In Belgium and the Netherlands (and some other parts of the world), Christmas comes early. They welcome Sinterklaas (Santa Claus)/ St. Nicholas, who also happens to be the patron saint of children, on the eve of the 5th/ morning of the 6th of December.
According to traditional customs, children would leave wooden shoes near the chimney, filled with hay (and a carrot sometimes) for Santa Claus’s horse and he would rewards them for having been good children with small gifts and treats like chocolate, oranges, marzipan figures or Speculoos biscuits.
Depending on who was telling the story, bad/ naughty children would be spanked with a chimney broom by Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), Santa’s helper, or be put into his bag and taken away! Given that the choice was between being bad and getting taken away and being good and getting rewarded with Speculoos, I think Belgian children would mostly choose good over bad!
Speculoos are dark coloured, thin and spicy, somewhat buttery and crunchy biscuits/ cookies. The Belgians love their Speculoos so much that if they had to have a national biscuit/ cookie, it would be this one! They use Speculoos in many ways including as a base for cheesecake, soaked in coffee, in tiramisu, as a delicious paste that’s used as a spread, in candy bars, and even ice-cream.
Speculoos are equally popular in areas neighbouring Belgium and you can find them as Speculatius in Germany and the Dutch call them Speculaas. There are different theories about the origin of the name.
Some believe that Speculoos (or the variations of this name) comes from the Latin “species” or the Dutch “specerij” meaning spices pointing towards the mix of spices that go into making Speculoos. Another theory holds that it comes from “speculum” meaning mirror referring to the dough being pressed into wooden moulds and turned out on to baking sheets.
The most accepted version is the name comes from ‘speculator” meaning Bishop referring to St. Nicholas in whose honour these biscuits were baked, whose figure adorns them and who was the Bishop of Myra!
Speculoos look deceptively simple enough to make but things can go wrong, as I found out from my own experience making them. However, I must point out that I was new to making them and the mistakes were all mine. Check out my Speculoos making tips at the end of the post.
At least, I knew how they ought to taste as my good friend Finla, sent me some last year (the famous Lotus brand of Speculoos) when her husband was visiting Goa. In fact she was also the reason behind my making these biscuits/ cookies. First of all the ones she sent us were a hit here at home. Then a few months back, she sent me a couple of wooden Speculoos moulds, today the 5th of December seemed the perfect day to break them in. It’s a different thing that it was the moulds and the dough that almost did me in!
Speculoos cookies are shaped using wooden moulds called speculaasplank which are commonly shaped as windmills (hence the name Dutch Windmill Cookies), St. Nicholas himself (or as Sinterklaas), boy or girl. They are made with butter, flour, and sugar but it seems what gives them a unique flavor are the spices (speculaaskruiden )that go into it and apparently a Belgian brown sugar called “vergeoise brune,” (made from beets) which also gives the cookie its rich brown color. Brown sugar is a good substitute.
The spice mix was something I had to make because it is not available here. Not that that was a problem because all the spices that go into it are available here (most of them grown in India and exported to the rest of the world), and spices mixes are always the most flavourful if made from scratch.
The only problem was that every recipe came with its own combination of spices and no two seemed alike. There were also instances where people used pumpkin pie spice or Chinese 5-spice powder, as that was what they had. I wanted to make these as the Belgians might and Finla helped me out again by suggesting the spices I could use. So I put together my own combination/ ratio of spices based on the spice information I got from Finla. I didn’t have white pepper which is normally used for this spice mix, so I used black pepper instead.
You can still make Speculoos even if you don’t have the moulds. Just roll out the dough and cut them using cookie cutters. They still taste just as good! As for the texture of Speculoos, I remember the ones I ate as being crunchy (crumbly sort) and very buttery. And I must mention here, that it is worth baking these cookies if only for the heavenly aroma of spices that fill your kitchen as they bake!
