In my last post, I spoke of the magical Dandoy and their pain à la grecque. Today, I’d like to continue my visit to Dandoy, and tell you about Belgium’s most famous cookie, the speculoos.
Speculoos cookies are to be found, in slightly different forms, in Belgium, Germany (where they are known as speculatius) and the Netherlands (where they are known as speculaas).
Despite multiple spellings of the cookie’s name, speculoos has quite a rich history. Traditionally, speculoos are baked on the eve of St Nicholas, celebrated December 6 in Belgium. Historically, the cookies were often created in the shape of St Nicholas, although today they can be found in many shapes. For those not familiar with the tradition in the Netherlands and Belgium, children put shoes by the chimney before going to bed, and well-behaved children are rewarded by speculoos cookies (amongst other gifts) in their shoes. On the other hand, ill-behaved children are threatened with being stuffed in a sack and carted off to Spain by St Nicholas’ ‘helper,’ Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter. Sounds scary! Belgian and Dutch children certainly have a STRONG incentive to behave well. And they get rewarded with speculoos, what more could you ask for?
How did speculoos get its name? Its origin is somewhat apocryphal, but the most widely-accepted explanation is that speculoos derives from the latin speculator, which was used to designate bishops. This version seems to make the most sense, since the cookies were often baked in the shape of St Nicholas, who was bishop of Myra! However, there are a few other possible explanations: the name could refer to spices in latin (species) or dutch (specerij) or alternatively could derive from speculum, or mirror, referring to the beautiful wooden moulds used to make the cookies.
Though speculoos have a mysterious name and are traditionally associated with St Nicholas, today they are baked and consumed year round, fortunately for me! The composition of the cookie is quite simple: essentially they are deliciously crunchy brown sugar biscuits made with a mixture of spices, which vary depending on the country. In Germany and the Netherlands, the biscuits tend to be more highly spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom…. In Belgium, the biscuits I am most familiar with, speculoos tend to be made with cinnamon and a healthy dose of nutmeg.
The most famous speculoos in Belgium are from Dandoy, who have a royal warrant from the Belgian king and queen for the cookies. Their reputation is well-deserved, and the cookies are simply lovely; almost tooth-breakingly hard, they are available in several varieties, including vanilla, chocolate-covered, and the traditional brown sugar. Their speculoos tend to be highly spiced, with a nutty nutmeg-y quality and a slight astringency from the use of cloves. Their satisfying crunch and only marginally sweet character make them the perfect accompaniment to a warm cup of a coffee or perhaps a chai tea, which would beautifully complement and accentuate the mix of spices found in the cookie.
Speculoos is generally served with one of Belgium’s national drinks: hot chocolate (the others being beer and genever – they do like a drink in Belgium, bless them!). When I make myself a rich, frothy bowl of chocolat chaud, I find that the spiciness of the Dandoy speculoos clashes with the darkly sweet chocolate. Instead, I prefer another, store-bought brand of speculoos, Vermeiren, whose biscuits are crunchy but not hard: upon biting into one, I’m rocked by an explosion of buttery brown sugar and cinnamon. Furthermore, the biscuits are more porous, meaning that when I dunk them into my decadently delicious cup, they soak up the chocolate more easily. The combination is simply bliss. As I write this post, I’ve just finished the last of my hot chocolate and speculoos, and I can assure you: my taste buds are smiling.