This Friday, Sinterklaas will be celebrated in the Netherlands and every child will be full of nervous anticipation waiting for a knock on the door or window, and hopefully, a bag left behind withpresents. Actually, the big man and his helpers have been in the country since the middle of November, and the kids have regularly had their shoes filled with kruidnoten, chocolate letters and candy. I’ve had my shoe filled a few times even. Hey, who said I ever grew up?.
For those of you unfamiliar with the tradition, Sinterklaas is like the Dutch Santa Claus. In fact, Sinterklaas is the original Santa Claus! The Dutch Protestant settlers brought the tradition of Sinterklaas — along with many others — with them to New Amsterdam (modern day New York) in the 17th century. The Dutch continued to celebrate the feast of Saint Nicholas, but for a long time, it was separate from Christmas. That all changed when Clement Clark Moore published his Twas the Night Before Christmas in 1822; the Santa Claus we now know was born — and in 1931 Coca Cola gave him a face!
This post, however, is about another Dutch treat that made it big — speculaas.
What would winter be without a three o’clock tea break and a crisp, buttery speculaasje? Especially popular during the colder months, these delicate, little cookies have also crossed the oceans and are now known as ‘windmill cookies’ in many different countries around the world. When we refer to ‘speculaas’ in the Netherlands, we are specifically referring to these cookies. The most important ingredient in speculaas is of course speculaaskruiden: a fragrant mix of spicesthat includes a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, aniseed, white pepper and cardamom. Besides speculaas, there are other popular Dutch treats that include this spice mix as their main ingredient. Examples are speculaasbrokken (thick, rustic slabs of speculaas), gevulde speculaas (soft speculaas bars filled with a center of almond paste), kruidnoten (tiny cookies, not to be confused with the more chewier, lighter-colored version known as ‘pepernoten’), and these days there is even speculaaspasta (spreadable speculaas; children love it on bread).
But where did the name speculaas originate? Some say it is a bastardisation of the Latin word ‘speculator’ which literally means ‘one who sees everything’, and thus might allude to Sinterklaas’s main responsibility: to keep an eye on children and see who is good or bad. The name may also be derived from the Latin word ‘speculum’ (meaning ‘mirror’) and refers to the fact that speculaas cookies area mirror image of the wooden form from which they are cut out. Yet another interpretation is that the word is a combination of two words: ‘spek’, a Flemish word for confectionery, and ‘Klaas’ which is short for ‘Sinterklaas’. Or does the word have something to do with‘specerij’, the Dutch word for spice?
The true etymology of speculaas is not certain; what we do know is that it definitely has a connection to the Feast of Saint Nicholas – one of the most popular celebrations in the Netherlands, and for most children, the highlight of their year. Although the Feast of Saint Nicholas is actually on the 6th of December (the day of the death of the 4th century saint and bishop of Myra who is said to have had a reputation for secret gift-giving), the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas on the 5th of December. The festivity no longer has any religious significance and instead, is a perfect occasion to bring back many loved and time-honored traditions. Traditions, which in all honesty, should not be tampered with or changed in any way. Like welcoming Sinterklaas and his Pieten when they arrive in November after a long boat trip from Spain, singing songs by the fireplace, putting out shoes at night in the hopes of waking up in the morning to find a little something inside of them, or baking wonderful treats that are synonymous with the season. Treats that are made with speculaaskruiden, of course.
It is believed that the spices used in speculaaskruiden were first introduced to the Netherlands by the Romans in the 5th and 6th centuries. However, it was during the Golden Age and because of the United East India Company’s (VOC) monopoly over the spice trade, that many of those spices quickly became popular in well-to-do circles. They were extremely expensive and considered the epitome of luxury, so therefore, serving a cookie made with that spice mix was a sign of affluence.
Speculaaskruiden are readily available in the Netherlands but can easily be made at home and varied according to one’spersonal taste. Those who prefer more of a bite, might increase the quantity of pepper, and those who like a bit more warmth and sweetness might add an extra pinch or two of ginger or aniseed.
The following recipe is one of my personal favorites this season: gevulde speculaas. In case you can’t get your hands on speculaaskruiden, I’ve also included my own recipe. Remember that you can adjust these quantities according to your own taste. You’ll notice that I don’t use any aniseed in mine, but if you want, feel free to add some yourself. Consider these recipes a little present – from my kitchen to yours.
*First, the speculaaskruiden
Makes about 2 ½ tablespoons
Note: You might want to double the quantities. In a tightly-closed jar, the spice mix will keep well for months.
- ¼ teaspoon cloves
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon ginger
- 2 tablespoons cinnamon
- pinch of white pepper
- pinch of cardamom
And for the recipe…
These thick, soft Dutch spice bars are filled with sweetened almond paste and topped with a scattering of almond slivers. They make the house smell absolutely divine and are child’s play to make.
Makes 16 bars
For the cookie layer:
- 300g all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- pinch of salt
- 175g soft butter
- 2 tablespoons Dutch speculaaskruiden
- 75g raw cane sugar
- 80g dark brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 2 ½ tablespoons full-fat milk
For the filling:
- 300g amandelspijs (almond paste) cut in large cubes
- 1 tablespoon amaretto
- one whisked egg
- a scattering of almond slivers
Put all of the ingredients for the cookie layer in the food processor and pulse until the dough comes together. Remove the dough from the processor, and shape it into two fat disks. Wrap them in cling film, and refrigerate for at least three hours. Clean out your processor bowl, and pulse the almond paste cubes, the egg and the liqueur until the mixture becomes soft and creamy. Wrap the paste, and refrigerate for at least three hours.
Take the cookie dough and the paste out of the fridge half an hour before you want to bake the bars. Preheat the oven to 180°C, and line a square 20 x 20 cm baking pan with baking paper. Roll out half of the dough and fit it into the baking pan. Spread the filling over the dough, roll out the second disk of dough, place it over the filling and tuck it in around the edges. Brush the top of the dough with the whisked egg, gently carve a checkered pattern on the dough’s surface, making sure not to carve all the way through the first layer. Scatter with the almond slivers and pop in the oven for 35-40 minutes. Check ten minutes before the end of the cooking time, and cover with foil if it is getting too brown. Allow to cool briefly, finish cutting into squares and serve!
PS: If you want the recipe in Dutch, or want to see me make it, have a look here.