Ontbijtkoek is a Dutch spice cake that's common for breakfast in the Netherlands as well as making a tasty snack whenever you need a pick-me-up. It's slightly sticky, with a fantastic spice flavor, and so easy to make, too. Sure to be a fast favorite.
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I have many memories of tasty breakfast options when we were staying in hotels and bed and breakfasts across Europe when I was a child. I particularly loved the B&B we stayed in a lot of times in Austria which had fresh rolls, homemade jams and various ham and salami options each morning (as well as hard boiled eggs).
When we were in the Netherlands this last summer, I think my kids ended up with similar feelings about a couple of the hotels we stayed in which had tasty breads, pastries, pancakes, fruit, eggs and more. We always had to make sure we left enough time to get seconds!
While I still have some other things on my list to recreate for them at home, this breakfast cake was an easy one to start with. Plus, with gingerbread style spicing, it feels that bit festive and so perfect for this time of year.
What is ontbijtkoek?
"Ontbijtkoek" translates as breakfast cake, since this is one of the most popular times to enjoy this sweet bread. It's also known as "peperkoek" (pepper cake) and "kruidkoek" (spice cake) which describes the flavors a little more.
This Dutch breakfast cake is believed to date back to Medieval times, though little more than that is known. You'll find it across the Netherlands and Flemish parts of Belgium with a few variations in the spices and additions. Some areas have their own regional recipes, and you would also find versions with more additions like fruit and more spices among the richer classes.
It was traditionally made with just rye flour which was the most common grain in Northern Europe. This, and the spices, give the lovely brown color. These days, it's more typical to use a blend of rye and all purpose flour (plain flour) so it's a little lighter.
It keeps well, thanks to the relatively high amount of sugar. And in fact some say you shouldn't eat it until the second day so that it becomes more sticky. I also like it on the first day when the top is a little crunchy, but it's great both ways.
Ingredients in ontbijtkoek
As I mention, you will find a few variations in this spiced bread, but here I have gone with a relatively typical combination that tastes delicious:
- Rye flour - this is a typical ingredient used in traditional Northern European cooking and adds a nice depth of flavor.
- All purpose flour (plain flour) - using a blend of the two flours helps the loaf be a little lighter as rye has a much lower gluten-forming ability so can be quite dense if used on it's own.
- Baking powder - this helps the loaf rise, along with a little salt.
- Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves and coriander - these combine to give a lovely spice flavor. "Gingerbread" flavors vary a lot from one place to another, and some of these may be less typical in what you are familiar with, but are a common combination for ontbijtkoek.
- Brown sugar - most recipes use this as part of the sweetener as it helps with flavor and moistness. Actually in the Netherlands you would use basterdsuiker which is more of a fine caster sugar with added caramel and sugar syrup, but a relatively fine light brown sugar is fine.
- Honey and molasses - in some versions, you'll see Dutch stroop syrup used but it can be hard to find elsewhere. However the mix of honey and molasses below gives a very similar flavor and consistency. Many Dutch recipes I found use this blend as well.
- Milk - this is your main liquid and brings the batter together. It also adds a small amount of fat (you'll see there is no butter or oil in the recipe) so I do recommend using full fat milk.
If you like, you can gently warm the milk, honey and molasses to help them combine better before adding to the dry ingredients, but I didn't really find this was needed (particularly if you have already gently warmed the honey to get rid of any crystallization, see below).
Tips for making Dutch spiced breakfast cake
Interestingly, this is apparently not something people make at home all that much these days, instead opting to buy it. Which is a shame, as it's really easy to make and the smell as it bakes is wonderful!
This lovely spiced bread is a one bowl recipe and is as simple as combining the dry ingredients, then adding the wet ingredients. But that said, a couple of quick tips:
- Make a "sling" of parchment to line the loaf pan. This is an easy way to line the pan without having to make any trickier cuts for the corners. Yet it makes a huge difference in helping the loaf be easy to remove from the pan.
- Gently butter the pan to help the paper stay in place. The sling won't do it's job if the batter gets in behind it! To help avoid this, if you gently butter the loaf pan, the paper gently sticks to the pan.
