Tuesday, December 7, 2010

More than just a shape

Too long has my heart been broken by hotels with their false promises of Belgian waffles as a part of their complimentary breakfast.  Food is an art to me; labeling pancake batter cooked in a large waffle iron as a Belgian Waffle is no different labeling grape juice as cabernet sauvignon.

So what is a Belgian Waffle you may ask?  Going to Belgium and asking for said waffle will only get you blank stares as they await further specification.  The two primary waffles are the Liege Waffle and Brussels Waffle.  The latter is what we are accustomed to in the United States and have dubbed “Belgian Waffle,” the former a rarity to the American palate.

Liege Waffles are designated so due to the city of their origin, Liege, Belgium, a rather drab city in the French section of Belgium, full of gray stone buildings, enchanting street cafes, and strange homeless people who follow you around attempting to hold a conversation with you in a language you have made apparent you don’t speak, while occasionally riding in a shopping cart and drinking a 40oz beer at 8am……..I digress
Liege Waffles are denser, sweeter, and chewier than their more recognizable (to Americans)counterpart.  Invented in the 18th Century by the personal chef of the prince-bishop of Liege, Liege Waffles feature chunks of pearl sugar which caramelize during cooking, and have a distinct 'I didn’t use enough batter' shape.  These waffles are by far the most popular in Belgium and are sometimes flavored with cinnamon or vanilla, but seldom covered in toppings because they are sweet and delectable enough.  Certain friends of mine do enjoy Liege waffles from the Häagen-Dazs in Brussels, covered in everything that merits the designation of sweet.  If you are in Brussels and plan to buy one from a stand, be sure that they are freshly pressed.  Let me repeat—Make sure you see them cook your waffle with your own eyes because Liege waffles do not sit well.  They become overly chewy and stale-like very quickly.  Packaged Liege Waffles in stores are surprisingly good once toasted and this is the only exception to the fresh made rule. 

Liege Waffles

What most hotels in the United States destroy the concept of is known in Belgium as the Brussels Waffle.  The invention is often erroneously credited to Maurice Vermersch during the 1964 New York World’s Fair, however contemporary Brussels Waffles were first noted in Ghent, Belgium in 1839.  Yes, Brussels Waffles weren’t even invented in Brussels.  9 times out of 10 when I tell an American I have been to Brussels I get the face-palm-inducing reaction of utter confusion as to the whereabouts of this far-off city.  It's the capital of Belgium and the de facto capital of the European Union.

Geography Lesson

The now famous Brusselaar Maurice Vermersch must have been met this same reaction, hence at the New York World's Fair of 1964 he introduced the Brussels Waffle to America as the Bel-Gem Waffle which has evolved into Belgian Waffle.  As with most HIStory, all the credit goes to Maurice Vermersch when it was actually his wife’s recipe.
So why is pancake batter in a funny shape not a Brussels Waffle?  A distinct feature of Brussels Waffles is the use of yeast, as opposed to baking powder, as a leavening agent which gives a distinct flavor and texture.  The large rectangular or circular shape is necessary to allow the batter to expand, thus creating the distinct fluffy texture.  The rectangular shape is by far the most common in Belgium.  Without these TWO distinct qualities you are consuming the metaphorical grape juice.  A good Brussels Waffle is characterized by a perfectly crispy outside with a heaven-inspired fluffy interior and is traditionally eaten with a light coat of confectioner’s sugar.  Whip cream, chocolate, and fruit toppings are designated by locals as merely for tourists and good luck finding maple syrup!

Brussels Waffle

Liege waffles are fairly consistent so I don’t have to recommend specific locations.  The Brussels waffle is more finicky, however.  After much research involving taste-testing and the questioning of locals I have pinpointed the best Brussels Waffle in Brussels.  100% of locals recommended this place and it is a must stop for me on any trip to Brussels; a city which is a must stop on any trip to Europe.  A wise Brusselaar told me that you can tell a place has good waffles if there are a lot of old people there and behold, upon my arrival at Mokafé Taverne I felt like a bingo game would break out at any moment.

Located in the famous Konigsgalerij, Mokafé Taverne offers by far the best waffle I have had in my life.  The texture of the Waffle is the epitome of what a Brussels Waffle should be, the service does justice to Belgium’s French influence, and the prices are amazingly low.  While the other food may be typical tourist prices, the waffles and beer are among the cheapest you will find in all of Grote Markt, if not the entire city.
Below are links for recipes that I found to be successful recreations of these culinary marvels.

I am in no way advertising any establishment of any kind, a concept I will continue as long as I write.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Oh little french lady...

Recent times have seen the creation of a broad range of arterial-busting dishes.  From the infamous Luther Burger to the cringe worthy KFC double down, we are inundated with companies trying to outdo each other for these nefarious assaults on our national waistline.  To think that these blatant assaults on arterial integrity are groundbreaking and contemporary is to be gravely mistaken.  We of the New World must sit back in awe at Old World Portuguese specialty known as the Francesinha.

