You may be surprised to hear this but: Santa Claus is not real! You see, he’s a mere copy of the real thing, which is Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas was here first! Sinterklaas who lives in Spain, in a huge house with his white horse Amerigo and his helpers,  Pieten (Peters). He arrives in the Netherlands on a steamboat from Spain (this year it was on 11th November) in order to celebrate his birthday on 5th December by giving presents to everyone else. Primarily children who have been “sweet”. Those who have not, he puts in a sack and takes with him to Spain.

There are a couple of sweets connected to the feast of Sinterklaas, namely “pepernoten” and “speculaas” and they are so popular that the shops start stocking them around September. This is frowned upon by the purists, who find that the time to eat these is during the couple of weeks Sinterklaas spends in the Netherlands. Not wanting to offend anybody, we waited for the arrival of the good saint before we pulled out our seasoned speculaas mold and started grinding spices.

The speculaas cookies are a simple mix of butter, sugar and flour and the thing that sets them apart are the spices. Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom and white pepper – spices that the Dutch ships brought to Europe from the Far East in the old days.

The cookies are traditionally shaped by pressing dough into carved wooden molds. The cookie than becomes a mirror image of the mold, hence the probable origin of the name: speculum is Latin for mirror.

Speculaas spice mix from the Weekend bakery
This is the recipe I used as a blueprint. Or maybe, I should rather say “as inspiration”. Since I don’t have any scales that would enable me to measure “1,5 g”, I eyeballed the quantities. And also added a bit of coriander and a tiny piece of star anise. I’d encourage you to do the same, include your favourite spices, play around a little, this is no exact science and the mixes are almost always good.

6.5 g cinnamon
2 g ground cloves
1.5 g grated nutmeg
1 g ground white pepper
2 g aniseed powder
1 g ginger powder
1/2 g cardamom powder

For another speculaas spice recipe and a lovely speculaas almond pie see here.

Makes about 30 cookies
Adopted, only slightly, from Vreni de Jong: “Wat eten we vandaag?
This is the recipe I’ve used for several years and it produces a very authentic tasting speculaas. But the colour is a lot paler than the shop-bought variety, which is why I added a tablespoon of cocoa. Next time I would use even more, probably 2 tbsp. The recipe did not explain how to use the traditional mould (see picture), so I made up my own “method”. Alternatively, you can just roll out the dough and cut different shapes with cookie cutters.

150 g butter, room temperature
125 g raw cane sugar, dissolved with
2 tbsp boiling water
300 g unbleached flour
1 heaped tbsp speculaas spice mix
1 to 2 tbsp cocoa powder, optional

In a medium bowl, cream the butter with the sugar. Add flour, spices and the cocoa powder, if using. Mix thoroughly. Flatten the dough slightly and store covered in the refrigerator until needed, at least overnight to allow the spices to flavour the dough. Take out of the refrigerator about 30 min before you want to shape the cookies. Roll out the dough, about 3 mm thick. Cut it into rectangles, roughly the size of the shapes on the mould. Press a rectangle of dough into the mould using your thumbs and then run the rolling-pin over it. Using a small knife, loosen the edge of the cookie and carefully take it out. Put the cookies on a baking sheet. If the dough sticks to the mold, you can dust the mold with cornstarch or rice flour. Bake about 12 min at 160 degrees Celsius.

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