31 May 2009

No excuses for bliss

Today is my mother’s birthday, so I figured I would make chocolate truffles for her. Sadly, she will not actually have them, me with my sweet truffles being in Amsterdam, she in Russia. That means that I will be eating the truffles -- all fifty three of them; so many the recipe yielded -- by myself (God help me!), with the help of a few contributors, perhaps. But treat my mother I did anyway. I put the truffles in a bowl, photographed them, then wired the pictures to my dear mama over the internet, and followed-up with a congratulatory phone call, all twenty minutes of which I spent describing in a miniscule detail how the truffles tasted and what I did to make them. My mother said she appreciated the gesture. She is so gracious.

Why chocolate truffles, you may think. Well, why not? The kitchenette in my shared apartment is so ideally imperfect for any confectionary making that an attempt to be coaxing chocolate truffles out from it sounded like an excellent idea to me. I like challenges, along with a view of sinkful of bowls and other kitchen utensils sinfully, shamelessly covered with, dark, silky, melted chocolate. (As the added bonus, I also learnt that to leave greasy from butter finger prints on metallic surfaces such as a fridge door is fun and therapeutic.) Plus, it is my mother’s birthday, you understand. And while at it, I am a big pro in using other people’s birthdays for the sake of culinary, or more appropriate, eating experiences.

For instance, last year today, I marched my birthday mother, my father and my uncle with his wife into the finest bakery in Moscow Volkonsky (co-owned by Erik Kaiser, one of a few best bread makers in the world based in Paris) to have a festive dinner of pastries alone. As you can imagine, I had to speak harsh to each participant of the event to persuade them to not even think of ruining my plans, according to which everybody would have golden croissants, buttery sables, and delicate meringues for dinner that night. Eventually, my mother even forgot for a while how old she became at the time; sweets are better than diamonds in alleviating women’s troubles. She wound up feeling absolutely exhilarated, what with her successive orders of sleek coffee éclairs and more fluffy vanilla meringues; the latter I accidentally ruined with my elbows when frantically making pictures of decorative Provencal tableware that rested on the wooden shelves next to our table.

We had to order more meringues. It felt like falling down a rabbit-hole into a dream world, the one where deserts are served for each course of the meal. Actually, right at this very minute I am on my way to my new dream world, the realm of fifty-three chocolate truffles I feel honoured to eat for my mother. She said she fully supports me in my journey. That's all I needed to hear.

The first impression my mind unleashed after tasting the confection was this: COOL CHOCOLATE BREEZE. (I told my mother that too). It may not be the best chocolate truffle to make a worldly appearance, I know, given that mine were made by a dilettante (me) to a traditional, old-school recipe that has you use only dark chocolate, cream and butter (on which I went a bit too heavy -- lack of kitchen-scales over here), and cocoa powder for coating. But a pure love they are nonetheless. Love that mantles your every taste bud with cool, silky wave of the pleasantly bitter dark chocolate soothed by the grassy, meadow-y butter and thick cream; love that makes you numb and utterly anti-social – to savour the lingering, slightly acid aftertaste of the chocolate truffle is more important, I find, than to deliver mumbling utterances in between the bites. And the way the cocoa powder mischievously dusts your lips so you are forced to lick it off with the tip of your tongue, smacking your lips with gratitude and appreciation as you go -- isn’t it fun? Finally, even one whiff of this pure chocolate decadence is worth your every bead of sweat over melting, whisking, and rolling. In fact, this is all to say, Dear Reader, that you have absolutely no excuses to not make these chocolate truffles, unless you’ve already got a batch or two!! If not, I beseech you do.

French-style chocolate truffles

Adapted from videojug.com

Frankly, the idea to make these did not manifest itself out of the blue, nor did I dream it up (unlike this dish, for instance). I first had to introduce myself to a few dozens of various chocolate truffles, the ones resident in the local pastry shops, before I, irrespective of my own will, gingerly dared to consult Google on how to make chocolate truffles. What I found, or rather, what I was passed down was this video clip at videojug.com, which I estimated as a rather straightforward presentation for emerging chocolate truffle makers such as myself. So the recipe that follows is basically a transcribed version of the filmed performance, although I altered it as I saw fit. One such example, I did not add water to the chocolate (I don’t understand why they would) when melting it; I folded the butter soon after I did the cream, as opposed to the original recipe that instructs you first let the ganache cool and only then incorporate the butter (again, not exactly clear why).

