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The Humble Rusk

I've never been much of a political animal. But ever since you, Mr. Job Cohen, former mayor of Amsterdam, were called upon by national politics and gave up your position, there has been a growing unease within me.

Sometimes things are as futile as they are; you just happen to be the man in charge for the biggest stretch of time in the city that I live in and love so much. And quite frankly: I miss you here. Even though your successor is doing just fine, I'd rather have you back tomorrow if that would be possible, which it probably isn't.

Strolls

You are in my heart for all the times I have seen you rushing past through the streets and for all your strolls with your wife on a sunny afternoon along the canals. Might I have lived a little further away from your residence, I probably would not have crossed your path as many times as I did, but in the end that doesn't matter.For me you were simply there, like all the rest of us. Visible, down to earth and devoted as much to our city as to your wife. As we say in Dutch; "kom er nog maar es om"

You were called onto the national political stage to find an answer to the populist politics that are quickly gaining ground in The Netherlands. The political game is changing fast in troubled times. Scaring people into believing almost anything has never been easier.

Now you are there, and not here.

The plan was to have you lead the country, you ended up in the opposition instead. The government that was formed has all the characteristics you would expect from a political field that is jolted by something new and unexpected; the populist was put on a special bench where he was thought to do the least harm.

That hasn't turned out to be quite the case. As a matter of fact the opposite was happening; the populist knew his game quite well and found out he could simply shout some populist doo dah, draw the curtains whenever he felt it like it and become invisible.

Whilst Trying

It's been said that populist politics can't be beaten without joining them, and there, my friend, (for even if I have not spoken to you in person I hope you will allow me to call you just that) you stand out from the crowd.

Time and time again, also on the occasions where you were reportedly "slashed" in a public debate, I have never ever seen you make one populist move.

My guess is some milder forms of populism are inherent to politics, and maybe you are just doing quite well at hiding it from me, but even if that is the case, it doesn't really matter.

For every time I see you struggle to find an alternative to this apparent new set of rules in politics, I like you a little more, even if you "lose" the argument whilst trying.

I don't think things are as simple as left and right or black and white. Regardless of the polarizing times we live in, the only right thing to do is what you are doing; refusing to play THAT game, even though I suspect you could be quite good at it, I can't really imagine you ever giving into the temptation. Ah, well, maybe when you were younger.

Something Good

If you ask me (but then again don't!) the populist's game is nearing its end. That seems to be inherent to populist politics: its effects peter out quite fast if not fed regularly by tangible results.

This blog you are (probably not) reading is about bread. So, as much as I like you, I have to come up with something BREAD in this letter to you for it to have any sense whatsoever. I have been forgiven before for making rather odd connections between bread and.... well, almost all other stuff in life :-), I hope I have enough credit left to throw around a lot of words before sharing what I'm here for; a straightforward recipe for something good!

I could be really corny and say; well people, here is your recipe; Do as Mr. Job Cohen, the former mayor of Amsterdam; Don't pay too much attention to squeaking wheels that get all the oil; after a while they get so slippery, they will derail themselves! That wouldn't work though... because they can't eat it!

So instead I will dedicate my latest bake to you; the humble rusk, or "beschuiten" as you and I would call them. It's hardly the sexiest bread in the world, and it doesn't promise you more than it can live up to. We all keep a roll of them in our cupboards though. For when we need them; for comfort, for joy and when it is the only thing our sometimes sick bodies will accept. Straightforward, simple, honest, reliable and here to stay!

The Humble Rusk

The Romans called it "biscotum"; it was the sort of bread that was great when you were conquering the world. ""Baked twice" is what it means. With most moisture baked out of the bread it will keep almost indefinitely! Nowadays that same word still reverberates in the French "biscuit" and the Italian "biscotti".

In the "Golden Age" (that period in the Netherlands between 1600-1700 where at a certain time a tulip bulb would sell for the price of a house...) the merchant ships, leaving all from an area just above Amsterdam, took the "beschuit" on board as their preferred bread. In no time there were 150 bakeries in the area, all dedicated to baking "scheepsbeschuit".

Around the 18th century, the rusk started to look like the airy biscuit it is today. Bakers started using yeast to make the rather tough biscuit lighter. Later on they added eggs as an emulsifier, and sugar. Around this time as well, the "Zwieback" started to gain popularity. The baked biscuit was cut in half, baked again to dry it out, and lightly toasted.

