Amsterdam: A quick guide

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I thought I’d do a quick post about our favourite places in Amsterdam. We so love Amsterdam, and it is our favourite European city. We find the people to be friendly and happy, with generous spirits, and I feel a major affinity to the people and the culture. I could go on for hours about my love for Amsterdam, but I won’t bore you with that. Instead, I’m just going to give you a run down of where to eat, what to eat, what to drink (I’ll give you a hint: it’s always beer), and things to see. I’ve even done the work for you and added all the links you need!

  • Stacey’s Pennywell – The best place to have lunch. Have a Stacey’s All Time Favourite Sandwich. Trust me. It. Is. The. Bomb. Located very close to Rembrandtplein.
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  • Café Luxembourg – Some of the best Croquettes and a very good Eggs Benedict, located on Spui.
  • Coco’s Outback – Out favourite spot for Bitterballen and beer. It’s an Australian pub with very reasonable prices (quite cheap actually), with a good vibe. It’s located right by Rembrandtplein. Bitterballen is an absolute must on your trip.
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  • De Brabantse Aap – Another favourite for Bitterballen, but a little more pricey than Coco’s Outback, located also on Spui.
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  • De Ysbreeker – If you recall, I did a post about our Croque Monsieurs, and I mentioned where the best Croques I’ve ever eaten was. This is the place. Do it. You won’t be sorry. They are pricey, but well worth it. You could also do an Uitsmijter, which is amazing too. Located on Weesperzijde.
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  • De Biertuin – Amazing burgers for a decent price. It’s a little bit further from the centre of the city, so it’s not very touristy. It’s where the local young people hang out, and reservation is a must. Find directions here.
  • Café Stevens – A lovely little bar with an amazing variety of beers to try. It’s quite close to the bustling touristy red-light district (De Wallen), so if you take a stroll down there to have a look-see, Café Stevens is the perfect place to fill your belly with plenty of beer.
  • Café Kale – This is our favourite place to eat Vlammetjes, which is also a must have while you’re there. Located on Weteringschans.
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  • Bar Lempicka – A bar with a great atmosphere, day or night. It’s situated right on the Amstel river in Sarphati straat.
  • Vooges (Harmsen Restaurant) – A lovely place to have dinner, if you’re looking for something that doesn’t include burgers and run of the mill food. The cuisine is exquisite, the service so friendly, and the frites are to die for. Located on Utrechtsestraat
  • McDonalds. Don’t shoot me. Yes, I just suggested you go to McDonalds. But hear me out. The franchises in the Netherlands have a speciality not available anywhere else. And I am recommending that you have it. It’s the McKroket. Try it. Please.
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If you’re staying in Amsterdam for an extended period – and not necessarily in a hotel, then you might need to buy some supplies. Our favourite go-to shop for anything from bread, milk, cheese, to surprisingly tasty ready-made Creme Brulee, meat, wine and everything in between was Albert Heijn. Just a traveller’s tip though – they won’t let you pay with a Visa card. Even if it’s a debit card. There are ATM’s in the shop though, so it’s not that big of a deal.

For more of a farmer’s market feel, you should definitely visit Albert Cuypmarkt. It has fresh (FRESH) fish, homemade breads, cheeses of all shapes and colours, poultry, fresh vegetables and flowers. While you’re there, stop by the Stroopwafel stall, and get a fresh and hot Stroopwafel. It will change your life. It is crispy on the outside, made with a ginger and cinnamon infused dough, filled with a sweet, all-butter, very sticky and sweet caramel. Mmmhmmm. You can also find almost anything else at the market, from socks, to beads, crockery, fabric and upholstery, clothing, shoes and bags. It’s a lovely outing.
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You can’t visit Amsterdam without doing the historical and cultural circuit. So here’s a quick run down. I’m going to start with the Anne Frank House. We go every time we’re there. I’ll keep going. Every time. It is something so powerful, a humbling experience like no other. It teaches us what humanity can be if we let it. It’s a somber reminder of what cruelty truly is. It also teaches us that the human spirit is an unyielding and beautiful thing. You really should visit. You can (and I recommend that you do) book your tickets in advance online. And try to book it for the earliest time slot possible. It gets busy, and it’s really an experience you want to have when there aren’t that many people around. And please, if your children are not old enough to understand the gravity of the place they’re standing in, keep them reigned in. The people who go there have an emotional experience, and unruly little brats running around screaming, not only lessens – nay, ruins – the experience for other visitors, but makes you look bad too. (Preaching over) When you’re done there, you can pop in right next door at the Westerkerk. There is also the Oude Kerk to visit, which is located right by the red-light district. Two museums worth seeing: Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum. You can buy your tickets online. Try to get there early too, to avoid the masses.

