Sometimes, you can get away with shortcuts and ‘cheats’.
Other times, you can’t, and it’s a matter of keeping an experience authentic, honest and true to heritage. I think everyone would agree that commercial foods and treats aren’t what they used to be. Quality, flavour and size are reduced from what we remember, like the Jamaican Ginger Cake I posted about recently, which is apparently now a shrunken, dry and disappointing shadow of its former self. I have a lot of family in Holland; my mother was Dutch and her cooking ‘set’ my tastes and preferences at an early age. One of the foods I’ve always loved is ontbijtkoek, Dutch ‘breakfast cake’. It’s a rich and heady blend of spices and honey in a sticky loaf form, most often enjoyed spread with butter and accompanied by a cup of coffee. I like it best without butter, so that I can appreciate the full spice flavour.
Like the ginger cake, you can buy a pale shadow of it here in Australia. Just… don’t. It is the size and shape and texture of a brick. It is dry and hard and the colour of baby poo. If you read the ingredient list, it contains exactly one spice and ‘honey flavouring’, as well as a whole load of things that don’t belong in a proper cake.
Instead, you can try the recipe below. I make no claim for originality, only for testing. It, and others very similar, is freely available on the internet in a variety of places if you Google ‘ontbijtkoek’. It contains no eggs or butter, and if you need to be dairy free, you could use unsweetened nut or rice milk. It needs a bit of preparation as it contains no less than nine spices: cinnamon, ginger, clove, nutmeg, cardamon, aniseed, pepper, coriander and vanilla. Together, they provide the authentic aroma and flavour, and a recipe that doesn’t contain the full set does not result in an authentic experience. Rye flour and molasses are also necessary. I do appreciate that not everyone has all that in the pantry, and indeed, I had to go shopping for the aniseed and the rye flour. But if you’re interested in trying this recipe, I’d urge you to at least try for the full set before you decide to modify.
If you love spice, I think you’ll be glad you did. Ontbijtkoek exists in many regional formats, evolved over hundreds of years. It reached its spicy peak when Holland became a major spice trader, the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) or Dutch East India Company bringing to Europe a wealth of exotic flavours. It was a sign of wealth and prestige to incorporate them into your everyday food. We are so accustomed today to the availability of the world’s food wealth that the former heady novelty of tastes as everyday to us as pepper and vanilla is forgotten. Oh, and don’t be tempted to leave the pepper out of this recipe. It has its place among the nine, a gentle hum of heat and a fugitive aroma at the back of the nose.
Without further ado, then:
120g/4oz rye flour
120g/4oz all-purpose (plain) flour
3 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1 tsp ground cardamon
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground coriander seed
¼ tsp ground clove
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp freshly-ground black pepper
⅛ tsp ground aniseed
1 tsp vanilla extract
100g/3½oz soft dark brown sugar
75g/2½oz dark molasses or treacle
250ml/8floz warm whole milk
Note: all these spices are necessary for the authentic flavour, but you can reduce them to cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg as a minimum if you don’t have everything. If you’d prefer less sweetness, reduce the sugar, not the honey or molasses. I would recommend against substituting fennel seed for aniseed; the flavours are similar but fennel is more savoury and woody and it will change the taste. As already noted, you can use unsweetened nut or rice milks instead of the dairy version.
Preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F. Line a large loaf pan with baking paper.
Mix rye flour, plain flour, baking powder, salt and ground spices in a bowl.
In a separate bowl, mix brown sugar, honey, molasses, vanilla extract and warm milk, until everything is mixed well.
Combine wet and dry ingredients into a smooth batter.
Pour into the prepared loaf tin and bake for 80 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.
Cover the top with aluminum foil if it gets too dark: it should be deep brown but not burned-looking.
Leave to cool completely in the tin or wrapped in foil to get the traditional soft and chewy crust, or remove from the tin after 5 mins and cool on a rack for a more crispy crust.
If you decide to try it, I’d love to hear what you think!