The one bake both famous, and infamously, associated with the end of the year in English speaking culture is the fruitcake. The rich in dried fruit dense cake is known for its heavy load of calories as well as its unusual shelf life – especially when copiously drenched in booze. Although the booze is tempting, this story is about another year end tradition… other cultures have their own tasty traditions, and the one celebrated by the Dutch won’t ever be rather launched by trebuchet into fruitcake oblivion as there won’t be any leftovers! [1]

The last two balls of the fourth batch, a few minutes before Simon came in from the school bus.

A particularly yummy end of the year tradition, [2] Dutch oliebollen (literally, oily balls) are essentially a sweet and fruity deep fried dough. Probably all cultures, at some point or another, invented fried dough, in some way or shape, but I dare to bet the Dutch version is the only one consumed solely at years end. What the two do have in common is that both the English fruitcake and the Dutch oliebollen are a high caloric food, perfect for adding some extra padding in anticipation of meager, winter times.

It is not quite clear when the oliebol first appeared in Dutch baking. Perhaps the Batavi and Friesian cultures offered fried dough to their goddess Perchta, hoping excess grease would help deflect her sword from cutting? More mainstream, fifteenth century sources mention the consumption of linseed oil cakes at the court of the count of Holland. Or perhaps oliebollen are derived from a Jewish sweet fried dough, part of the traditional Jewish celebration Hannukah and introduced to the Netherlands in the sixteenth century by Sephardic Jews emigrating from Spain and Portugal.

What we do know for sure is that cakes fried in oil were already a thing in the middle ages. At the time, Christmas indicated the end of a fasting period which started November 11th, Saint Martins Day. The end of this fasting was celebrated with oily cakes, not only great tasting but also loaded with calories and fats. Quite useful, right before the cold and dark and nutritiously poor season. At the time these cakes were not just for the winter season. They could be eaten the whole year through, cheap and nourishing, especially for the poor or during sieges. Fresh food would be eaten or spoil quickly, but oily cakes could keep a house, keep or castle going. [3]

“Meid met oliebollen” (Maid with fried dough balls) by Aelbert Cuyp (1652)

As oil was expensive, deep frying was not a thing quite yet. Olykoeken or oily cakes would be pan-fried and thus flat, not bulbous as they are now. With better economic circumstances and increased trade [4] in the seventeenth century deep frying became a mainstream option. The 1668 cookbook ‘De Verstandige Kock of Sorghvuldige HuysHoudster‘ (The smart cook or careful housekeeper) lists a recipe for oily cakes that uses just about a liter and half of oil, and this extra space would allow the cakes to swell and become rounder. Similar can be seen in the painting “Meid met oliebollen” (Maid with fried dough balls) by Aelbert Cuyp (1652) which shows oily balls looking pretty close to our modern oliebollen. By the eighteenth century the cakes really turned into balls as shown by the recipe book De Volmaakte Hollandsche Keukenmeid (The perfect Dutch kitchenmaid) from 1746. Not only do the oliebollen float around freely in a deep kettle filled with copious oil, the dough is added by forming it between two tin spoons – just like I do every year.

A typical seasonal Oliebollenkraam, with lights, and a long, long line of expectant customers…

The oliebol as a specific new years tradition did not really start until the nineteenth century. And with the invention of cooking stoves – and modernly, electric deep fryers – the baking of these treats became much saver for the general public. Although, growing up, I remember many would purchase their dozen of oliebollen from seasonal street vendors instead of frying from scratch. And as a kid, it sure felt magical, peering up into these beautifully lit and mirrored palaces of deep fried dough and getting handed a steaming hot oliebol, copiously covered in powdered sugar, which in turn would copiously cover us kids too – magical memories, indeed… [5]

But… that is not where the story of the oliebol ends. Like much that is Dutch, the oliebol also emigrated to the american continent; New Amsterdam to be specific, and then went about to reinvent itself, again. But instead of becoming the big, round and fluffy dough balls we know today, over here the oily cakes lost their marbles! [6] Specifically, a circular hole was cut right through the center. I had heard it was to cut down on the possibility of an under cooked center but of course there are other, often much more colorful, explanations… Was it to stint on ingredients? Did the hole make the whole easier to digest? Did Captain Gregory, whose mum is credited with rebranding the oily cakes, use the hole to stick it to his ships wheel during rough weather?

The Willy wonka-like automaton use to make cider donuts by our local Littletree Orchards

Whatever the reason, from then on Dutch oily cakes became forever known as the American doughnut (courtesy of Captain Gregory’s mum – she’d put walnuts in the middle to help it bake throughout; a dough-nut). production was automated in the 1920’s by a Willy Wonka-like machine, [7] doughnuts became poster boy in the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago as a prime example of “food to hit the Century of Progress.” And a 1937 popular song suggests you can live on coffee and doughnuts if you’re in love… I won’t comment on the latter, but I do know from experience coffee and donuts make for a great survival combination: many a day at Market I’ve had apple cider donuts for ‘lunch’! [8] Simon thinks it fantastic, me moving next door to the ‘donut people’ as they give away any leftover at market end, [9] especially to the vendor with the hungry teenager… but personally? I’d take a Dutch oliebol anytime! [10]

Happy new year!

Would you like to make your own oliebollen?
I uploaded a short youtube video with (dairy free) recipe of the last batch I made this past weekend. Enjoy!

Want to see how the donuts machine works? Click here; my market neighbors Littletree Orchard brings it out for special events.


[1] This would be in Manitou Springs, Colorado, which holds an annual fruitcake toss where unwanted loaves are bid adieu by medieval means—namely, catapults.
[2] I might be prejudiced as I am a Dutch native. Or perhaps not…
[3] Until their stores of flour and oil ran out, of course.
[4] Think Dutch Golden Age.
[5] Perhaps not for the mothers, having to deal with sugar covered kids (going by the memory of my mom’s disapproving face).
[6] You know, a donut hole, looks just like edible marbles.
[7] Very clever, and certainly attracted loads of intrigued customers.
[8] Perfect COVID lunch, quick to eat and mask back on!
[9] Which does not happen nearly as often as Simon had hoped.
[10] Well… anytime that is years’ end, of course!