Before moving to the Netherlands, breakfast was a solemn affiar. When I lived in the United States, on my way to work or school, I often stopped at the local Dunkin’ Donuts (can’t believe the first one has just landed in Amsterdam — and no, I’m not so sure I’m still a fan) for a cup of weak, milky coffee to wash down a bagel with strawberry cream cheese, If I had time to eat at home, it was usually a toaster waffle and instant coffee. You can imagine my amazement and delight when I was introduced to the wonders (trust me, certainly wonderful compared to what I was used to!) of the Dutch breakfast table by my very traditionally Dutch mother-in-law. Breakfast was a beautiful and abundant affair with everything from fresh fruit to various types of hearty carbs. Luckily, gluten intolerance wasn’t fashionable back then…
Out came the pretty damask tablecloth, and while the kettle was put on for tea and the scent of filter coffee filled the air, eggs were boiled and a variety of Dutch breakfast icons slowly started to appear on the table: hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles), beschuit (rusks), ontbijtkoek (spice cake), appelstroop (apple syrup), three types of cheese (aged, young and cumin), a plate of cold cuts, Calvé peanut butter, sliced whole wheat bread, soft white rolls, crackers and krentenbollen.
I was especially charmed by the latter. The tender, currant studded buns enticed me with their aromatic scent of vanilla. I would split them open, generously butter each half and layer them with a few slices of sharp, aged cheese — a sweet and savory treat all in one. And we all know the thrill of sweet and salt. Salted caramel is a prime example of this deliciousness.
But krentenbollen, I later found out, did not originate at the breakfast table. In fact, they were first called ‘leedbollen’ (sorrow rolls) and were a staple at non-Catholic funerals, much like the still popular ‘plakje cake’ (slice of cake). Catholic funerals, on the other hand, gave preference to things like gingerbread (rouwpeperkoek) and cookies.
Today, krentenbollen are also served on less somber occasions. They travel well and are a popular choice for packed lunches, day-trips and picnics. I always had one in my bag during my days as a student at the University of Leiden, and my daughter still loves them for lunch. It’s their taste and texture that makes them so appealing as an ‘on-the-go’ food. A squashed ham or cheese sandwich isn’t really something to look forward to, yet for some reason, a slightly flattened krentenbol doesn’t lose its charm – it only gets better.
Unfortunately, the ridiculous fear of carbs has made many Dutch wary of their krentenbol these days. Empty calories. And all that sugar! Might as well scoff a chocolate bar! It’s interesting to note that a decade or so ago, krentenbollen were part of the weight loss plan designed by Dutch diet guru, Sonja Bakker. Times (and diet insanity) sure have changed. The calories in a krentenbol, however, remained the same: a modest 150 or so, unless you opt for the larger variety, a ‘reuze krentenbol’. In that case you can tack on an additional 100 calories.
For those who are unconcerned about restrictions or are craving a Dutch krentenbol after reading this blog, my recipe follows. Keep in mind that unlike the shop-brought variety, these are a bit more substantial and less ‘wodgier’. They also keep much shorter: I would eat them within two days. Make them for brunch (lovely on your Easter table), and serve them warm out of the oven with royal lashings of butter and slices of aged Gouda. The recipe makes twenty. Freeze what you won’t be eating. Though freezing always affects taste. But don’t fret too much, and remember the Dutch saying that goes: “Het leven is net een krentenbol, met af en toe een hard stukje” (Life is like a currant bun, every once in a while there’s a hard bit)!
Krentenbollen (Dutch Currant Buns)
Makes approximately 20 currant buns
- 250g currants, rinsed
- 100g butter
- 225ml whole milk
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 eggs
- 600 g all-purpose flour, plus some extra
- 2 packets yeast (7 g per packet)
- 70g light brown sugar
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
- pinch of salt
For the glaze:
Put the currants in a pan with hot water and allow them to plump for about 15 minutes. Put the butter and the milk in a small saucepan, allowing the butter to melt into the milk on a low fire. Once the butter is melted, take the pan off the heat and add the vanilla extract and the eggs. Whisk gently. Drain the currants. Sift the flour over a large bowl. Add the yeast, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Stir well. Add the currants and stir again. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix well with a wooden spoon. If the mixture is too wet, add a little more flour. You don’t want to make the mixture too dry either! Flour your hands and knead the dough while it is still in the bowl. Flour your work surface and knead the dough there for about five minutes. The dough should be soft. Not too wet and not too dry. Shape the dough into a ball and sprinkle with a little flour. Wash and dry the bowl. Transfer your dough to the bowl, cover with cling film and a clean tea towel. Put your bowl in a warm, draft-free area and allow to rise for an hour and a half. Punch down the dough, transfer to your work surface and knead for a minute or so. Line a baking sheet with baking paper. Make dough balls the size of prunes and put them on the baking sheet, leaving a little space between each one. Cover the buns with cling film and the tea towel and allow to rise for another 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Whisk the egg and the milk and brush a little of this mixture over the buns. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t brown too quickly. In that case, you can cover them with a sheet foil. Serve warm with the best butter you can find and stuff with Dutch cheese.