Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Waffles n Stuff

Are you a pancake person or a waffle person?

I’m not much of a big, bust-your-gut breakfast person myself (though I can hold my own at a hotel buffet). I’d much rather a pastry or some toast and jam than a Denny’s Grand Slam or a full English breakfast, with their plethora of greasy fried egg and pork products. Give me something sweet and bready every time.

Which is why, if I’m going have a big breakfast (though I actually prefer them for brunch or even dinner) pancakes and waffles are what I go for. I especially like it when fruit is involved: my mom makes a mean apple pancake, to be consumed with liberal amounts of cinnamon and sugar (the secret to a great pancake? Bisquick powdered mix. Don’t knock it, it’s good stuff). She also, very occasionally during the summer if my dad was working late, would let my sister and me have waffles and ice cream for dinner (Bisquick waffles + Neopolitan ice cream = best warm weather dinner ever!). And for much of my middle school years breakfast was an Eggo waffle (blueberry, preferably) cooked either in the toaster, if I craved a crispy start to the day, or microwave if soft and steamy was what I was after, and doused in pure maple syrup (we are decidedly NOT a Mrs. Butterworth’s household).

I was off pancakes and waffles for breakfast for most of high school, but at Binghamton University every dining hall is equipped with Belgian waffle makers, which was exciting. I ended up using them very rarely, however, because invariably either a) they were encrusted in blackened waffle remains because the last person to use it hadn’t sprayed properly; or b) they were broken, and once turned on would spew molten gobs of waffle batter all over the counter and anyone foolish enough to be standing too close, incurring the wrath of the scary dining hall ladies. It was safer to let someone else make breakfast, which my dining hall did every weekend: by the time my teammates and I were done with practice, a cook would be flipping pancakes to order, and nothing hit the spot after a chilly long run more than fresh pancakes. He made them dinner-plate sized and filled them generously with blueberries, bananas, chocolate chips or any combination thereof – one blueberry pancake was usually enough for me, cooked just long enough to not be raw in the middle (and sometimes actually not that long, shh, don’t tell!), and covered in syrup of course (no pure maple in the dining halls, obviously, but the stuff they had wasn’t terrible).

So why am I talking about pancakes and waffles? 

Because I am now in the Netherlands (finally!), a place where these two foodstuffs are taken fairly seriously. Almost every bakery I’ve encountered in Maastricht so far (it’s a small city, but there’s a lot of them around, and in just my first full day here I must have spotted half a dozen at least), as well as the bakery aisles of grocery stores have two types on offer: the thick rectangular waffles are the familiar Belgian variety, though they are not a breakfast food here as in America, but rather a street food (like the way crepes are more of a street food than sit-down breakfast fare in France) sold from stands or out of candy stores like Pinky.

See their waffle counter out front? Here's a close-up shot:

Those kids getting ice cream (which they also have at Pinky, soft-serve only) stared at me like I was crazy for taking pictures of waffles. Pinky also has a variety of pick-your-own candy, which normally gets me really excited, but half their candy appears to be licorice flavored. The Dutch love licorice: I, however, do not.

But back to the waffles. I haven't sampled a Pinky waffle yet, but they smell divine, hot off the griddle, dusted with confectioners sugar and sometimes topped with whipped cream, chocolate sauce and/or fruit (though this is arguably just for tourists and not the “correct” way to eat them).

The second type of waffle common here, and one I am particularly partial to, is a native Dutch specialty called stroopwafels (syrup waffles): thin disks of waffle with a caramel filling. Unlike their Belgian cousins, these are probably as delicious packaged as they are fresh since, due to their chewy, sticky character they are really more like a candy than baked good. I have actually never seen them made fresh anywhere, come to think of it, but they are sold packaged everywhere, including in Starbucks all over Europe (except Maastricht - no Starbucks here! Though there are Burger King, KFC, MacDonald's of course, and, oddly enough, Subway). Observe the packaged stroopwafels from the Albert Heijn supermarket:

Actually those are mini-waffles, but you get the idea.

I have much less experience with Dutch pancakes than with waffles. There’s a restaurant in London that specializes in Dutch-style crepes (pannenkoeken in Dutch), which I never had but which are apparently similar to the French version, only a bit thicker, and in the Netherlands they are more often served in a pannenkoekenhuis (pancake house - like IHOP only good) than on the street. Like French crepes, they can be sweet or savory. I saw quite a few pancake houses in Amsterdam, but haven't run across any in Maastricht yet. Update: there's one on the Vriijthoff square, where the Wednesday and Friday markets are. If I ever get a chance to eat there I'll report back.

Another Dutch speciality are the little puffed pancakes called poffertjes (I think you pronounce the “j” as a “y”), made to be a sweet snack topped with confectioner’s sugar, chocolate sauce, fruit sauce, etc. These I actually tried in London at the Christmas market that set up along the Thames from November through December. They were quite cute, made in a special griddle with little round pockets in it and flipped with a fork-like object. I’ve seen them packaged in supermarkets here, but I’m sure they don’t compare with the fresh ones.

Finally, many of you in the States have probably heard of a “Dutch baby,” a large pancake cooked in a buttered skillet in the oven til it puffs impressively, often made with apples and/or lemon juice. As far as I know, this treat is not actually Dutch in origin, but American, and the word Dutch in its name refers to Pennsylvania Dutch, a group of immigrants in America who are also not actually Dutch, but German, and who supposedly created this treat. So if you've had a Dutch baby and thought you were getting a traditional Dutch speciality, you weren't. Sorry.

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