My great grandmother came to America from Belgium when she was 19. She would tell us stories as kids about the boat trip here, the struggles of her early life, and sometimes even stories of Belgium. Stories of Belgium always revolved around food; growing it, making it, and eating it. Years after “Little Grandma” passed away, I was able to find a cookbook devoted to Belgium Cooking. Apparently there aren’t a lot of us out there looking for our food heritage so unfortunately the Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook is a little pricey.
As a special gift for my friends this Christmas I wanted to share a special recipe that is associated with St. Nicholas. Flemish Spice Cookies or Speculoos. This are thin, crisp, buttery cookies that are said to go back to pre-Christian times. In Belgium it is even possible to purchase a prepared spice mixture of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves called koekkruiden. This recipe claims to be a simplified homemade version of speculoos. Be forewarned, this recipe has to be refrigerated 12 hours after making before it can be cooked.
- 8 T unsalted butter at room temperature
- 3/4 C dark brown sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 C all-purpose flour
- 1/4 C cake flour
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- Pinch of ground cloves or nutmeg
- Beat the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl with a wire whisk or an electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the egg.
- Sift the two flours with the salt, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves into another mixing bowl.
- Stir the flour mixture into the creamed butter with a spatula until just combined to make a soft, smooth dough. DO NOT OVERWORK THE DOUGH. Roll into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 12 hours or overnight to develop the flavor.
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Line 2 cookie sheets with aluminum foil and butter the foil generously.
- Roll out the dough 1/8 inch thick between 2 sheets of plastic wrap or on a cold marble surface. If the dough becomes sticky and difficult to handle – put it in the freezer for a few minutes until the butter hardens again. Typically I like to take small sections of the dough out of the fridge at a time so it doesn’t get too warm.
- Use a sharp knife or cookie cutter (used to have molds that dough was pressed into or wooden rollers that cookies were pressed out of) to cut dough into 3 x 2 inch rectangles. Use a cold metal spatula to place them about 1 inch apart on the lined cookie sheet.
- Bake until golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Watch them closely as they burn quickly. Place on a wire rack to cool. Cookies will keep about for several weeks in an airtight container. Makes about 20 cookies. Dough can also be kept in the freezer for several months – typically I break mine into 5 sections then I can just make a few cookies at a time.
Before you bake the cookies you can also sprinkle them with lightly roasted sliced almonds. Just press them lightly into the dough and then bake.
If you like to play around with recipes, one of the wonderful things I enjoy is cinnamon variations from The Spice House in Chicago. My favorite with this recipe was the Vietnamese “Saigon” Cassia Cinnamon that is intensely sweet and little hot – like red-hot candies. Friends bought me the cinnamon sampler one year and it was a wonderful introduction to the joy of fresh spices!
Merry Christmas to everyone and I hope you have a fabulous Flemish feast that celebrates the ones you love regardless of the holiday you celebrate.