Beschuit met muisjes

The tradition to serve "beschuit" at the birth of a child started in the same region. When the "beschuit" was still a luxury item that was eaten on festive days, the rich would buy them to celebrate child birth in the community. The "beschuit" was (and still is nowadays) sprinkled with pink, white or blue sugarcoated aniseeds, an echo of the ancient tradition to sprinkle the baby with rye kernels for blessing.

The sugarcoated aniseeds are called "mice" in Dutch. The coated aniseeds with their little tails resemble a mouse (symbol of fertility) . The anise  was also said to have a wholesome effect on breast milk production.

The beschuit can be found in literally every cupboard in the Netherlands. Even those who are not too crazy for them will keep a roll on their shelf for when they need them. When ill it is the perfect comfort food, dunked in some sweet pudding. When you feel queezy and nothing else goes down; the beschuit is there to help. It is reliable, it is no nonsense, it is here to stay! Enjoy!

 

A note on Rusk Jelly and Baking Shells

In this recipe I use "rusk jelly". An ingredient not really easy to obtain when you are not living in the Netherlands. Here is where you can buy it if you are eager to give it a try. Rusk Jelly emulsifies by making your dough more alkaline (the opposite of acid). All that is in there is sugar, glucose, vegetable fat, water, emulgator and an alkaline agent. The rusk can be made without the jelly as well by replacing the jelly with the equal amount of corn syrup and egg yolk. Your rusk will be a little less brittle, but still way better than anything you have ever eaten from the supermarket!

The baking shells are essential to get a good shape on your rusk. If you don't have baking shells and want to invest in buying some, here is a place that sells them for a very reasonable price. If you are in the States it might be harder to find them. No worries though, because 9,5 cm baking rings will also work. Provided you have a baking sheet, or even a silpat mat to cover them with, you will do just fine!

Ingredients

for about 24 rusks

210 gr. AP flour

17 gr. fresh yeast

84 gr. water

34 gr. corn syrup

5 gr. sugar

5 gr. milk powder

25 gr. egg yolk

30 gr. rusk jelly (optional)

1½ gr. salt

4½ gr. anise powder

I bake this recipe in two batches. When the time comes to divide the dough I put half of the formed balls in the fridge and start processing the first batch. By the time the first batch goes in the oven, you can take out the slightly chilled dough to prepare them for the second batch.

Equipment

6 round baking shells with a diameter of 9½ cm. Baking rings of that size, covered with a baking sheet will also work!

Method

The Soaker

Mix together ⅔ (140 gr.) of the flour with the water, the yeast, milk powder and ½ (17 gr.) of the corn syrup. Cover and leave to rest at room temperature for about 20 minutes.

The Final Dough

Mix in the eggs and the remaining corn syrup with a few tablespoons of the remaining flour. When incorporated add half of the rusk jelly. When that is mixed in add the remaining flour and salt. Finally add the remaining jelly, sugar and anise powder. Mix on low speed for about 20 to 30 minutes until the dough is very well developed. The ideal dough temperature is 25°C.

Preheat the oven to 240°C

The First Bake

Cover and let the dough rise for about 10 minutes.

Divide the dough into 12 equal pieces of about 30-35 gr. each. Leave them to relax for 10 minutes and then form tight balls and place them on a baking sheet. Cover and leave them to rise for 10 minutes. Flatten and round the pieces to roughly the diameter of your baking shell 2 times during this short rise. Place the well oiled baking shells over the dough and leave them to rise until you can see the dough peep through the little holes on top. Alternatively, place oiled baking rings over the dough and cover with an equally well oiled baking sheet. Bake when almost fully proofed for about 8 minutes on 240°C, turning the tray halfway through the bake to ensure even browning. Take the golden biscuits out of the molds and let them cool completely on a rack.

The Second Bake

Preheat the oven to 50°C. Slice the biscuits in half and put them cut side up in the oven for about 30 to 45 minutes, until they are completely dry and crisp. Place the biscuits under a hot grill until the tops are nice and golden. This will go very fast, only a few seconds!

Leave the rusks to cool completely before eating.