Also, as far as there are only four ingredients, it is only too important that they are of the best quality, or the final product may not be as exciting. And if you ask me, forgettable chocolate truffles can split your otherwise good life asunder, and this is a no-no by all means.

Lastly, I advise that you serve these truffles chilled – the sensation of chilled chocolate softly melting on your tongue is unbeatable. Cartainly, they are still good at room temperature, although not as exciting. In the video clip, they suggest you serve them with coffee or champagne. I am, however, not sure about this. Champagne is not the best complement to the chocolate in general (the red wine is!); and as to the coffee, I haven’t tried it yet, but as opposites go, a steaming cup would be fairly attractive with the cold truffles indeed. In all honesty, however, I think a piece of seasonal fruit will be the best chocolate supporter in this case.

(The recipe yields 50-60 bite-sized truffles)

250 gr dark bittersweet chocolate (not less than 70% cacao content) 165 ml cream, at room temperature
35 gr unsalted butter, at room temperature
80 gr (1/3-1/2 cup) dark cocoa powder (unsweetened!) such as Valrhona 100%

1 L water

First, prepare the bain marie, a heating technique for melting chocolate. In a medium pan, bring the water to a bare simmer; do not let the water boil at any point. While the water is heating, roughly chop the chocolate and put it in a smaller pan which you will then put in the pan with the water, so make sure it fits but does not touch the water!

Once the water is simmering, put the smaller pan into the medium one and melt chocolate, stirring constantly, about 8 mins. When melted, carefully add the cream. Using a whisk, combine well. Fold in the butter and whisk gently to fully incorporate the butter. The final mixture is ganache. It should look glossy. Turn off the heat, and remove the pan with the ganache. Set aside to cool.

Pour the ganache in a medium bowl. Cover with cling film (but only after the ganache is completely cooled) and refrigerate, for 6-8 hours or until the ganache is very firm. I tamed mine in the fridge overnight.

Put the cacao powder in a small wide bowl.

Scoop the chilled ganache with a tsp and using your hands, shape each scoop into petite chocolate balls. For a tidier process, you may use a melon baller, I believe. Yet I must tell that having the chilled chocolate ganache in your palms is thoroughly therapeutic, if only slightly messy! Roll each truffle – be generous -- in cacao powder and place them in a medium serving bowl. Keep in a fridge and serve chilled.

P.S. Witty Julie of Oeufs Mayo thought
Godful Food worth the Lovely blog award.
Thank you, or rather, merci, Julie!

24 May 2009

I saw a dream

I am turning into a monstrous customer, Dear Reader. I don’t leave a selling spot, be it a food store or a farmer’s stall at the market, until I get what I desire for my recipes. Even when I am told that a required item is not in stock on a given day, I don’t leave. Instead, I put my hands on my hips, business-like, call forth my gritty determination, which is usually manifested through a teeth-clenched grin, reach over the counter, somewhat menacingly, and say slowly to the seller, ‘Are you sure you don’t have it?’. I also feel tempted to add, post factum: ‘Think twice before you answer’, but has not yet mastered the right throaty tone for it.
To prove, a sunny and peaceful Saturday morning found me performing the act of uncanny hostility. Namely, I did my downright irritating, a fact that’s probably better be kept secret or even forgotten, rather than spoken about so freely and not remotely uncocky: I thoroughly annoyed the vegetable man’s teenage assistant. It so happened that the boy refused to sell me a bunch of bok choy, or more accurately, he told me they did not have it. But I’ll tell you what, I knew for a fact that bok choy was there. Ok, I felt (intuition) it could be there, because last week I bought it on the same spot from the same farmer. Plus, I despondently needed the vegetable in question; I dreamt it, literally!

