It’s called spéculoos in French, speculaas in Dutch, and Spekulatius in German, but by whatever name you call this fragrant gingerbread cookie, it will always evoke the scent of holidays in this part of the world. Speculoos may look humble, but take one bite, and you will know why it’s a favorite among Belgians. Perfumed with cinnamon, clove and cardamom, the cookie tastes of butter and caramel, and it’s impossible to have just one.
For me, speculoos is one of the quintessential Belgian tastes. Of course, there are also fries and waffles, but speculoos have their place of honor in this small country of 10 million, bridging the cultural divide between Dutch-speaking Flanders in the North and Francophone Wallonia in the South. Speculoos are eaten all over the Benelux region, with some areas such as Hasselt specializing in their own unique versions. Traditionally, the cookies were baked to celebrate Saint Nicholas Day on December 5th in the Netherlands and December 6th in Belgium, but today you can find them at bakeries all year round. In Paris you will be served your expresso with a square of dark chocolate, but your lait russe (café au lait) in Brussels will arrive with speculoos on the side.
Around winter holidays, speculoos at the bakeries are molded into elaborate shapes representing Saint Nicholas, women and men in traditional costumes, windmills and other fanciful figures. The famous pastry shop, Dandoy, appropriately located on Rue de Beurre (butter street) near the Grand Place in Brussels has been baking these gingerbread delicacies since 1829. After passing the store and finding myself lightheaded from the perfumes of cinnamon, honey and caramel, I decided that I will learn to make speculoos at home. Blending spices is not too different from putting together a perfume, after all.
Speculoos are made from a shortbread dough that includes a high proportion of sugar, and there is nothing particularly difficult about the preparation. The most interesting part was to get the spices to sing. The cinnamon becomes a dark, luscious canvas for the lemony cardamom, green anise and tangy ginger. A surprising animalic sweetness of white pepper–so different from the zesty freshness of the black variety–adds further complexity.
The easiest way to make speculoos is to roll out the dough and cut cookies using the cutters of your choice. You can scatter a few slivered almonds, if you wish. It shatters into crumbs as you bite into it, and it’s delicious dipped in tea, coffee or red wine. In Belgium, a slice of buttered bread with crumbled speculoos has been a popular snack for kids, although these days you can buy ready-made speculoos spreads.
My recipe is a result of experiments, but I used the guidelines from a wonderful book on Dutch baking, Koekje (Cookie) by Cees Holtkamp and Kees Raat before adapting my version.
It’s hard to be precise about the quantities of liquid in the dough, because every type of flour absorbs water differently. In my experience, North American flour requires much more liquid than European flour, but start with the quantity suggested and add more if the dough doesn’t come together. If you want to make the traditional molded cookies, the dough has to be very firm, almost crumbly, in order to hold the design. (For the cut out cookies, the dough should be softer.) Be prepared for the first few attempts to be less than picture perfect, especially if you’re using brand new molds. Many professional bakers recommend using rice flour for dusting the molds, but whatever you use, be generous.
If you’re using a store-bought spice blend, feel free to increase the quantity to 5-6 teaspoons. Prepackaged mixtures tend to pack less punch than the homemade variety.
Makes about 4 dozen round speculoos
300g (2 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
135g (9 1/2 Tablespoons) unsalted butter
180g (1 cup minus 1 Tablespoon) dark brown sugar
3g (1/2 teaspoon) salt
6g (1 1/4 teaspoon) baking powder
9g (3 teaspoons) speculoos spices (see below)
30g (2 Tablespoons) buttermilk or milk (or more, if you want softer dough for rolling out; see the headnote)
slivered almonds for decorating the cookies
rice flour for dusting the speculoos mold
In a bowl, sift together flour, salt, baking powder, and spices. In another bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Add the flour mixture and stir with your fingers. Add milk tablespoon by tablespoon, mixing after each addition, until the dough comes together into a firm mass. Do not overwork. Form into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill overnight. The long rest allows for the flavors to develop.
Cut Out Cookies
Heat oven to 350°F/175°C. Using a rolling pin, roll out dough on a floured surface to a 1⁄8″ thickness. Cut out cookies using the cookie cutters of your choice and place speculoos 2″ apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Repeat with remaining dough, rerolling scraps. Bake speculoos, 1 sheet at a time, until browned and set, about 7-10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let speculoos cool.
Heat oven to 300°F/150°C. Break off a chunk of dough, keeping the rest in the fridge. If using a speculoos mold, sprinkle it liberally with rice flour, and press chunks of dough into the impressions and cut away the excess dough with a sharp knife. Invert mold, tap it the table to release dough. You can use a small paring knife to loosen the edges. Place speculoos 2″ apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake speculoos, 1 sheet at a time, until browned and set, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let speculoos cool.
Belgian Speculoos Spice Mix
I shared several gingerbread spice mixtures last year, but I want to add this blend as well. Cinnamon is the dominant note, but the perfumes of pepper, ginger, anise and cardamom give this mixture a spark. In modern Belgian cuisine, speculoos spice mix is used to add flavor to marinades for meat, accent fruit compotes and hot drinks. I’m always tempted to rub it on my neck, although more sensibly I instead reach for my bottle of Serge Lutens Five O’Clock Au Gingembre or Frédéric Malle Noir Epices.
6g cinnamon (2 teaspoon ground)
2g clove (1/2 teaspoon ground)
2g nutmeg (1/2 teaspoon ground)
2g anise seed(1/2 teaspoon ground)
1g cardamom (1/4 teaspoon ground)
1g ginger powder (1/4 teaspoon ground)
1g white pepper (1/4 teaspoon ground)
Photography by Bois de Jasmin