These Speculoos turned out crunchy, though not crumbly or buttery. I think I like these Speculoos better. From various sources on the net, I understand that Speculoos can also be also be made crisp and almost cracker-like, some are very strong on the spice while others are milder and some are very buttery. Some recipes use egg while others don’t.
I asked Finla to give me a recipe as I thought her version would be more authentic. She sent me a recipe from Basic Patisserie by Christophe Declercq which she translated from Flemish to English for me. I changed a little bit, partly by design andpartly by accident because I misunderstood a part of the recipe. It all worked out well in the end.
Egg Free Speculoos / Speculaas/ Spekulatius For Sinterclaas – Spiced Belgian/ Dutch Windmill Biscuits/ Cookies
For the Speculaaskruiden (Speculoos Spice Mix) :
- 3 tsps cinnamon ground
- 2 tsps nutmeg ground
- 1 tsp cloves ground
- 1 1/2 tsps ginger ground dried
- 1 tsp anise seeds ground
- 1 tsp black pepper ground (or 1 1/2 tsp white pepper)
For the Speculoos Cookies :
- 1 1/2 cups brown sugar golden
- 1/8 cup water (or more if you need it)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 150 gm butter soft , softened at room temperature (I used salted)
- 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- rice flour Some fine if using wooden moulds
- almonds Halved to decorate (optional)
- For the Speculaaskruiden (Speculoos Spice Mix, mix all the powdered spices together and store in an airtight glass jar. Use as required. This will keep for about 3 months without loss of flavour if in an airtight jar.
- For the Speculoos Cookies, mix the brown sugar, baking powder, the spices and the water in a bowl. Add the soft butter and the flour and make into a somewhat soft dough which is very pliable. You can do this in the food processor like I did. Do not overwork the dough. It should be smooth and pliable, neither soft and sticky nor too firm.
- You should be able to roll the dough out easily after lightly dusting your work surface with flour, especially if youu2019re going to use the wooden moulds. This video on making the dough is worth takinga look at. My dough was a little softer than the one in the video.
- Cover the dough with a plastic or clingwrap and refrigerate for 24 hours. This allows the flavour of the spices to steep into the dough, and make the dough easy to work with. The pattern of the moulds will also show up well with cold dough.
- When you take the dough out, it should be firm (not hard) yet soft enough to roll out or press into the moulds. If you are using new moulds, you have to season them first (see tips at the end of this post).
- Sprinkle very little rice flour onto the mould, making sure you have dusted the corners of the mould as well. Tap off the excess flour very well. You will need a little more flour if youu2019re using new moulds. Don't over work with the dough now.
- If your dough feels a little dry, add a little water to get it to a softer consistency. Roll the dough into a long cylinder and pinch off a small bit and press it into the mould.
- Use a piece of thin nylon twine, or a sharp knife to cut off the excess. This takes a little practise. See this video to get an idea of how to use the mould to shape Speculoos. Now turn the mould upside down on a lightly greased or lined baking sheet and tap the mould to release the dough or use the end of a blunt knife to ease it out from the sides of the mould.
- You might have to end up banging it down, so donu2019t be surprised if your family and neighbours turn upto see what the fun is all about!
- Use up all the dough like this. If you donu2019t have moulds, roll out the dough between 1/4thand 1/8th of an inch thick, and use cookie cutters to cut out shapes of your choice. Transfer them to baking sheets and press down half an almond on each.
- Bake the cookies at 180C (350F) for about 10 to 15 minutes till the edges start browning. Any longer and the cookies will burn and become very hard. Since the dough is brown, it is important to keep an eye on the cookies as they bake to get an idea of how long they need to bake.
- The baking time will depend on the thickness of your cookies and the size of your mould. Let the Speculoos cool on the sheets for about 10 minutes when they will become harder and crunchier. Cool them completely on racks and store in airtight tins. Serve with coffee or tea or as you choose. These cookies keep so you can make a large batch when you make them.
- This recipe makes over 60 two inch cookies. I like the smaller sized cookies as theyu2019re perfect to serve with coffee or tea.