Given the diversity of vegetable stalls at the market, I could have easily retreated to another one with the plump, leafy beauty right on display, but I decided it would be nicer to push the boy for looking more carefully at his own goods. He did not emanate the air of a chap properly acquainted with the farmer’s produce, anyway. So I considered it a public service of sorts to encourage him to look further.

Just imagine how many hungry customers that would come after me asking for bok choy could be left feeling unsatisfied, their dinner plans ruined and faces long, if I were not so demanding, making the boy look for bok choy. I, virtually, served the community.

‘I don’t have it’, he said for the third time.

‘Could you please ask somebody else’ – there were a few other helpers to the farmer – ‘just to confirm that you really don’t have it?’ I had on sun glasses which gave me more mysterious authority of someone to listen to. I clearly felt the boy was approaching the condition of a certifiable anger and fear too.

(What does she want from me?)

(Bok choy!)

And so it went on until the farmer himself – and I thank the nature’s forces for it -- overheard the ongoing exchange of pretentiously polite phrases between one miffed customer and as much peeved seller, and thunderously said that bok choy ‘is there’, pointing with his index finger, covered with dirt from the carrots he was picking over for another customer, towards the back of the tent where one could see a mountain of wooden crates and rough sacks.

Having snatched the much sought-after vegetable, I can now tell you, Dear Reader, about a dish I saw in my dream, like I said, literally. I hope you understand now why I so needed this damn bok choy. And in case you are wondering, it was not a nightmare in which leafy Asian vegetables dominate the earth, demanding everybody lives on bok choy, drinks rice beverages and speaks fluent Chinese; nor was I drunk. Quite simply, I just saw a dream. And this I may attribute to my recent walk through the Amsterdam China Town where the street air is soaked with the mélange of sour-sweet-tangy odours one can dream about in the end of the day, which I did.

Notably, despite the dreamt-up nature of the dish – Sautéed Bok Choy with Garlic, Ginger and Raisins, there is nothing far-fetched about the interplay of the ingredients. Each praises the other in a delicate and polite manner: browned fragrant garlic and ginger willingly give their deep flavours to peanut-y bok choy, reinforcing a handsome Asian character of the vegetable; and black raisins, together with soy sauce, create an intricate, tantalizing sweet-savoury combination. All these render the combined result as a gracefully simple and harmonious meal. What I also value about it is that the dish, I believe, will take well to substitutions. Don’t like the idea of raisins in an otherwise savoury dish? Go for toasted peanuts; these will taste superb with bok choy, I am sure. Or use peanut or sesame oil for cooking instead of olive oil. Feel free to dream things up.

Sautéed Bok Choy with Garlic, Ginger, and Raisins
(Serves 2 as a main course or 4 as a light meal)

2 pounds bok choy, thoroughly washed and sliced from tip to base in ¼-1/2 inch ribbons
2 cloves of garlic, minced
a knob (about 1 inch) of fresh ginger, pressed
2 Tsb olive oil
2 ½ tsp soy sauce, or less
1 Tbs black raisins
Freshly ground black pepper/lemon juice to taste
Roasted sesame oil for a final touch (optional)

1. In a large skillet, combine the olive oil, garlic and ginger and warm over medium (-low) heat. When the garlic and ginger start to sizzle (don’t wait until they brown!), add the white tough stem parts of the bok choy and stir well to coat with the oil. Cook until they are almost tender, about 3-4 minutes. They will look sweaty.

2. Fold in the green parts. When they start to wilt, add the soy sauce by a teaspoon -- taste as you go to make sure the dish is not over-salted, along with the black raisins, and stir well. Cook until the greens are completely wilted, but don’t overdo. Season with black pepper and lemon juice to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature with a few drizzles of roasted sesame oil (if you happen to have one; if not, don’t worry, the dish doesn’t lose its Asian allure without it).

