Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Amsterdam: Stroopwafels, Red Lights, & Bikes

I had a mind-blowing experience in Amsterdam. It was unlike the mind-blowing experiences most tourists will recount upon their return from this medieval city as neither legal prostitutes or drugs were involved (although my drug of choice, sugar, was to thank for my reaching nirvana). Ok, enough build up. I'm sure the suspense has brought you to the edge of your seat! What did I encounter in Amsterdam that caused the heavens to open and Dutch angels to sing? I found, and I'm not exaggerating, my favorite cookie in the entire world. Until this point, I had held white chocolate macadamia nut on a pedestal closely followed by the All-American chocolate chip and snicker doodle varieties. Well, my dear America, I say this with respect- when it comes to cookies, the Dutch have you beat. The best cookie in the entire world, at least to this foodie, is the stroopwafel!

I did not immediately set my sights upon the Dutch food scene when I got off the train in the Amsterdam Centraal Station. I borrowed a bicycle, made friends with a local, and embarked on a two-wheel tour past the many canals, bridges, and churches in the horseshoe shaped city center. It was very cold, but the light aerobic exercise and the panic-induced adrenaline from biking alongside cars and hundreds of other cyclists kept me warm. In Amsterdam, anywhere from one to three people will ride on the same bike, sharing the road with larger motor vehicles that do not yield, and NO ONE WEARS HELMETS! Every major square in the city center has hundreds of bikes tethered to the bike racks. Do you see the shining metallic glow in the background of the first picture in this post? That is the lamppost light reflecting off of hundreds of handlebars! I can not remember the last time I rode a bike before this trip, let alone a thin-wheeled rode bike, but after a few shaky starts, and only one complete fall to the ground, it proved to be the most entertaining way to tour a city. 

After a few hours of biking and a visit to the Anne Frank House, I had worked up quite an appetite! My guide led me to Cheese & More by Henri Willig, where you can sample dozens of different varieties of goat, sheep, and cow cheeses, compotes, mustards, dipping sauces, licorice, and cookies free of charge. They had Gouda, Edam, and Fenugreek along with specially flavored cheese made by smoking or infusing them with peppers, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, and herbs. I was able to pull myself away from the cheese table for a brief moment to sample from the Dutch products section. That is where I saw the stroopwafel. I was only interested in the plain-looking cookie because the name seemed comical to me. My little bite of this cookie, the perfect balance of crunchy, gooey, and caramelized sweetness, immediately put me in my place! This was not a cookie to be mocked. This was a cookie to be sought out and worshipped! After a few more free samples.....

Stroopwafels (syrup waffles) are sandwich cookies made of two thin, crispy waffle cookies held together by caramel syrup. They are sold in many different sizes and in single or pack variety all over the city, but I found the best stroopwafels at Melly's Cookie Bar. The heartbreaking thing about these cookies is, unless you have a special thin waffle cookie maker, there is no way of baking stroopwafels in your own kitchen! I am not one to buy special "makers" of any kind, but in this case I would definitely consider making an exception!  

The food carts in the Christmas markets and city squares were still open and selling holiday sweets to shoppers and tourists. Here, I found more waffles, dipped in milk chocolate and colored white chocolate, dusted with powdered sugar, or served steaming hot and plain. They smelled divine, and as you can see, looked delicious, but I did not purchase a waffle because I had just eaten a sinfully bittersweet Belgian waffle with dark chocolate sauce and whipped cream the previous day. Instead, I ordered a raisin Oliebol, fresh from the fryer. 

Oliebollen (oil balls. The name is definitely more appealing in Dutch) are deep fried sweet dumplings, traditionally flavored with currants and raisins and eaten during the Christmas season. When you order one, you will be asked if you'd like it with or without powdered sugar (is that even a question??) They are a mildly sweet, not too dense, comfort food that make a delicious breakfast when paired with coffee or hot chocolate. These too are sold all over the city. I found the raisin and citrus flavored Oliebollen at the gourmet food market, La Place, but as I had already tried the Dutch donut, I purchased a square of their fantastic fire-roasted tomato focaccia instead. Good choice!

The strangest Dutch food I encountered was from a fast food establishment called FEBO. This restaurant chain operates using an automatic, vending machine concept. While some of the dishes offered, hamburgers, fries, etc, can also be purchased at the counter, the majority of the food items come to each customer from a giant wall of vending machines. A hamburger from a vending machine? "Press A4 for the bacon Salmonella with cheese! Would you like fries with that?" I did NOT eat there. However, I walked and biked past many FEBOs and observed that the majority of tourists and locals are not deterred by the idea of vended hot food. The lines were always out the door!

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