Recipes and Reminiscing
A few years ago my mother handed me a thick manila envelope full of recipes that she had inherited from my Grandma Henrietta and asked me to transcribe them. “You like this kind of thing.” She said, “And if anyone can decipher these it’s you.”
Her original plan was for me to re-write the recipes to make them legible, then perhaps she, my sister and I could put it together in a sort of family history book. This was before I had a blog and had discovered the magic of vintage and historic food. What I found in that envelope was a major catalyst that led me to where I am now.
Not only were there worn newspaper clippings from the 1960s and 1970s, but also a thick stack of handwritten recipe cards and scraps of paper. Recipes my grandmother had probably started collecting in the 1940’s! Most are on index cards, but some are written on the back of electric bills, hair salon stationery and grocery receipts. In the envelope I also found a collection of recipes from my great aunt Nell (Pieternella), some aging and splatter-stained cards that once belonged to my great aunt Antonia, and even a handful of recipes from three other sisters: Bette, Lena (Engeliena) and Gert (Geertruide). Many of the recipes are mid-century relics, recipes for 1950’s-style fruit cakes, relishes and bizarre gelatin “salads.” Others appear to be even older instructions for making pickles, sauces, bottled foods and – my favorite – traditional Dutch dishes passed down through the family.
As I sifted through these recipes I felt a connection to these women who were young newlyweds and mothers during WWII. Envelope in hand, I couldn’t help but feel sentimental and grateful for the precious few moments I got to spend with my great aunts before they passed away so long ago. Reading their vague and oft-misspelled directions in their own handwriting reminded me of a childhood sitting quietly in a corner so I could be permitted to stay and listen to the old ladies gossip at the very kitchen table that now stands in my dining room. Some of my earliest memories at my grandmother’s house include reading board books with Ann, singing to Nell, playing with decorative Dutch klompen (traditional wooden shoes) when I wasn’t supposed to and of course enjoying many a delicious holiday feast.
My grandma died in 2004 when I was still a teen, followed by Ann the next year. All of their other siblings were already long gone, except for the youngest of the 11 kids who passed away in 2015. A lot could be said about my grandma Etta; about her work ethic, careers, recognition and awards in orthotics and the great pride she took in her humble but very tidy home. I could fill a book with all of the memories. But if she was known for anything in life it was her incredible talent for cooking.
Years ago I was at a family gathering mingling with the last of her generation and listened as two elderly relatives reminisced about life, family and my grandmother’s eccentricities. “Everyone is dead and it’s all water under the bridge,” my late aunt Doris said to me in her delightfully blunt way, “But Etta was one hell of a cook.”
Among the recipe cards I found three separate versions of Oliebollen (literally “oil balls”), which are a traditional Dutch-style doughnut. The oldest of the recipes belonged to my Aunt Ann who was 11 or 12 when the family emigrated to the United States from The Netherlands.
The other two are similar, but differ only slightly with ingredients and methods. There are some directions that are completely illegible, so I filled in the gaps by combining elements of the three cards. The recipe below is a very close adaptation of Ann’s recipe, taking a bit of inspiration from Etta’s. I’ve also reduced the quantities by half because the original makes a lot of oliebollen.
Oliebollen (or “Olie bolie,” as aunt Lena called them) are balls of yeast dough filled with fruit and deep-fried in oil. There are many variations of this recipe out there, but this one uses a traditional plain yeast dough filled with apples and currants. They are not particularly difficult to make, but they do require some patience and, ideally, a food thermometer. These oliebollen are very good and much of the sweetness comes from the sugar topping rather than the dough itself.
- 2 c. / 500 ml. lukewarm or room temperature water (or use 1/2 water, 1/2 beer).
Optional: substitute milk
- 4 cups / 500 g. all-purpose flour
- 1 egg
- 1/2 c. / 100 g. sugar
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/2 c. / 75 g currants and/or raisins
- 1 chopped apple
- 1 dry yeast packet (7 g)
- Additional 1/2 c. warm water + 1 tsp. sugar
- 1 qt vegetable oil
- Powdered sugar and cinnamon for sprinkling
Ann’s basic preparation directions
- Mix all ingredients together.