The squares I mentioned in the food section of this post, are all beautiful places too. Even if you don’t visit the restaurants, take a stroll through Rembrandtplein, Leidseplein, Frederiksplein and Spui. For shopping I highly recommend going to Kalverstraat. You can find just about anything there, and it includes some of the world’s most popular brands – like Guess, Steve Madden, Levi, Fossil and so on. You should be able to pick up some great bargains if you’re there around the time that they have end of season sales. I also love walking through Utrechtsestraat, which has more of a quirky feel to it, with smaller stores, speciality shops and small eateries. It also happens to be very pretty. If you happen to be strolling through Utrechtsestraat, you should pop into Kaldi. It’s a speciality coffee and tea shop, where I could spend hours selecting teas. It’s lovely. My last little shopping gem is the 9 Straatjes. It is a 3 streets x 3 streets block of little cafés and specialty stores, ranging from a shop that exclusively sells buttons, another selling only board games, vintage shops, toothbrush shops and tea shops. The shops there only open at 11am on a Monday – remember that.

In terms of transport, you could rent a bicycle and do it the way the locals do it. I don’t though. The rules are very different than they are in my country, there are trams all over the place, cars, buses and pedestrians. It’s scary. But if you have the bravery – go for it! Many family members adore cycling in Amsterdam. I prefer using the trams and metros when I need to, but we tend to walk most places we go. In fact, the walking helps ease the guilt of consuming so much beer and Bitterballen. You can buy a chip card to use on the metros and trams, which works on a prepaid basis. You load your card with a certain amount, and every time you use it the card will be deducted with the fee of your trip. This is important though: REMEMBER TO CHECK OUT EVERY TIME YOU GET OFF. Other wise it will deduct about 4 Euros from your card. The trams are very easy to use, super accessible and there are regular trams coming and going throughout the city. There’s a very useful app that you can download which can tell you which tram to take depending on your destination, and their stops, and their times. The app can be downloaded on iPhones and Android phones – just search for 9292 OV app.

That’s it from me, I think. If you have the opportunity to see Amsterdam, you should grab it. It is a magical place.

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The Girls Who Bake: March 2014

Yes, it’s that time again! Settle in, grab a cup of hot coffee, and share our latest baking shenanigans! For our latest installment of Baking Day, it was my turn to host again! I spent a lot of time thinking about what recipes to try. We’ve done cupcakes/muffins three times in a row. So that was out. We did some form of filled-rolled-baked-rolls. So that too, was out. I also had to take my brother in law into consideration – who doesn’t like cream cheese frosting. I know, I know! Absurd! Who doesn’t like cream cheese frosting?? Be that as it may, (and that being incomprehensible), I just knew I couldn’t whip out my cream cheese again. I would get some serious stink-eye action from him. I also thought about how we always tend to bake sweets. Which isn’t necessarily what Baking Day is about. The only rule is to choose recipes that we haven’t baked before. And that’s when I decided – to hell with sweets! (Wait! Wait just a minute before you chastise me. I didn’t mean it. Only for the purpose of hosting baking day would I give up sweets. Promise.) So I chose two savoury recipes. I also decided that in between all the baking and drinking, I should whip up some real food too – to feed the masses as it were. We were baking for 8 this time and 6 would stay for dinner. I’ll do a lasagna recipe later, because I forgot to photograph it before we dove into the well deserved dinner.

I chose to make two forms of doughy delights. The first, being a deliciously dense, somewhat sweet, somewhat salty Bacon and Sweetcorn Bread. I got the recipe from one of my work friends, who brought a loaf in for us a couple of weeks ago. We finished it before lunchtime was even close. I decided to add bacon to the recipe. Because BACON. And sweet and salty goes so well together. It is intensely satisfying, and ridiculously easy to make. If you’re a novice (much like me), and afraid to jump into baking – start with this. It is absolutely foolproof. The second item on my savoury menu was actually quite easy to decide on. It’s something I’ve always wanted to try, and regret not having when I had a 12 hour layover in New York on my way to Cancun two years ago. I decided to get my Americana on, and go for Soft Pretzels with a Beer Cheese sauce. Yeah. Think about that for a minute… I’ll wait. Now, all together… USA! USA! USA!

