Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Classic from the heart - Ontbijtkoek

Ontbijtkoek
First published Canberra Times 13 July 2011
Imprisoned at home and a captive audience after recent surgery, I resort to recent episodes of the current Masterchef series for company. This phenomenon seems to be consuming all in its path, as it heaves the victorious temporarily into the limelight and condemns and literally casts out its losers. Is it my imagination, or have the gladiator-type theatrics been ratcheted up a few notches for this series?

Usually a sucker for shows that promote real food, diversity and development of our food culture, I find the reality TV format mixed with food a frustrating combination. I could blame my post operative pain for the sudden sensitivity of my cliché metre, but I suspect it was the surges of passion, tears and bags of determination that have become palpable in the Masterchef kitchen. I believe they may have exceeded the legal limit of how many times you can cook from the heart. Bring back those galloping gourmets, Bernard King and Peter Russell Clarke.

This reference to cooking from the heart is a curious thing. Is it overdone syrupy sentimentalism designed for uncritical TV audiences, or an authentic principle on which to base your approach to cooking? After self-reflection into my own cooking philosophy, I can only conclude that I am drawn to food I like, and that is inextricably linked to childhood, family and identity. I face the uncomfortable realisation that what I cook is quite a personal thing, and it’s just possible, I too cook from the heart. I’m now officially part of the cliché.

Take for example, the Dutch spice cake, Ontbijtkoek (breakfast cake). Just one waft of this cake triggers huge childhood memories for me because it was such an integral part of my growing up. This cake was everywhere for us: at breakfast, in our school lunchboxes and there was always a fresh one baking in the oven. Our household was not complete without an Ontbijtkoek in the cupboard.

Ontbijtkoek is available all over Holland, from the baker’s shop to the butcher’s and dates back to the 17th century when the Netherlands dominated world trade through its Dutch East Indies fleet. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg were craved by all of Europe and literally worth their weight in gold. It’s no coincidence that these are the spices that give Ontbijtkoek its unique flavour.

Every migrant family has its own story of cultural gains and losses, but I am grateful that my family chose to retain some of their traditions to pass on to my generation. Cooking food that was familiar to them would have provided some comfort for the homesickness they must have felt when arriving in Australia as migrants in the 1950s. It was probably not a conscious process, but perhaps a result of the social and linguistic isolation they experienced.

I have played with this recipe numerous times, changing the ratios of liquid to solids and varying cooking times. The cake mix is quite stiff, and the final result is firm in texture and can be sliced and toasted like bread. This recipe is usually baked as a whole cake, although I successfully baked this one in little Kugelhof moulds. Alternatively, you could use any muffin or patty tins. If you choose to bake it as a whole cake, increase the cooking time to about an hour at 180C.   

Departing from tradition, I also added a sugary cinnamon coating on these that gives a donut-like flavour, but they’re just as good slathered with pure, creamy butter. A drizzle of melted dark chocolate over the top of the cake gives it a distinctive German Christmas flavour.

Keeping time varies, out of the fridge it keeps about 2 weeks. It improves with age, and tradition says that it should be kept in a container with a slice of bread to preserve its freshness. Makes 10 individual cakes or one loaf.

Cake
2 cups self raising flour
½ cup dark brown sugar
cup golden syrup
1 cup milk
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground Dutch cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp grated nutmeg
pinch of salt

Topping (optional)
1 tsp ground Dutch cinnamon
4 tbsp caster sugar
5 tbsp melted unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 180C for loaf, for individual cakes bake at 150C. Combine all cake mixture ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix to a smooth paste. It should fall in a ribbon from the spoon. Grease a 23cm x 10cm loaf tin, or individual cake moulds. Fill with the cake mix and slam on the bench top to remove bubbles.  Bake loaf tin for approximately one hour or individual cakes for 25 minutes, insert a skewer to come out clean to check if they are cooked.

Topping for small cakes
While cakes are still warm brush lightly with melted butter and roll twice in combined cinnamon and sugar.