A true Flemish specialty from the region of Geraardsbergen (Grammont in French), the mattentaart is a doughy artisanal treat that’s been around since the early 16th century. With a creamy cheesecake filling and a puff pastry crust, the mattentaart depends on top quality milk and dairy for its sweet flavor. Since it bagged the status of European Regional Product in 2006, you won’t find any businesses other than those of Geraardsbergen and neighboring village Lierde naming their products mattentaart, so why not start baking yourself?
If Pieter Bruegel serves it up at the feast of The Peasant Wedding, a famed painting made in the mid-16th century, you can be sure that rice pudding has been enjoyed in the old master’s country for centuries. Add to this the ancient saying that all who go to heaven get to eat endless cups of rice pudding with golden spoons, and it’s clear how far back the Belgian love for this rich dish of rice, milk, and spices such as vanilla, cinnamon and saffron goes. Sprinkle a generous layer of light brown sugar on top right before digging in.
Another ancient pudding recipe, but easier on the wallet (no fancy spices required) and much firmer, broodpudding, or ‘bodding’ for short, is the Belgian way of not letting old bread go to waste. After adding warm sugared milk, eggs, and raisins to your three- to four-day-old bread slices, all you have to do is knead the mixture into a cohesive loaf and pop it in the oven. Easy peasy, though you might want to soak your raisins in some rum or cognac first to give the dessert a little extra oomph.
A fail-safe option for novice cooks, the petit beurre cake is fast, easy, and doesn’t require any oven time. Also called ‘koekjestaart’ or cookie cake (its main ingredient being petit beurre cookies), it’s a guaranteed slam dunk among kids for eating and making themselves. Grown-ups all over Belgium have fond memories of being at their grandparents’ house, dunking the shortbread cookies in cold coffee, making little cookie towers out of them, and then plastering the whole thing together with a delicious buttercream, possibly adding chocolate on top in the form of sprinkles.
In terms of holiday-spirited desserts, the Yule log is the merriest of them all. Many Belgian households end their Christmas dinner with this sponge cake decorated to look like an actual wooden log. Half the fun is in covering the roulade with chocolate icing, tracing grooves in it with a fork to make the outside resemble bark, finishing it off with a sprinkling of powdered sugar for snow, and wowing your guests with the end result.
Another holiday favorite of Belgians, as well as of their neighbors across the northern border, Flemish beignets are quite the indulgence. Deep-fried, doughy, and dusted with powdered sugar, these round snacks often recall family outings to the fairground, where they are served year-round to the delight of young and old. The hot, sugary balls provide extra comfort on fall and winter evenings. Make sure to plan a light main course when serving these as the culmination to an entire meal because they pack quite the punch.
It’s no secret that Belgians adore their speculoos, but while this traditional shortbread cookie pairs well with after-dinner coffee or tea, it’s hardly a full-fledged dessert. So why not hop on the bandwagon that started in the last couple of years by adding speculoos to an existing dessert for extra deliciousness? Cheesecake with a crunchy speculoos bottom is always a good bet, but more exotic yet is speculoos ice cream. If you don’t let the thought of homemade ice cream scare you off, you’ll be thanking the gods for the spicy nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove flavors that work surprisingly well when chilled. Pro tip: add roughly cut chunks of crushed speculoos in before putting your mixture in the freezer to boost the made-from-scratch feel.