19 May 2009

I did some sleuthing

When I food shop at the Saturday farmer’s market (Noordermarkt) in Amsterdam, the least I seek is to be accused of being stuck-up. It transpires that getting your food from the farmer’s market is synonymous to social snobbery in Amsterdam. Or so I was told in a poetry workshop. I’ll explain promptly.
For every weekly workshop in my university, we the students are given a theme for our new poem. Some time earlier it was suggested that we go out and write impromptu verses about a moving object, a person, or a sound that would strike us, or at least make us want to put our visual or auditory impressions on paper, however unmoving. My assiduous work resulted in this light-minded poem:

The market music

Slap-slap, click-click
flip-flops, high heels:
sounds of hundreds of feet.
How much is this cheese?
And what about that bread?

Fingers point to crispy greens,
mouths agape.
Whoosh, whoosh --
the rushing of a sudden wind.
Do, re, mi
fa, so, la, ti
a hungry musician plucks the strings
of contrabass.
(He could not know,
but he will not earn much today.)
Boom, boom of thunder.
the market square is half-empty.
The musician will stay hungry.

After I cheerfully recited the piece at the recent workshop, I was asked, rather curtly, ‘What kind of market is that?’

‘Uhm, the farmer’s market on the Noordermarkt’, said I, smelling bellicosity of the question and starting to look rather apologetically, even sheepishly; blushing too, for good measure.
‘Ahh, that one where people show off, a hot-spot where folks want to be seen!?’

(I was right about bellicosity.)

In her judgments of food-shoppers my ‘opponent’, a Dutch girl with a poetic soul and red lipstick, laid the paint on white and black, or rather black alone. For her, the eating mankind that got stocked up on organic food was a bunch of scoundrels.

‘Wait a minute’, I piped in, ‘wouldn’t you agree that the farmer’s produce, apart from being an accessory of snobbery as you would think, at least tastes better than your average supermarket stuff?’ I was on the roll – the good food was being discussed.

A gloomy silence ensued. A few other people nodded their heads approvingly. My stomach was churning – it was lunchtime. I thought of salty, nutty, marble-looking chunk of Parmesan and a ripe, juicy pear.

‘True, it may taste good, but is expensive all the same, wouldn’t you say?’

Luckily, we were interrupted, because I considered mild cursing as a reply.

I wish I would forget this discussion, but a cloud of acidic doubt hang above my head -- what if the girl was right, even if only partially. Indeed, couldn’t most of it be a mere performance of who-can-afford-what? I resolved to investigate the matter by sleuthing who is who next time I would visit the place.

Sleuthing of any sort needs a spirited state of mind, so promptly after arriving at the market I ignited mine with a crepe with a Grand Marnier filling – that was the first so-close-to-authenticity crepe I ate in my life – made to my order at a crepe stall. A crepe-maker, a delicately aged Dutch lady with hair white as a dandelion ball, and voice soft, almost whispering, asked me where I was from. I told her, and heard her exclaim ‘Oh, you have blini!’

I gave her a smile – she and I are of the same ilk.

She told me she was making crepes for as long as she could remember (a long time). A big chunk of her life she spent in Normandy, France, where she was absorbing the art and knowledge of crepes’ making. Now she was passing her wisdom on the Dutch and the others by selling her thin, almost transparent, lacy crepes at the farmer’s market. A bunch of hungry customers – there is always a crowd at the stall -- resemble a swarm of whizzing bees, so noisy. I think it’s because the crepes are served with various sweet as well as savoury fillings: chestnut puree, melted chocolate, brown sugar with lemon zest, jams, Grand Marnier; fried bacon bits, and cheese. Absolutely impossible to keep quiet, let alone to resist.

I promised the lady I would come back soon to gradually eat my way through her crepes’ assortment, and went further into the ‘field’, where purple and crimson peonies were piled up on wooden counters between the crates of emerald cucumbers and glossy aubergines; fragrant apples and voluminous pears cried out for man’s attention; young cabbage heads looked dewy, or so I imagined because most likely some farmer just sprinkled them with water; crispy salads, and herbs, smoked sausages, and fresh, yeasty breads suggested visions of too many a beautiful and simple meal; adorably smelly cheeses oozed their nutty, grassy, earthy, flavours, filling the air with admiring oh’s and ah’s; people – some grumpy, some other chatty - waited in lines at virtually every counter.