- Make sure you mix the dry ingredients first. You want to make sure the spices and baking powder, in particular, are well distributed so that you don't get clumps anywhere.
- Warm the honey if it has crystalized - you want to make sure it's nice and smooth, without any crunchy crystals. But don't worry if your honey has started to crystalize - you can easily recover it by warming. I suggest measuring the honey into a small microwavable dish and warm in 10 - 15 second bursts. Stir after each warming, until the crystals have dissolved.
- Bake in a relatively low oven. You'll see the temperature here is on the lower side, that's partly because of the honey that you shouldn't cook at high heat. Also, it helps the loaf cook evenly without burning or becoming too crisp. While as I say, I quite like the slight crisp edge when this is first out the oven, it's really about the soft stickiness.
Other than that, this traditional Dutch loaf comes together quickly and easily. The hardest part is waiting for it bake!
Serving and storing ontbijtkoek
The traditional way to serve this breakfast cake is with a good smear of butter on each slice. This is partly because there's very little fat in the loaf itself, but also the butter helps balance out the sweetness of the loaf itself.
That said, it's also delicious on it's own and you probably get to taste the lovely spices more that way. It also feels more of a treat on it's own, so maybe it depends when you are having it! (Butter if for breakfast, not if as a snack? Really, it's your choice)
As mentioned, this bread/cake keeps well and gets a little stickier over time. Simply store at room temperature in a sealed container and it will be good for at least 3 days. Realistically it should be fine longer than that, if it gets the chance. You can also freeze for longer storage. Just wrap the bread, either in slices or as a part or whole loaf, with cling wrap/film then foil.
Ontbijtkoek, Dutch breakfast cake or spice cake, is a wonderfully easy sweet loaf that's packed with delicious flavors. The warm spices, the sticky sweetness and lovely soft texture are all so good and delicious, whenever you choose to enjoy. As I say, it will soon be a new favorite!
Try these other spiced loaves and other treats:
- Piernik (Polish gingerbread/honey cake, with a lovely light glaze on top)
- Gingerbread madeleines (delicately gingerbread-spiced madeleine cookies are such a lovely treat)
- Brunkager (these Danish Christmas cookies have a lovely spice flavor to them)
- Plus get more snack recipes in the archives.
Ontbijtkoek - Dutch spice cake (breakfast cake)
- 1 cup rye flour
- 1 cup all purpose flour plain flour
- ½ cup brown sugar eg soft brown (use a fine sugar)
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon ground coriander
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ cup honey
- ¼ cup molasses
- 1 cup milk (recommend whole/full fat)
- Lightly butter a 9 x 5in (22.5 x 12.5cm) loaf pan. Line the pan with parchment as a "sling", meaning cut a piece that's the width of the long side of the pan and line through the long sides and bottom with the paper hanging over each side. Fold the paper back over the top edges slightly and stick the paper against the sides of the pan with the butter so that the paper stays in place well.
- Preheat the oven to 325F/160C.
- If the honey has any crystallization, warm it gently in bursts in the microwave in a microwavable bowl - warm around 10 - 15 seconds at a time, stir well and repeat if needed so crystals dissolve into the rest of the honey. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients - rye flour, all purpose/plain flour, brown sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, coriander and cloves. Whisk them together so everything is well distributed and there aren't any clumps or lumps.
- Add the honey, molasses and milk and mix so everything is well mixed, but take care not to over-mix. You want everything well distributed and mixed so there aren't lumps but you don't want to lose the air bubbles that might be forming as the baking powder is activated.
- Pour the mixture into the lined loaf pan and smooth the top, as needed. Clean off any drips, if there are any, then transfer the pan to the oven and bake for around 45 - 50 minutes until golden brown, the top springs back when you touch it and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
- Sit the pan on a cooling rack for around 10 minutes to cool before using the parchment paper to remove the loaf from the tin. If the ends are a little stuck, carefully use a knife to loosen the loaf and try again. Peel off the parchment paper and either leave whole until ready to use, or slice. It will have a slight crisp top on the first day, but otherwise it will be slightly sticky. Store at room temperature in a sealed container.
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