23 December 2013

Picturing Christmas: December 16 - 21

As it turns out, preparing for Christmas has taken more time than I would have expected, so the blog has taken a bit of a back seat the last few days. I'll go ahead and assume that this trend may continue a bit through the rest of the holiday season. BUT, I'll continue to at least get the Picturing Christmas December photo challenge photos up. Today I'm putting up the 16th through the 21st. Perhaps I'll get the next group of pictures up before Christmas. Here's hoping!

 December 16: Mistletoe

I knew I didn't have any mistletoe in the house (and I'm not even sure if this is something that the Dutch consider part of a Christmas tradition); but I then realized I didn't know what it actually looked like. Thanks, Google!

 December 17: Silent Night 

I think it's hard not to think of the star over Bethlehem when thinking about "Silent Night".

 December 18: Santa 

We've had this Santa for a very long time. When we got married, it came along in the box of Mark's ornaments from childhood. And he fits nicely on our red chairs.

 December 19: Cookie 

My friend made some delicious German Christmas cookies and brought them over to share. Lekker!

 December 20: Candy Cane

This garland is extra delicious with the candy cane. And Little Man is always happy to have snoepjes (sweets) in close range.

December 21: Party

No "normal" Christmas party for us this year - but there's nothing wrong with a cookie making party! A total of 5 different kinds of cookies came out of this endeavor.

15 December 2013

Picturing Christmas: December 10 - 15

Apparently I am still not on the ball with my photo challenge for the month of December... BUT here are the last few days, so I'll get myself all caught up again (for now).

December 10: Gift

We don't often wrap gifts for each other, so I had nothing wrapped to take a photo. And then this little ditty arrived in the post as part of an advertisement for some sort of winter park. I cut it out and folded it up, and Little Man gave it to one of his Lego animals.

December 11: Nativity

This nativity was given to us by Mark's parents for Christmas 2006. I love the colors of it and the details included on the individual pieces to tell the Christmas story.

December 12: Smell

In preparation for St. Lucia's Day on the 13th, I made my St. Lucia's buns on the 12th. The smell is delicious and it filled the kitchen. To me, this is part of the lead up to Christmas.

December 13: Lights

We haven't had lights on our little Christmas tree the last couple years, but luckily other people do! This tree was actually outside the Tilburg central station, and easy to get up close to take a picture.

December 14: Service

O Come, O Come Emmanuel is among my favorite Christmas hymns, and it's just about always sung at Christmas Eve service.

December 15: Ornament

This ornament was given to me as a child by a dear man that I thought of as a grandfather figure. Frank was a very sweet man that had a box of orange Tic Tacs for me at church every Sunday and treated me like a family member. This little bear goes out every year to remind me of him.

13 December 2013

Christmas Market/Fair Maastricht

Saint Lucia's Day - and Birthday Eats

Today is St. Lucia's Day! Traditionally, Saint Lucia's Day (13 December) is celebrated in Scandinavia and Italy. Saint Lucia (also known as St. Lucy) and the reason for her feast day is derived from two different stories. In one, St. Lucia is believed to be one of the Christian martyrs that suffered a particularly gruesome death during a period of persecution by the Romans. In the other story (the one I learned growing up), she was assisting Christians hiding in catacombs during Roman persecution; and in order to carry as many food and supplies as possible, she freed her hands by making a wreath of candles that she wore on her head to light the way.

My mother's family has Scandinavian roots (Danish and Swedish), and we would often celebrate St. Lucia's Day in a small way in tandem with my birthday. We frequently made St. Lucia's buns (little breads - get your mind out of the gutter) to eat on the day; and while we never did a traditional procession, I did own a white gown and wreath of candles (along with Kirsten, the American Girl doll that was a Swedish immigrant) - just in case. To me, these taste like my birthday and taste like home.

This year, I decided to make a batch of St. Lucia's buns. I was a little worried because the convection oven and I haven't yet come to an agreement as to how things should be cooked and because I've only made one or two batches without my mom's help. But they were a success (phew!), so I'm sharing the recipe with you today. Even if you're not celebrating, these delicious treats are worth the time and effort that go into making them.