In people’s hands, I saw neither Vuitton bags nor keys from Lombardinis, so that meant that at the first glance nobody seemed to be showing off.

The average prices for local – this is key -- produce are not higher at the market than elsewhere. On the contrary, a fat bunch of fresh basil or any other locally grown herb is priced around 1.75 euro, while at a supermarket, only a few thin, wrapped in plastic sprigs of, say, parsley, cost as much. Apples, especially second-choice ones, whose only fault is bruised skin or awkward shape, are sold not for more than 1.10 euro a kilo, and one will be pressed hard to find organic fruits for the same price elsewhere.

But while ogling and admiring the scenes, I nonetheless kept my saltcellar handy. I learnt there is a grub category that goes by the name of‘raw foods'. This may cost as much as a Vuitton handbag, I fear. What’s more, lads and gals who gather around raw food stalls have a spooky appearance of somebody bestowed the knowledge of 'the truth’. Usually, they also look like they haven’t washed their clothes for weeks; have more than three skinny children who also may need some hair- or face-editing (read: washing); and exuberate – at least for me – a determination to burst into celestial chanting and singing after every intake of a raw cocoa bean, for instance. Once I was asked by one such folks if I knew the difference between raw and roasted cocoa bean. I said yes, I did, but did not plan in the near future to give preference to one over another. He looked as if he was going to smack me into my face. This was somewhat intimidating, so now I make sure I propel my way past these chaps unnoticed, sinfully carrying a sausage that drips with juicy fat in my bag and thinking about roasted dark chocolate. (I appreciate a diversity of opinions nonetheless.)

A cliché, but still they say the beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. For me, the farmer’s market is a triumph of a human’s wish, a right, and even an obligation, to enjoy the season, be it a ‘grumpy’ winter or a ‘chatty’ spring. After all, generations of our (great) grandparents lived in harmony with the nature circles, contentedly ate what was in season, without attributing this to luxury or snobbery. Why shall a man be accused of it now?

P.S. On a side note: please go here to read a short (and I hope humorous) article on the Dutch by yours truly.

13 May 2009

Food artistry

Dear Reader, I’m so thrilled, I’m so thrilled! Here is why: this cold beetroot soup with cucumber -- remember? -- has taken up an artistic career and can now also be seen in paint. Please check this out, the Lunchbox Project by wonderful Lisa Orgler!

10 May 2009

Not only for chickens

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, one of the reputable sources of linguistic reference, defines buckwheat as ‘a type of small grain used as food for chickens, and for making flour’. This makes me slightly confused and disoriented, because I, being NOT a chicken, eat buckwheat too. What’s more, I love buckwheat!

In fact, I come from a country where cult and tradition of buckwheat is insuppressible, unlike that of personality, for instance. Monstrous rulers get deposed, but buckwheat is irreplaceable. I like to think of it as a part of Russian cultural, as well as culinary, heritage, beside Chekhov, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and, well, blini. Turns out, I was wrong, but hopefully only about the buckwheat thing. As I am writing this, I feel genuinely perplexed, for I cannot for the life of me start to understand why the compilers of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English think so lowly of buckwheat (please note that against chickens I have nothing -- everybody should eat well!).

While I get accused, more often than I wish, of not drinking vodka (C’mon, every Russian drinks vodka!), my Russian reputation is spotless when buckwheat, or rather eating buckwheat products, is at stakes! Blinis - check! Buckwheat porridge- check! Buckwheat honey - check! I even left my Russian buckwheat-comfort zone and landed in the soba-noodles territory!

In other words, I nurse a veritable affection and devotion to buckwheat. And particularly so, to buckwheat kasha (Russian for porridge). It would not be an exaggeration to say that in my family, buckwheat kasha is an alternative to bread, somewhat. I mean, so important it is. Depending on time of the day, there are various ways to enjoy the treat. In the morning, cooked and served with milk and honey, it passes muster as a nourishing breakfast; for later meals, it is ideal as a garnish to different kinds of roasted meat; ‘enriched’ with sautéed wild mushrooms and caramelized onions, it becomes the Tsarina of the table. Plenty versatile and adjustable, this buckwheat kasha! (But, Dear Reader, please don’t be misled into thinking that I was always so savvy as to eat buckwheat porridge the ways I’ve just described. Back in time, I was known as a girl who ate her buckwheat, cooked dead plain, or even undercooked, with a few pickled cucumbers on the side.)

