December for us inhabitants of the low lands equals spice—and a whole lot of ‘em. To celebrate St. Nicholas’ coming, we toss it in small round cookies (kruidnoten), we put it in shallow molds with funny Sinterklaas figures (speculaas), and even add it to brioche dough (mikkeman). The spice mixes are unique for each region, unleashing the the ever-lasting speculoos VS speculaas war. The “oo” variant of the hard thin brown sugary bisuit only contains cinnamon, while the other a mix we’ll later uncover.
Speculaas is unique to the low lands because of the Dutch East India Company who managed to import exquisite, expensive and exotic spices from India and Indonesia back to Amsterdam. In 1599, a fleet of eight ships hit the jackpot: the “Spice Islands”. A year later, they returned to the Netherlands, making 400 percent profit. Ka-tsjing. Capitalism and exploitation exists longer than you’d think. While the Dutch profits soared, the local economy of the Spice Islands was destroyed…
The sudden access to spices—especially cinnamon and ginger—caused a true creative outburst to fashion-conscious bakers. Add refined sugar to the mixture, first via sugar cane and later via a refinery process based on beets, and you’ve got yourself a cookie. Jummy! But which spices actually are in there?
I’ve always wondered how American recipes call for an allspice mixture, and what that would be. The answer? The recipe is wrong. Allspice is an alternative name for the Jamaica pepper plant, not for a mixture of spices. And yet,
80% of the recipes I encounter that require “allspice” actually mean an “all spice” variant. Confused yet?
Apologies to English readers, I can’t translate speculaas, and Wikipedia does a shoddy job at calling it a biscuit. Sure, they’re unleavened brown hard baked sugary products with a base of (1) flour (2) sugar (3) butter and sometimes a few (4) eggs1. And please do not confuse speculaas with horrible German Lebkuchen! Specerij is the Dutch word for spice, which might be one way of explaining its etymology, although I also like the alternative: the Latin speculum—mirror—notes the fact that a printed cookie in the mold is mirrored when baked.
Back to the spice mix. For example, here’s the composition of a random packet of “all spice”, which is conveniently labeled in Dutch terms “speculaasmengeling” (speculaas mixture):
When it comes to ratios, your guess is as good as mine. Well, not entirely. Every good baker of course creates his own spice mix. My speculaas cookies are made with
2% (yeah, that’s a lot, I love spice) of the following:
- 1.00 tspn Cloves
- 0.50 tspn Black pepper
- 0.50 tspn Coriander seeds
- 0.25 tspn Cumin seeds
- 0.50 tspn Caraway seeds
- 0.25 tspn Cardamon (measured whole)
- 1.00 tspn Ground ginger
- 5.00 tspn Ground cinnamon
This doesn’t quite solve the allspice issue. Try buying a few packets of ground cinnamon in your local supermarket. Then go grab a few in a local Asian market. Smell and taste the differences. For the culinary sensitive, there is an astonishing amount of variety, even in something insignificant such as a the bark of a spicy tree, or the seeds of a coriander plant. Allspice is not all spice!
That leaves me with a few more words to waste on probably the most popular Belgian bakery in the world: Lotus Bakeries. The Lotus “speculoos” biscuits, recently internationally renamed as Biscoff for God knows what reason, are among the least tasteful and most repulsive speculoos/laas cookies I’ve ever eaten. All you taste is… sugar. Since big budget companies are only looking to increase their profits, they work with cheap (tasteless) cinnamon variants and palm oil, which is destroying our planet. There are multiple reasons to bake your own.
The high fat content of a typical speculaas recipe (
50%) dictates a resting period of at least twelve hours after mixing all ingredients before baking. Without an overnight rest, all the spices (ha!) barely have a chance at evenly distributing and fully penetrating the dough. Impatient bakers can instead opt to double the spice content, but even that turned out to be disappointingly dull here. Don’t do it. Good speculaas is like good sourdough bread: worth the wait.
If the decadence of the Dutch East India Company isn’t enough for you, you can add slivers of almond, which is usually done here in Hasselt in the thicker variants which intentionally aren’t baked fully though and through. You’re more likely “drying out” the dough in the oven, for no more than fifteen minutes at no more than
175 degrees Celsius. All that sugar burns easily!
When I was doing an internship at De Superette in Ghent, Sarah, the then head baker, loved baking speculoos—the American way: a lot of cinnamon, rolled out very thin, and baked very dark and crisp. As a Hasselaar or proud inhabitant of Hasselt, having to follow orders was difficult. I wanted to make thick and moist cookies with more spice variation. It’s funny to see such a rich and varied history for a mundane thing like a sugary biscuit. I think we did sprinkle it with almonds, so at least that part felt the right thing to do.
Combine sugar with almonds, and what do you get? Marzipan. Combine marzipan with speculaas, and what do you get? A sugar rush like you’ve never encountered before, but damn that’s tasty. I do enjoy baking a rolled up swirly speculaas variant. Lowering the sugar content in the main dough is an option, but don’t be frugal, as the texture of the dough will change too much, causing it to crumble.
My dad swears by mainly cinnamon and a good pinch of cloves, but I like the complexity of all the other added spices. As long as it’s not allspi-erhm, Jamaican pepper.
After all, allspice is not all spice!
Eggs are costly, so they’re absent in Lotus speculoos. They also cause the dough to rise and burst, which is great for a more airy crumb, but devastating if you’re going to imprint a St. Nicholas figure! ↩︎