Festivities in Belgium


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Introduction

Nestled amidst France, Luxembourg, Germany and Holland with a very small coastline on the North Sea, Belgium is situated in the temperate region of Western Europe. One of the most underrated world cuisines, it's a country where northern Germanic culture melds with Southern French culture, both of which are evident in its cuisine.

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Ancient Times and Influences on Belgian Cooking

The region which now constitutes Belgium has been invaded and ruled by many people over the centuries including Celts, Romans in 56 BC who ruled for four centuries, Franks in 455 AD at which time the demarcation between the Flemish and Walloons was established, Vikings in 830 AD,  Spanish, Austrians and French in turn  and the cuisine of Belgium is a true reflection of its history.

Cooking techniques and ingredients were assimilated from all these cultures  as was the habit of farming and keeping domesticated animals: prehistoric "Belgians" were mainly hunter gatherers.

By the middle ages a distinct Belgian cuisine had taken shape and by  this time Belgium became the centre of the North European spice trade. Spices such as ginger, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, and peppercorns,  were  used to season many dishes and even beer - a practice which still exists in Belgium today. 

Talking of which, a special mention must be made about Belgian Beer which is not only the country's national drink, but also widely used in cooking, a fact to which many of the recipes featured on this website will testify. One reason for this perhaps,  is the aforementioned additions of spices and sometimes fruit to the beers brewed at this time, creating differences in flavour and making them perfect as an ingredient in recipes.

Vegetables played a large role in  Belgian cooking, with potatoes being a staple and featured heavily in meals. Brussels Sprouts were sold in the markets in Brussels as far back as the 1200's but it's the Belgian Endive  which has a more interesting history. It was accidentally discovered by a Belgian farmer, Jan Lammers, in 1830. Upon returning  from war he found his stored chicory which he'd previously grown and used for coffee,  had sprouted white leaves,  the taste of which he found very distinctive.

Then there's chocolate. Always held in the highest esteem in Belgium, it's not surprising that  in 1912,   they created The Praline - a chocolate shell with a delicious filling. 

Current Day Belgian Cuisine

Would it surprise you to know that Belgium has highest number of restaurants earning  Michelin stars per capita and that McDonalds (the fast food burger joints which have sprung up all over the globe) consistently lose money in Belgium? A testament to the Belgian's love affair with good food freshly prepared from the finest of ingredients.

Current day Belgian cuisine still has its roots firmly planted in homely Medieval cookery. Spices, mustard, vinegars and beer are still widely used in savoury and sweet recipes and whilst there is a definite French touch to many recipes, the dishes are generally more substantial comfort foods. Fresh herbs are also still extensively used,  in particularly chervil, tarragon, thyme, parsley, and chives.

All types of Game and game birds, meat and charcuterie are popular and despite the lack of any sizeable coastline,  fish and seafood play a significant role in everyday cooking. Mussels are particularly well liked and are cooked and eaten in every possible form and much of the mussels used are imported from Holland which being just "next door", ensures the freshest quality.

As mentioned above, fresh vegetables are prized and above all,  the potato, for which the Belgians are enthusiastic to say the least. Indeed, street food in Belgium means frites sold from stands or handcarts, served in  paper cones with the obligatory mayonnaise, bearnaise or even curry sauce for dipping. Many consider Frites to be Belgium's national food.

Breakfast consists of bread, butter, jam, cheeses, charcuterie and sometimes eggs and is served with coffee or tea. Dinner is considered the main meal of the day with lunch often being somewhat lighter.

The Belgian approach to food is perhaps best summed up in the following motto: We eat three times a day, so we'd better try to make a feast of it every time.  This makes that we don’t have special dishes for special occasions. However, at some occasions we have some specialties especially for children.

1.   Sinterklaas 6 december

In Dutch-speaking Flanders, colorful parades greet St. Nicholas with bands and banners picturing the saint. He and his Zwarte Piet assistants come in November by boat, train, or on horseback to get ready for his feast day, the 6th of December. The Sinterklaas season is mainly a children's festival because December 6th is a special day for children, rather than whole families as in the Netherlands. St. Nicholas visits Flemish children more than once. He visits in schools, sports clubs and homes, asking children if they have done their best in the past year. He checks in his big book to see if they are telling the truth. In shops and department stores, St Nicholas sits on a throne and children queue to greet him and receive a small gift. St. Nicholas also makes appearances at the special St. Nicholas circuses that are popular iin Belgium. Some Saint Nicholas churches collect toys and gifts for the needy at special services honoring the saint.
 

