Monthly Archives: December 2011

{4} Speculaas

A couple of weeks ago I made a batch of speculaaskruiden. Now here is a way to use them up – Dutch speculaas cookies!

I feel I need to point out that these are not strictly Christmas biscuits per se, as you can get hold of them all year round, but the crisp buttery spiced flavour does suit this time of year particularly well. Imagine yourself sitting on a café terrace on an old market square on a chilly day in December, coffee or mulled wine in one hand, and one of these cookies in the other.

Now, this post has a number of interesting things related to speculaas. To start with, this is a very special recipe. It’s not one that I made up, nor it is one that has come from some random website. Nope, it comes from Het Haagse Kookboek (“The Hague Cookbook”). I am assured that this was, back in the day, basically the cookery bible of Dutch housewives. As you can see below, the version I have had access to is clearly from the 1970s, and I love the retro front cover.

Another interesting aside is that the origin of the word “cookie” also links back to the Dutch. It isn’t a British word – we have biscuits, cakes, tarts, traybakes and so on. But the cookie is an American “thing”. It comes from the Dutch word for a small cake. Cake is koek (say it like “cook” in English), then make it small by adding the diminutive ending -je – and that’s how we get to koekje (say “cook-ye”).

And finally…as another interesting aside, I come back charged with inspiration about all things from the Low Countries following a recent trip to Belgium. While in Brussels, I was persuaded to buy some classic moulds for speculaas – a man and a woman, a bird and, of course, a windmill. If these cookies are going to be Dutch, they are going to be very Dutch. Even if they were made with Belgian moulds…

My unwavering belief that speculaas is a legitimate festive bake is also supported by the fact that it appears in the window displays of lots of bakeries and chocolatiers in Brussels. These range from the size of your palm to the size of a small child (really). My favorite is from Maison Dandoy. If you are there, do go in and enjoy the aromas and flavours. You may also wish to buy something, mainly because you will go nuts thinking about speculaas after you leave there.

That’s the background, the theory and the linguistics lesson. How are they to make?

The recipe is pretty easy – put everything in a bowl, work to a dough, allow to chill and that’s it! OK, that’s not quite it. If you are making these in the proper way, you use a type of sugar the Dutch call basterdsuiker. Yes, very giggle-inducing, but it turns out to be a sort of brown sugar. I’m not sure there is an exact substitute in Britain, but I used soft brown sugar and they worked out a treat.

But…but…we just have to admit that the real fun is using the moulds. No messing around with a rolling-pin. Just press pieces of dough into the moulds, then flip them over and whack them on the table to release them. And there we have it – lots of little gingerbread people, birds and windmills!

I do have to admit that these cookies were the result of some trial and error. The moulds were new, and probably need to be “seasoned” or similar. At first the mixture stuck badly, but I think after a while, the butter made for some sort of natural non-stick, and combined with a light coating of flour, they started to come out very easily indeed. By the end, we were experts!

And…after all that…here are the finished biscuits. Not quite as perfect as they looked before going into the oven, but they taste great – crisp, spicy and buttery – and they do have a certain rustic charm.

If you are tempted to have a go but lack suitable moulds, then have a look at this great version of speculaas from a Dutch girl living in London (here).

To make speculaas:

• 100g soft brown sugar
• 100g butter
• 1/2 teaspoon salt, finely ground
• 200g self-raising flour
• 2 teaspoons speculaaskruiden or mixed spices
• cold water
• 25g flaked almonds (optional)

To make the dough:

Sieve the sugar to get rid of any lumps. Put the sugar, butter, flour and spices in a large bowl. Use your hands to rub the ingredients together until they resemble breadcrumbs. Add just enough cold water (1-2 tablespoons) until the mixture comes together into a smooth dough. Work in the flaked almonds (if using). Wrap in cling film and chill for two hours or overnight.

To bake the cookies:

Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

If using speculaas moulds: sprinkle the moulds with flour, tap out any excess, then press pieces of dough into the moulds. Then – in theory – they should come out of the moulds easily when you flip them over. Arrange on the baking sheet at least 2 cm apart.

If you don’t have the moulds: roll the dough out to 1/4 cm thickness and use cookie cutters to shape the speculaas. If you like, brush them with milk and sprinkle with some more flaked almonds. Arrange on the baking sheet at least 2 cm apart.

