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.