Whether you know them as speculoos, speculaas, spekulatius or Biscoff, few things are as irresistible as these positively delicious, buttery gingerbread shortcrust cookies! Wonderfully crispy, crunchy and deeply caramelized, they’re sure to become part of your annual holiday baking regimen!
Speculoos, as they’re called in Belgium, are spiced gingerbread shortcrust cookies that are traditionally made and eaten on St. Nicholas Day and throughout the Christmas holiday season. They’re traditionally embossed with designs using wooden molds, special rolling pins, or cookie stamps. Speculoos are likewise popular in the Netherlands (speculaas or Dutch windmill cookies) and Germany (spekulatius). This speculoos recipe creates those perfectly delicious, thin, crispy, crunchy, caramelized cookies that are positively irresistible eaten plain or dunked in a hot beverage.
Homemade Biscoff Cookies, Anyone?
If you haven’t heard of them by their traditional names, you’re most likely familiar their commercially-sold name: Biscoff. But let me tell you, the store-bought cookies, as good as they are, cannot compare with the rich and robust flavor of these homemade Biscoff cookies. These crunchy, buttery gingerbread cookies are absolutely scrumptious!
What Is the History Behind Speculoos?
Speculoos cookies go back to at least the mid-1600’s when the shoes of well-behaved children would be filled with them on the eve of December 5th. The following day the children would rush out to see what Sinterklaas left behind for them. The good children would empty their shoes and happily munch on their heaps of speculoos while the bad children were carried off in Sinterklaas’ burlap sack. Such was the threat anyway. From what history tells us no children were actually ever taken, leaving them with another chance to get it right the next year.
For centuries these cookies were a well-kept joint secret of Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany but have since become wildly popular throughout much of the world in the form of Lotus Bakeries’ famous Biscoff cookies, which are now sold in over 40 countries.
In their earliest days speculoos were embossed with the image of St. Nicholas and over the years a wide variety of images were used.
The Belgian, Dutch and German versions of these cookies are similar but with slight variations of the ratios and amount of spices used as well as the thickness of the cookies.
Where Did the Name Speculoos Originate?
Historians believe the name’s origin comes from the Latin word speculum. While the word speculum makes most of us cringe and really should be banned from anything having to do with food, the name, which simply translates as “mirror” from Latin, reflects the traditional method of embossing the cookies in wooden molds that created a “mirror image” of them. Invasive medical instruments aside, speculoos molds were treasured family heirlooms that were passed down from one generation to the next. Wooden molds are still made in Belgium, the Netherlands and in Germany and you can likewise find old antique ones circulating on the web (e.g., Etsy, eBay, etc) and in antique stores. I have a collection of hand-carved 19th-century and newer wooden molds that I look forward to taking out each year for this special occasion of making speculoos.
Do You Need Special Molds to Make Speculoos?
Not at all. They will taste exactly the same no matter what shape they are. You can simply cut them in rectangles (like Biscoff cookies) and enjoy them plain and simple. However if you’d like to go the traditional route of embossing them, you can use traditional wooden molds as mentioned above. For example, a wooden Dutch Windmill mold is something you’ll commonly find in the Netherlands (here in the U.S. we call them “Dutch windmill cookies”). Or you can use silicon molds. Alternatively you can use cookie stamps. I have several sets from Nordic Ware like this one, this one, and this one and they are built to last.
Another option is wooden mold rolling pin that stamps designs onto the cookie dough as you roll it out. I have a mold rolling pin similar to this one that I brought back with me from Germany when I moved to the U.S.. So there are a lot of options out there, both inexpensive and expensive, and you can go as simple or as fancy as you want.
What is Baker’s Ammonia?
Baker’s ammonia, or ammonium bicarbonate, is what was traditionally used as a leavening agent up until 19th century when baking powder or baking soda came along. But that is not to say that baking powder/soda replaced baker’s ammonia because they are in fact different chemical compounds and they yield different results. For that reason some recipes, especially in Europe and the Middle East, still call for baker’s ammonia – specifically low-moisture baked goods like crackers and crispy cookies.
How is Baker’s Ammonia different than Baking Powder / Soda?
Baker’s ammonia consists of tiny crystals that break down during the baking process, leaving tiny air pockets behind that create a unique honey-combed, porous crumb for a crispier, crunchier texture. This unique texture is something that neither baking powder nor baking soda can replicate, which instead will yielder much harder, denser cookies without the same crisp-crunch effect. Baker’s ammonia is also unique from baking powder or baking soda in that it contributes to a more uniform spread in the cookies and also increases browning for that wonderful caramelized effect.
