Monday, September 13, 2010

Crushed Mice and Chocolate Hail

Holland, or the Netherlands, is one of the largest bread consumers of Europe. Many a tourist, when stepping inside a Dutch bakery, is surprised by the large amount of bread varieties. Two out of the three daily meals consist mainly of bread: breakfast and lunch. Dinner is seldom a "bread meal" and will most often be a "warm meal" such as meat and potatoes.

Breakfast is 2 to four slices of bread, depending on whether you prefer open or closed faced sandwiches. The Dutch spread butter or margarine on their bread to hold on to the toppings. One sandwich will have a savory topping such as cheese, liver paté or sandwich meat, and the other one will have a sweet topping. From early on, Dutch children learn to eat the savory sandwich first, and save their appetite and creativity for the sweet one. Because it's not just jam or jelly that's available to the Dutch: in regards to bread toppings, they are the master decorators!

Koninklijke De Ruijter, in existence since 1860, is the main producer of bread toppings in the Netherlands. They carry a solid array of favorites and introduce every so often a new variety. The following bread toppings are by far the most favorite.

Chocolate Flakes

Children in Holland have it good: by liberally sprinkling chocolate hail or, as pictured here, chocolate flakes or vlokken on their sandwich, they can assure themselves of eating at least the equivalent of half a chocolate bar in one sitting. Chocolate vlokken come in dark chocolate, milk, white and a combination of all three. The cacao content is at least 39% on average, which makes it a sweet, sugary but also a quality kind of bread topping!

Chocoladevlokken were introduced in 1955, as the first chocolate product to decorate a slice of bread. Barely two years later, chocolate hail followed.

Pink Mice

"Pink mice" is the name of a sweet breadtopping that consists of pink and white sugar coated aniseed. Because of the seed stem, the shape often resembles that of a little mouse. Pink mice, or "roze muisjes" are traditionally served on a Dutch rusk when celebrating the birth of a girl. For a boy, it's blue and white mice, or "blauwe muisjes". The birth of royalty, such as a prince or princess, is celebrated nationally with orange mice, in reference to the name of the royal family, Oranje.

These nativity mice, as they were called, were the first product that was sold by De Ruijter in 1860.



Speculaas

Speculaas, or spice cookie, is a crunchy, buttery cookie made with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, white pepper and cardamom. It's similar to the American windmill cookie but contains a larger variety and amount of spices. Traditionally a December treat, speculaas cookies are now available year round. Straight out of the package, speculaas cookies are served with morning coffee or afternoon tea. After several days in the cookie jar, the cookies absorb moisture and soften and are no longer presentable to guests. This is when they become a desirable bread topping, especially for children. The softness of the bread, the slightly salty taste of the butter and the spicy sweetness of the speculaas cookie is a winning combination, and one that is engraved in many a Dutch child's memory. For a recipe for speculaas, click here.

Chocolate Hail

The story goes that, after receiving several letters from a young boy imploring him to make a chocolate bread topping, Mr. De Ruijter introduced chocolate sprinkles, or in Dutch "chocolate hail", in 1957. The earliest advertisements showed a boy and a girl, hiding from a chocolate hailstorm under a giant umbrella. These children were so smart as to have a slice of buttered bread with them: they stuck it out from under the umbrella, had their sandwich hailed on and enjoyed a buttered slice of bread with top notch chocolate!

Nowadays you will find dark chocolate and milk chocolate hail. In order to call chocolate sprinkles "chocolate" they have to have a cocoa content of at least 37.5%. The combination of salty peanut butter and sweet chocolate hail is one of the most favorite toppings for both children and adults.

Fruit Hail

Fruit, or sugar hail, combines three bright colors: orange (orange), pink (raspberry) and yellow (lemon) and is a sweet, crunchy, slightly powdery confection. It melts into the butter and leaves bright colors on your bread but the flavors are not distinguishable. Fruit hail was first introduced in 1928 and was an immediate success. Initially, fruit hail had four colors: the aforementioned three and a white hail (anise). In later years, the white hail was separated from the colored sprinkles and received its own packaging and product line as anise hail. In 2003, De Ruijter introduced a new fruit hail, the Berry Hail, made with berry juices and in the colors purple, pink and fucsia.

Fruit hail was the first bread topping that De Ruijter exported to the Dutch soldiers in Indonesia, in 1946.

Stroop

Stroop, or syrup, is a sweet, sticky spread made from reduced apple juice. Boiled down to a sticky, dark goo, apple stroop is favored on bread and on pancakes and in flavoring certains meat sauces such as "zuurvlees". Of all the bread toppings, it's probably the healthiest one as it contains large amounts of iron and vitamins. Stroop is pleasant by itself as a topping but will often be used in combination with cheese.

Stroop is traditionally made in the province of Limburg where, nowadays, only two families have continued the tradition of "stroop stoken", "boiling down stroop". A lengthy process, apple and pear juice is reduced in large copper kettles while stirred down continuously. A more tart version called "rinse appelstroop" is made with apples and sugar beets.


Crushed Mice

Gestampte Muisjes, or crushed mice, is another variation on aniseed bread toppings.  The anise hail that was mentioned under fruit hail is now pulverized and presented as a white, powdery substance. Bread with a thin layer of butter and dusted with gestampte muisjes is delicious but certainly messy to eat. Do not inhale when you are about to take a bite, the light powder will get in your throat and cause you to cough! Gestampte muisjes are a key ingredients in a variety of baked goods of which the most famous one is Oranjekoek.



And the most humble bread topping of all:

Contentment

Holland has certainly known hard times, especially during and after WWII. Little food was there to eat but for the white bread loaves of American and Canadian relief agencies. Sandwiches, or slices of bread, were served with the bread topping "tevredenheid", contentment. A single slice of dry bread reminded the Dutch that, even though these were rough times, we could still imagine bread was topped with something.

*The majority of these bread toppings were found at Tres Bonne Cuisine, on Overland in Boise.