1 package active dry yeast
1/4 c. warm water
3/4 c. milk
1/2 c. butter
1 tsp. saffron
1/2 c. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
2 eggs
3.5 to 4 c. four
1 beaten egg

The method:

About 90% of this recipe is "preparation" because the bake time is only about 10 minutes. So, be prepared. There's about 20 minutes to prepare the dough, nearly 2 hours of time spent for letting the dough rise, and about 20-30 minutes to form the buns.

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. I decided to use my electric kettle to get the water just below the boiling point. You will need to stir the yeast often to get it fully dissolved.

Looks good, right?

Scald the milk on the stove. My understanding of "scald" means just get it to where the milk starts to boil. This has seemed to work so far. Then add the butter to the milk, stirring until it is fully melted. Let the mixture cool until it is lukewarm.

Scalded milk and butter

Using a pestle and mortar, grind the saffron with 1 tsp. of sugar. Yes, this recipe is basically the only reason I own a pestle and mortar - I was thinking of this recipe when I added it to our wedding registry... The sugar/saffron mix should look like a tinged red powder when you're done.

Just in case you need to know, this is what saffron looks like. It's also
something like 25,000 euros for a kilo, so don't be too shocked at the price.
Also, I needed 3 of these to make a teaspoon, something I didn't realize til the milk was scalding.
Pulverized saffron and sugar

Add 1 Tbs. of your butter milk mix to the sugar/saffron mix and mix through. It will turn a vibrant yellow from the saffron.

Add the sugar/saffron mix, your sugar, salt, and eggs to the dissolved yeast and beat the mix until well blended. Stir in 1.5 cups of flour (adding a 1/2 c. at a time) and beat the mix until it is ribbony-smooth.

Saffron turns things vibrant yellow, so watch out for your clothes.


Then add the remaining flour (again, adding 1/2 c. at a time) to make the dough stiff and bread-doughy. You will likely need to kneed in the remaining flour as it gets stiffer. (This time around, I ended up adding about 3.75 c. flour total - add to what you feel comfortable for your dough.)

Completed dough

Leave the dough to sit for 15 minutes.

Lightly oil the bottom of a large, clean bowl. Add the dough, and turn over in the oil to evenly coat it. Cover with a tea towel or cheese cloth and leave in a warm place to rise for an hour. After rising, the dough should have doubled in size.

I like to cheat and set it directly on my heater in the kitchen.

Place your risen dough on a floured surface, and kneed it down. Then divide the dough into 32 even(ish) pieces to make 16 buns. I find that it's best to have the pieces that will be making the same bun even size since the buns will (ideally) be symmetrical.

I say even-ish because there's no way I will ever succeed
in actually getting these even.

Make a long "snake" out of each piece, about 7 or 8 inches long. Put two "snakes" parallel to each other, then curl in the ends to make something sort of like a bow.



Put all of your buns on baking paper, and allow to rise for another half an hour so the buns look puffy.

Risen, puffy bows!

Before baking, brush the tops with the beaten egg. (I forgot to do this, so there's no picture.)

Bake at 450 F/230 C for 10 minutes. The tops should be a golden brown and the dough cooked all the way through.

Completed and delicious!

Enjoy! Traditionally, these buns are served in the morning with coffee - but they go great as a snack with a cup of tea, too.

12 December 2013

Language Frustration

I've hit a point in the last couple of weeks in which I have realized I am smack in the middle of a learning plateau. Plateaus can happen to anyone at any time, whether you're working to lose weight or to gain a new skill (like a language); and while I'm sympathetic to others when it happens to them, I am not so forgiving to myself.