Baker’s ammonia does have a very strong, very unpleasant odor but don’t be put off by that – the odor and taste will dissipate during baking.
Speculoos are a prime example of the kind of cookie that greatly benefits from the use of baker’s ammonia for all the reasons mentioned above. Another example is German Springerle.
Any brand of baker’s ammonia will do the trick, just select one that’s food grade. I’ve been using organic food grade Baker’s Ammonia from Pure Organics.
One of the advantages of these cookies is that they’re supposed to be made well in advance. So you can get some of your Christmas baking done at least a couple of weeks before you’ll even need them. Speculoos cookies are supposed to be stored in airtight tins for at least a couple of weeks before eating them to allow their flavors to mature.
While they’re delicious straight out of the oven, their flavor only gets better with time. This also means they’re perfect for gift-giving as they store and ship well. And you’ll score major points with your friends and family!
Let’s get started!
In a mixing bowl combine the flour, baker’s ammonia, salt and spices. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, place the brown sugar, butter, egg yolks, cream, vanilla and lemon zest. Cream this butter mixture until smooth and pale, 5-6 minutes.
Add the almond/hazelnut flour and mix until combined.
While beating, gradually add this flour mixture to the wet mixture.
Form the dough into a ball, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let it rest in a cool place (NOT the fridge or it will become brittle) for at least 5 hours or overnight.
If you’re using a mold rolling pin you can roll the dough out between two sheets of plastic wrap to a thickness of just under 1/4 inch (4mm), peel off the top sheet of plastic wrap, use the mold rolling pin to roll the designs out onto the dough, then cut out the cookies and place them on a non-stick cookie tray.
If you’re using molds give them a light dusting of flour to prevent sticking. No need to roll out the dough if you’re using molds, simply take some of the dough and roll it in your palms to the length of the mold, lightly flour the dough (depending on your particular mold you may need that additional bit of flour to prevent sticking), and press it into the mold.
Keeping your knife parallel to the speculoos mold and using a sawing motion, gently cut away the excess dough off the mold so that all you’re left with is the dough that’s shaped inside the mold. Save the dough scraps to roll out to make the rest of the cookies. Invert the mold onto your lined cookie sheet and tap and gently peel until it comes out.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Bake the speculoos on the middle rack for 10-12 minutes or until nicely browned and caramelized. Let the speculoos cool for a few minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.
Store them in an airtight container. It is best to wait at least a week before eaten them to allow the flavors to develop. Will keep in an airtight container in a cool place for several weeks.
Enjoy by the speculoos by themselves or dipped in your favorite hot beverage.
To put your molds and mold rolling pins to further use, be sure to try our Authentic German Springerle!
Traditional Speculoos Cookies
- 2 1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
- 1 cup unsalted butter , softened at room temperature
- 2 large egg yolks (if the dough is too dry add some extra egg yolk)
- 3 tablespoon heavy whipping cream
- 1 teaspoon quality pure vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
- 1 cup almond or hazelnut flour
- 3 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baker's ammonia (see blog post for explanation)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon ground anise seed
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
- Beat the brown sugar, butter, egg yolks, cream, vanilla and lemon zest in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment (or use an electric mixer) until it's pale and fluffy, 5-6 minutes. Add the almond/hazelnut flour and mix until combined. In a separate bowl combine the flour, baker's ammonia, salt and spices. While beating, gradually add this flour mixture to the wet mixture. (If not using a stand mixer use a wooden spoon while you can and then knead with your hands.) If the dough is too dry/crumbly add a little extra egg yolk as needed.Form the dough into a ball, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let it rest in a cool place (NOT the fridge or it will become brittle) for at least 5 hours or overnight.
- Roll the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface to a thickness of about 4mm or just under 1/4 inch. You can simply cut them into small rectangles (like Biscoff cookies) or you can use molds, cookie stamps, a molded rolling pin or any cookie cutters of your choice to shape the speculoos (see blog post pictures for instructions on how to use molds and molded rolling pins). If using molds be sure to lightly flour them first to prevent sticking. Cut out the cookies and place them on a non-stick baking sheet. Chill the cookies for at least one hour before baking.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Bake the speculoos on the middle rack for 10-12 minutes or until nicely browned and caramelized. Let the speculoos cool for a few minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.Store them in an airtight container. It is best to wait at least a week before eaten them to allow the flavors to develop. Will keep in an airtight container in a cool place for several weeks. Enjoy by the speculoos by themselves or dipped in your favorite hot beverage.