The day started out quite frantic. I had to race to the shops, to get my ingredients. Then to the liquor store (obviously). On my way home, my sister phoned me to tell me they were already at the gate. I got home, dropped the groceries, my sister and I jumped back in the car, liquor store again (for her and her husband’s consumption), grocery store again (for dinner ingredients), and when we got back, my beau’s sister was already there. Her husband would join us after his round of golf. Also joining us for the first time was the beau’s younger brother’s wife. (What a description… From now on I’ll just refer to them as my sister-in-laws. It’ll be true soon enough anyway.)

If you’re planning to try the pretzels, make sure you have quite a bit of time. They have to proof twice. And the rolling part takes some patience too. But I’d like to start with the Bacon and Sweetcorn Bread.

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Bacon and Sweetcorn Bread (makes 1 Loaf)

Ingredients

500g Self-Raising Flour
1 can (415g) Creamed Sweetcorn
1 can (385g) Condensed Milk
125g Back Bacon (cut into bite-sized bits)

Method

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celcius/ 360 degrees Fahrenheit

Fry your bacon until just crispy. Don’t let it get too crispy, or it will get too hard while baking. I added some salt and pepper to the pan, as well as a healthy dash of sweet chilli sauce. You want enough sweet chilli to just coat all the bacon bits and get them sticky.

In a large mixing bowl, add your self-raising flour, sweetcorn, condensed milk and cooked bacon and mix thoroughly by hand. The mixture will be quite stiff, but don’t worry. That’s how it’s supposed to be. When all the flour is incorporated, tip mixture into a greased loaf pan. Bake for 60 min, or until a knife comes out clean. The top should have a gorgeous golden colour. When you take the loaf out of the oven, immediately rub the top of the bread with butter. You can remove the bread from the pan and cover the whole bread with butter to melt, but we didn’t find it necessary. When you’ve slathered the butter onto the bread, cover the bread with a clean dishtowel to steam. You can remove it when the bread has cooled.

That’s it! Easy right? I told you. Now I should note that this recipe makes one loaf, if you have a standard 30cm-ish loafpan. We were using disposable tins so everyone could take one home. In the slightly smaller loaf tins that we used, each batch of dough made 1.5 loaves. So the four batches of dough made 6 loaves. (And I’m glad they did – because it’s delicious and I’m still eating bread!) It’s scrumptious with just a bit of butter on, slightly warm. As the bread gets older, it doesn’t lose it’s moisture. I bring some with me to work in the morning, pop it onto a panini press and lightly toast them. Add to that some golden melty butter and a cup of coffee and breakfast is a treat!

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Looks good right? It really is. Try it. And you know what? Even if you don’t love sweetcorn, the taste isn’t really overpowering. It just adds a sweet, creaminess to the bread. Delectable. I wish I brought some extra today…

On to the more challenging part of this post. The soft pretzels. These are baked until golden and puffy, the crystals of salt baked on to the tops. We did half with salt, and half with sesame seeds, which added a nutty depth which I found delightfully surprising. We found the rolling of the dough into strips quite challenging, since the recipe didn’t give us any helpful tips. But don’t fear! That is why we endeavour these challenges. So that I can give you the tips that you might not find in a normal recipe. But more on that later. I found the recipe here and here.

Soft Pretzels with Beer Cheese Sauce (makes 8)

Ingredients:

1 cup warm water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 1/2 to 3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup baking soda
1 tablespoon barley malt syrup, rice syrup, or dark brown sugar (We used dark brown sugar)
1 large egg, whisked with 2 tablespoons warm water
Coarse sea salt or pretzel salt

Method

  1. Make the pretzel dough: Combine the warm water and yeast in a medium-sized bowl. Let stand a few minutes, then stir to dissolve the yeast. Add 2 1/2 cups of the flour, sugar, and salt. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a floury, shaggy dough.
  2. Knead the dough: Knead the dough against the counter for 5 to 7 minutes. The dough has finished kneading when it is soft, slightly tacky, and holds a ball-shape.
  3. Let the dough rise: Clean out the bowl, film it with oil, and return the dough to the bowl. Cover and let rise somewhere warm until the dough is doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

→ Make Ahead Tip: At this point, the pretzel dough can be refrigerated for up to three days or frozen for three months. Thaw frozen dough in the refrigerator before using. Refrigerated dough can be shaped into pretzels while still cold, but allow some extra time for the pretzels to puff up before dipping and baking.