 

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Managing the Water

Secretly I enjoy the way all of us here in the Low Lands are stumbling into 2012. After days of continuous rainfall and storms coming in, the water levels are rapidly rising. A small stretch of dike in the North has broken, but much worse has been avoided so far by doing what the Dutch were born to do, or so it seems; managing the water. In some parts of the country dikes are broken on purpose to give way to the water in a controlled way. Storm barriers are lowered, risen, unfolded, or whatever which genius technical way they have come up with to protect us from the ever hungry rising water. Don't you love it when a system works? These are the moments that your hard-earned tax money is worth every cent you paid, and more! For instead of huffing and puffing and dragging sacks of sand around, I can sit here behind my computer, with dry feet and not worry about a thing. 'Cause I got some one watching out for me, and all of us out here! The Dutch province of Zeeland ("Sealand") is, when it comes to water, the "epitome" of what it means to be living at or under sea level. Looking at this map, I guess you can figure out why.

Luctor et EmergoThe slogan on their weapon shield reads "Luctor et Emergo", translating into "I struggle and emerge". Even though that slogan goes back a long time and actually refers to the struggle against Spanish occupation in the 16th century, the average Dutchman will associate Zeeland with the biggest disaster ever to hit the province on the 1st of February 1953. In a big storm and the flooding that followed, almost 2000 people drowned and 100.000 people lost everything they owned; their houses, their livestock, everything... They struggled, together with the rest of the country and did indeed "emerge". I an epic mission never to let this sort of thing happen again, they constructed this little baby;

Zeeuwse Bolussen

Brought to Zeeland by the bakers of the Portuguese Sephardic Jews who were forced to flee north at the end of the 15th century, these sticky sweet rolls, traditionally shaped in a spiral, quickly became popular with the locals as well, to such an extent that the "Zeeuwse Bolus" has become the signature bake of the province in modern days. That is another thing the Dutch are quite good at; all through history the Netherlands has been a refuge and safe haven for people on the run. Or should I say; another thing the Dutch WERE good at, because nowadays, even though the biggest part of the world still thinks of The Netherlands as a liberal and tolerant place, the Dutch authorities are sending kids who were raised here out of the country just to set an example. Let this recipe for "zeeuwse bolussen" remind us all how something really good can come from opening up to "strangers" in dire need! Luctor et Emergo indeed...

Ingredients
500 gr. All Purpose Flour
7 gr. Salt 5 gr. Instant Yeast
320 gr. Lukewarm Milk
75 gr. Unsalted Butter
250 gr. Brown Sugar
2 TBS cinnamon
zest of one lemon
Method
Combine the flour, yeast, zest and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Work in the softened butter with the tips of your fingers. Add the lukewarm milk. Depending on your flour, you may have to add a little more milk or need to hold a little back. Start with 300 gr. of milk and add more if needed; what you are looking for is a slightly slack dough that will be easy to roll out in strands. Mix until the dough is well-developed, it should pass the window pane test; approximately 10-15 minutes on medium low-speed.

Lightly oil a container, transfer the dough and coat all around with the oil for a first rise of about 45 minutes. After 45 minutes, divide the dough into equal pieces of about 45 grams. You should end up with 14-16 dough pieces. Form the dough pieces into balls and let them rest for 20 minutes, so the dough will be slack enough to form into strands. First roll out all the balls into short strands of about 20 cm.

Mix the brown sugar with the cinnamon and cover your work surface with it . Then roll out the strands in the sugar mixture to a length of about 40 cm. If the dough really resists, you might have to go for a third round of rolling strands after giving it another 10 minutes to relax. Shape the strands into spirals or knots. The spiral is the more traditional way of shaping, but since the rolls come out of the oven really dark brown, I prefer to knot them, just to avoid associations that I won't go into here and now :-)

For spirals: start in the middle and just drape the dough in circles. It is okay to make it look a little rustic and not too neat! For knots: Place a strand horizontally in front of you. Take the ends and form two loops, leaving some space in the middle for proofing. Make a knot on each side of the loop.

Place the formed bolus on a baking sheet, cover and let them proof until puffed and doubled in size, for about 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 250°C/475°F. Bake the "Zeeuwse Bolussen" for about 8 minutes. You want them to be just done, so keep a close eye on your oven. Too long and they will be crusty, too short and they will be gooey.

Please feel free to comment and subscribe if you want me to keep you updated. Also I want to ask you to endorse my growing BreadLab initiative on Facebook; every like gets me closer to realizing a 6 episode "breadomentary", chasing the beast bread the world has to offer. Thanks in advance!

Freerk

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