Towards the end of November, just before the countdown to Christmas begins, a longstanding craving kicks in that has been with me since childhood. In fact, I almost can’t imagine getting through December without at least one spiced cookie. Okay, several! And as much as I like a classic soetkoekie (traditional South African spiced biscuit), when it comes to sugar-and-spice-and-all-things-nice, nothing beats a speculaas cookie. And it’s so versatile. Break it into your ice-cream, crush it up to line a tart pan, make a speculaas smoothie… the choice is yours. But a great part of the fun is making them yourself.
Most people are quite particular about whether to call this shortcrust biscuit a speculaas or speculoos cookie, but really, the only difference is the aa and the oo. Speculaas is Dutch and speculoos is Flemish. Traditionally, these cookies were baked on or before St Nicholas Day (5 December), but like the hot cross bun, you can buy them all year round these days. Speculaas might seem a touch Continental, but they hail from the days of the Spice Route and the Dutch East India Company, which also had a profound effect on South African cooking. The original combination of spices used in these cookies were cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom and white pepper, but this version packs a little less heat by omitting the white pepper. The moulds can be hard to find in South Africa, but if you haven’t been to Holland recently (or haven’t been gifted a set), get creative and cut out your own shapes. It will taste exactly the same.
250 g (270 ml) soft butter
300g (375 ml) Muscovado brown sugar
600 g (1070 ml) cake flour
2 ml salt
10 ml baking powder
5 ml ground cinnamon
2,5 ml ground cardamom
2,5 ml ground nutmeg
2,5 ml ground cloves
flaked almonds for the plain cookies
Place the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl fitted with the flat beater. Mix until the butter and sugar is light and fluffy.
Add the eggs one by one and mix well after each addition.
Sift the flour, salt, baking powder, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves in a mixing bowl.
Add the sifted dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix well. Wrap the dough in wax paper and let it rest for 30 minutes – you can leave the dough to rest at room temperature. While the dough is resting, preheat the oven to 200 °C.
If you have the wooden moulds, follow the instructions on how to mould your cookies. Remember that they are moulds only and not fit for the oven, so don’t bake your cookies in the moulds.
If you don’t have a wooden mould, roll the dough out onto a floured surface. Using a cookie cutter (any shape that you like) and cut the cookies out. Place some flaked almonds on top of each cookie and place them on baking trays that have been lined with baking paper.
Place them in the oven and bake for 10 – 12 minutes. Take them out and let them cool on the baking tray for 10 minutes before storing them in airtight containers.