Todd Hartman and Lily Tsay have built an artisan food business around their shared love for a Dutch delicacy. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Oakland couple Lily Tsay and Todd Hartman freely admit they are addicts; addicts of the stroopwafel, that is. The wafer cookie of Dutch origin has such a cult following that its devotees find each other through the Association of Stroopwafel Addicts web site.

They founded The Stroopie Gourmet largely to feed their own addiction, and hopefully, to make a bunch of new converts while they’re at it. Their pop-up can be found mainly at events, serving up fresh stroopwafels straight from the iron.

But what is a stroopwafel exactly? Stroop means syrup in Dutch. And the wafel doesn’t resemble what we know as American, or Belgian, waffles at all. It’s much thinner, and round instead of square. It’s made of yeasted dough, and is sliced open on its thin side while hot. Caramel is spread between its two layers before it’s put back together and served in a paper sleeve.

Stroopie Waffles, 11/12, photo: Kaia Diringer
Stroopwafels are thin and crispy and filled with caramel. They are often served on top of a hot drink in the Netherlands. Photo: Kaia Diringer

The stroopwafel was invented in the late 18th century, in Gouda, where bakers combined the end of the day’s dough scraps together, and then added caramel. In the Netherlands, it’s equally beloved by natives and tourists.

Most often, it’s served perched atop a mug of hot coffee, so that by the time you lift it to your mouth, the steam has partially melted the caramel. That is, if you can wait that long.

“It has this crunchy, crispy, chewy texture, and your teeth sink into this caramel goodness,” said Tsay. “It’s so different than any chocolate chip cookie or baked good or pastry I ever had.”

Neither Tsay nor Hartman are of Dutch descent. Tsay, 29, grew up in a Chinese restaurant family – her father is Taiwanese and her mother Vietnamese – in the Midwest. At age 16, she traveled to Europe and fell in love with the stroopwafel in Amsterdam.

“Along with the taste of traveling abroad for the first time, that’s what set it for me, it was one of those tastes you can’t forget but know you need to have again.”

Throughout the years, Tsay asked friends going to the Netherlands to bring her back a package of stroopwafels, and she’d ration them out, making them last up to a year.

Stroopie Waffles, 6/12, photo: Kaia Diringer
Lily Tsay slices open the yeasted dough waffle on its thin side while it is still hot. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Fast forward many years, until her partner, Hartman, was stopping through Amsterdam. She sent him on a mission to find the elusive cookie, which turned out not to be elusive at all, it was being made right next to his hostel.

“I ate a fresh one, and bought her a fresh one, as well as a package, not really knowing her addiction, or what mine soon would be,” he said.

Hartman grew up a latchkey kid in North Carolina, and started cooking for himself at age 8. While he started with the age-appropriate basics like scrambled eggs, he soon found that he had a rather discerning palate for someone his age.

“Flavor is something like a journey for me,” he said, which is why he pretty much swore he’d never go into the food industry. “Because of my own pickiness about it,” he explained, “I figured I would be my own worst critic.”

Instead, he served as a biomedical engineer in the Air Force — which means he knows how to fix an X-Ray machine, among other medical equipment – and later, got a degree in animation. He has worked as a photographer, set designer and/or builder, as well as a costume designer. Tsay worked as a journalist and community-organizer in post-Katrina New Orleans.

But back to that package of stroopwafels Hartman brought home.

When that package was gone, “our rations were all gone, depleted,” said Tsay. “We thought ‘maybe we can find someone in the Bay Area making these?’”

As it turns out, quite a few stores carry Daelman’s “caramel wafers,” a popular Dutch brand. But no one was making them fresh.

So they decided to make them themselves, and The Stroopie Gourmet was born in December 2012.

Stroopie Waffles, 3/12, photo: Kaia Diringer
Lily Tsay pours caramel onto a waffle. Sometimes the sea-salt caramel is flavored with cinnamon or liqueurs. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Most of their raw materials are local, and some are organic – Giusto’s flour and Clover dairy. While a vegan stroopwafel has been perfected, a gluten-free one has not – yet — but they’re working on it. They often flavor their sea-salt caramel with cinnamon or liqueurs; they’ve made them with Nutella; and experimented with a savory one: honey, Bourbon, bacon and Cheddar cheese. They recently partnered with Oakland’s Blue Chair Fruit, so they can also serve strooptarts (a stroopwafel with jam replacing the caramel). “It’s a lot different than a Pop Tart,” Hartman quipped.

The Stroopie Gourmet’s cookies are smaller than those found in the Netherlands, as well as less sweet, to suit American taste buds.

Their equipment includes a specialized iron that costs just under $2,000, and was imported from the Netherlands with the help of the Dutch Consulate in San Francisco. The consulate is so excited to have fresh stroopwafels in the area that The Stroopie Gourmet will serve them at its Queen’s Day celebration on Saturday April 27, which draws about 5,000 people.

Stroopie Waffles, 4/12, photo: Kaia Diringer
The Dutch Consulate in San Francisco is so excited to have fresh stroopwafels in the area that The Stroopie Gourmet will serve them at its upcoming Queen’s Day celebration. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Tsay and Hartman use the Kitchener community kitchen space in downtown Oakland to make their dough, and to make packages of stroopwafels to get their name out. But, given their own preference for fresh over those in the bag, this is not a big part of their business.

They have served them in the tower of the de Young Museum, and are setting up partnerships with coffee shops around the Bay Area, so “people can know where we are and make a pilgrimage to get their stroopie,” said Hartman. They also have festivals lined up.

Ideally, they hope to grow into having several teams of employees who can be at events around the entire Bay Area at one time.

“We want to make this into an experience. When we get to share the story of where it comes from and how we got passionate about it, it changes the experience of just having the cookie,” said Hartman.

“When we explain to our friends and customers the traditional Dutch way of enjoying stroopwafels, that is by resting the cookie on top of a hot cup of coffee or tea, we like to express how nice it is to take a moment to savor the sweetest parts of life, just a short moment out of your day, while the heat rises up to warm the cookie, melting the caramel inside, before gleefully gobbling it down.”

Read about other artisanal food startups featured on Berkeleyside Nosh:

Berkeley’s new hot sauce shop turns up the heat [03.28.13]
Berkeley couple make rillettes at artisanal startup [02.14.13]
In Oakland, two Italians craft pasta with a U.S. twist [02.05.13]

Alix Wall is a certified natural foods chef and freelance writer who lives in Oakland.

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Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...