This pretty much sums up how I've been feeling.
Picture courtesy of: stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I am very frustrated with learning Dutch right now, and with myself for feeling like I'm not any better at communicating. Most of the time I have felt like I could see my progress and even though there has always been a long way to go, I felt like I was moving towards improvement. But during the last couple weeks, I have felt stuck. I'm spending more time than I was before Little Man started school on my studies but I feel like I've actually moved backward. I feel like I'm having trouble recalling vocabulary and grammar rules that were pretty solid in my brain. I'm making more "small talk" than I was before with other parents and teachers, but I feel like my brain is getting jammed halfway through a thought more often than not. I'd like to think that I'm able to be rather witty and expressive in English - in Dutch I'm capable of asking where the butter is in the store or apologizing that my Dutch isn't very good. It's an interesting dynamic where I feel "normal" and "intelligent" in my own tongue and downright stupid in Dutch. It's almost like having two different personalities, and while I know I'm not (too) crazy, it sort of feels like it.

Clearly, the answer is more studying, more practice. As a teacher, this is what I would tell my students, and I know its the same for me. Practice may not make perfect, but it helps more than you realize at the time. Knowing this doesn't seem to make it any less frustrating, but I'm assuming (and hoping and praying) that this effort will pay off. So I'm still going through my books, trying to talk to people, watching Dutch children's shows, trying to read little news articles here and there, and working on having a bit more patience with myself.

It will come, but I'll be happy when I can climb off this plateau.

10 December 2013

Food in Dutch: Pannenkoeken

It's time for the next installment of the Food in Dutch series! Today I'm bringing you pannenkoeken - Dutch pancakes.

What You Should Know about Pannenkoeken:

North Americans tend to think of pancakes as being a fluffy, light, and sweet breakfast food. But pannenkoeken aren't necessarily sweet or for breakfast. Typically, pannenkoeken are eaten for lunch or dinner and run a wide flavor spectrum from savory to sweet, and pannenkoeken restaurants are easy to find all over the Netherlands (and they are WAY better than any IHOP). There are lots of savory versions of pannenkoeken that make great evening meals - I once had a delicious salmon, spinach, and feta pannenkoek that made for a very filling dinner - but no one will blink if you order a pannenkoek with apples and ijs (ice cream) or slagroom (whipped cream).

The Life in Dutch Recipe:

There are plenty of "topping" combinations to choose from - really whatever you want. But the base of a pannenkoeken recipe is consistent. Boxes of pannenkoeken mix are available at any Dutch grocery store, but you can easily make your own. Here's the recipe we've been using for several months:

1 cup flour (tarwebloem)
1 cup milk (melk)
2 eggs (eieren)
Topping of your choice - e.g. bacon, cheese, apple slices, pineapple slices, etc.

This recipe makes approximately 4 pannenkoeken that are each about the size of a dinner plate.

The Life in Dutch Method:

I will apologize now for the poor photos. The lighting in our kitchen is terrible at night, but the food was good, honest.

Mix flour, milk, and eggs in a large bowl with a whisk until smooth.

Smooth mix of flour, milk, and eggs

Prepare any additional toppings. In this case, we added tomatoes and bacon to our pannenkoeken, which I shopped/cooked before making the pannenkoeken mix.

Melt some butter in your frying pan.

Mmm, butter...

Add the pannenkoeken mix to the pan - I use. Immediately add any additional toppings. Note: In this case, I put some bacon in the pan first to help get the pieces to stick to the batter better. I have no idea if this makes an actually difference or not.

Batter and bacon.

And tomatoes on top.

Cook both sides over medium heat until golden brown. (Hint: The bigger your pannenkoek, the more difficult it is to flip.)


Serve and enjoy.

Lousy picture, delicious pannenkoek

The Result:

This is really a quick and easy recipe that makes for a dinner (or lunch or breakfast) anyone can enjoy. Plain pannenkoeken can be "enhanced" with jelly, peanut butter, Nutella, or the traditional Dutch stroop - a sugary syrup. The pannenkoek, though thin compared to an American/Canadian pancake, are very filling, and depending on your toppings can be even more filling. We've been making pannenkoeken at home with this base recipe for several months, and it works out well every time - just remember to watch the stove so you don't burn anything!

Eet smakelijk! 

09 December 2013

Picturing Christmas: December 7, 8, and 9

December 7: Drink

We decided to go out to a cafe for a change of scenery this weekend, and we ordered a couple of cappuccinos and a hot chocolate (with slagroom, of course). I'm all about warm drinks during the winter, and while tea is my usual go-to, I won't turn down a tasty cappuccino.

