Friday, April 29, 2011

Belgian Waffles, Ch. 3: Test Kitchen

With certain odds surmounted, it was time to enter the gauntlet. Google searches for “authentic Belgian waffle recipe” (liege waffles) returned a bevy of options. Wise with world travel, I was able to quickly omit any recipe that had no mention of Belgian pearl sugar. This secret ingredient, which caramelizes when cooked, is what separates the real waffles from mere dented pastry.

I opted to first follow the recipe on the back of the Lars’ Own Belgian Pearl Sugar box. The dough was dense and my waffle-maker had trouble shutting. The resulting waffles were both crunchy like a cookie and hard like stale French bread.

Next I doubled the yeast used in the Lars’ Own recipe, which resulted in a delicious waffle by American standards. Fluffy, but neither sticky nor chewy. But I knew I was on the right track. See that small, dark area on the waffle below? That amount was sticky/chewy perfection.

Then I tried this recipe, but I did a somewhat hasty preparation. “Softened butter,” my mom explained, “is used instead of melted butter for a reason.” The final of the three waffles was the closest I’ve gotten.

The lesson, for anyone else attempting to bring the flavors of Belgium into their kitchen, is to add patience to the ingredient list. Given the amount of time needed, one must either (a) sacrifice the self-righteous idea that waffles are exclusively a breakfast commodity or (b) wake up super-early and accept stabbing hunger for several hours. I’ve made my decision and now the test kitchen is operating into the night hours.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Belgian Waffles, Ch. 2: Belgian pearl sugar

When I wasn’t drooling in chocolate shop windows or nose-deep in a waffle, I was trying to learn government secrets, specifically what makes Belgian waffles superior. I learned that their distinct flavor and texture come from using a special type of sugar, Belgian pearl sugar, notable for how it caramelizes into what is being made. I planned to spread this information like a WikiLeak when I returned stateside, but first I had some exporting to do. I was crestfallen when the sugar wasn’t available at any of the shops in the Brussels airport, including the airport grocery store. (I drowned my sorrows in a quart of blood orange juice, which I downed before I went through security. Lesson: never shotgun blood orange juice for the pain of it going down the wrong way is unmatched.)

When I returned home, my Google searches told me that Belgian pearl sugar is not easily found in America (Uff da!), but was often sold at IKEA (Var sa god!). But how would I get out to the suburbs? I began scrolling through my mental list of friends with cars who could be easily bribed with waffles that required no syrup. But then it came to me: IKEA is Swedish and I live in Andersonville, the Swedish neighborhood of Chicago. Perhaps there would be a less-than-obvious trend of Scandinavians stocking their stores with Belgian products. So I summoned Viking-like courage and barreled into the bleak Chicago winter toward Erikson’s Delicatessen

The plump, blond proprietress of the family-owned business—open since 1925; my Swedish uncle recalls going there as a boy—eagerly waddled out from behind the counter. “We had some [Var sa god!], but it looks like we’re out. [Uff da!]” I inquired about the Swedish pearl sugar on their shelves, but she let me know that substitutions would not work, especially when making authentic Belgian waffles. It seems that despite possessing nearly identical names, Belgian pearl sugar—notable for how it caramelizes—is diametrically opposed to Swedish pearl sugar—notable for how it does not cook into what is being made. You’ve probably seen Swedish pearl sugar before; it is used for the large ornamental crystals found on Swedish cookies. (I wondered: Did the first translator to use the phrase “pearl sugar” feel ripped off when another translator chose the same phrasing? Was the second translator using the phrase despite crucial differences during chemical reactions more foolish or less foolish than Columbus when he declared America to be India?) The plump, blond proprietress told me she would get a shipment of Belgian pearl sugar later that week.

When I returned I was hungry and desperate. I had called ahead to make sure they were stocked and an impatient, bossy man answered the phone. When I asked if the shipment of Belgian pearl sugar had come in yet, he checked and let me know that they did have some pearl sugar. But he had not specified its country of origin. Didn’t he know the difference between the two pearl sugars stocked at his family’s store? He was not nearly as knowledgeable as the Swedish woman from last time. Uncertain of my waffle-y fate, I once again put on my horned hat to go pillaging in the cold.

Erikson’s was packed but thankfully they were stocked with the sugar I sought as well as its inferior cousin. Both were made by Lars' Own and to make matters more confusing the two products had nearly identical packaging. While mothers with antsy children decided on how many pounds of potato sausage, the man from the phone rang me up on the 1920s cash register. When I pulled out my plastic, the man pulled out his impatient, bossy demeanor that he had acquainted me with earlier on the phone. He successfully added “annoyed” to his list of defining adjectives. He let me know it was "cash only" in a manner that suggested the workday was his puppy and I had just kicked it.

Meek and cashless, I left to find an ATM. This short errand turned into an odyssey as every ATM I found had extortionate fees that one-by-one I rejected. Eventually, I had walked far enough north on Clark St. to reach the Jewel/Osco, where I used my debit card to get some cash. Back at Erikson’s, still sadly devoid of the plump, blond, accommodating proprietress, I held my fresh $20 in clear sight as I returned my Belgian pearl sugar to the purchase counter. Showing no appreciation for the effort I made to return with hard money, the bossy, impatient, annoyed man asked me, with disgust, if I had the cash. I looked at the $20 that I was already holding in plain view and said yes. He sure hated me for buying things from his family’s business. By the time I left, he had added a noun to go with the adjectives in his defining features: jerk.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Belgium Month: Spéculoos Spread

George Washington Carver was a bit of a one trick pony. He was a genius, but imagine if his innovations had explored markets other than peanuts. Imagine if, after he invented peanut butter, he looked at other food items and reasoned that they too could be grinded into a paste and eaten on bread. Now imagine he did this with cookies.