  1. Divide the dough: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Use a bench scraper to divide the dough into 8 equal pieces.
  2. Shape the pretzels: Working with one piece of dough a time, roll the dough into a long, skinny rope against the counter using the palms of your hands. Aim for a rope about 20 inches long. If it shrinks back on you, set it aside, roll another piece of dough, and come back to it after it’s rested a few minutes. We found that this way was extremely hard, and we couldn’t get the dough to 20 inches long. What we did was this (it was easier and made for a good couple of dirty jokes and many a giggle…I was also very unceremoniously slapped in the face with a rope of dough by my sister): I rolled the dough into a rope that was about 6 inches long. You can do that easily between your hands or on the counter. Then, my sister held the top part of the rope, and with a back and forth motion of my hands, I rolled the dough thinner and thinner towards the end of it. Then we would just swop the ends and repeat to get a long rope of even width.
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  3.  Lift the ends of the rope toward the top of your work surface and cross them. Cross them one more time to make a twist, then fold the twist back down over the bottom loop to form a pretzel shape. Set the pretzel on a parchment-lined baking sheet and continue shaping the rest of the pretzels. When all the pretzels are shaped, cover them loosely and set them aside to rise until puffy, 20 to 30 minutes.
  4. Preheat the oven to 230°C/450°F. Place a rack in the middle-bottom position.
  5. Prepare the water bath: When the pretzels are starting to look puffy, measure 8 cups of water into a large, wide pot and set over high heat. Make sure the pot has high sides because the water will foam, nearly doubling in volume, when you add the baking soda. Bring the water to a rapid simmer, then add the baking soda and the dark brown sugar/barley malt syrup/rice syrup. The baking soda will make the water foam up the sides of the pot. Stir to dissolve the baking soda and syrup, then reduce the heat to medium to maintain a simmer.
  6. Boil the pretzels: Lower 2 to 3 pretzels into the water bath — as many as will fit without crowding. Simmer for 30 seconds, then use a slotted spoon to flip the pretzels over. Simmer for another 30 seconds, then scoop the pretzels out of the water and return them to the baking sheet. While in the water bath, the pretzels will puff and take on a doughy, puckered appearance. Repeat with the remaining pretzels.
  7. Brush with egg and sprinkle with salt: Once all the pretzels have been dipped in the water bath, brush them with the egg and water mixture and sprinkle them with salt.
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  8. Bake the pretzels: Bake the pretzels until they are deep brown and glossy, 12 to 15 minutes.
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  9. Cool and eat! Transfer the pretzels to a cooling rack and let sit until cool enough to handle. Pretzels are best when eaten fresh and hot, but will still be good for up to a day later. Store them in a paper bag at room temperature. While they’re cooling, you can make your Beer Cheese Sauce.

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Beer Cheese Sauce

Ingredients

2-3 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups light beer
1 cup heavy cream
2 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste

Method

  1. In a saucepan over medium heat, add the butter, stirring until melted. Add in the garlic and cook until the garlic is golden brown.
  2. Add in the flour, stirring constantly for 2-3 minutes. The color will begin to change to golden, and this is what you want to achieve. Add in the beer and the heavy cream, continuing to constantly stir the mixture. Bring to a simmer and remove the saucepan from the heat.
  3. Begin adding in the shredded cheese in small amounts while whisking the sauce mixture until you have reached the desired consistency.

Now take that happy, soothing, pale yellow cheese sauce and serve with your warmish pretzels. As you tear off a piece, dip it and greedily pop it in your mouth before you waste one little bit of a drop, you’re transported to what I imagine going to a Baseball game would be like. Or having a bunch of people over for Superbowl Sunday.

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It was everything I imagined. It made me happy. And that, my darlings, is what baking is ultimately about, isn’t it? Doing what makes you happy. And boy, it does.