In the 1960’s Daniel da Silva, an immigrant from France, decided to share his love of Croque-monsieur with his new countrymen.  Instead of using the typical French ingredients, it came to him to adapt to his new surroundings.  Using specialties from the area such as linguiça, chouriço, port wine, and beef cutlet, Daniel da Silva gave birth to the Francesinha; Portuguese for little French lady.  Francesinhas are far from ubiquitous in Portugal however.  One can only find these harbingers of death in the area around Porto, Portugal; a city 3 hours north of Lisbon.
Upon my arrival in Porto after a 3 hour bus ride from Lisbon, I was eager to find the hostel, drop off my things and take on the Francesinha.  With no map of Porto available at the bus station, I knew finding out hostel would be highly frustrating.  Due to an almost indiscernible local dialect the people on the street were of no help so all we could do was walk in the direction of their various pointing gestures.  The pointing led us to a holiday inn, and while I felt bad to ask them for directions to another place to stay, the receptionist’s Brazilian dialect made life much easier.  Porto is a very hilly city, probably enough to make up for any other dish but the 4500 calorie (on average) Francesinha.  Exhausted and frustrated we arrived in the hostel and got a nice description of things to do around the city.  Locals have a saying: Porto works, Braga Prays, Coimbra studies, and Lisbon gets the money.  Porto has historically been that of the working class, so while devoid of major tourist attractions, the city offers an astonishing aura of realism and normalcy compared to that of major tourist destinations.  Once our guide told us where to go and what to do he asked if we had any questions.  With a hint of excitement in my eyes I asked him “Cadê as Francesinhas” (where are the Francesinhas) and was met with a smirk and a point around the corner.  Quickly my friends and I made way to the restaurant only to be stunned that it was closed!  My heart sank but I would not give up on this Francesinha.  While pondering, my gaze went upwards where an older gentlemen was standing on his balcony enjoying the sights.  Startled by my attempt to get his attention he looked down at me with a puzzled expression, straining to hear what I was saying to him.  “CADÊ AS FRANCESINHAS!?”  His puzzled expression immediately mirrored the hotel receptionist’s smirk and with a light laugh he pointed around the next corner.  Tucked in an ally was a quaint little restaurant that happened to be having a 5 Euro special on Francesinhas with fries.  Yes…we were not only expected to eat a Francesinha but we were given a massive bowl of fried potatoes to go with it.  Eventually we all powered through our Francesinhas and fries only to be immediately overcome by a feeling that epitomizes lethargy.  The world seemed to move in slow motion and all thoughts dwelled upon crawling into the bed that while only 1 block away seemed unreachable unless carried.   

Now what exactly is in a Francesinha you might ask and to that I answer magic….Anything that can drain Breanna McDonald (pictured below) of energy, deserves no less a designation.  For those looking for more tangible answers, the Francesinha is linguiça, chouriço, butter-fried beef cutlet, and ham stuffed in between two thick pieces of bread, covered in several slices of cheese, topped with a poached egg and covered with a sauce composed of beer, red wine, port wine, piri piri, crushed tomatoes and a partridge in a pear tree. 
Breanna after a Francesinha

While devoid the secrecy and centuries of history of the Pastel de Belém, the Francesinha is a must try culinary experience while in Portugal.  In case you are feeling self-loathing I will include a link to a recipe and before you ask...yes I have already replicated this masterpiece for my friends and no I wasn't mad at them.

FYI: Porto is Portuguese for Port and is the birthplace of Port Wine!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Pasteis de Nata ou Belém???

After the introduction I have decided to do my first post as a more intricate analysis of the Pastel de Belém.

Pastéis de Nata are ubiquitous in Portugal but a distinction should be made between Pastéis de Nata and Pastiés de Belém.  Translated from Portuguese Pastel de Nata means Pastry of Cream/Cream Pastry.  In Lisbon, Portugal Pastéis de Belém is a title reserved for the delectable pastries made in the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém situtated in the Santa Maria de Belém district of Lisbon, 6km from the city center.  Belém is actually derived from the Portuguese for Bethlehem and is the area from which the famous Portuguese explorers such as Vasco da Gama departed on their world-changing journeys.   Belém is a must-see district for travelers in Lisbon holding such famous landmarks ask the Tower of Belém, The National Archaeological Museum and the Jerónimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos)

The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was paramount in the creation of the Pastel de Belém.  Monasteries were the hub of Portuguese culture during this time as almost all revolved around the church.  Egg whites were actually of important commercial use during this period for things like starching clothes.  As a result there was a surplus of egg yolks, which the nuns of the monastery were charged with utilizing.  The nuns developed many sweet recipes based on egg yolks and the ultimate fruit of their labor was the Pastel de Nata. 
In the 1820’s, due to cultural and political revolution which decreased the significance of monasteries, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was closed down.  The destitute bakers who had guarded the secret of the Pastel de Nata were forced to sell their recipe to Domingo Rafael Alves in 1837.  Since then only a certain privileged few have known the secret ingredient.  The current owner, Pedro Clarinha, a direct descendant of Senhor Alves, has stated that only 3 people in the world know the secret recipe.  Pastries made according to this recipe are the only pastries allowed to be designated Pasteis de Belém.  Copy-cat recipes all over the world are known as Pasteis de Nata.  I have had Pastéis de Nata in over 20 different locations around the world and yes….Pasteis de Belém are unique.

