds something like "VROH-layk KEHRST-fayst." Today, I am operating in that wee portion of my brain that knows a handful of Dutch words and expressions. This is because today I am thinking about Julie.

In late February, Julie came into our home as a special gift and remained here through mid-June. On the surface she was an American Field Service (AFS) college student from Voorburg, The Netherlands, which is a suburb of The Hague. More importantly, she became the daughter of our later years, the little sister my kids always wanted, and a fun, loving aunt (tante) to all six grandkids.

So you can imagine my delight yesterday when we received Julie's Kerstfeest note along with a new container of speculaas spices for making, among other delectable specimens of her native cuisine, Dutch peppernuts (pepernoten). These are quarter-sized cookies, staples of  Dutch Kerstfeest celebrations, that combine 2/3 c. each butter and dark brown sugar, 2 c. self-rising flour, 4 tbsp. of milk with a tablespoon and a half of the magical speculaas spices. Baked on parchment paper at 320 F. for about twenty minutes, they offer Julie a taste of home and me an interesting cultural variation on the traditional Christmas cookie.

Of the many enlightening experiences of Julie's stay with us, I would have to say I enjoyed our joint cooking adventures the most. Among those, she learned the art of preparing American "comfort" foods like meat loaf and potato cakes. In addition to pepernoten, I learned the secret ingredients behind a real Dutch apple pie. Raisins--really? Orange juice--who would have thought?

Together, we took on the challenges of converting grams, kilograms, and milliliters to ounces, cups, and tablespoons. We invented an impromptu glaze for some donuts she wanted to take to school for Koningsdag, or King's Day, a national holiday The Netherlands celebrates on April 27 to honor William of Orange.

We strove to figure out acceptable substitutes for ingredients called for by Dutch recipes but not readily available locally, like caster sugar and custard powder (enter Jell-O instant vanilla pudding mix). No creme fraiche at Walmart? No problem. We looked online and made our own from cream and buttermilk.

And now, a SPOILER ALERT  for you, Julie, if you are reading this before Christmas. (I know your present has arrived, but you are waiting until Christmas to open it.) So you'd better Ga Weg! until Dec. 26 unless you want a sneak peek at what it contains.

Come Christmas morning, Julie will find among her gifts a wooden cutting board in the shape of the state of Missouri. In my way of thinking, it is a perfect gift for her, symbolizing both the geographical specifics of her U.S. stay and the antics of the kitchen we shared for a time.

Vrolijk Kerstfeest, sweet girl, from your American family, including six adoring nieces and nephews. Hopefully, there will be pepernoten on our Christmas table this weekend.

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