February 4, 2014 § 6 Comments
Just before the holidays, the boys’ school hosted a soirée with an international theme. Everyone was asked to contribute a traditional food from their country, which would be offered for sale on the night of the party. I pondered for a moment, and thought, of course: chocolate chip cookies. We haven’t yet met another American at the school (although it is plenty international), and while chocolate chip cookies are not exactly original, I figured they would be welcome. Imagine my surprise when the table representing North America was filled with about nine platters of slightly different chocolate chip cookies.
Given the variety on all the other tables, it was pretty embarrassing. While of course there is amazing cooking to be found all over the U.S. (a big reason I miss Brooklyn!), and much of it is trumpeted as American cuisine, I realized that it is largely a style, an attitude, rather than specific dishes that speak to a national identity. A beautiful farm-to-table roast chicken with seasonal vegetables sounds great, but it’s not recognizably American. Of course, that’s part of the beauty of our country: that there are so many traditions, no single dish could possibly even hint at the whole.
So one weekend morning over pancakes, it dawned on me that this is something typically American, that no other cuisine does anything quite like it. Crêpes, blini, palačinky, and untold other variations, sure. But none of these is the same as a stack of fluffy, warm pancakes served with maple syrup and a side of bacon. It inspired me to invite our neighbors to partake of our weekend tradition. (Though they have spent time in the U.S. and certainly had pancakes before, I’m proud to say they did have an epiphany here: bacon and maple syrup!)
I’ve made a lot of pancakes in my day. We probably have them at least every other weekend. My “recipe” is very forgiving, and it has changed over time. It is loosely modeled on this one, which includes ground flaxseed and chopped walnuts. But it is also easy to change based on what’s in your cupboard at any given time. This is my current iteration. For a change from syrup, I love these with fresh lemon juice and sugar sprinkled on top.
- 2 cups flour (I generally use a mixture of whole wheat, all-purpose, and buckwheat)
- ½ cup fine cornmeal
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 ½ cups buttermilk
- 2 large eggs
- butter for cooking
Whisk together dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, whisk together buttermilk and eggs. Add buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients and stir just until incorporated. (If too thick, add a little more milk or buttermilk.)
Heat large (preferably cast-iron) skillet and heat over medium heat, then swirl in a pat of butter. Add batter to skillet by scant 1/4 cupfuls. Cook until bubbles appear on the surface and undersides are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Flip pancakes and cook an additional 1–2 minutes. Reserve on a platter in a warm oven, and continue with the rest of the batter. Serve with warm maple syrup.
February 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
January 28, 2014 § 6 Comments
It’s called classe verte, and it goes like this: nearly all elementary school classes take a trip away—whether it be to the countryside, the coast, or the mountains—that lasts several nights (or in our case, a full school week). Yes, this starts with first grade: in other words, six-year-olds. In fact, these trips often begin in the Belgian equivalent of preschool. It is not unheard of for four-year-olds to pack their bags and get out of town. This is madness, right? I have certainly spent the past months thinking so. As Sebastian’s own trip drew closer, things got a little tense around here. While of course not participating was always an option, it is considered a week of school, and there is a lot of pressure to make sure the entire class goes.
Not much arm-twisting is generally needed, however. The whole idea is very normal here. The parents of Sebastian’s classmates did it when they were this age, and probably their parents did as well. I asked countless people their thoughts. I was mostly met with shrugging shoulders and promises that they have an amazing time. The more people I talked to, and the more I learned about what they would be doing, I started to get it. In addition to some classwork, they would be playing outside, feeding the farm animals, enjoying spectacles (and, it turns out, going on an evening scavenger hunt with flashlights, having dance parties, and eating bread sprinkled with sugar for dinner). It did sound like fun.
Still, I couldn’t fathom pushing a terrified child onto a bus to do something I was only just coming to terms with myself. We told Sebastian—who kept asking if he could be sick that week—that if he really didn’t want to go, we wouldn’t force him. Then we set about bribing him with everything we could think of. Darth Vader slippers were purchased. He got a sleeping bag and long underwear that made him look like a ninja. We told him he’d get a letter from us every day. We talked it up endlessly. And ultimately, it worked. He started feeling excited himself. He told people he was going to a “castle.” He wanted to pack his bag three days before they left.
Now he’s back. He did have an amazing time. He sounds different. He seems more confident somehow. After such a hard transition to this new school and new language, maybe this is exactly what he needed—to feel independent, to cement new friendships. And I really do respect the philosophy behind it all: that kids, even young ones, are capable and curious; that not all learning happens in the classroom; that it’s just as important to learn how to bake bread and feed the goats (and Big Mama the guinea pig) as it is to study addition and proper handwriting. It wasn’t easy—we worried, we wondered—but in the end it was absolutely the right thing to do.
January 14, 2014 § 5 Comments
Hands down, one of the best things about where we live in Brussels is the proximity to the elegant Bois de la Cambre and the adjoining Fôret de Soignes, nearly 20 square miles of woodland that stretches from the Brussels capital region into both the French and Flemish regions. While we can walk to both in just a few minutes, yesterday we drove less than ten minutes to reach a different part of the forest and were rewarded with endless walking trails and sunlight streaming through grove after grove of beech trees. As we set out, everything was blanketed in thick frost but the sun was warm on our skin. A perfect day for a walk.
