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The Dutch Birthday Party

Monday, October 11th, 2010

The Dutch Birthday Party

This past weekend we celebrated my mother-in-law’s 60th birthday.  So in honor of her birthday, I would like to tell you about this very special annual phenomenon that one must endure to be a part of this culture. 

Before I stun and amaze you yet again with another snippet of life here in the Netherlands, let me do a quick comparison from what I remember when living in the US.    I don’t know about you, but when I was in the states our parties usually went something like this:   First of all, you start with a BBQ grill.  Yes, even in winter.  Then add enough food to feed the population of Guam, several kegs of beer, a kiddy pool filled with grain alcohol punch and all your friends and relatives. It starts out rather calmly with the big pig out and then continuing to lawn games.  From there things digress and inevitably lead to at least one person diving in the kiddy pool  and  usually then ends up being broken up at 3:00am by 3 police cars and at least one disturbing the peace charge.  Sound familiar to any of you?  Hmmm, maybe it’s just my parties then.

Now, let’s compare to here. No matter how old you are, you have to suffer through the Dutch Birthday party. When you have a birthday, you invite all your relatives into your tiny house (remember Dutch houses are tiny).  First of all your guests will always arrive on time so there is always a line at the door. When a guest arrives, he/she will hand you a bouquet of flowers and/or a gift. The gift you immediately rip open (even before coffee is served – even before they get their coats off). Then you run into the kitchen to put the flowers in water and set them along with the other 10 bouquets that you’ve just received.  

The guests will then feel free to re-arrange your furniture. They will not sit in the chairs as they are placed. They MUST be in a circle. No matter how small the house or how many guests, the chairs are arranged in a circle. We had 50 people for Marko’s party. I had people sitting on the floor just so they can be in that circle! The next step is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.  Every person will make their way around the circle and greet each guest. This is either a hand shake or a 3 time kiss on each cheek and then they congratulate each other on the guest-of-honor’s birthday.  It goes something like this: “Congratulations on your mother-in-law’s birthday!”  Huh?  Why are you congratulating ME?  It’s not MY birthday!  When I asked why this is done, no one could tell me.  

Then the guests get into the coffee ritual that I described a few posts back but instead of cookies, you get one piece of tart. For the remainder of the party the birthday-boy/girl will then run themselves ragged trying to keep everyone’s cup filled with coffee and tea.  No one will actually ask for a re-fill. No one will get up and get it themselves, even if the coffee pot is 2 inches from them.  They will give you a longing look, and then to the inside of their empty cup and then a hopeful glance back up at you. “Would you like another cup of coffee, Uncle Jan?”, “Why yes, please.”  If you want to see Uncle Jan have a heart attack, then tell him to help himself.  For amusement, they will then sit and have very polite conversation usually revolving around current events or politics and accompanied by long pauses of uncomfortable silence until the next topic is thrown out.  This goes on until the designated end of the party or when dinner is served at precisely 6:00pm.  No one finds it funny that half the people leave to cook their own dinner at home.  Those who stay, usually gobble down dinner and make a hasty exit.  By that time the kids are bored stupid anyway, the old people are complaining about the service and the birthday girl/boy is exhausted.  Gezellig! 

Today’s recipe is another thing that I can’t buy here, english muffins.   While the taste is spot on, you will not get the ‘nooks and crannies’ that you may be used to in store-bought ones.  But these are thicker, softer and great for making egg sandwiches. 

Homemade English Muffins (makes about 18)

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons white sugar

1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast

1 cup warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)

1/4 cup melted shortening

5 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt


  1. Warm the milk in a small saucepan until it bubbles, then remove from heat. Mix in the sugar, stirring until dissolved. Let cool until lukewarm. In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the milk, yeast mixture, shortening and 3 cups flour. Beat until smooth. Add salt and rest of flour, or enough to make a soft dough. Knead until smooth, about 5 minutes. Place in greased bowl, cover, and let rise.
  3. Punch down. Roll out to about 1/2 inch thick. Cut rounds with biscuit cutter or empty 2 ½ to 3 inch can. Sprinkle a cookie sheet with cornmeal and set the rounds on this to rise. Also dust tops of muffins with cornmeal. Cover and let rise 1/2 hour.
  4. Heat greased griddle on low-med heat. Cook muffins on griddle about 10 minutes on each side.  Cook until the tops and bottoms are light brown and the sides are still soft.  If they are cooking too fast, lower the heat.  Try one or two out as practice. Allow to cool and place in plastic bags for storage. To use, split and toast.   They freeze really well.  Makes about 18.

Where’s Holland?

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

 For those that don’t know where the Netherlands is, it’s a small mitten-shaped country in northern Europe that borders the North Sea. Edged by Belgium and Germany, it’s capitol is Amsterdam. For some reason, some Americans think Amsterdam is the capitol of Copenhagen.  (psst, Copenhagen is the captol of Denmark). It’s about the size of my home state, Connecticut and has over 16 million inhabitants.  To most adequately describe the landscape,  its best to look at a painted landscape from the Old Dutch Masters.  Rembrant, Vermeer, etc… What you see is lush green, pancake flat land dotted with fluffy white sheep and motionless grazing cows.  The most prominent landscape feature is the sky.  Big sky.  Dramatic sky.   Water is another prominent feature of the Dutch landscape.   

The Netherlands is at or just above sea-level and in some places below.  The dyke and drainage system of the Netherlands is a global feat. Water is everywhere. From small creeks to rushing rivers, all carefully monitored and designed to keep our feet dry.  To minimize danger, all children are required to attend swimming classes at a very young age.  For their efforts, they are rewarded with a series of diplomas.   

