Sint Nickolaas Koekjes (Speculaas) (1937) ★★★★★

Ginger Bread by Anton Pieck (1895 - 1987)
My maternal grandparents emigrated to North America after WWII. As a result, I have a long-time love of Speculaas - and not just at Christmastime! And imagine my surprise when the flavour of this traditional cookie went mainstream over the past year, with the cult following of speculoos spread/biscoff cookie butter.

Speculaas are something like a Dutch answer to gingerbread (which was super popular in the British Isles). Like gingerbread, speculaas can be made different ways: thin and hard, thick and bready, or filled with almond paste. While the terms speculaas and speculoos are often considered fairly interchangeable, there is a difference. Add in "biscoff" and the whole thing just gets downright confusing. Speculaas is a Dutch word for the cookie, which is usually of the thicker, bready type, more like (non-crispy) gingerbread. Speculoos is the Belgian word and tends to be a thin, hard cookie with less spice. Biscoff (biscuit + coffee) is the name that speculoos are sold under in North America. Therefore speculoos = biscoff, which do not = speculaas.

Although the texture may be different, the flavour of speculaas appears in many lowland European countries, especially in holiday sweets. The etymology of the word "speculaas" is not definite, but the two most popular theories are that it is derived from the word "speculum" or "specie". Speculum ("mirror") would refer to the mirror image of the stamps or molds, while specie would connote a "spiced" cake. Two other options are the  Latin word "speculator" to refer to St. Nicholas (Sint Nickolaas), "he who sees everything", or "specerij", which again, means "spice". In Germany they are known as spekulatius. There is also a local variety from Hasselt, Belgium, called speculation, which was licensed in 1870.

The cookie itself dates back to at least the Middle Ages, when cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves were commonly used and foods such as gingerbread were popular. They were certainly being baked by the 15th century, when couples in love would express their desires through the gift giving of speculaas, shaped as humans or even in a representation of St. Nicholas himself. While originally based in religious iconography, nowadays speculaas come in a variety of shapes, including elephants, horses, ships, farmhouses, windmills, chickens, trees, birds, etc. Prior to around 1850, speculaas were made from rye flour and honey, resulting in a very hard cookie which could only be eaten when softened.

In the Netherlands, the feast of St. Nickolaas (Sinterklaas) is celebrated on December 5th, so hence the date for this post. 

I found this specific recipe on a website for a Dutch historical village in Pella, Iowa, which was founded in the 19th century by Dutch immigrants. The recipe comes from a 1937 community cookbook which was full of ethnic recipes (as community cookbooks often are). Perhaps this is why the recipe specifies that these are "Sint Nickolaas Koekjes". Any Dutch person would certainly know the tradition of "speculaas", so the recipe title must indicate that the recipe and hence the cookbook were for a broader audience. As a disclaimer, I do not know if any revisions were made by the website, so the recipe may not have been originally written in this form. However, given the sparse instructions, I don't think many - if any - changes have been made.


Original Recipe:
Dutch Santa Claus Cookies
Sint Nickolaas Koekjes (Speculaas)

10 oz. butter
1 egg
10 oz. brown and white sugar mixed
2 t. cinnamon
1 t. nutmeg
1/2 t. cloves
1 lb. flour
1 t. soda dissolved in 2 T. sour milk

Mix—form into ball—chill.
Slice thin and bake.

The Verdict:
I was curious to see how this would work out, because normally speculaas (at least today) contain far more spices, including ginger, star anise, coriander, and white pepper. There are also no directions for mixing, so I followed the usual standard for making cookies. However, I have seen some recipes which follow the steps for making pastry: cut the butter into the flour and then adding the other ingredients.
The cookies were delicious, although a tiny bit bland spice-wise. If you like a real punch of spice, this is not the cookie. Or it could be, just add more spices. Ginger would really help, I think. Nevertheless, they are yummy as is! I would certainly make and eat these again happily. Mr. Man enjoyed them as well. They are soft and delicious right out of the oven, but harden up just a bit once cooled. They're also not super sweet, which is nice because it means you can eat five and still feel okay. Not that I tried...
Yield was 30 cookies, slightly smaller than my palm.

Modernized Recipe:
(Adapted from Genuine Holland Recipes, found at Pella Tulip Time)

10 ounces UNSALTED BUTTER
5 ounces BROWN SUGAR
5 ounces WHITE SUGAR
1 EGG
2 teaspoons CINNAMON
1 teaspoon NUTMEG
1/2 teaspoon CLOVES
1 teaspoon BAKING SODA
2 tablespoons BUTTERMILK
1 pound FLOUR

1. In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar. Mix in the egg. Add the spices.
2. Dissolve the baking soda in the buttermilk (or use regular milk with some lemon juice to make it sour) and stir into the dough. Blend in the flour and knead until well-combined. You may need extra flour. It should not stick to your hands.
3. Form the dough into a ball or a log and refrigerate overnight. I would suggest the log, otherwise you're going to have to wait for an hour for the dough to come to room temperature to roll by hand.
4. To bake the cookies, preheat oven to 350F. Slice into small rounds or roll into balls (or use a speculaas mold if you happen to have one). Bake on a cookie sheet for about 14 minutes.

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Sources

Muusers, Christianne. "Speculaas with Rich Almond Stuffing." Coquinaria. 29 Oct. 2004. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. <http://www.coquinaria.nl/english/recipes/speculaas.htm>.


"SPECULAAS FROM HASSELT." Grandma's Design | Recipes. European Commission. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. <http://www.grandmasdesign.com/media.php?recipes=NTAwMjA=>.

"Speculoos." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Nov. 2012. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speculoos>.

"Vermeiren Speculoos." Vermeiren Speculoos. 2012. Web. 03 Dec. 2012. <http://www.vermeirenprinceps.be/index.php?prodid=>.

Anje graduated with a Honours Bachelors degree in History with a minor in Museum Studies. She currently lives and works in Japan's least populous prefecture as an assistant English teacher.

1 comment:

  1. These are my favourite cookies! I used this recipe which comes from stnicholascenter.org. They are a little bit on the crisp side.
    My cousin-in-law who is dutch makes them more crumbly (similar to shortbread) and they are good too.

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