What are oliebollen?
Literally translated as “oil balls”, oliebollen are traditional Belgian and Dutch doughnuts made with flour, milk, eggs, yeast, and a little bit of salt. They can also contain chopped apple, currants, sultanas or citrus zest. The dough is made into balls using either two spoons or an ice cream scoop, and then dropped into hot oil to fry until cooked, then dredged in icing sugar.
During the winter period in Belgium and the Netherlands, you will find many stalls, called oliebollenkramen (or oliebollenkraam) selling this popular treat.
Although they have been adapted over time, oliebollen are thought to be the inspiration behind the well-loved American donut.
What is the origin of oliebollen?
There is no clear indication of exactly when oliebollen were introduced to Belgium. They were said to be a favored treat of Germanic Alpine tribes, eaten during Yule.
There is also speculation that Portuguese Jewish immigrants, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, introduced oliebollen to the Netherlands in the 15th century, and that this is how they eventually made their way into Belgium.
The first mention of oliebollen in Dutch cookbooks was recorded during the 16th century in a cookbook called De Verstandige Kock (The Competent Cook). In 1652, the Dutch painter, Aelbert Jacobsz Cuyp, created a beautiful portrait of a girl carrying a basket of oliebollen (Meid Met Oliebollen).
Perchta and oliebollen
There are some excellent and charming folktales surrounding the origins of oliebollen, and why these deep-fried donuts are such a favored treat.
Perchta is a Pagan goddess, known variously as the “Guardian of the Beasts” and the leader of the Wild Hunt. Perchta (also known as Frau Pecht or Pechta), along with Krampus and other demons and spirits, appears during Yule, now more familiar as the 12 days of Christmas (26 December to 6 January).
She and her beasts roam the countryside during winter. They sneak into people’s houses, and immediately know whether they have been well behaved, and therefore deserving of a treat. If Perchta thinks they’ve been good, they’ll awake in the morning to find a silver coin by their bed. However, if she deems them undeserving, she will slice open their bellies, and replace their innards with straw and pebbles.
She will also do this if she believes the person she is visiting has eaten something other than fish and gruel (traditional yuletide fasting foods).
Another tale tells a story of how Perchta and her spirits flew around the countryside during winter, all looking for something to eat. They would find their victim, cut open their bellies, and consume whatever food they had eaten that day. To prevent this happening, people would consume oliebollen as they said the oil they are fried in would protect them from Perchta’s sword. Their stomachs would be too slippery for the sword to penetrate, and it would slide straight off.
When to eat oliebollen
Traditionally, oliebollen are consumed and enjoyed during the winter months. More so during the 12 days of Christmas. More specifically, these doughnuts are eaten on New Year’s Eve in preparation for another Dutch tradition which takes place on New Year’s Day: swimming in freezing rivers.
When the locals swim through the ice cold water, the oliebollen from the evening before are said to keep them warm inside due to the fat content.
The oliebollentest was a contest that ran from 1993 to 2017. Created by the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, the event was held annually, and was a highly publicized event. The owners of the newspaper would scour the country in search of the best oliebollen bakers (even though these donuts are fried, not baked).
To win this was a highly prestigious honor. Not only would the winner obtain bragging rights for a year, it would also bring an influx of new customers to their bakery.
Richard Visser holds the record for the number of times his bakery has won, having been crowned the best oliebollen baker a total of nine times.
In 2018, the contest came to a halt due to a difference of opinion, and inconsistencies within the jury. In 2019 however, oliebollentest was up and running again but managed and judged differently.
There are now 12 winners from each province, and each winner receives flowers and a certificate showing that they won.
The oliebollen are tested for shape, size, taste, filling, and fluffiness. Candidates can either enter the competition themselves, or their customers can put them forward. A mystery shopper will purchase 10 oliebollen from each bakery, which will be tried and tested on the same day. The results are published later, on 20th December.
Oliebollen and its many names
Oliebollen are famous across the globe, whether it is in Europe, America, or even as far as Africa. Many countries around the world have their own versions, enjoyed by the locals.
Oliebol is the singular term, while oliebollen is the plural. In Frisian, they are known as oaljebol or oaljekoek, in the Netherlands they are referred to as smoutballen – which translates to “lard balls”.
Throughout Africa, these delicious delights have various names such as bofflot, yovodocon, and puff puffs.
Across the Americas, these are simply known as dumplings or donut holes.
Whichever part of the world you are in, there will be a very similar local recipe for oliebollen.
- 4½ cups flour, sifted
- 1¾ cups milk (or more), at 97 F / 36°C
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
- 3 tablespoons caster sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs , very lightly beaten
- 8 cups vegetable oil (for frying)
- Icing sugar (for decor)
- In a bowl, pour the milk and add the yeast and half the sugar.
- Stir and let rise for 15 minutes.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the flour and sugar.
- Dig a well in the center of the flour and add the eggs into it.
- Using the dough hook, knead while gradually incorporating the milk and yeast mixture.
- Add the salt and knead until a homogeneous but fairly sticky dough is obtained.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise for an hour in a warm place, away from drafts.
- In a large deep skillet over low heat, heat the oil for about 15 minutes until it reaches a temperature of 350 F (180°C).
- Using a well-oiled ice cream scoop, scoop some dough and dip it in hot oil.
- Fry the oliebollen for 4 to 6 minutes or until golden brown, turn them halfway through cooking if they do not turn over on their own.
- When the oliebollen are ready, place them in a colander and cover them with paper towel, then place them in a large dish lined with paper towel. The paper will absorb the excess fat.
- Sprinkle with icing sugar.
- Serve the oliebollen hot or warm.
The amount of oil and olebollen that can fit in the pan depends on its size. Make sure the oliebollen are sufficiently spaced during frying.