As Christmas is approaching, I thought I’d share with you this easy recipe for Dutch Speculaas Cookies. Nothing says Christmas more than the scent of sweetly spiced baking drifting through the house, and these simple yet festive cookies are the perfect partner to a mid-morning coffee amidst the general chaos of December. Despite daily declarations of disbelief that Christmas has come around again, I am always secretly excited by the gradual build-up throughout the month (including making sure the decorations are up in time for my birthday on the 8th!) and as my little girl is getting older, I am seeing Christmas through her eyes, too. My aim every year is to create a feeling of warmth and magic for her, and I love creating our own traditions. These cookies, along with a nip of sherry and a healthy dose of Wham’s Last Christmas, really get me in the seasonal spirit, and have done for quite a few years now. Hic.
Now for some things I’ve learnt about these biscuits! Speculaas spice is a really distinctive blend (see recipe below) and it makes these biscuits similar to a more heavily spiced, crunchier gingerbread. They are oh-so-good dunked in coffee, make pretty tree decorations and taste absolutely incredible with a chunk of Stilton (you’ll have to trust me on this!). They are often made during the run-up to St Nicholas Day (December 6th) in the Netherlands, which is comparable to our Christmas Day, although their big celebrations and festivities are in full swing on December 5th, much like our Christmas Eve, as that is when St Nicholas (Sinterklaas in Dutch – yup, that is where Santa Claus comes from) delivers presents to the Dutch children. In these modern times some lucky scamps also get a present or two on Christmas Day itself, which is traditionally a quieter, more sober affair. There are versions of this biscuit all over Europe, including ‘speculoos’ in Belgium, ‘spekulatius’ in Germany and ‘pepparkakor’ in Sweden. (Incidentally, you can buy these in tins in Ikea. You’re welcome.)
Speculaas cookies are historically made using wooden moulds which leave a pattern or image on the surface of the biscuit. In the interest of no one losing their marbles in the run-up to Christmas (especially me), I’ve stuck to a simple roll-out and cut method which is fun for children too. These biscuits tend to spread slightly and lose definition, so stick to circles, hearts and stars for best results. The dough is best made at least a day in advance as it gives the spices time to develop and is easier to roll. It takes just a few minutes to make the dough, then you can just chill it in the fridge until you need it. This recipe is egg free and I have made it with both butter and Stork (the block kind) and there is absolutely no difference, so you can happily make these vegan if you like. This makes a small batch (about 12-15 cookies, depending on how big you cut them) so just double or triple the quantities for more. The dough will keep for about a week in the fridge, and you can just break off a bit at a time for fast, freshly baked cookies!
Prettige Sinterklaasdag! X
For the biscuits:
75g unsalted butter (or use block Stork to make these vegan)
115g soft dark brown sugar (use light brown if that’s what you’ve got)
1/2 tsp natural almond extract (optional, but I think it tastes wonderful)
150g plain flour
1 tbsp speculaas spice (see recipe below)
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp milk (any)
Speculaas Spice Mix (Makes just over 7 tablespoons, so grab an empty spice jar!)
4 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ground nutmeg
1 tbsp ground cloves
1/2 tbsp ground ginger
1/2 tbsp ground cardamom*
1/2 tbsp white pepper
Combine all the spices and transfer to a jar. This is a truly fantastic mixture for cakes and bakes – you can use it instead of the more commonly used ‘mixed spice’ in any recipe for a little extra oomph!
*Ground cardamom is tricky to find but is essential for speculaas. I bought some online. Cardamom pods are easy to find in any supermarket, they just take more work. You’ll need to crush the seeds from around 10-12 pods to get 1/2 tbsp.
Place the butter/Stork, sugar and almond extract in a mixer or large bowl and beat until smooth and creamy. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, speculaas spice, bicarbonate of soda and salt.
Gradually add the flour mixture while continuing to beat on the lowest speed. As it comes together it will look sandy; at this point, sprinkle in just one tablespoon of milk.
When the dough clumps together as shown, tip it out on to a clean surface and bring together with your hands. Lightly knead if you have to, but try to avoid handling the dough too much. Form a disc and wrap in clingfilm. Chill in the fridge overnight or for several days until required.
After the dough has rested, preheat your oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4. Dust a surface with flour and roll out the dough to 0.5cm. You can see my daughter is using marzipan spacers in the pictures; these are so cheap to buy and I wouldn’t be without them for totally even biscuits! Cut out as you please and place on a lined baking sheet.
Bake in the middle of the oven for around 13 minutes, depending on the size of your biscuits. You’ll notice that they puff up half way through baking, then settle back down into shape. It’s tricky to tell when they are done due to the colour of the dough, but you’re aiming for a quite a dark brown colour. If you under-bake them, they won’t firm up, which would be disappointing as these are meant to be crunchy biscuits! For reference, I used approximately 6cm diameter cookie cutters and these needed exactly 13 minutes in my oven.
If you want to use some of these as tree decorations, gently poke a hole through the biscuit almost as soon as it comes out of the oven, before it goes crispy. A chopstick or a thick skewer is great for this! Transfer the biscuits to a cooling rack as soon as you are able to handle them and leave until completely cold, then store in an airtight container.