Pain à la grecque is linked to the founding of the Augustijnenklooster(Augustinian monastery) in Brussels in 1589. It was a significant moment, as the Netherlands had gone through the Reformation, and the founding of this cloister was part of the revival of Catholicism in the region. The monks taught lessons in their cloister, acted as firefighters to the community, and, according to legend, on feast days they also baked biscuits with leftover bread dough and sugar and handed them out to the poor.
The name pain à la grecque is deceptive: it was originally bread (pain) from the grecht—the city canal or waterway that surrounded the cloister, where the biscuits were distributed. (It was also nicknamed wolvengracht brood or wolf canal bread, as the canal was called the Wolvengrachtor Wolf Canal.) Frenchification of the name made it ‘pain à la grecque’, which is often misunderstood as ‘Greek bread’ although it has nothing to do with Greece. A book from 1829 mentions pain à la grecque as the speciality of Brussels together with pistolets; however, several bakeries in Antwerp used to sell the biscuit by weight. Regula Ysewijn’s mum grew up with it and so did she.
A recent addition is pearl sugar (nib sugar), but traditionally it is made with rough sugar crystals that do not melt during baking. These are harder to obtain, so feel free to use small pearl sugar instead.
Makes 18 large pieces
WHAT YOU NEED
500g strong (bread) flour
150g unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp ground cinnamon
10g instant dry yeast
280ml full-fat milk
Pinch (1/8 tsp) salt
320g large non-melting sugar crystals or tiny pearl sugar (nib sugar)
3 tbsp caster (superfine) sugar, plus 3 tbsp water, for glazing
Tip: You can use leftover vlaai dough, which is very similar.
WHAT TO DO
Combine the flour, butter, cinnamon, and yeast in a large bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook. Pour in the egg and half of the milk and start kneading. When completely absorbed, pour in the remaining milk and knead for 5 mins. Set aside to rest for 5 mins.
Add the salt and knead for 10 mins, scraping the dough off the dough hook and side of the bowl if needed, until it has come together in a smooth and elastic dough that is neither too dry nor terribly wet. Cover the dough and set aside for 1 hr until it has doubled in size.
Weigh 200g chunks of dough and set aside to rest while you prepare your baking trays. You need four trays, lined with baking paper, depending on how large your oven is; you might need more, or you could adjust the strips of dough to fit your trays. On another tray or your work surface, scatter the sugar.
Roll each chunk of dough in the sugar and shape into a thin sausage, transfer to the baking trays and flatten until they are half as high. Let the dough rest covered with a tea towel (dish towel) for 15 mins.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200°C. Don’t use the fan setting.
Flatten the rolls of dough further until they are 7cm wide and sprinkle the leftover sugar over them. Place the trays in the middle of the oven, one at a time, and bake for 25–30 minutes or until golden brown. They should not be pale, but if some bits of sugar are black it has gone too far.
While baking, make the glaze by melting the caster sugar in the water over low heat. Brush the pains à la grecque with the sugar syrup as soon as they come out of the oven, using a pastry brush, then turn over on the tray. While they are still warm, cut them into 10cm long biscuits, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool.
Keep in an airtight container.