Bake the cookies for 25-30 minutes until the speculaas are firm, but have not started to darken.

Worth making? This is a very quick, straightforward recipe, and the resulting biscuits are great on their own, or can be used crushed over desserts, in crumble toppings or as part of a biscuit base for cheesecakes. You can also vary the spices depending on what is to hand and your own preferences – not bad for cookies made from simple ingredients you’re likely to have to hand!

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Recipe Challenge: White Christmas

We all love a good challenge! So here is a chance to try one! I am one of the judges in the December Challenge at Very Good Recipes where the theme is “White Christmas”.

To kick things off, all the judges have led the way, and we’ve turned our hands to creating something new – you can check out the creations in the links below, but here is my attempt – a festive take on the Mexican/Spanish drink horchata – based on almonds and with lots of traditional Christmas spices.

What led me to create this recipe? Well, I wanted to try something that was a little less obvious – I love all the cakes, biscuits, sweets, chocolates and puddings at this time of the year – but this was a chance to do something a little different. When leafing through a cookbook, I saw a recipe for horchata based on rice, and thought this could be easily adapted to suit the White Christmas theme.

The most obvious thing was the white colour. However, I thought it would be nice to make this snowy-white beverage, but round out the flavour with all manner of warming festive spices. This would – in theory – result in something quite fitting for  those drinks parties at this time of year. Personally I love a good glass of mulled wine, but sometimes it is nice to try something else, especially for guests who are not quite so keen on the strong stuff.

I moved away from using rice to using almonds, so that this version of horchata can be drunk chilled over ice, or warm with a dash of rum if you’re a fan of something a little stronger. I can assure you – warmed, with a spoonful of rum, a dash of orange zest and a dusting of cinnamon – it’s divine!

If you’re wondering what that is in the drink, it’s a gilded almond!

This recipe also plays with festive flavours in a number of levels. First of all, the base is made with almonds and pine nuts, the former being a festive classic, and the latter adding an extra creaminess to the mixture and a slight pine aroma.

The drink is also sweetened not with plain sugar, but a syrup that has been infused with a range of spices – cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and even a couple of jaunty red peppercorns! There is also some sweet vanilla and, in place of the classic lime zest, some orange zest for warmth and sweetness. But no need to stick to my list – adjust the spices according that what you like, or add other things that take your fancy (maybe a little syrup from preserved ginger, a dusting of nutmeg or a dash of mace?).

So all in all, rather a sophisticated little treat! And also useful to know that this drink, while being rich and creamy, is vegan, so also idea for those that are avoiding dairy at this time of year.

I hope that the idea and the pictures above are proving rather tempting, and that you are interested in entering the recipe challenge!

All the details can be found here, but basically the idea is to come up with something that covers the theme “White Christmas” – it can be sweet or savoury, a new dish to a new take on a traditional recipe. The colour can be snowy-white, or it can be something that just typifies the feeling of being wrapped up next to a wood fire while the snow is falling outside. Let your imagination go wild!

There are also some great prizes to be won, courtesy of the kind folks over at Savoury Spice Shop.

If you are just a little bit curious and would like to get some inspiration, have a look at the blogs of the other judges and see what each of us has done with the theme:

• Alex from Food 4 Thought
• Anne from Les Recettes du Panier
• Han Ker from Hankerie
• Kristina from Knuckle Salad
• Quay Po from Quay Po Cooks
• Rachel from Blissfully Scrumptious
• Suzy from Suzy Eats
• Vanessa from Vane Valentine

Best of luck!

To make White Christmas Horchata:

• 1 cup (150g) skinned almonds (*)
• 2 handfuls pine nuts
• 1 stick of cinnamon
or some cassia bark
• 2 cloves
• 3 cardamom pods, crushed
• 2-3 strips orange peel
• 1/3 vanilla pod
• 1/2 cup (100g) white sugar

Grind the almonds and pine nuts as finely as you can. Put them in a large bowl and add three cups (720ml) boiling water. Stir well, cover, and leave to sit for several hours – overnight is ideal.

