There is a saying I find very amusing. Perhaps you’ve heard it: “As American as apple pie.” But, you see, apple pie wasn’t always that American. Apples did not exist in America until they were introduced to the new land by Dutch and English colonists. Along with their apple and other fruit trees, they also brought recipes for richly-filled pies that were passed on from generation to generation and soon became part of American food culture. And although, it was probably the English who we can thank for making the first apple pies (the earliest recipe was found in an English cookbook dated 1381), it is actually the Dutch, in my opinion, who are worthy of the aforementioned phrase. Let me tell you why I think it should actually be: “As Dutch as apple pie.”
Apple pie – though not the traditional one with a lattice crust – was the first thing I ate when I came to the Netherlands. My mother-in-law officially welcomed me to her home (and country) with a small, triangular-shaped apple pastry called ‘appelflap’. It was served with a very strong cup of coffee, and it was the first of many more apple pie experiences to come. You see, apple pie (and now I am referring to the thick variety served with whipped cream) is almost as synonymous with the food culture of the Dutch as their love for coffee, stamppot (vegetable and potato mash), beer with bitterballen (ragout-filled, deep-fried meatballs), and their almost iconic breakfast of ‘boterham met kaas…hagelslag…pindakaas…’ (bread with cheese… chocolate sprinkles…peanut butter).
I can’t think of an occasion in which apple pie, or appeltaart, would be out of place. It can be served with mid-morning coffee or afternoon tea, it does exceptionally well as pastry of choice at birthday parties and all other kinds of celebratory gatherings and family reunions, and it can be found on the menu of almost every restaurant in the country. Ask my Dutch husband what his favorite dessert is when we go out to dinner and he’ll probably say ‘appeltaart’. By the way, for a proper Dutch apple pie, there’s no better place than Amsterdam, or more specifically, Café Winkel 43 on Noordermarkt. I have many fond memories of rounding off a stroll through the Saturday market with a thick slice of appeltaart and a glass of wine at this lively corner café in the city center. Their apple pie is everything it should be: thumb-sized chunks of firm and slightly sour apples, a buttery crust and a good dollop of whipped cream that isn’t overly sweet. However, you don’t have to travel to Amsterdam to taste a good apple pie. Keep reading!
The first Dutch apple pie probably dates back to 1514 and can be found in the cookbook Notabel Boecxken van Cokeryen. It was quite different to the one we know today. The apples were baked under a thick layer of pastry, and after baking, some of this layer was removed and the hot apple filling was mixed with crumbled suyckercoecken (sugar cookies). These small cookies, not sweetened with sugar as the name suggest, but honey, were flavored with warm spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cardamom. After the cookie crumbs were mixed through the steaming apples, a drizzle of single cream would follow to give the pie a more refined flavor.
By the 17th century, the Dutch cookbook De Verstandige Kok (1669) featured six different recipes for apple pies (accounting for one-quarter of all the pie recipes in the book) as well as a variety of other apple recipes. Apples were so much enjoyed that even poet Jacob Westerbaen wrote about common varieties back then such as the guldeling and the aagt:
“Mijn guldelingh en aeght, van liefelijcken aert (My guldelingh and aeght, of a sweet nature),
Die geven lecker moes en spijse tot een taert (They make delicious sauce and can be used in a tart)”.
Most apple pies in the book featured a filling that was either made of applesauce or finely chopped sour apples, as the sweeter ones were eaten instead of being used in recipes. The apple pie recipes also called for currants, cinnamon and sugar.
Paintings also attest to the appreciation for apples back in the Golden Age. Two beautiful examples are Pieter de Hooch’s A Woman Peeling Apples (1663) found in London’s Wallace Collection, and Cornelis Bisschop’s Girl Peeling an Apple (1667) found at the Rijksmusem.
A century later, apple pies were on their way to becoming an integral part of Dutch food culture, though at first they were a pleasure mainly reserved for the upper class. It was during this time that the tradition of serving apple pie with coffee (also a drink for the affluent) was born.
Today, every Dutch household has their own favorite recipe for appeltaart, though sadly, in this age of convenience, many resort to the ease of ready-made mixes. My recipe is made from scratch, and I must say I am quite picky. The crust must be buttery without being stodgy or ever becoming moist from the apples. The apples must be tart and preferably goudrenet (golden reinette), and the apple chunks musn’t be too small. Finally, to serve, nothing but freshly whipped cream will do. But there’s a catch! My recipe for Dutch apple pie has been Frenchified! I’ve soaked the raisins in Armagnac and dusted the apples in French flan powder and pain d’épices spices. I’m sure you’re not the least bit surprised!
Frenchified ‘Hollandse Appeltaart’
- 100g raisins
- 2 tbsps Armagnac
- 300 g all-purpose flour
- 110g granulated sugar
- 1 tsp baking powder
- pinch of salt
- 180 g cold butter, diced
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 tbsps cold sparkling water
- 2 tbsps breadcrumbs
- 1 kilo baking apples
- 1 packet sugar-free vanilla flan powder (3.5g)
- 2 tbsps light brown sugar
- 2 tsps pain d’épices spices
- freshly whipped cream, to serve
Rinse the raisins. Place them in a small bowl, add the Armagnac and allow them to soak for two hours. Place the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to mix. Add the butter and continue to press on the pulse button until the mixture starts to resemble coarse breadcrumbs or oatmeal. Add the egg yolks and water and continue pulsing until the dough comes together. Remove from the bowl and shape into a ball. Wrap it in cling film and allow to rest in the fridge for at least an hour. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 180°C and take the dough out of the fridge. Butter and flour a 22 cm springform pan and line the bottom with baking paper. Roll ¾ of the dough (leave the rest in the fridge) out on a well floured surface to a circle of about 32 cm. Press this into the prepared pan, sprinkle the bottom of the dough with the breadcrumbs and pop in the fridge. Peel, core and chop the apples into rough chunks. Put them in a large bowl and mix them with the flan powder, brown sugar, pain d’épices spices and the Armagnac soaked raisins. Tip them into the prepared pan. Roll the rest of the dough out to a circle of about ½ cm thick. Cut into strips of about 1 cm wide. Place the strips on top of the apples in a criss-cross pattern. Carefully trim the edges and brush with whisked egg. Bake the pie on the lowest part of the oven for approximately 60-75 minutes. If the crust is getting too dark, you may want to cover it with tin foil. Once the pie is ready, remove it from the oven and place on a wire rack. Allow to cool before serving with freshly whipped cream.