December 8: Decoration

This Christmas Cat has been around as long as I can remember. It's something I remember sitting on the stairs every Christmas during my childhood. To be honest, I'm not sure if I nicked this one from the ornament boxes before I left home or if my mom let me take it. So Mom, if I nicked it, I'm sorry, but your grandson keeps making off with it and hiding it in his bedroom, so I think the cycle is complete.

December 9: Tree

Since we weren't sure what future Christmases would be like but I wanted some sort of tree, last year I purchased this tiny little tree. It only stands about a foot tall and has non-breakables on it since Little Man likes to rearrange the decorations every few days, which is also why our angel looks a little tipsy. For now, the tiny tree works for us, and at least I don't have to worry about a cat climbing up it.

Monday Coffee and Getting Ready for the Holidays

It's Monday again and I'm joining up with Molly at The Move to America to reflect on last week and prepare for this week!

The Move to America

Last week was a bit of a blur. We've all been dealing with a cough that just won't die that's also morphed into a sore throat that won't quite die, either. It's sapped quite a bit of my energy (to the point that I took a nap the same time as Little Man most days last week) and I'm been rather lethargic and wholly unmotivated. So not much has been done around here which, as you may guess, is a fantastic thing to happen as you're trying to prepare for Christmas.

Thankfully, Sinterklaas wasn't feeling too lethargic last week, and he also made a stop at our home and left some cool goodies for the Little Man. The carrot and apple left out for Amerigo, the paard van Sinterklaas (Sinterklaas's horse), were eaten and replacedby lots of pepernoten and gummy bears, a chocolate letter, and new toys. A new box of Lego Duplos (a set of "extra" blocks) were left under the Little Man's shoe and the new packs of Playdough were put into his Christmas stocking (since Sinterklaas knows we're American). Little Man's school was closed on Friday so the kids could play with their new toys, and while he did join me for my Dutch lesson, he still had a great time trying out new building combinations and making lots and lots of Playdough snakes. And eating all of his sugary treats. Really the lead up to, and arrival of, Sinterklaas were the big news in this house - and every other home in Holland with children.

Finding the goodies.

Enjoying a large chunk of chocolate letter.

This week, I'm working on getting my motivation back. I've been slacking a bit on my daily photo challenge for December - I'm actually getting the pictures done on time, but not having such success putting them into Instagram and posting them here - but that will (hopefully) change this week.

I'm also finishing going through old clothes and other things around the house that we're clearly not using or needing any more. If anyone can recommend a good place to donate clothes in Tilburg, I'd appreciate it because there are some things that are still in good shape and it would be a pity to put them into the textile recycling bins.

And finally, since this Friday is Saint Lucia's Day, I'm planning on making Saint Lucia buns. They are delicious and well worth the effort needed to create them, especially since they're only done once a year. They go great with coffee or tea, so I'm hoping they come out well. This will only be the second or third time I've made them without my mom, and I'm always suspicious that my devil appliance convection oven will thwart me along the way. Here's hoping!

I'm off to see what I can accomplish for the day - so here's to your week!

06 December 2013

Picturing Christmas: December 5 and December 6

December 5: Warm/Toasty

There's nothing like a warm cup of tea on any cold day. I also tried to coax a cat to sit on my blanket covered lap with tea, but because I wanted it to happen, they slept under the bed.

December 6: Joy

Last night, Sinterklaas left gifts for the Little Man by his Dutch shoe and American stocking. The joy and excitement on his face - he was so happy, and it was so fun to watch.

05 December 2013

Zwarte Piet and the NYT

Today is Sinterklaasavond and the Dutch celebrate in a variety of ways (Ace has given some information about Sinterklaas before). In the meantime, check out today's op-ed in the New York Times about "Why the Dutch Love Black Pete".

