It's already December, Christmas is almost here and people all over the world are looking forward to it. When I look out of the window I can see the winter. Cold, freezing, cool, chilling and icy. These words describe it perfectly. I wish it was snowing, too, but it's not from some unknown reason. You know, I don't know about better feeling than this one: I'm sitting in an armchair covered with warm blanket, christmas carols are being singed by my family, I'm holding a cup of hot tea and it's snowing outside. Pretty shiny small snowflakes are slowly falling down to the ground. I feel happy and comfortable and I want a cookie. The cookie, in fact. Speculaas.
Speculaas (read spekyla:s) are traditional Dutch cookies often baked during Christmas. They are spiced with a number of different unique spices and often are eggless, because they're supposed to be crispy and crunchy, not chewy or soft at all. I bet you could find them in your local store, but probably their name would be a bit different - Spekulatius. Nevertheless, Speculaas and Spekulatius are not the same. Spekulatius are spiced cookies made in Germany, Austria and several other countries except for the Netherlands. These usually do contain eggs and the spices used are different then those used in Speculaas. So do not change one for another :) The original Speculaas is (in the USA) sold under the name Dutch Windmill cookies.
The cookies are traditionally made on the 5th of December, because in the Netherlands this day is St. Nicholas' Eve which is a very important day for Dutch people.
Here is what you can read on Wikipedia:
"In the days leading up to 5 December (starting when Saint Nicholas has arrived in the Netherlands by steamboat in late November), young children put their shoes in front of the chimneys and sing Sinterklaas songs. Often they put a carrot or some hay in the shoes, as a gift to St. Nicholas' horse. The next morning they will find a small present in their shoes, ranging from sweets to marbles or some other small toy. On the evening of 5 December, Sinterklaas brings presents to every child that has behaved his or herself well in the past year (in practice, just like with Santa Claus, all children receive gifts without distinction). This is often done by placing a bag filled with presents outside the house or living room, after which a neighbour or parent bangs the door or window, pretending to be Sinterklaas' assistant. Another option is to hire or ask someone to dress up as Sinterklaas and deliver the presents personally. Sinterklaas wears a bishop's robes including a red cape and mitre and is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dress, dating back two centuries. These helpers are called 'Zwarte Pieten' ("Black Petes") or "Père Fouettard" in the French-speaking part of Belgium. The myth is, if a child had been naughty, the Zwarte Pieten put all the naughty children in sacks, and Sinterklaas took them to Spain (it is believed that Sinterklaas comes from Spain, where he returns after 5 December). Therefore, many Sinterklaas songs still allude to a watching Zwarte Piet and a judging Sinterklaas. In the past number of years, there has been a recurrent discussion about the politically incorrect nature of the Moorish helper. In particular Dutch citizens with backgrounds from Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles might feel offended by the Dutch slavery history connected to this emblem and regard the Zwarte Pieten to be racist. Others state that the black skin color of Zwarte Piet originates in his profession as a chimneysweep, hence the delivery of packages though the chimney."
In my country it's a little bit different. St. Nicholas is called Mikulas (read Mee-kuh-lash) and he visits children in the evening on the 5th of December accompanied by an angel and a devil (similar to Lucifer, simply a servant from hell) - in Czech it's cert (read chert). The devil is supposed to scare the bad-behaving children and the angel is here to protect them and Mikulas to forgive. However, usually every child gets his/her pack of sweets and is happy for another one year, no matter how bad hi/her behaviour was.
The word speculaas comes probably from Latin word speculum meaning mirror, because the dough should be cut out using a special wooden mold with relief which will create a beautiful decoration on the speculaas surface. Unfortunately, it's not possible to buy them in my country so I used my old good cookie cutters and it was fine :)
I know it's quite late to give you this recipe, because tomorrow it's already the 5th of December. Time goes by so fast, doesn't it? Never mind, you don't have to do them tomorrow. They're great any time you make them and I'm sure you, your husband or children or friends will love them and they won't mind whether you make them tomorrow or the next week, because Speculaas are Christmas cookies and Christmas is coming (not: is gone :D).
250g plain flour (or all-purpose), sifted
125g butter, softened
125g dark brown sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp ginger powder
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
a pinch of salt
1 tsp baking powder
Mix flour, salt and baking powder. In another bowl cream butter with sugar and spices using a wooden spoon - just until smooth and incorporated. Add the flour mixture in three batches and then knead for a while until you get a smooth firm dough. It will be a bit dry, but this doesn't matter. Cover with plastic foil and refrigerate overnight. Remove from your fridge and let soften at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Again shortly knead with your hands to soften the dough and to make it "rollable" :D (the dough may be quite crumbly so you have to knead it quite a lot). Roll out on a slightly floured surface (preferably between two sheets of plastic foil) to 5mm thickness. Cut out whatever shapes you want with your favourite cookie cutters. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake in preheated oven to 160C for about 8 minutes. The colour should not change at all - if it gets slightly dark brown on the edges it means it's already a bit burnt (which means a little bit bitter aftertaste), so be careful!. At first the cookies are soft when removed from oven, but after being cooled completely they become crispy. Store in an airtight container.
- If the dough is too crumbly to roll out, divide it into cookie molds and bake accordong to the recipe. Remove from oven, let cool for 2-4 minutes and then remove from the molds.
I love them, really! The sugar creates a wonderful caramel flavour and the combination of spices is divine. It's always fun to let everyone guess what spices are in them - noone ever knows :D My mum noticed there's cinnamon and nutmeg, but then - nope, she just said something unique and unknown to her was there. However, each cookie has a wonderful sweet cardamom taste, is crispy and crunchy and leaves you asking for more and more. Originally, light brown sugar should be used, but I've found it better with dark brown sugar - especially Dark Muscovado - very caramel-like taste :) This is another not-so-traditional kind of christmas cookies which now is made every year, as everybody asks for them.