Have you ever just had one of those days? Well for me, today is one of those days and this still life was one problem after another. While shopping for ingredients I was convinced that the painting depicted cranberries (which in my defense they do look like) but I arrived home to realize that they were cherries. So back I went and after visiting two grocery stores I discovered that number one, cherries are not in season (still getting used to living in the southern hemisphere), and number two, that it is impossible to even find frozen ones. Add this dilemma to the fact that I mistakenly ate the last bun I was saving for my recreation, my lack of gilded wineglasses, and that my pastry would not come together, I was convinced this vlaai would be my downfall. But let me tell you, it wasn’t. I mean, it did get a bit more toasted than I would have liked (drat unpredictable electric ovens) but the combination of strawberries and cherries made the pie wonderfully sour and the crust was like a dense but sweet cake. This is a recipe I will make again and again and I hope you forgive the use of cranberries instead of cherries. I was just having one of those days.

Osias Beert, Still-Life with Cherries and Strawberries in China Bowls, 1608
oil on copper, 50 x 66 cm, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

The Baroque Flemish painter Osias Beert is known for his still life paintings of flowers and breakfast scenes. The breakfast pieces are commonly known by their Dutch name ontbijtjes which translates to ‘little breakfasts.’ These works are characterized by their high vantage point where the viewer is looking down at the scene and this forced perspective is often found in all Dutch still life paintings in the early 17th century (1). Beert was a member of the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp which was for artists and regulated the art trade in the city. Membership to the Guild was essential in order to sell any work as an artist (2). Dutch still life painting are often difficult for a modern viewer to properly ‘read’ because they are full of symbols. According to Norbert Schneider in his book Still Life (Big Art), “Osias Beert shows the forces of good and evil fighting for man’s soul in the form of animals. The human soul is represented by strawberries and cherries, which were considered to be fruits of Paradise. The butterfly, as a symbol of salvation and resurrection, is in opposition to the dragonfly, which was seen as a subspecies of the common fly. …they considered flies to be creatures of the devil.” (3)

Originally created in Weert, Limburg, vlaai is a pie made of pastry and filling. Traditionally found in the southern parts of the Netherlands it is commonly eaten during “koffietijd” (coffee time) between 10 and 11am or 7 and 8pm. During koffietijd one would eat a biscuit or cake with their coffee depending on the region. The Protestant North is known for only having one biscuit per cup of coffee and in the south the Catholics have the sweet cakes cut into eight sections to share with family and friends (4). Vlaai comes in many different varieties including a rice custard filling along with the endless fruit combinations (5). The dessert is sometimes served with whipped cream at birthdays and other celebrations.

{Vlaai with Berry Compote}

serves 6

4 cups flour
pinch of salt
1 cup of milk
2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1 large egg
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sugar
3 cups berry compote

Sift the flour with a pinch of salt into a large mixing bowl. Warm the milk and mix with the yeast in a small bowl. Leave in a warm place uncovered until it is frothy. Make a hollow in the flour and pour in the yeast. Mix well. Beat the egg and add to the flour mixture along with the melted butter and sugar. Knead to a soft dough that is ready when it comes away from the sides of the bowl.

Shape the dough into a ball and cover the bowl with a damp cloth. Let sit for 1 hour in a warm place until the dough is well risen. Preheat the oven to 230 C (450 F).

Grease a large, flat flan tin. Knead the risen dough and use it to line the tin. Roll out the remaining dough and cut into strips to create the lattice work on top of the vlaai. Put the compote into the tin and lay the strips of dough over the top. Pinch the ends of the dough to the edges of the crust.

Bake for 15-25 minutes in the center of the oven. Let cool on a wire tray and serve with ice cream or whipped cream.

{Berry Compote}

1 pint of strawberries
1 pint of cherries (or any other berries you may have on hand)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons cornstarch

Divide the strawberries and cherries in half. Take one half of the berries and cut into pieces (cut each berry into 4), set aside. Mash the other 1/2 of the berries in a large bowl with the back of a fork. Add the sugar to the mixture and mix until it has dissolved. Put into a large saucepan over medium high heat and bring to a boil. Boil and stir for 2 minutes. Mix in quartered berries and serve. Would be wonderful spooned over ice cream or mixed with granola and yoghurt for a tasty and healthy breakfast.