When heading out on my own, I tend to stick to the more manicured bois, as I fret at how easily one could get lost in the wilder fôret, but I hope to get a bit more adventurous on this front. Long ago the forest was a royal hunting ground and was even home to brown bear and wolves, but these days wildlife consists mainly of the more usual suspects: deer, many species of bats, squirrels (I’m keeping my eyes peeled for a red squirrel), and so on. Apparently wild boar have also made a comeback in the past few years. But you are much more likely to encounter multigenerational families walking all manner of dogs, runners, and septuagenarian ladies on bikes zooming down hills with the wind in their hair.
January 7, 2014 § 5 Comments
I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but I am certainly not one to be left out of a holiday with its own special cake. January 6 is Three Kings’ Day, or Epiphany—which celebrates the visit of the three magi to baby Jesus, thereby revealing him to be the son of God. (Biblical scholars feel free to jump in here.) While this day doesn’t make such a splash in the U.S., in Europe it is a different story, and many regions have their own traditional sweet associated with it. In much of France and Belgium people head to the local bakery to pick up a galette des rois, a cake made of puff pastry and filled with almond paste. Inside the cake is a small trinket (or fève in French), and whoever receives this in their slice is the king for the day and gets to wear the crown that comes with the cake. (The trinket is normally made of porcelain—chewer beware!)
A few years back, we had a dear friend from France over for lunch on Kings’ Day, and she brought such a galette. She said the tradition when serving it is for the children to go under the table, and as each slice is put on a plate the children say who should get that piece. This way even if the surprise is visible in a slice no one can cheat. We carried on that tradition today, and boy was it popular.
December 9, 2013 § Leave a comment
Or is it Saint Nicolas? Or Sint Nicolaas? Whatever you call him, the tradition in Belgium is that he arrives the night of December 5th. This is his only appearance here—he doesn’t really figure into Christmas eve or day at all. He is one of the main figures that the Santa Claus of North America is based on, though here he is often depicted as accompanied by the controversial figure of Zwart Piet (or “Black Pete,” who has a confusing history, probably in large part to cover up or alter a racist origin. Oh, and in Wallonia and in parts of northern France this sidekick is called Père Fouettard. Who can keep it all straight?!). Anyway, Saint Nicolas carries a bag with oranges, sweets, and small gifts for the children who have been good, and the children who have been bad get a spanking from a switch. Or do they get carried away in the bag? To be honest, we really don’t know.
Needless to say, we sort of made up our own version of things. We hung our stockings instead of putting shoes by the door (unfortunately no fireplace this year). Apparently the kids were supposed to leave drawings or poems or some other offering, so we will have to do that next year. We did leave out cookies and a beer for jolly-old-what’s-his-name and some carrots for the reindeer, though as it turns out it’s actually a horse, a relic of the Nordic or pagan origin of the story. (We are very much in loose-interpretation territory here.) We also thought it sounded much better to do all of this on a weekend rather than a school morning, so we bumped it one day later to Saturday. It’s more fun to enjoy gifts with a pancake breakfast than while being yelled at to brush your teeth. Sometimes it’s nice to have the freedom to put your own spin on tradition.
November 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
Though we had heard that Brussels is hopping on the Halloween bandwagon, we felt we couldn’t risk a total flop this year. The boys have been through a lot of changes over the past few months, and to miss a real Halloween (or at least a very good facsimile) would be a shame. That it fell over the fall half-term break and Sebastian’s birthday was the following Sunday were just two more reasons to make a mini vacation out of it. So we decided to head to London to see some dear friends, who had also mentioned that they go trick-or-treating in their neighborhood. When we told Sebastian where we were going, his first response was, “They speak English there?” Yeah, this was a good idea.
Our friends had told us not to get our hopes up, but they were definitely underselling it. There were lots of trick-or-treaters out and the houses were really done up. The kids had a great time. It was only afterward that we realized it wasn’t that they hadn’t gotten much candy, they had simply eaten it as they went along. We also realized that Xavier, who was pretty tired and happily jumped into the stroller between houses, is a natural: he elbowed his way up to the door like a seasoned pro.
The evening we arrived we went out for pizza to celebrate Sebastian’s birthday a few days early. Then on our first full day we stayed local and pretended to be Chiswickers: enjoying a leisurely breakfast, going to the park, shoe shopping. When you travel with kids, sometimes finding a great playground can be the best discovery. The next day we hopped on a double-decker, nabbed the prime seats in front up top, and headed into the center. We avoided a quick rain shower by dashing into a Waterstone’s, window shopped, meandered over to Buckingham Palace, and strolled through St. James’s Park.
Halfway through the trip we headed to Brockley to stay with another (gracious/brave) friend. The weather was beautiful on Saturday and we took a long walk along the south bank, stoping first at the Golden Hinde II, a replica of the ship Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the globe in the sixteenth century. For certain members of the group, this was the real highlight of the trip, especially the purchase of two Captain Hook hands (see: almost every picture thereafter). We also had fish and chips at Borough Market, and followed the river to Tate Modern before crossing and meandering some more (there may have been another bus ride, we were too tired to pay much attention) and ending up at the lovely Daunt Books in Marylebone. It was nice to have a knowledgable guide and not have to consult a map every five minutes (thank you Lenka!).