Anyhow, to cook buckwheat I learnt from my father, who, normally, does not cook much. But he, being a lawyer, is on the more diligent side in our family of three when it comes to a task of producing edible kasha. And as the experience showed, one cannot be simpleminded about the ritual of buckwheat cooking. This requires almost scientific precision and angelic patience. My mother lacks both; she profanes buckwheat. So it was my father the lawyer who, through not a few trials and efforts, cracked the buckwheat code. The trick, as I was couched, is to heat the buckwheat grains before adding water. When poured onto the heated grains, water will immediately reach a boiling point, and this will prevent the grains from falling apart and being mushy, or watery, when cooked.

But as is with other traditions, what’s common in one country is totally unknown in another. In the case that’s being discussed, it means that there is no buckwheat on the supermarket shelves in Holland. No demand, no supply. Not fair, said I. And soon found buckwheat sold in bulk in ‘exotic food' stores, and also at the farmer’s market in Amsterdam. Thank you, Dutch Providence!
Now, having gotten my grabby hands on buckwheat abroad, I feel obliged to experimentally pair it with things I would not normally find in Russian markets.

Things like fresh, creamy, tangy goat cheese, for starters (in Russia, local goat cheese produce is yet uncharted territory), sold by a young-ish, blue-eyed Dutch farmer. I don't know if he eats buckwheat, but as long as he greets me in Russian – and he does! -- every time I appear at the customer's side of the counter, I think I shall be fine.

And finally...

Buckwheat kasha (porridge) with caramelized onions and goat cheese

(yields massive 4-6 servings, or maybe even 8)

2 cups buckwheat grains, picked over
2 large yellow onions, finely chopped
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
¼ cup olive oil

1. Caramelize the onions. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Once the oil is hot, add the onions. To check the oil for ‘hotness’ put one onion sliver in the oil, if it sizzles, proceed with the rest of the onions. Stir to coat the onions in the oil. Bring heat to low or medium-low and stirring regularly, cook the onions till amber in colour, about 40-50 mins or even longer. (It’s ok if the onions get slightly charred as they are cooking; just don’t let them burn.) Set aside.

2. In a large cast-iron saucepan, heat the buckwheat grains. As they start to brown, releasing their ‘pop-corn-y’ (my flat mate’s words) flavor, fold in the onions. Stir well.

3. Add 3 cups or more water to cover the buckwheat by an inch. Add 1 tsp, or to taste, salt. In goes the garlic powder too.

4. Cook over low heat, partially covered, until the buckwheat is tender and the liquid is completely absorbed. Depending on the saucepan size, it may take from 20 up to 40 mins (the larger and wider the sauce pan, the less time the process takes).

5. Serve with crumbled fresh goat cheese on top. I learnt that any good-quality goat cheese will marry nicely with buckwheat, from mild and young to aged and pungent.

It’s absolutely wonderful as a main course as well as a side dish to meat or poultry, in which case, though, you may want to skip the goat cheese, but honestly, I don’t see why you should.

3 May 2009

It takes stamina

Amsterdam, April 30th, Queen’s Day.

Four years ago when I stayed in the Netherlands (the Hague) for the first time I gave myself a promise that if someday I were in Amsterdam on Queen’s Day again, I’d steer clear of the festivities of any kind, and that nothing would make me go to town. And so you know, by nothing I mean home-made chocolate cakes, biscuits and other pastries, sold virtually on every corner of Amsterdam’s streets, on Queen’s Day, that is.

Dear Reader, as self-announced promises go, I easily break them. In this case, I spent the whole day in town. Or in other words, I lived to tell you about Queen’s Day in Amsterdam.

