Traditional ‘family recipes’ don’t always lead you somewhere beautiful. When family recipes are invoked they often have a particular aura, one of ancient culinary arts buried in processes that take days to recreate just right, which you can only accomplish by using some hard to find ingredient. In our minds we often carry images of grandmothers carefully preparing comforting dishes from recipes passed down from generation to generation. They’re authentic, they’re traditional, they’re wholesome, they’re comforting, they’re how things were done ‘back then’.
But sometimes family recipes lead you to cherry Jello. Or to rice cooked in a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup. Or maybe to SPAM. Maybe your grandmother wasn’t much of a cook. Maybe she never really had a kitchen to cook in. Maybe cooking was something she had to do but never really loved. The food you grew up with as a kid might not be so mysterious or ancient, but actually a product of a particular historical or cultural practice and the negotiations with it that led your family to say “forget it, I don’t have the time or resources to use anything but cherry Jello.”
I’m talking about krentjebrij, a Dutch dish that hails from the Groningen region of Holland where both my grandparents (on my mom’s side) immigrated to Canada from. While there is no exact English translation for the word krentjebrij, it’s often translated as raisin porridge, berry soup, or a literal translation might be “currants cooked to mush.” And, as completely unappetizing as ‘currants cooked to mush’ sounds, it pales in relation to the horrors you find when you Google image search krentjebrij… And, does a delicious looking krentjebrij even exist if you can’t find one on Google?!
It’s traditionally served (warm or cold) as a soup, a runny bowl full of plumped up pearl barley and raisins or currants, a sort of oatmeal and fruit in a soup form that could be eaten for any meal of the day including (and even/especially) dinner. It’s one of the very few traditional Dutch foods that I can remember my mom making for us as kids. She would always make it as part of our Christmas Eve dinner celebration; it was a special treat. Except, it wasn’t so much soup when she served it but more like Jello. And what kid wouldn’t want Jello for dinner?!
My mom tells me the tale of how this transformation from soup to Jello ‘salad’ happened: “We used to eat it warm and runny like soup. My mom would put the leftovers in the fridge and of course it would harden and gel. Your dad loved it as a ‘salad’ though so I always made it that way.”
Now, to call Jello a salad is a particular remnant of the 1950s and 60s when anything could be put in gelatin, and even as a kid in the 80s and 90s I remember the ubiquitous, garishly colored Jello salads that graced every potluck table I ever remember. And this version of krentjebrij that my mom made was very similar, it actually was Jello with barley and raisins in it. What would have traditionally been made with fruit juice got passed down and simplified to become water with cherry Jello. And what was traditionally currants got passed down as raisins. Again, the transition from currants to raisins seems to be a result of my dad: “My mom used mostly currants. She added a few raisins. Your dad doesn’t like currants so I stopped using them.”
So here I am trying to recreate what is a deeply popular regional cuisine turned family recipe, following my mom’s general instructions but also trying like hell not to use Jello. As an aside, as I go through this process, I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a ‘family recipe’ in our family besides whatever exists within my mom’s head. But, maybe that’s pretty par for the ‘family recipe’ course I think. Here’s what she’s given me to work with:
In a pot of water, boil pearl barley until soft. Rinse in cold water and drain. Then add clean water. I add golden raisins and regular raisins. Boil til soft. Add cherry Jello and refrigerate. The amount of fluid and desired consistency all depend on personal taste.
I’ve browsed those really old cookbooks from the 16th and 17th century and that’s pretty much how they read: a vague process without any measured amounts. That’s my mom, too. Everything just exists in her head and makes sense when she cooks.
Below is the recipe for my take on krentjebrij which successfully achieves my three desired goals for the dish: 1) it reminds me of my mom’s cooking. It still has the flavors and textures that I remember from childhood; 2) it doesn’t use Jello. I’ve gone back to red currant juice, even juicing my own from red currants I picked. It gives this version a much ‘fresher’ taste, a more punchy, tart, real fruit version of the classic way my mom used to make it; and, 3) it doesn’t look horrific. It looks bright, and fresh, and worthy of adding to your table either for breakfast or even for dinner.
I think the recipe is 100% ‘authentic’ in that it follows and develops out of my family’s experience with what was likely a familiar dish for my grandparents when they were children (and back before them). It morphed and changed as they immigrated to Canada. And then it changed again as my mom married my Dad who doesn’t like currants or runny raisin soup. And now it is changing again as I research and remember and recreate the dish. That’s authentically our family. Is it 100% traditional? Probably not. But that’s alright. Even most ‘traditional’ dishes are made differently from family to family in their country of origin. This is my take.
I hope you try it and if you do, let me know in the comments what you thought if it!
Krentjebrij or Watergruwel
A regional classic from Groningen, Netherlands. It's a fruit laden gelatin made with fresh fruit juice, studded with pearl barley that is tart, juicy and has a hint of cinnamon spice.
- 1/2 cup pearl barley
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 2 cups red currant juice
- 1 1/2 cups dried or fresh fruit (I used 1/2 cup sultana raisins, 1/2 cup dried currants, and 1/2 cup fresh red currants. My mom likes to use a mix of golden raisins and 'regular' raisins. I've seen other fresh fruits such as strawberries or blueberries used as well, and dried cranberries would also be a good choice)
- 1 package gelatin
- 1/2 cup sugar
Rinse the pearly barley and put into a saucepan with 1 1/2 cups of water. Add the cinnamon. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer until barley is cooked 'al dente', approximately 25-30 minutes. You want it to still have some firmness but feel 'plump' and soft.
When the barley is done, drain any remaining water and let cool.
Take aside 1/4 cup of your juice and mix it with the gelatin to 'bloom'.
In a large pot add the remaining 1 3/4 cups of juice, sugar, the fruit and the cooled barley and bring to a simmer. Once there, add the remaining 1/4 cup of juice with the gelatin and stir in. You don't want to use a whisk or stir too vigorously as it will add air bubbles to your final product. Stir until gelatin is incorporated.
Pour into moulds or bowl. My mom would serves in a large bowl for the table; I've gone with smaller individual moulds. Either works fine.
Chill in fridge until ready to serve.
If you don't have red currant juice, cherry or raspberry juice would make an acceptable substitute I think. Use something that's pure fruit juice without added sugar. As the instructions from my mom state, the consistency of these it to taste. I made mine with the intention that they would be 'loaded' with fruit and barley, and they are. You could easily reduce the fruit used to make it more the consistency of a typical Jello salad.