Elisabeth Brussels shop window
Shop Window
Elisabeth Chocolatier Brussels
Photo: C Myers, St Nicholas Center

Chocolate Saints in Window Display
St. Nicolas in Window
Elisabeth Chocolatier Brussels
Photo: C Myers, St Nicholas Center

Chocolate Saint Nicholases
Saints for Sale

Elisabeth Chocolatier Brussels
Photo: C Myers, St Nicholas Center

On St. Nicholas' Eve, December 5th, or the weekend before, children put their shoes or small baskets at the hearth or beside the door with carrots, turnips, and a sugar lump for the saint's horse and a glass of wine for the saint. There may also be a picture they've drawn (or a list) showing what they would like. They believe St. Nicholas rides on horseback over the rooftops, dropping his gifts down the chimneys. In the morning shoes have been filled with chocolates, spiced speculoos cookies shaped like the saint and Piet, oranges, marzipan, and toys. In the spirit of St. Nicholas, treats are meant to be shared, not hoarded. Bad children, of which there are none, would find twigs. Since the sixties, however, such negative and frightening aspects have faded away in Flanders. 
 

Planete Chocolat window display
Shop Window

Planéte Chocolat, Brussels
Photo: C Myers, St Nicholas Center

Saint Nicolas Head
Shop Decoration

Planéte Chocolat, Brussels
Photo: C Myers, St Nicholas Center

Sint Kinder Eggs
St. Nicholas Kinder Eggs

Window display in Brussels
Photo: C Myers, St Nicholas Center

 


Dutch Speculaas Cookies for Saint Nicholas Day

Ingredients

  • 2 cups (350 g) flour

  • 1 cup (250 g) light brown sugar (dark brown sugar or brown sugar)

  • 1 cup (250 g) softened butter

  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon

  • 1 egg

  • 1 tsp mixture of ground cloves, nutmeg, ginger and anise

  • 1 tsp (5 g) baking powder

  • 1 tsp (5 g) salt

Preparation

  1. Pour light brown sugar, cinnamon and spice mix into large bowl

  2. Add well-softened butter and egg

  3. Mix ingredients until a smooth dough is formed

  4. Sift flour into mixture little by little and add salt

  5. Mix well with spatula or whisk while adding flour

  6. Add baking powder

  7. Mix well and to let rest 12 hr in refrigerator

  8. Separate dough into 3 balls

  9. Spread ball on counter top and roll with rolling pin to form a 3-4 mm thick sheet

  10. Cut dough into 3 to 4 cm long rectangular pieces. You can of course cut into any shape you wish and also mold the dough into your favorite shapes if you want to make a design.

  11. Put the pieces on a baking sheet you've buttered or covered with parchment paper

Marzipan

Marzipan is great by itself, when dipped in chocolate, or when combined with fruit or nuts. If you have only one marzipan recipe, Basic Marzipan is the one you need. Using this as a base, you can color, flavor, or form marzipan into many different candies or decorations. Marzipan is often used to make decorations for cakes, like flowers, ribbons, animals and human forms. If you're simply looking to eat the marzipan, cutting it into squares is the easiest way to serve it.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups granulated sugar

  • 1/8 tsp cream of tartar

  • 4 cups ground almonds (or almond meal)

  • 2 egg whites

  •  Powdered sugar for dusting

Preparation:

  1. Prepare a workspace by sprinkling powdered sugar over a marble slab, wooden cutting board, or large baking sheet. Fill your sink or a large bowl with cold water.

  2. Place the sugar and 2/3 cup water in a large heavy saucepan and heat gently, stirring, until the sugar dissolves.

  3. Add the cream of tartar and turn up the heat. Bring to a boil and cover, boiling, for 3 minutes.

  4. Uncover and boil until the temperature reaches soft-ball stage, 240 degrees on a candy thermometer.

  5. Place the bottom of the saucepan in the cold water you’ve prepared, stirring the sugar mixture constantly until it becomes thick and creamy.

  6. Stir in the ground almonds and the egg whites, the place back over low heat and stir for 2 minutes more until the mixture is thick.

  7. Spoon the marzipan onto your prepared work surface, and turn it with a metal spatula until it cools down enough to touch.