While Pastéis de Belém are unique I would dare to blaspheme and put them in second place among the Pastéis de Nata I have had.  I would further blaspheme to place the best outside of Lisbon…even outside of Portugal and in Brussels, Belgium.  Far from the Grote Markt of Brussels lies the Pastelaria Garcia on the outskirts of town.  This neighborhood is marked by waving Portuguese flags, cramped buildings and questionable side streets but is my first stop I make on a trip to Brussels.  While missing the powdered sugar and cinnamon of the Pastéis de Belém these make up for it with custard with a perfect mixture of smooth vanilla, hint of tangy lemon, creamy texture and sweetness.  I normally buy them and take them across the street to enjoy with an espresso at Café Portugal.

While a perfect replica is impossible, I never imagined how easy it was to make pastéis de nata at home.   The crust is a simple dough known as massa folhada and the custard is a simple mixture of flour, milk, sugar, cinnamon, water, vanilla and egg yolks.

A prepared filo or flaky pastry is a good substitute for self made dough.

Pastéis de Belém are a cultural treasure of Portugal.  To go to Lisbon and not try them is equivalent to not going to Lisbon at all...and Lisbon is an amazing city, not to be missed on any European adventure.  2.5 hours to the north lies the city of Porto, home of Port Wine and one of the most sinister culinary amalgamations I have ever experienced....The Francesinha!!

Intro: Belém

The bus stops you frantically try to read the sign outside since no announcement was made declaring where you are.  Praça do Comércio.  You are there only one tram away from your goal!  To your left is an astonishing view of the ocean, obscured only by a majestic statue of a man on a horse.  To your right a yellow palace-like façade with a magnificent arc in the middle that leads to colorful bustling pedestrian zone full of shops and restaurants.  Immediately you know you are not in Kansas anymore.  As soon as you begin to appreciate the delicate odor of sea-salt in the air, the #15 tram blocks your view.  Back to reality, you climb onto the crowded tram and prepare for one last journey.  The next 20 minutes are filled with stunning views of coastline and bridges to the left and aging yet quaint Mediterranean style buildings to the right.  Belém flashes in the tram and you climb out only to realize you are being followed by almost every person on the tram.  Everyone is headed in one direction but you rush to the front.  You don't even need to see the sign to know you are close to the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém because the line slightly comes out the door.  Most of the crowd has actually walked past this jewel of the Lisbon onto the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos which is where they will probably hear of this place for the first time.  Not you though...you have done your research.  

The long line moves surprisingly fast.  You are asked to move to the left to await your 2 pasteis de belém.  In the back you can see immense quantities of these lisboeta specialties and you peek hoping to catch a glimpse of their secret methods.  No luck...a young man holding up 2 fingers quickly blocks your view... you anxiously nod up and down to his inquisitive facial expression.  He coats your pasteis in cinnamon and powdered sugar and sends you on your way.  Hastily you take the first seat that comes in sight and prepare to dine.  No hesitation, no manners, no one in this world but you.  In one bite you are in a 17th century monastery surrounded by strange women in black and white.  They look like...no they are nuns...and they are enjoying the exact pastry you are.  The scene fades and you find yourself in 1837 sitting next to two men.  One is dressed as a savvy businessman and the other is in tattered dirty clothing.  That must be Domingo Rafael Alves and you must be witnessing the first and last purchase of the recipe for Pasteis de Belém from the destitute baker whose name has faded into obscurity.  You awake from your vision to be pleasantly surprised by the amazing flavor in your mouth.  The tang of the cinnamon and slight sweetness of the powdered sugar have proven to be the perfect addition to an already amazing treat.  These aren't the pasteis from Porto or Brazil...these really are special.  With centuries of history in the palm of your hand, your Portuguese adventure could end right now and have been worth it.  Or at least it was to me....

Perhaps now you can understand my love for food and culture and how to me they are always intertwined.  Dining in the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém is as culturally relevant to me as the narrow and crooked streets of Alfama or the flamboyant ramparts of Sintra.  I have traveled around Europe and experienced things from the richness of the Louvre to the humble origins of Feijoada (yes I know it's primarily Brazilian) and want to share my experience and knowledge with you.  Should you have the same fascination with food and culture, know that we are already friends and I would love nothing more than for you to share your experience and knowledge with me.