Dutch Letters

IMG_3804Update (June 22, 2016): I have edited this recipe to make it 100% plant-based and every bit as delicious as the original version.

One of my favorite things about living in Iowa was strolling  through the Downtown Des Moines Farmers’ Market after a long run on autumn Saturday mornings. I’d wander among the stalls of fresh, locally grown produce and flowers, the tables of handmade crafts, and the food trucks offering breakfast tacos, barbecue, and pupusas, wishing I could buy one of everything. But what made the Farmers’ Market extra special for me was picking up a freshly-baked Dutch letter (or four) from the Vander Ploeg Bakery stall. Based in Pella, Iowa, a small town about 45 miles southeast of Des Moines and founded in 1847 by Dutch Separatists, Vander Ploeg Bakery is famous for its pastries. Its most renowned product is the Dutch letter, a sweet treat which was introduced to the United States by Pella’s first Dutch immigrants.

Also called a letterbanket, a Dutch letter involves flaky, buttery puff pastry filled with almond paste and baked until golden brown in the shape of an S. The S stands for Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas.  Traditionally, Dutch letters are eaten in December in celebration of Saint Nicholas Day, but something this delicious ought to be eaten year-round, if you ask me.

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Dutch letters from Vander Ploeg Bakery in Pella, Iowa. Photo: http://www.vanderploegbakery.com

Since Vander Ploeg Bakery is a bit far from Riga, Latvia, I thought I’d try making my own Dutch letters. I had made a couple of attempts at them when I lived in Iowa, using store-bought puff pastry and a couple of online recipes, but none of them yielded quite the right taste or texture. Besides, what was the point, with Vander Ploeg so readily available?

This time, with a new recipe that I found from Better Homes and Gardens (which I have tweaked a bit), as well as a couple of French pastry classes under my belt, I was able to bring a little bit of Iowa into my home in Latvia. This recipe takes some time and patience, but the final product is well worth the effort.

Part 1 – Make the Pastry

What you’ll need:
4 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups (1 pound) cold plant-based butter
1 serving of Ener-G egg Replacer
1 cup very cold water

Step 1. In a large mixing bowl stir together the flour and salt.

Step 2. Cut the cold butter into 1/2-inch-thick (about 1 cm) slices (not cubes).

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I make my own plant-based butter using this fabulous recipe from vegan Chef Miyoko Schinner. Just as the recipe is named, it really is glorious!

Step 3. Add the butter slices to the flour mixture and toss until the butter slices are coated and separated.

Step 4. In a small mixing bowl, stir together one serving of prepared Ener-G egg replacer (follow the instructions on the box) and the cold water.

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This product comes in very handy when other egg substitutes aren’t quite right.

Add this mixture all at once to the flour and butter mixture. Quickly combine everything together using a large spoon or, as I did, a mixer. If you use a mixer, a few seconds should do the job, as you do not want to over-mix the dough. The butter will remain in large pieces, and the flour will not be completely moistened.

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Using a mixer is not required; it just saves a bit of time and energy.

Step 5. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured pastry cloth or towel.

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It doesn’t look like much of a pastry now, but it will come together. I promise.

Step 6. Knead the dough 10 times by pressing and pushing it together to form a rough-looking ball. I used the towel to combine the dough until it was easier to deal with using my bare hands.

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This part takes some patience. Just keep incorporating the dry bits of flour into the larger ball.

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As you knead the dough, it will become easier to handle.

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Once most of the dry bits are fully incorporated, it’s easier to knead the dough with bare hands.

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At last, a sort-of ball of pastry dough.

Step 7. Shape the dough into a rectangle (it still will have some dry-looking areas). Make the corners as square as possible.

Step 8. Slightly flatten the dough. Working on a well-floured pastry cloth, roll the dough into a 15 x 10-inch (30 x 25.5 cm) rectangle. Again, try to keep the corners as square as possible.