On a historical note, Queen’s Day (Koninginnedag) is one of the most celebrated national holidays in Holland, with the tradition started in the nineteenth century, and meticulously kept to the latter-day, irrespective of the calendar birthday of a ruling queen. For instance, current Queen Beatrix has her birthday on the 31st January, and yet officially celebrates it on April 30th. It’s also a day when people are allowed to sell things, crappy and otherwise, on streets (about this in a minute or so), making undistracted walking, let alone cycling, unimaginable. Plus, Queen’s Day is such an event when locals and tourists alike seem to be united in the craze that I will politely refer to as a state of irreversible drunkenness and loss of good manners whatsoever. Nationalities cease to exist when it comes to overconsumption of beer. Dutch, British, Russian? Forget it. Everybody is simply drunk. Also, if you don’t wear orange, you look like a dummy, which I did. Sigh.
My Dear Reader, I don’t know how about you, but to me it takes stamina to stay cool when seemingly everybody aims to step on your feet, or worse to spill beer all over your (not orange) clothes. In order to stave off my indignation and anger, I fortified my spirits with things chocolate, and engaged in conversations with ladies and gentlemen who found their joy in food, not beer. Like this girl, for instance:

She was selling home-made baked goods with a view to save money for her studies – she dreams to study cultural anthropology one day. Whole-heartedly, I invested two euro in her bright future, and lots of joy in my day, by buying a piece of her chocolate cake. To me, it would be a wicked sin to miss it.

It is very rich -- you’ll like it.

I absolutely did! How could I NOT if it felt like the chocolate fountain in my mouth, with all that bitter-sweet, thick ganache?
I wished the girl good luck, and resumed my snail-pace walking through the crowd. The initial plan was that I meet my friend Julio at his place from where we would attempt to proceed further into town. It took me a good few hours to get to Julio’s in the first place, but I choose not to complain because I kept fortifying myself with royal treats. This time it was Tom Pouce (Dutch for Tom Thumb), the emblem of Dutch puff pastry.

Tom Pouce (pronounced tom-poose) looks like a fancy sandwich: two layers of said puff pastry with a filling of sweet pastry cream in between. Surprisingly, to me it tasted remotely like Napoleon, or Mille-feuille, a must for every respectable Russian woman to have in her baking repertoire. (And I still cannot make it. Not yet.)

But back to Tom Pouce about which I’ll tell you this: not memorable. I mean, it looked like a very fine piece of pastry, and it was fun to eat the morsel on the go (absolutely deconstructive scene), but it wouldn’t make me trek out to a bakery/patisserie situated on the other side of the city early in the (rainy) morning (in case you wonder, this is one of my criteria to distinguish forgettable bread or pastry from un-). I think the words I am after are dull in taste. But on the other hand, I don’t want to sound so dismissive – after all, the whole country holds this pastry dear to their hearts, which means there is something about Tom Pouce I haven’t understood. Not yet, perhaps.

Finally, I made it to Julio’s, poured out all my complaints on the guy about drunks on the streets, and off we went again. There was much to see. If people did not drink, they sold off their belongings. These ranged from books to clothes to, in fact, anything and everything.

Even self-composed canines took on the entrepreneurial spirits.

Time ticked by and with every hour there seemed to be more people on the streets, and more boats on the water. I would never imagine one can have traffic jams on the canals. Dear Reader, as is with many other things, I was wrong -- traffic jams on water do exist.

Larger boats each hosted a DJ, so music was virtually in the air. ‘Is it the louder-the cooler factor?’ asked Julio, observantly. ‘Sounds like it is’, I shouted back over the music, my feet stepping to the rhythm of disco.

We walked and walked. And laughed non-stop too, can you imagine? It may be the alcohol fumes that considerably accumulated in the air and mellowed our Queen’s Day-resistant minds, or a few burgers with grilled ham, gussied up by pleasantly mild but spicy mustard -- Dutch mustard is remarkably tasty -- but we kind of liked this collective, festive, orange debauchery.

Queen’s Day certainly takes stamina, but practice makes perfect, as they say. Just don’t forget to watch your way non-stop – this is crucial, since there are crowds of real live Manneken Pis’es (beer!). I am fairly certain you want your shoes to remain clean and intact. Really, who does not?