In the holiday baking department: Speculatius / Speculaas

by Diane Duane

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If you’re in the Netherlands (I don’t say Holland, because you might be in the Netherlands without necessarily being in Holland) and you’ve ordered coffee after a meal or a snack, odds are strong that this is the cookie / biscuit that will come along with it. They seem to be everywhere over there.

For most of us who make it at home, this would be a cookie-cutter cookie, but on the Continent they’re likely to turn up in quite ordinary shapes — rectangles or squares — that are ornamented with designs that have been pressed into them with special Speculaas molds. (Very ornate and seriously huge Speculaas biscuits used to be given to children in the Netherlands on St. Nicholas’s Day [December 6th], but I don’t know if this is done any more.)

The flavor is something special. It sounds a little odd to describe a bikkie’s flavor as “fresh”, but this is, and the cardamom used in its spicing is what’s responsible. A lovely fragrance comes off a tin of these when you open it up, and the cinnamon and cloves that are also part of the recipe add a very holidayish scent. So this is nice to bake around this time of year for when you want something just a little different from the cookies you’ve probably been eating since the week before Christmas or thereabouts.

The only frustration about making these at home is when you go looking for a recipe on the Net. The best ones are all German, it seems, but they all seem to call for “spekulatiuswurz”, or “Speculatius seasoning,” which is a big help especially as it gives you no idea what’s in it. Fortunately there is a good scratch recipe in that bible for those interested in central European holiday baking, <em>Festive Baking in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, and this recipe comes from there.

Ingredients and method under the cut.

Ingredients:

  • 140g butter, softened
  • 140g granulated sugar (you can substitute brown sugar if you like)
  • Grated rind of one lemon
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 50g ground almonds
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon powdered cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 240g plain flour
  • 65g flaked almonds (for decoration)

A note about the cardamom first. If you don’t have a source for ground cardamom, you’re going to have to buy it in the pod (an Asian grocery can most likely help you with this if your local supermarket can’t accomodate you).

You don’t want the outer covering of the pods, just the seeds inside. Crush the pods (ideally with a mortar and pestle) until they crack open, pick out the little black seeds, and crush these to a powder. It may take a while, as they can be tough, but the lovely scent is your reward. (You may want to put them through a sieve to make sure they’ve been rubbed small/fine enough.) Six to ten of the pods will provide the amount of ground cardamom you need.

Using an electric mixer, cream together the softened butter, the sugar and the lemon rind. When they’re light and fluffy, beat in the lightly beaten egg, and then the ground almonds. While this is going on, sift the spices into the flour, along with the baking powder, and mix all the dry ingredients well together. Then while the mixer operates on low speed, add the dry ingredients to the butter/sugar/almond mixture, a spoonful at a time, until all mixed together. The dough will be pretty soft. Scoop it out onto some plastic wrap, pat it into a flat round, and refrigerate for at least three hours. (Longer won’t hurt, but don’t leave it overnight: it won’t bake as well if left so long.)

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375F / 190C.

This next bit gets a touch complicated in terms of logistics, as for best results the cut-out biscuits need to be baked “from cold.” So you need to prepare enough baking sheets / baking surfaces for the whole amount of dough, load them up, and then stick them all in the fridge until you’re ready to start. (The recipe makes between four to five dozen cookies, depending on how large you’re cutting them: just so you know.)

Leave as much of the dough cold as you can while you’re working on cutting out a given batch. Roll out, say, about a quarter of that flat round, to a thickness of about 1/8 inch, and cut out your first batch. Decorate them with slivers of almond. Quickly reknead the scraps, roll and cut again until that chunk of dough is all used up: then stash the baking sheet(s) in the fridge and repeat the rolling and cutting process until all the dough is ready to bake.

Bake each filled cookie sheet for 10 to 15 minutes until the point where the biscuits are just lightly golden and starting to darken at the edges. (Check that first batch at the 8-minute point to make sure your oven’s heat’s not too high.) When you get the baking sheet out of the oven, if your biscuits are small, remove them immediately with a spatula to a cooling rack. If they’re large, give them a couple/few minutes on the sheet before removing them with the spatula (the big ones tend to be a bit soft initially*).

When you’re finished baking these and they’re completely cool, put them right into a sealed tin, as if left out they go stale with great speed. They are wonderful with coffee, as you might imagine. And as dunking biscuits they work surprisingly well.

Enjoy!

*Insert innuendo here if you really feel the need.

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