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are described like this:

Sinterklaas arrives from Spain by steamboat in late November, travels farther on horseback, climbs onto roofs and on Dec. 5, known as “Pakjesavond,” drops presents through the chimney with the help of the Black Petes, a crew of dark-skinned helpers wearing large earrings who cavort and entertain and, as Dutch parents often tell their children, owe their blackness to chimney soot. 
Black Pete and Sinterklaas also conspire to form a punitive team. In the traditional holiday songs, Sinterklaas brings gifts for good boys and girls; naughty children get a spanking with Black Pete’s bundle of twigs.

The author goes on to describe his theory for the continued existence of Zwarte Piet (who is often played by white-skinned native Dutch in black face) and the protests both for and against a zwarte Zwarte Piet. I don't know whether the author's theory is right or wrong. If nothing else, Zwarte Piet represents our uncomfortable relationship with the past and the continued tension between the old and the new, progress and tradition.

04 December 2013

Picturing Christmas: December 3 and December 4

December 3: Favorite Christmas Movie

This one was a bit hard since we don't own many movies, and none of them are Christmas movies. But when it came down to it, A Christmas Story was the one that kept coming to mind. And really, there are some hilarious moments in it. So I snapped a shot of a still frame.

December 4: Shopping

Christmas isn't the huge gift-giving and shopping holiday. Sinterklaas is the holiday for gift-giving, and even then, not necessarily on the same scale as in the States (or at least the commercials are not nearly as obnoxious). But luckily, today I did have to go out shopping for Christmas related items, so, voila.

03 December 2013

Food in Dutch: Bitterballen

Here it is! The first official installment in the Food in Dutch series!

I wanted to do this series and show some of the "typical Dutch" foods. It seems like the Netherlands isn't really known for its food - and while even Dutch people will tell you the cuisine is often lackluster, there are some delicious dishes that are worth knowing about and trying. 

Most of the dishes that will follow in this series I tried for the first time as I was documenting what I did. Since it was the first time, I'll also discus how easy or difficult it was to make the dish.

I thought that starting out the Food in Dutch series, I'd begin with an appetizer, just as you might do when meeting friends at a restaurant or pub. And to kick everything off, the bitterballen recipe is featured today as the first of the Food in Dutch series.

What You Should Know About Bitterballen

Bitterballen are typical Dutch and delicious - but as an American, I often have a hard time describing them in a way that reflects how good they are. The best I can do is say that bitterballen are essentially fried balls of savory gravy. That kind of description doesn't do too much for the imagination, I know, but trust me, they are fantastic. Even family members that have made faces at the description will agree that the result is really quite good, but there's not a better way of describing it. 

Bitterballen are generally served during borrel - when meeting family or friends for drinks, chatting, or generally catching up. A spread of worst (sausage) and cheese is also common snack food listed on a restaurant's borrel selections - but you really should make sure you try the bitterballen

The Life in Dutch Recipe:

I can't publish the recipe in detail here due to copyright reasons, but you can follow page 45 of Dutch Cooking Today, published by Inmerc in 2007. Google Books offers a preview of the book that can be found here.

The Life in Dutch Method:

I started out by stewing beef, a bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, and pepper in beef broth until the beef was tender.

Beef stewing in broth with herbs and spices.

After the beef was cooked, I drained off 200ml of the broth into a measuring cup. 

Tasty looking, no?

The beef was removed and chopped up into teeny-tiny bits - which was much more time-consuming than I think anyone realized. Mark had to take over the chopping for me while I started the gravy.

Chopped beef

In another pan, melted butter, flour, and the extra beef broth were combined to start the gravy. Technically, I guess this mixture is really a ragout, but I honestly have no idea what the difference is.

Flour to the melted butter

Beef broth to the flour/butter mix.

Once the mixture was bubbly and thick, I added in the chopped beef and add salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste. Everything was stirred in evenly before being transferred to a large, flat dinner plate. The dinner plate went in the refrigerator for 2 hours to chill and solidify.

Beef and further seasoning added to the mix.

Fully mixed gravy.

After the 2 hours, came the gravy mix came out of the refrigerator. Relatively solid.

On the side, I had a bowl of 2 beaten eggs and a bowl of bread crumbs ready to go, and a clean plate for the formed bitterballen.