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My rectangle is not quite perfect, but it will get the job done.

Step 9. Fold the two short sides to meet in the center.

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This is where the square corners will really help. As you can see, mine are not quite square.

Step 10. Fold the dough in half like a book to form 4 layers, each measuring 7-1/2 x 5 inches (19 x 13 cm).

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Again, it’s not perfect, but it will do for the first round of rolling and folding. (Yes, you get to do this again! And again!)

Step 11. Repeat the rolling and folding process once more. Wrap the dough with plastic wrap. Chill it for 20 minutes in the freezer (use the refrigerator if you think you won’t get back to the dough for more than 20 minutes).

While the dough is chilling, you can make the filling.

Part 2 – Make the Filling

Dutch letters are filled with a mix of almond paste and sugar. You can use store-bought almond paste, or you can make your own almond paste. If you prefer to make your own almond paste, this recipe from Taste of Home is good and simple. You can use the same egg white substitution (3 Tbsp of aquafaba, or chickpea water) as noted below. If you use store-bought almond paste, here is a recipe for the Dutch letter filling, adapted from Better Homes and Gardens. Just make sure you buy an almond paste that is not made with syrup, as the filling will be sickeningly sweet in that case.

What you’ll need:
8 ounces almond paste
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
3 Tablespoons aquafaba, to replace the egg white (I promise your Dutch letters will not taste like chickpeas!)

Mix the above ingredients together with a fork until they are well combined and smooth.

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Aquafaba is simply the drained liquid from a can of chickpeas. Its high protein content makes it mimic egg whites when whipped, making for a perfect vegan meringue. The Dutch letter filling has quite a lot of sugar, so you will not taste the chickpea flavor whatsoever.

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Dutch letter filling, all ready to go.

Part 3 – Make the Dutch Letters

Step 1. Remove the chilled dough from the freezer and repeat the rolling and folding process from above (Part 1, Steps 8-10). Chill in the freezer for 20 minutes.

Step 2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (about 190 degrees Celsius).

Step 3. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough crosswise into 4 equal parts. Wrap 3 portions in plastic wrap and return to the refrigerator.

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Cutting cross sections of pastry dough is easier said than done. But just do the best you can. The sharper the knife, the easier it will be.

Step 4. On a well-floured surface, roll 1 portion of dough into a 12-1/2 x 10-inch (32 x 25.5 cm) rectangle. Cut the rectangle into five 10 x 2-1/2-inch (25.5 x 6.5 cm) strips.

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Rolling pastry dough into perfect rectangles is not my strong suit. The important thing is that the dough is even in thickness.

Step 5. Roll the filling into ropes about 1/2-inch thick and place them down the middle of each strip of dough. If your filling is not rollable, just spoon it down the middle as well as you can.

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Step 6. Roll up the strip lengthwise and gently pinch the seams together. Be careful not to let the filling squeeze out. If it does, then you have too much filling. Try to remove a bit of it with a butter knife.

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Be patient with this step and make sure you form a tight seal on the dough.

Step 7. Brush the seam and ends with a small amount of water. Pinch the ends to seal them as well.

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Avoid using too much water. One dip of the brush should do for the whole strip.

Step 8. Place the strips seam side down on an ungreased baking sheet, shaping them into letter shapes (traditionally the letter S). Brush with water and sprinkle with additional granulated sugar.

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One of my S-shaped Dutch letters, waiting to be baked.

Step 9. Repeat steps 4-8 with the remaining portions of dough if you wish to make them all at once. Alternatively, wrap the remaining dough tightly in plastic wrap and freeze for another time. Likewise, store and freeze the remaining filling if you don’t plan to make all of the letters at once.

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Step 10. Bake your Dutch letters for about 20-25 minutes or until golden. Remove them from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.

Enjoy your Dutch letters with a cup of coffee or tea, as a snack, or as a special breakfast or holiday treat!

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Yum!

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