 Because of the high population of Holland, space is at a premium. Most of the land is reserved for practical use; housing, agriculture, wetlands.  There is very little space for forests and wild nature.  During World War II, most of the forests were destroyed.  After the war, trees were replanted in neat rows, a probable symbol of returning to order.  What they have now is a landscape completely controlled by the public works department.  Neat and orderly. Every tree, bush and blade of grass is lovingly beaten into submission. 

 Real estate  here is expensive with the average middle-class dwelling costing about 275,000 euros (about $325,000). An average middle class family will live in a home of about 1000 square feet.  This house will usually be 3 floors including an attic and share at least one wall with neighbors.  You can think of condominiums.  The back yard will be the width of the house (about 18 feet) and about 30 feet deep.  Because of the high water table, houses rarely have basements.  For me, this was culture shock #1, Space. 

 While most people complain bitterly about it, the Dutch transportation system is actually  quite good.  The maintenance of the roads is the best in Europe with 3, 4 and 5 lane highways of perfectly flat non-spatter ashpalt. If  even a small crack apears, large signs are put up and construction crews immediately fix it. The public transportation is top notch with buses and trains going to every town at a most cost effective fare.  Cars, trains and buses aside,  it’s not difficult to tell that the #1 method of travel in Holland, is by bicycle.  The best advice I ever had when I first got to Holland:  “If you hear pling-pling…get the hell out of the way!” And it’s true. In Holland, bicycles rule.  Get out the way.

Below is a recipe for Dutch pancakes called “Pannenkoeken” .  They are more a relative of a crepe than the pancakes that we know in the US.  Except they are bigger, thicker and hartier and perfect for practicing your flipping technique.  Most of the time, they are eaten for dinner and can be eaten plain, sweet or savory.  Enjoy!

Pannenkoeken (for 4 people  – not including the ones that fall on the floor while flipping)

 2 eggs

2 cups of milk

1 1/2 cups flour

¼ teaspoon of salt

Butter or magarine

Add ins:  crisp bacon, sliced appled, mushrooms, cheese, ham, or use your imagination. 

 Add all but the add ins in a large bowl. Mix thougoughly but do not wisk.  The idea is to be smooth without incorporating too much air in it.

For plain ones: 

Melt about a tablespoon of butter or magaring in a meduim sized non-stick frying pan over med heat.  Using a soup ladle, pour one ladleful of batter in the pan, swirling to to cover the bottom of the pan.  It should not be too thick but a bit thicker than a crepe.  Wait about 1 minute or so until golden brown on the bottom. Loosen sides with a small spatula or a butter knife.  Now…the hard part…take the frying pan by the handle…swirl the pancake around a little…then jiggle it to the end of the pan.  Using a push/pull motion, flip it to the other side.  At this point you will either “TA-DAA!”  or hear a greasy splat as if hits the floor.

It will take practice.  Better make a double batch just in case.  When it’s golden brown.  Its done.  Slide it on a plate. Dont be afraid to stack ém high. 

 For apple, banana, mushrooms or bacon ones:  Put the fruit or bacon in the pan and cook a bit before you put the batter in.  Proceed as above.

For cheese:  after the flip, sprinkle shredded cheese over the top.  Cover to let the steam melt the cheese. 

Rebecca's Favorite Pannenkoeken

 Traditional toppings are brown sugar, powdered sugar and/or a carmalized sugar syrup called ‘stroop’.  I’ve never seen it in the US.  However, maple syrup, jam, or honey work just as well.  Try them rolled up with  Nutella,  bananas and chopped hazelnuts inside – AWESOME!

Got a favorite way to eat Pannenkoeken?  Let me know 🙂

Pancake Mondays

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

Hi! Welcome to the Pancake Mondays Café! My name is Lisa and I’ll be your server today.

It’s times like these where I wish my name was Flo or Rosie. That would make my introduction more believable. Hmmm, pancakes. My mind drifts to a tall stack of thick buttermilk ones, dotted heavily with raspberries and served with sour cream and real maple syrup. A side order of sausage, please. Yes, and coffee, black. For the rest of my family, the there is no other option. “Chocolate-chip pancaaaaakes” they sing to me like my own private Sunday morning opera. Then in a symphony of clanging silverware, the piled-high platter of buttermilk goodness is reduced to a greasy smudge of melted butter and chocolate.

Yes, pancakes, the official Sunday breakfast of my family.

“But why Mondays?”, you ask. That’s very good question indeed. The reason is thus; the standard fare that graces our table every Sunday morning is only a fluffy fantasy during the week. Sure, we’ve all done the breakast-for-dinner routine on busy weekdays. But pancakes for breakfast? Now that’s luxury!

You see, I’m an American living in the Netherlands (Holland) with my family. While living in Europe has its benefits, I have to make do without the everyday things that I used while living in the US. Aunt Jemima does not live here. Pancakes, like many other items mean from scratch, and of course, I’m going to give you the recipe.

Sunday Best Pancakes

2 C Flour
2 T sugar
2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
2 eggs lightly beaten
2 T vegetable oil or melted butter
2 1/2 C butter milk
Fresh or frozen berries, or chocolate chips. (Bananas will work too)

Wisk everything except berries/chips in a bowl. Over med heat, spoon onto a butterd skillet using a gravy spoon. Dot with berries, fruit or chips. Flip over when bubbly on the top. Let cook for about 1 minute more. Serve with butter and syrup. Try sour cream on berry pancakes. It’s delicious.