An essay for school.  It also counts for Mellow Yellow Monday.

Butter cake

Butter cake

Every Christmas, my Dutch grandmother used to bake what seemed like hundreds of buttery golden cookies called boterkoek.  Oma never used measuring cups or spoons: only her hands and memory.  A week before Christmas, she would pull out a massive green CorningWare mixing bowl.  Into it she would heap handfuls of white flour and sugar, counting quietly to herself with each dump.  Eggs would crack in next, sliding down the powdery mountain of dry ingredients like miniature round saucer sleds.  Vanilla would stream straight from the bottle into the middle of the mound before yellow bricks of butter were released from their waxy paper wrappers, tumbling into the bowl with a muffled thud.  Then she’d plunge her bare hands into the mix, squeezing cold butter and eggs through flour and sugar, until the mass of simple pantry staples emerged as decadent cookie dough.

Every Christmas I compile a mental list of childhood treats I want to make for my own family.  And every December ends with a cold, empty, unused oven in my kitchen.  I’m not much of a baker, but this year I’m compelled to finally make boterkoek.

I call Oma and ask her for the recipe.  She writes it down and gives it to my more computer-savvy step-mom, who emails it to me.  Three days before Christmas, I print the recipe and start to compile my shopping list.  My heart sinks.  Despite my lack of culinary knowledge, I know the recipe is wrong:  too much flour, not enough butter, no sugar.

As a little girl I’d stand on tiny tiptoes to watch Oma work her magic in her blue and white kitchen.  Once the dough was finished, she’d pinch off a piece for each of us to eat right away, raw eggs be damned.  Half of the dough became round cookies. Oma would roll Gobstopper-sized balls of dough between floured palms, flatten them onto an aged cookie sheet with the tines of a fork, and brush them with beaten egg.  In thirty minutes, crisp cookies with glossy, tawny edges would emerge from the oven. The rest of the dough would be pressed into a rectangular cake pan, baked for twenty minutes, and sliced into thick, soft yellow squares called butter cake. I could make myself sick on butter cake, and easily go back for more. The smell of sizzling sugar, butter, and vanilla became the hallmark of a proper Christmas.

Boterkoek 1

Butter cake, up close.

As a little girl Oma and I giggled together as she flipped through her mental rolodex trying to remember a name, or when she’d accidentally speak to us in Dutch instead of English.  Today we gloss over her memory loss as a rule.  Pointing it out to her is outright forbidden.  Afraid to breach the canons of Alzheimer’s care for the sake of a cookie recipe, I call my step-mom, the patron saint of impossible situations.

No luck.  Oma insists the recipe is correct.  Forgot the sugar, you say?  Then add sugar, for heaven’s sake. How hard can that be?

Very!  How much do I add?  What about the flour-butter ratio?  There is no pressing her further:  I’m stuck with what I have.

I refuse to panic yet.  I still have one more trick up my sleeve:  the Internet.  I don’t expect much diversity in the recipes, since boterkoek is specific and regional.  I should only need two or three references to reconstruct Oma’s recipe accurately.  I head to the Big Bad Web and start my search.

Leon, Oma’s second husband, took her traditional recipes and ran with them.  He adapted her boterkoek recipe to an icebox method.  Instead of turning bits of dough one-by-one into little balls, he’d wrap the whole thing in wax paper, roll it into a big pasty log, and refrigerate it overnight.  The next day, Oma would slice the hardened dough into cookie rounds, sweep fork tines and egg wash across the tops, and bake them for about twenty minutes.  Leon’s method cut the prep time in half and made the cookies more uniform.  Oma declared him a genius. Eh. I still preferred butter cake.

Boterkoek 2

Dutch butter cookies

Leon passed away several years ago.  The scent of homemade boterkoek hasn’t curled around the corners of Oma’s kitchen since.  Plates of sunshiny butter cake and browned-butter cookies, accompanied by tall glasses of milk and mugs of dense black coffee, no longer grace the breakfast nook during the holidays. I need to resurrect this recipe, and perfect it, before I become a grandmother myself.  My kids are teenagers now.  My time is running out.

My Internet search has turned up lots of boterkoek recipes.  None of them are the same.  All of the ratios are different.  There is too much discrepancy from one recipe to another.  I cannot recreate Oma’s recipe.  Christmas is tomorrow.

I pour sugar into the biggest mixing bowl I have.  I estimate the measurement based on my Internet findings.  I use the rest of Oma’s recipe as-is, even though I know it’s wrong:  a mountain of flour, one solitary stick of butter, an egg or two, and a splash of vanilla.  My bare hands plunge into Mt. Boterkoek as a small puff of flour spills onto the counter.  Maybe I can’t make the boterkoek of my childhood, but I can still use my grandmother’s recipe.


18 thoughts on “Boterkoek

  1. What a beautiful post. Grandmas never measure that’s the problem. I also have a recipe that I wrote wrote according to my grandma but whenever I try to make it; it’s not the same as hers.

    Liz @ YACB

      • Bread with butter and brown sugar. I forget how to say it in Dutch. Broat mit bowna sauker would be a phonetic pronunciation.

      • browna sauker was in there somewhere. Butter wasn’t mentioned, but was important for keeping the brown sugar in place. I tried it a little while back and it was still yummy.

  2. so sad too, it is so important to write things down while we are still young don’t you think. Maybe if Oma was stood in front of the bowl with all the ingredients gathered around she would make it from her old memory.. sometimes the hands remember when the brain does not.. lovely piece of work too.. c

  3. This piece brought back so many food memories for me. My grandmother was an instinctive cook, too, and if she used recipes, she almost always altered them in some way. I have a couple of her cookbooks, and they’re full of her jottings in the margins. Lovely memory! I hope that butter cake turned out well.

  4. My grandma’s Christmas Cookie recipe was also estimated as to proportions – all of hers were. Over the years I have perfected the proportions, though – by TASTING the dough. My tongue knows when it finally TASTES EXACTLY LIKE CHRISTMAS! Here’s the link to my blog about the cookies. It’s on my “old” WordPress blog, where I copied over everything from my blog that got shut down:

    BTW: I am part Dutch, too 🙂

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