  8. Coat your hands in powdered sugar and begin to knead the marzipan, working it until it is smooth and pliant.

  9. Your marzipan can now be used immediately or stored by wrapping it in plastic wrap and keeping it in an airtight container.

Marzipan Figures exemples

You will need:
- Marzipan
- Icing sugar
- Cocoa powder
- A matchstick with the burnt end cut off
- A small twig

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Method:
Snowman
 Make all the shapes in the picture below, and piece them together to make a snowman.  Before you put the hat on, dab it with a little cocoa powder and sprinkle icing sugar over the snowman.
The eyes and mouth can be made with the end of the matchstick, and the matchstick can be used as the handle for the broom.

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 Father Christmas
Make and put together the Father Christmas pieces.  Sprinkle the beard and moustache with icing sugar and the hat and body with cocoa.

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2.   Chrismas Eve

The holiday eating festivities begin on "le réveillon de Noel” or Christmas Eve. An aperitif (before dinner drink) is served with small appetizers. Next comes a seafood course followed by - what else - a turkey!

“La Bűche de Noel” (Christmas Log) is a special dessert made with cream served after the Christmas Eve dinner. On Christmas morning breakfast will include “cougnou” or “cougnolle” which is a special sweet bread shaped, they say, like Baby Jesus.

Some families enjoy another big meal on Christmas Day, but for most the Christmas Eve Dinner is the main attraction.

Merry Christmas: Joyeux Noël!

Bűche de Noël

  

Ingredients

  • 2 cups heavy cream

  • 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 6 egg yolks

  • 1/2 cup white sugar

  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

  • 6 egg whites

  • 1/4 cup white sugar

  • confectioners' sugar for dusting

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Line a 10x15 inch jellyroll pan with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whip cream, 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar, 1/2 cup cocoa, and 1 teaspoon vanilla until thick and stiff. Refrigerate.

  2. In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat egg yolks with 1/2 cup sugar until thick and pale. Blend in 1/3 cup cocoa, 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla, and salt. In large glass bowl, using clean beaters, whip egg whites to soft peaks. Gradually add 1/4 cup sugar, and beat until whites form stiff peaks. Immediately fold the yolk mixture into the whites. Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan.

  3. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes in the preheated oven, or until the cake springs back when lightly touched. Dust a clean dishtowel with confectioners' sugar. Run a knife around the edge of the pan, and turn the warm cake out onto the towel. Remove and discard parchment paper. Starting at the short edge of the cake, roll the cake up with the towel. Cool for 30 minutes.

  4. Unroll the cake, and spread the filling to within 1 inch of the edge. Roll the cake up with the filling inside. Place seam side down onto a serving plate, and refrigerate until serving. Dust with confectioners' sugar before serving.

Klaaskoeken or Belgian Christmas Cookies

  



Ingredients:

  • 1 kg flour

  • 33g instant yeast

  • 2 large eggs (separated)

  • 450 ml UHT milk (at room temperature)

  • 160g sugar

  • 8g vanilla sugar

  • 200g butter

  •  2 tsp grated cinnamon

  • Egg yolks and salt as needed.

Preparation

  1. Melt the butter. Remove from the heat; add the milk and the two egg yolks. Mix well. Stir in the yeast, the sugar and the cinnamon.

  2. Beat the two egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiffen. Add it to the mixture.

  3. Work in the flour one spoon at a time until a solid dough is made. Knead the dough for 10’. Wrap the dough in plastic foil and let it rest covered for 30’. Keep the dough warm at around 25C.

  4. Roll the dough in sheets 1.5cm thick and use a form to make little human (or different shapes). You will need to knead the dough a few times to use as much as possible out of it. Let them rise for 30’.

  5. Whisk some egg yolks and use it to grease the top of the shaped dough.

  6. Bake in batches in a pre-heated oven at 220C for 6’.

  7. Serve warm.

3.  Easter

Easter eggs are specially decorated eggs given out to celebrate the Easter holiday. The oldest tradition is to use dyed and painted chickens eggs, but the general modern custom is to substitute eggs made from chocolate. Easter eggs can be any form of confectionery such as hollow chocolate eggs wrapped in brightly-colored foil. Some are delicately constructed of spun sugar and pastry decoration techniques. The ubiquitous jelly egg (or jelly bean) is made from sugar-coated pectin candy. These are often hidden, supposedly by the Easter Bunny, for children to find on Easter morning.