At the same time, make the sweet spiced syrup. In a small saucepan, combine 1/2 cup sugar (100g) with 1 cup (240ml) water, the spices, vanilla and orange peel. Bring the boil and simmer for five minutes. Remove the vanilla, and leave to sit for several hours – again, overnight is ideal.

To finish the horchata, put the almond mixture in a blender and process until very smooth (it will change from slightly yellow to very white).

Strain the liquid through a cheesecloth – all those ground almonds can clog the cloth, so get in there and use your (clean) hands to squeeze out as much liquid as you can. If you like, you can take the nuts from the cheesecloth, whizz them up again in the blender with another cup of water, and strain again. You should end up with around 4 cups (1 litre) of liquid.

Next, strain the spice mixture.

Now the fun bit – mix the almond milk with the spice mixture! Adjust the amount of sugar to taste – I didn’t add any extra, but go with what you like. This horchata will keep in a sealed bottle in the fridge for two days – make sure to shake well before serving.

To serve, there are a couple of ways to let your imagination run wild:

  • Chilled – serve over ice, topped with flaked almonds, or go for glamour as I did and float a single almond that has been coated in gold leaf (decadent – but fun!).
  • Warm – heat the horchata, add orange zest and white rum to taste, and serve with a light dusting of cinnamon.

(*) If you need to remove the skin from almonds, it’s very easy – just bring a pan of water to the boil, throw in the nuts, and boil for around a minute until they start to float. Drain, allow to cook, and you should be able to squeeze the nuts out of their skins. Voila!

Worth making? Delicious, easy and very, very festive. But I would say that, wouldn’t I? Now, go forth and come up with your own take on “White Christmas”!

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On Location: In Bruges

The festive season is nearly upon us, so time for the annual tradition of a pre-Christmas visit to Brussels. And with a free day while I was there, what could be nicer than a day trip to the charming city of Bruges?

The basics: Bruges is in the north-west of Belgium in the Dutch-speaking area of Flanders. This matters. Brussels might be (in theory) happily bilingual in Dutch and French, but get outside of the capital and it is one or the other. Dutch in the north. French in the south. And my years living in Belgium confirmed that never the twain shall meet. When wandering around the city, you’ll see a few traces of French, but they tend to be few and far between. It’s all very proudly Flemish (the Belgian version of Dutch…I never promised this was easy or straightforward!).

However, as you can see from the pictures, the attraction of Bruges is the fact that the whole place is basically a giant open-air museum. Beautiful old buildings ranging from medieval towers to elegant nineteenth century townhouses. No surprise then that it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.

I really love the picture below. It’s a bakery with what to me is a very traditional Belgian typeface, and rather remarkably (I thought) a rare example of bilingualism in Bruges.

The town might be well-preserved, but it is still very much a bustling commercial city as well, and wandering the streets, you sometimes think it’s just a row of shops. Then just stop, look up, and prepare to be amazed by some stunning architecture. You know, a lot of it really is just too much…but then, hundreds of years ago, this was a way of saying you were rich, seriously rich. The grander the facade, the better you were doing.

My own little theory is that an unususal façade was the ideal way of ensuring that people would be able to find your building. Someone might not have been able to read, or to communicate very well with the locals after travelling for several days on a horse, but they would surely have been able to find the house with the golden façade and a cockerel on top.

Bruges also has a pretty network of canals. On previous visits, I’ve been round them on a barge, but this time, it was a bit too chilly. Waffles and frites were much more appropriate.

Of course, any self-respecting city in the Low Countries has to have an impressive market square. Well, Bruges boasts several.  In winter, they’re packed with Christmas markets, skating rinks and people enjoying hot snacks and mulled wine. In summer, the places are filled with cafés to enjoy the wide selection of Belgian beers. I love them (the squares, and the beers!).

With all this history, there are also some charming little nuggets. This little fellow is the Bruges Bear, the original inhabitant of the city, or at least the forest that used to cover where the city now sits.

So, having gotten to the end of these pictures, is Bruges worth visiting? Absolutely. One very charming thing is that Bruges also looks good in all weathers. In bright sunlight, the colours are vibrant. When it is cloudy, the heavy skies loom over the city. When it is raining or misty, the city is very atmospheric. I was lucky to visit on a day where the weather changes from thick fog to clear blue sunny skies.

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