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Belgium: Carbonnade (Stoofvlees)

I discovered this dish via my new BFF Joanne last year. I had made a couple attempts at it in the past few months, one with beef and one with chicken, but I had not really followed any traditional recipes. This time, I wanted to get the full Flemish experience so I decided to go with a very traditional recipe with gingerbread and all I can say is that I was not disappointed.

My quest for this attempt started two weeks ago as I was shopping at World Market and I found bottles of Chimay. Chimay is a traditional Trappist Belgian beer from the south of Belgium. It is often used in the making of carbonnade aka stoofvlees. Chimay Rouge (Red Chimay) which I used here has a 7% alcohol content and is a dark amber beer with a fruity aroma. As I was buying this beer, I immediately thought about making carbonnade!

So, I went on to try to find the other ingredients. There were all easy to find except the gingerbread. Gingerbread is not always used in the making of carbonnade. It was actually not in the original recipe but it became a tradition to add stale rustic bread or gingerbread over the generations. I had already seen gingerbread in stores in the US before, but for some reason, I could only find honey cake this time, and this was not typical enough for me. So, I decided to make my own gingerbread for the first time.

The origin of the word “carbonnade” comes from the Latin word for coal: “carbon”. Originally, thin slices of beef were placed on coal and grilled, and this was what carbonnade was. It is believed that the origin of the stew as we know it comes from the fact that people used leftovers of this meat to make carbonnade. The leftovers being quite dry, they had to stew them in some liquid (here beer) to make carbonnade.

Recipe

Ingredients (for 4 persons)

- 2 to 3 lbs. of beef stew (you can also use beef cheek)
- 2 tbsp. brown sugar
- 1 bouquet garni (thyme, laurel bay, rosemary)
- 1 liter of brown beer (I used a little more than one 75 cl bottle of Chimay Rouge)
- 2 onions
- 1/4 lb. bacon (I used beef fry as a substitute)
- 4 slices of homemade gingerbread (recipe follows)
- 1/2 stick of butter (or margarine)
- Salt
- Mustard

Preparation

Cut the beef into 1 in. cubes. Mince onions and dice bacon into large pieces. Melt the butter and sauté the onions for 10 minutes covered at low heat. Add the bacon then increase the heat slightly. Stir regularly but keep covered. After 10 minutes, remove everything except the liquid and set aside in a dish.

Increase to maximum heat then sauté the meat in the uncovered pan. Stir regularly. The meat should be browned on all sides. Remove the pan from the heat. Put the meat in a dish keeping the juices in the pan.

Dissolve brown sugar in the remaining liquid and make a reduction (you should have about half of the original liquid). Once reduced, turn the heat to low and add the bacon-onion mixture then the meat and stir. Add the bouquet garni and cover with beer (about 1 liter). Add a little salt.

Gently cover the entire surface with gingerbread on which you would have spread mustard. Simmer, covered, for 3 hours without stirring, until the gingerbread is melted.

If after three hours, the juice is too liquid, uncover the pot and continue to simmer.

Gingerbread (Pain d’épices) Recipe

Ingredients (for 8 persons):

- 1/2 lb. honey
- 1/2 cup hot milk (or soy milk)
- 1 stick melted butter (or margarine)
- 1.5 cup flour
- 1 tbsp. baking powder
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 dash of salt
- Spices (ground) in any quantity you’d like: cinnamon, ginger, clove, nutmeg or more simply allspice
- Toppings: walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, coconut, fresh orange peels

Preparation

Dissolve honey in warm milk. Add the melted butter and flour and whip vigorously to avoid lumps.Then incorporate the baking powder, sugar, egg and salt. Add spices, nuts, orange to taste.

Bake in a loaf pan for 45 minutes in a 350 F (180 C) oven.

Make sure the gingerbread is baked by poking with a knife. The knife should come out dry.