Now is where it gets tricky. Somehow, you need to divide up the mix into approximately 24 even amounts, then you need to take the gravy and form it into a ball. Have you ever held gravy (I won't judge you if you have)? Even in cold, slightly solid form, it's not so easy to get into a ball shape - and it becomes more difficult the longer the stuff sits out and warms up. 

"Ball" of gravy.
And, yes, the beer becomes an essential ingredient at this point in the process.

I dropped the gravy blob in the breadcrumbs and coated the whole thing. 

Breadcrumb covered gravy blob.

Then a layer of egg. I spooned it on for lack of a better idea.

Now gooey with egg!

And another layer of breadcrumbs and set on a clean plate. Repeat 23 times. Expect to mutter to yourself quite a bit - balls of gravy do not retain their shape willingly. In a perfect world, these would all be roughly the same size and have spherical shapes. I was just happy to be mostly done at this point in the process.

Not quite spherical, but not bad.

Once everything gets on the plate, it's time to deep-fry the bitterballen. (Owning a fryer is one of the typical Dutch things we've adopted.) Put them in with room to bounce around in the basket - we did about 8 at a time for 4 minutes. The goal is to make them golden brown and crispy.

Laying in the fryer.


When you remove them, place them on paper towels to catch the excess oil. 

Allow to cool/drain.

When all are ready, allow to cool for a moment before eating. Then enjoy, especially in borrel style!


The Result:

Despite the awkward shapes and sizes, I think these turned out pretty good. Normally, you can purchase pre-made frozen bitterballen to cook at home, and those all look like normal spheres. But ours had more seasoning and flavor, making them taste better than store-bought. I would make this again, but for the labor put into it, it would have to be a special occasion. 


02 December 2013

Picturing Christmas: December 2

December 2: Advent

When we married we received a very nice, simple, and beautiful Advent wreath with the verses of O' Come, O' Come, Emmanuel engraved around the base. Even in years that I've dropped the ball on decorations in general, this has made it out of the box and onto our kitchen table - and while we may not always remember to light the candles, it's a beautiful reminder whenever I look over at the table.

Monday Coffee and the Start to the Holidays

After a brief break from my Monday posts, I'm happy to be linking back up with Molly at The Move to America for the Monday Coffee Morning Social!

The Move to America

Last week was a bit of a blur as the holidays are getting into motion around here. Sinterklaas will be dropping cadeautjes (little gifts) at our home the evening of 5 December, but we had the chance to see him at the university last Wednesday. Sint always arrives about 3 weeks in advance of "his" day, and so he is still making his rounds around the country, checking in with everyone, and spreading snoepjes (candies), pepernoten (spice cookies), and occasionally, a few advanced cadeautjes. This tour of the country really fuels the kids' excitement - so there is no question of when he is coming.

Sinterklaas visiting at the university

We also got to celebrate Thanksgiving, expat style, over the weekend. A delicious spread of goose, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, red cabbage, peas, corn, and pumpkin pie hit the spot. Good friends and good food always make for a wonderful time! And there are left-overs to be had, which is also exciting.

Little Man was the first at the table... he was very excited for the spread.

This week, Little Man is anticipating the arrival of Sinterklaas and speculating about the possible cadeautjes that will arrive. The house already looks pretty festive since I put up the Christmas decorations last week (I couldn't wait anymore), and we'll enjoy the evening with some delicious food and good company. I'm sure we're missing a lot as far as how to have a "traditional" Sinterklaasavond - right now it's a blend of what we do know about Sinterklaas and how we would do Santa Claus in the States, but that works for us, and if there's anything amiss, I'm sure Little Man will help us to correct it.

Also arriving this week is the start of the Food in Dutch series - with the first post appearing tomorrow. Recipes and photos will be included!

Like many others, we've started the preparation for Christmas. I wanted to have something to reflect my Christmas excitement on the blog, so I decided to do my first daily photo challenge for the month of December, which will be posted here and on Instagram.  You can find the photo topic list and my first "Picturing Christmas" photo here.

We're already off to start our week - Here's to your week and your plans!
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