Scrumptious Sunday: Croque Madame & Monsieur

Hi kids!

Our latest Scrumptious Sunday took a decidedly French twist when we decided that our next experiment would be Croques. It was my absolute favourite breakfast/brunch, but you just know it’s yummy enough to eat any time of the day. There is a restaurant in Amsterdam (one of our favourites) that makes the best Croque Monsieur I have ever had the privilege to devour (stuffing my face would be a more accurate description). Seriously, if you find yourself in Amsterdam, make sure to drop by De Ysbreeker and have a Croque Monsieur. The rest of their food is excellent too, and you can get anything from a muffin, croissant, full on breakfasts, sandwiches and even soups and things… Another recommendation to have there is an Uitsmijter. Go ahead. Click on the link. Get ready to drool. I’m getting distracted again. Let’s get back on track. Here’s a look at the Croque Monsieur I had at De Ysbreeker.

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You can find a Croque Monsieur or Madame at most cafés in France too, but oddly enough – I enjoyed my Amsterdam one more than the couple I had in Paris. The basic formula for a Croque is some good, thickly sliced, fresh, almost sweet white bread, some ham, some cheese (more than one type FYI) and a Béchamel so good it tastes like it could have dripped straight from heaven onto your bread. It’s warm, and salty from the ham, and sweet from the bread, and savoury from the cheeses and oh so gooey from that Béchamel. The difference between a Croque Monsieur and a Croque Madame is an egg. That simple. The Monsieur is sans egg, the Madame, well, you can guess I’m sure, has the egg. So predictable. Ironically, whenever the beau didn’t have an Uitsmijter, he would have a Croque Madame. We had a couple of Har-di-har-har moments with some waiters in Paris… “One Monsieur for ze Madame, one Madame for ze Monsieur..” Har-har-har. I know you’re rolling your eyes at me. That’s okay. We know the level of corny I can reach is astronomical. Enough chit chat though, let’s get to it. We used a Barefoot Contessa recipe. As much as the beau disdains watching Ina’s show (he’s fine with all the other food programs I watch, just not HERS), I adore her.

We found that the most efficient way was to start with the Béchamel. Once that’s done, you can let it stand since it will be warmed up in the oven again anyway. Also – grate your cheese before you start assembly. Get everything in order so that it goes smoothly. The less stress in the kitchen, the better time you’ll have. So here’s the recipe (from here):

Croque Monsieur

Ingredients

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups hot milk
1 teaspoon Maldon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch nutmeg
5 cups Gruyere, grated (We used a strong Cheddar – Gruyere is ridiculously expensive in South Africa)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
8 slices white sandwich bread
Dijon mustard (I used some of my homemade mustard – I’ll share the recipe next week when I cook up a new batch)
4 slices ham (anything should do fine – we used Cooked Ham), sliced but not paper thin

Method

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius/ 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Melt the butter over low heat in a small saucepan and add the flour all at once, stirring with a wooden spoon for 2 minutes. Slowly pour the hot milk into the butter–flour mixture and cook, whisking constantly, until the sauce is thickened. Off the heat add the salt, pepper, nutmeg, 1/2 cup grated Gruyere/Cheddar, and the Parmesan and set aside.

To toast the bread, place the slices on baking sheets and bake for 5 minutes. Turn each slice and bake for another 2 minutes, until toasted.

Lightly brush half the toasted breads with mustard, add a slice of ham to each, and sprinkle with half the remaining Gruyere/Cheddar. Top with another piece of toasted bread. Slather the tops with the cheese sauce, sprinkle with the remaining Gruyere/Cheddar, and bake the sandwiches for 5 minutes. Turn on the broiler and broil for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the topping is bubbly and lightly browned. Serve hot.

To make this into a Madame, fry an egg when the sandwiches are ready to be broiled, and when they come out, just slide the egg on top. Easy-peasy, right? I will say this though: next time I’d want to try it with the Gruyere. They were really good the way we made them, and you shouldn’t even for one second doubt whether to make this if you don’t have Gruyere. They were delicious with the cheddar. And melty. And really satisfying. The perfect end to a Sunday. I just think that the Gruyere would add more of a sharp and savoury note, and give it that final touch of authenticity. Here are our results:

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Give it a try… You won’t be sorry. I promise.

Much Love