28 February 2014

Spicy and wonderful

"Martha, wait! Wait! Martha!"

To go through the city on a Sunday morning as the hands on the clock tremble towards 5 a.m. is to hear its drunken breath, loud and erratic. Like fish to bait, partygoers gather for refreshments around the lighted stand of a hot-dog vendor. Soiled napkins and empty plastic bottles are strewn across the street, a whiff of mustard floats around. I zigzag to dodge swaying figures ahead. Past them the streets are motionless again.

Canal houses, tall and thin, 'anorexic', loom over the night's last hours. Inside, their inhabitants are embedded in delicious sleep. Outside, a couple is tangled in a difficult moment. The girl crosses a road, stumbling over a curbstone. No coat on, it looks like she has exited from wherever she was unexpectedly, on an impulse. The guy is half-a-minute behind her. He starts to run, but stumbles every other step, cries her name, wants her to wait. In response, she will only take off her heels and charge forward, away, feet getting pounded by wet, uneven cobbles, hair loose, an easy target for the wind. She must be cold. I am. 

"Martha, Martha! Wait!"

I turn left and go over a bridge. My bike starts to creak like a rusty swing set. A man -- he must be in his mid-fifties -- gets out from a house with red-lighted windows. He shuts the door behind but doesn't walk off right away. I can make out his grin -- he has a golden front tooth -- as he adjusts his pants, zips the flyer. I wonder if he feels emboldened by the carnal act he just bought or by night itself. 

Wind continues to tousle the surface of the canals, but its grip is softer, like that of a lover who, in an argument, shakes you by your arms but doesn't mean to hurt. These are the last days of winter.

I arrive at work. I switch on the lights, then the ovens. I tore myself out of bed more than an hour ago, but my brain remains awash with 'toxic' slumber. I make myself an espresso, the buzz of the coffee machine carries a promise of a pleasant rush. Languidly it pours in a cup. Behind the glass wall window and door shouts erupt: a group of teenagers passes by, one of them staggers and falls, the rest laugh. The espresso is ready, it looks velvety and smooth. I'll have it with a piece of ontbijtkoek, spicy and wonderful. 

For a minute it's quiet. I can hear my own breath. 

Ontbijtkoek (ont-bite-cook)

Ontbijtkoek ('breakfast cake'), alias kruidkoek ('spice cake'), is the Dutch honey spice bread, or pain d'épices. As the name implies, it's largely a breakfast material around here, but in no way should it be limited to the morning consumption only. In no way! 

There are numberless variations of ontbijtkoek, as to be expected from any national staple. Some use eggs, some others butter or oil, sugar can often be involved. The one I'd like to share with you today is, to me, the purest of the form, made mainly of rye flour, honey, and spices. Mainly because there are also water and baking powder going in the assemblage, but that's it.

I got the recipe in question from my coworker Gino (21), whom I like to call Ginger, who in turn got it from our ex-coworker Tim (29), whom both Ginger and I used to call Angry Baker or Diva (depending on his disposition on a given day). (Hi Tim! You are missed.) 

Having mixed the rye flour, honey and water first, you, then, should leave the resulting mass that will very much resemble a ball of Play-Doh, only stickier and better smelling, for at least a day before working in the spices, baking powder, and more honey. The dough is going to be stiff and gummy, and to mix it well all spoons, whisks and spatulas should be forsaken in favor of your hands.

As far as spices are concerned, I'm apprehensive that a requisite ontbijtkoek or speculaas spice mix, on the Dutch ground available at any supermarket, isn't quite obtainable elsewhere. If you have it, you need 10 grams of it. Below I'll write down the equivalent in the constituent spices. Play around with the quantities. Maybe you like it slightly more aniseed-y or cardamom-y, you know? Another idea: five-spice powder. I think it works well in ontbijtkoek. Note, though, that it's considerably more peppery than speculaas spice mix, there maybe a mild tickling of the black pepper on your tongue in the aftertaste. 

I don't know where Tim, a baker extraordinaire, had gotten this recipe, but I'll stick with it for good. Chewy, moist, sweet just so, dense, dark and spicy. Gets better by the day, too. Wrapped in foil, it keeps well for at least a week, maybe even longer, but I can't tell, it never lasts as much with me.

P.S. Ontbijtkoek lends itself to butter, no question. But I like it plain and with coffee, always coffee.

P.P.S. A word on honey: you need runny honey for this -- and the darker the type, the deeper the flavor, the better. So far I've been saturating my ontbijtkoek with wild flowers honey. My next target is buckwheat honey. In other words, suit yourself.

Yield: one 24-cm (9-inch) loaf 

490 grams runny honey (see headnotes), divided use
180 grams water
420 grams rye flour
16 grams baking powder
3 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
a good pinch of ground aniseed (optional)

Sift the rye flour into a large mixing bowl, pouring back into the bowl any bits of grain that may remain in the sieve.

In a medium saucepan, combine the water and the first 330 grams of honey, and bring to a rolling boil. Immediately take the saucepan off the fire and pour its contents into the rye flour. Start mixing with a wooden spoon but finish by hand. Note: the mixture is very hot, so you need to wet your hands in cold water before you start 'the kneading' and one time or two during. At the end you should have a homogeneous ball of honey and rye flour. 
Place it in a small bowl, cover with plastic and keep at room temperature for 1-2 days.

When ready to bake, warm up the oven to 175 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit). Line a standard 24-cm (9-inch) baking tin with baking paper, leaving a little overhang throughout. 

In a large mixing bowl, combine the baking powder and spices. Add the remaining 160 grams of honey together with the rye flour ball. Mix well by hand, making sure there are no flour lumps or any unmixed elements lurking around. At this point the mixture is very sticky, almost like industrial glue; keep a small bowl of water handy to dip your hands in as you meld the stuff together. 

Manually, force the mixture into the prepared baking tin. Lightly wet your hands, push the mixture into the corners of the tin and smooth out the surface. Bake for 45-50 minutes. After the first 20-minute mark, turn the tin and cover it loosely with baking paper. Check for doneness after the 40-minute mark. Usually it needs another 5-10 minutes. When a toothpick or a skewer comes out clean, remove the loaf from the oven. Let it cool for another 10 minutes, then remove from the tin by lifting the edges of the baking paper up. When cool enough to handle, peel off the paper. Good luck fighting off the urge to cut right in!