Christmas cookies: Speculaas

Occasionally I get to bake cookies without a research agenda, to try something new just for fun. Since it’s St. Nicholas Day, Ivy and I baked speculaas cookies, which is what the Dutch traditionally bake for that festival. I’m not Dutch, I’ve never in my life celebrated St. Nicholas Day, and until today I’d never eaten speculaas. Ah, the joys of cultural tourism! No pressure at all, no expectations, no childhood memories to contend with. Just a damn cookie.

Still, you know, I couldn’t just find a recipe and bake it. I don’t think I’m capable of that anymore. And, anyway, if I did, what would I have to blog about?

speculaas cookies

This started with a recipe from Gourmet magazine, 1971, which I found republished in the The Gourmet Cookie Book, where I was, seriously, doing research. There was the recipe for speculaas, and I knew it was St. Nicholas Day. Fate, what?

Speculaas is a spice cookie, but it’s not gingerbread — it has a more complex array of spices than English gingerbread, which is usually a wallop of ginger — and I wanted to play up the differences, because I have eaten a lot of gingerbread these past couple of years. So I took Gourmet‘s advice and flavored it with rum, because I’ve never seen rum in a gingerbread recipe. I replaced some of the flour with ground almonds: Most traditional speculaas cookies are made with ground almonds, and I suspect that’s a holdover from the 17th century, at least, when English gingerbread was also based on almonds. The spice blend I liked best contains cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, white pepper, ginger, and cardamom; it’s from The Dutch Baker’s Daughter, who says that the basic ingredients and proportions date the the 15th century. It seems plausible to me.

I also found that nearly every recent recipe called for half again as much sugar as that 1971 Gourmet recipe, which is typical of cookies generally: over the past half a century not only “boughten” cookies but a lot of cookie recipes have grown markedly sweeter. It’s unnecessary; in a lot of cases the extra sugar detracts from the flavor of the cookie. Not to mention the whole matter of fattening us up.

Every recipe I found had what I consider to be too much chemical leavening: up to two teaspoons of baking soda (with no acid to neutralize it) and up to four teaspoons of baking powder. But every recipe published since 1850 has too much chemical leavening. It seems to be reflexive on the part of recipe developers. Why that is takes up about three chapters’ worth of my book, so forgive me if I don’t go off on an extended tangent here.

Then there was the question of how to roll them out and shape them. I found photos on the Web of speculaas in all sorts of delightfully fussy shapes that I didn’t feel like messing with. Gourmet‘s photo showed rectangles with slivered almonds pressed into them, which looked easy enough to me and fancy enough to suit my daughter. I rolled them thinner than I think most people would. Not sure why. Maybe I was feeling gingersnappish.

In any case, I like them. I think they are a damn fine cookie. As with all good cookies, I could eat half a box, but I don’t have to because one is satisfying — spicy, chewy, rich, flavorful. As for authenticity, well, as I often say, authenticity is a conceit anyway. I have no idea whether these would satisfy any Dutch person as “authentic.” Traditional as they are, everybody’s grandmother has her own recipe, and I would assume therefore that everybody could nitpick mine in some way. They taste good, and that’s all I have to worry about.

Recipe: Speculaas cookies

  • about 1 1/2 cups almonds
  • 2 cups flour
  • 4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter
  • 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon dark rum
  • sliced or slivered almonds for decoration
  • egg white for wash

Man, that is a lot of ingredients. Step one, don’t panic.

Step two, grind the almonds to a meal in a food processor. A few visible crunchy bits are fine. (Ideally you’d use blanched almonds, but I didn’t have any, and regular raw almonds worked fine. I imagine roasted would be fine, too. Just not salted.) Measure out a cup of the almond meal.

Cream the butter and sugar together until light. Beat in the egg, then the rum.

Whisk together the flour, spices, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Whisk in the almonds, and stir all this into the butter-sugar mixture until it comes together as a dough, which will take a minute.

If the dough is too sticky to roll out, which it probably will be, you can refrigerate it for awhile. Or, if you’re in a hurry to get that speculaas love, just use a little extra flour for rolling and don’t get too fussy about how you cut them out. Roll the dough 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick and “shape them to your fancy,” as they used to say. I used a pizza wheel to make quick rectangles. Then, if you like, press sliced almonds into them and brush them with a bit of beaten egg white to make them glossy.

I rolled mine 1/8 inch thick and baked them for about 11 minutes at 350°F, at which point they were set around the edges but still soft in the middle. As they cooled they hardened at the edges and stayed chewy in the middle, which I liked, but I think another two minutes in the oven would have left them crisp, which would also be fine. Note that I have a convection oven, so you may want to try 360 to 375° and a couple more minutes’ baking. If you roll them thicker, you’ll want to keep the temperature on the low side of that range and, I think, definitely take them out while still soft in the middle. Finally, I baked mine on parchment, which meant that I could slide the parchment straight onto the rack for cooling and didn’t have to deal with transferring thin, soft, floppy cookies with a spatula.

Substitutions: Everybody has their own spice blend for speculaas, so don’t think you have to go by this rule. Gourmet suggested brandy as an alternative to rum, or you could leave it out and add the leftover egg yolk you’ll have if you do the egg white wash. Some recipes call for lemon zest. Maybe there’s some happy little lemon zest in your cookies. It’s your world, man. And last, if you don’t have a food processor, you could just skip the almond meal and use 3 cups of flour, unless you want to pound the almonds in a mortar. I don’t know about you, but there’s only so old-timey I want to get.