Fortunately, George Washington Carver’s one shortcoming has been redeemed by Els Scheppers of Belgium. She concocted a recipe for a smooth spread made from spéculoos cookies (also known as biscoff), entered her recipe on a Belgian reality television show (“De Bedenkers,” or “The Inventors”) and won. Lotus, the major mass distributor of spéculoos, took notice and went into business with Scheppers. As elaborated upon in the New York Times article I used as reference, the paste has been quite successful, resulting in multiple, equally successful imitators.

Americans may be familiar with spéculoos/biscoff cookies as the cookies they sometimes get on airplanes. The flat, cinnamon cookies with crystallized sugar also have their diluted dollar store variety, Dutch windmills. To give full disclosure, I do not find the cookies themselves to be very special; I will continue to eat them when served by flight attendants, but it is highly unlikely I will purchase them for consumption while anchored to earth by gravity. What’s amazing is that the spread, which has a consistency not unlike Nutella and peanut butter, transcends its cookie counterpart. I actually find it difficult to stop eating the spread once I start, a problem I honestly don’t have with most other foods, including desserts. Pictured are two “dead soldiers” that fell victim to my obsessive compulsive spéculoos eating disorder (OCSED).

And, St. Nicholas be praised, the spread is available stateside! The American variety has a slightly less crystally and slightly oilier texture than what I purchased in the Belgium airport. (Actually, I purchased it twice. First at the airport grocery store, but security confiscated my solid food item for being a liquid. Second at the duty free shop, which I visited immediately after having the first jar taken away.) The European variety had a more robust flavor, which I would identify as being somewhere between molasses and that “baked cookie” taste. Both were good enough for me skip the gluten middle man and eat directly from the jar.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Belgian Waffles, Ch. 1: Brussels' Best Deal

Tourist guides for Brussels seem to agree on a few things:
(a) The correct way to eat a Belgian waffle is au naturel—the waffle, not the consumer. Only scoff-worthy tourists top it with chocolate, fruit and whipped cream.
(b) Proper Belgian waffles all taste more or less the same. Just make sure you avoid the rectangular ones.
(c) When it comes to waffle dealers, they are all equal.

Having tasted many waffles during my stay, I agree:
(a) While the toppings were delicious, they completely overpowered the flavor of the waffle. If you want to taste strawberries, go buy strawberries.
(b) They are indeed visually and orally identical, except the rectangular Americanized waffles, which are fluffy instead of chewy.

But I must disagree on the final point. There is a specific waffle dealer tourists should seek out: Waffle Planet by the Manneken Pis, the famous Brussels statue of a small boy urinating. Being that the statue is life-size (Read: small) it is not much to see, but it is worth lingering for the waffles. The waffles are only €1; half the price means you can double your waffle intake.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Belgium Month: Chocolate and Frittes

When I went to Brussels, I had a short checklist: Eat.

Belgium is famous for many delicious treats. I spent my days imbibing in chocolates, frittes and, my favorite, waffles. In between, I marveled at art nouveau and explored museums dedicated to Magritte, contemporary art and musical instruments. And then I went back to eating.

On the streets surrounding La Grand Place, there were literally chocolate shops next door to chocolate shops across the street from chocolate shops. Most of them shoved free samples in my eager face. Nearby was the Musee du Cacao et du Chocolat, which principally consisted of signs telling the history of chocolate from South America to Europe and information I already knew. (See Becoming a Chocolate Connoisseur, Steps 1 , 2 and 3 .) The new information I gathered from my visit consisted of the history of Belgium’s most famous chocolatiers: Godiva, Neuhaus, Côte d’Or, Callebaut and Leonidas. It was Neuhaus Chocolates that premiered the first ever bite-sized chocolates in 1912, “pralines.”

While this particular international trip isn’t one I feel everyone must take, here are my recommendations for chocoholics bound and determined to hit Brussels. It is important to distinguish the legit chocolate from the tourist junk. For starters, the stuff in boxes may be perfectly okay by American standards, but it’s not the good stuff. To taste what Belgium is famous for, cough up the good money for the fresh treats behind the glass. But, even with those items, it is important to recognize the difference between chocolate makers (roasters who affect how the chocolate will taste) and chocolatiers (those who outsource ready-made chocolate for the use in their own concoctions or simply molding the chocolate into shapes). As you walk from shop to shop, you’ll notice some identical products that were clearly outsourced and whose cocoa butter may be cut with vegetable oil. Thank them for their friendly samplings and do the truffle shuffle to the next place.

The frittes, while not dessert items, deserve at least a short paragraph. I learned frittes are called French fries because (1) the person who named them this consumed frittes in Belgium and (2) one of the major languages in Belgium is French. Thus, (3) the conclusion was made that frittes were a French invention. (Makes sense. I first ate gelato in Charleston, SC; I guess the Italians stole the idea.) What gives Belgian frittes their signature texture is that they are twice fried, which also happens to be the best way to cook plantains. After this, the frittes are topped with your choice of sauces with untranslated names.

As for the waffles—THE WAFFLES!—I will need several blog posts to fully record this religious experience.