- Let raise till more than double.
- Spoon dough into oil and cook 5-6 min.
- Roll the powdered sugar or just plain sugar.
- Place in oven 200 degrees. On napkin in about 5 min.
For more in-depth directions, follow my steps below:
Step ONE: Proof the Yeast
Combine 1/2 cup of warm water and about a teaspoon of the sugar and mix. Be sure your water isn’t too hot, no more than about 100 degrees. Sprinkle the yeast on top and let it soak for about 5 minutes, until the mixture becomes bubbly or frothy.
Note: Ann says to just throw all the ingredients in at the same time, but Etta’s recipe says not to. I’m sure you could do it both ways as long as your salt and yeast don’t react. I like to make sure my yeast is active so I chose to do it the way I would with bread.
Step TWO: The Batter
Combine flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl and mix well. Create a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture and egg and mix. Add the 2 cups water or water/beer and blend everything together until smooth. Again, be sure that your liquid isn’t too hot or it will kill the yeast.
Once the batter is smooth – or almost smooth- stir in the currants and apples. The batter is probably quite sticky at this point so you may need to simply fold the fruit in and blend best you can. If you want, go ahead an add raisins too like Etta did. Cover the bowl with a towel and let it rise for an hour.
Note: My grandma used milk in place of the water, which is also very common in modern oliebollen recipes.
Step THREE: Deep Fry
Heat up the oil in a deep pot. Be patient because it is absolutely necessary that the oil is not too hot or too cool when you begin to fry the dough.
There are a few ways to check the temperature of your oil:
- Use a thermometer and heat until it is 375 F / 190 C.
- Tear off a piece of bread and toss it in to see if it sizzles.
- Dip the end of a wooden spoon into the oil to check if it begins to bubble.
Normally I use a wooden spoon to test my oil, but for oliebollen I prefer to use a thermometer.
Dip two spoons into the oil then scoop out the batter. Scrape and drop it into the oil, cooking only a few balls at a time. They will float, and after a couple minutes you may need to flip them over to make sure both sides are a deep golden color.
Step FOUR: Garnish and Serve
Put your oliebollen on a plate lined with a paper towel to soak up the excess oil. Sprinkle or sift granulated or powdered sugar on top and eat while they are still warm. Etta suggests also rolling them in cinnamon.
Ann’s original recipe makes about 4 dozen so in order to keep them from getting cold as the oil dries she put them in a warm oven. You may do that if you find it helpful, but I just garnish and serve as I go.
Oliebollen History and Dutch Culture
The Netherlands has a longstanding tradition of celebrating the New Year with Oliebollen. The cold holiday period between Christmas and Three Kings’ Day (Epiphany) was the perfect time to fry up some sweet dough during the Middle Ages, and the treats were given as gifts to carolers, neighbors and friends (Willem Wever). The ingredients kept well during the winter, and unlike other types of cakes and Christmas breads, a batch of oliebollen could feed a lot of people! Eventually the oliebollen became most closely associated with the New Year (Oud en Nieuw), and they are still a major part of the Dutch holiday. Recipes vary somewhat as to their spices and fillings; raisins, currants and apples are most common and some recipes are plain, sweetened with only spices and sugar.
It is said that the American ring-shaped doughnut is a descendant of Dutch oliebollen. 17th century Dutch immigrants then called them oliekoeken, or “oily cakes,” and brought the recipe to New Amsterdam and other colonies of North America (Paste Magazine). There are multiple theories about how the modern doughnut got its name, one being that English speakers called them “dough knots,” a reference to the distinctive shape of the Dutch oliekoeken. While the American doughnut may have been directly influenced by oliekoeken, the Dutch were hardly the first to fry sweet dough. There is a plethora of ancient fried dough recipes and traditional regional or cultural variants are enjoyed all over the world.
Modern Dutch and Belgian people still enjoy a good oliebol during the holidays, whether made at home or purchased from a street vendor. They are a culinary embodiment of gezellig, a Dutch word describing a feeling that is associated with everything that is comfortable, cozy, warm and shared with friends or family. Simply put, gezellig is the Dutch way of life.
Eet Smakelijk! Bon Apetit!
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