When I lived in Belgium, Christmas was marked by the presence of speculoos biscuits. Actually, pretty much every day was marked with speculoos, but at Christmas, they went from being delicious small additions to a cup of coffee to something altogether grander, culminating the two or three foot biscuits that were shaped into the image of Saint Nicholas in December. They are also a feature of Christmas in the Netherlands, where their name is tweaked to speculaas, and they gain more spice than their Belgian cousins. If you want to make the biscuits, I turned my hand to them last year. They can be made either by rolling out the dough and cutting or using the chill/roll/slice technique, but ideally you would use traditional wooden moulds to shape into windmills, chickens, men and women.
There is also a more elaborate version of speculaas, which is called gevulde speculaas, or “filled speculaas”. This is made with a layer of dough, similar to that used to make speculaas cookies, then filled with almond paste, and topped with more dough. The whole is then baked, and finally cut into smaller pieces.
The dough is a rather straightforward affair, but the filling was more interesting. I always just assumed this was made from marzipan, but this is something that the Dutch call amandelspijs. This is a paste made from almond, sugar and eggs, and in some cases flavoured with a little lemon zest. This was traditionally a high-quality ingredient in baked goods, and using it considered a sign of quality.
However, it was also an expensive item, and the temptation was inevitably there to use cheaper versions. This resulted in the development of something called banketbakkerspijs (“bakery spijs”) which was made from a combination of weird and wonderful ingredients such as bitter apricot kernels and white beans. I can see why the alternative name developed – croissant aux amandes sounds nice, white bean and ground kernel croissant less so!
Anyway, back to today’s recipe. I made my amandelspijs the posh way (I’ll leave my bean-based confectionery to the Japanese, thanks). However, I felt that the mixture of just ground almonds, sugar and egg lacked sufficient almond flavour (I’ve probably been raised on things flavoured with apricot kernels and have thus had my sense of taste destroyed…). I corrected with a few drops of almond extract. You could also use a spoon or two of amaretto liqueur. I also added some lemon zest, which appeared in a few of the sources I looked at. This is entirely up to you, but it does add a little extra flavour and a certain “freshness” to the filling.
When it comes to the spices, there is traditional Dutch mixture called speculaaskruiden (“speculaas spices”) that can be made from things you probably have in the store cupboard. I find the key flavours in there are the generous use of cloves relative to other spice mixes. However, you could use any spice mixture you like, such as pumpkin pie spices, or even just good old allspice.
The resulting cake is very rich, as the speculaas does not turn crisp like a biscuits, but instead you get a spiced pastry encasing the rich filling. You can really use as little or as much filling as you like (I’ve seen everything from a small sliver to a very thick slab of filling!) but I think a ratio of equal parts pastry and filling seems to work pretty well.
To make Gevulde Speculaas
Makes 16-25 pieces
• 150g ground almonds
• 150g caster sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/4 lemon, zest only
• 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
• 250g self-raising flour
• 125g dark brown sugar
• 2 teaspoons mixed spice or speculaaskruiden
• 150g butter, cold
• 1 egg
To finish: whole almonds
1. Make the filling – mix all the ingredients to a smooth paste (if too stiff, add a little water). Cover the dish and refrigerate overnight.
2. The next day, make the pastry – put everything apart from the egg into a bowl and work with your fingers until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add 2/3 of the egg (reserve the rest) and work to a smooth, soft dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for one hour.
3. Now prepare the speculaas. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F) and line a square tin with greaseproof paper.
4. Take half the dough. Roll out to a size a few centimetres larger than the base of the tin. Transfer into the tin – press the base down, and leave the edges. Add the filling, smooth down, then fol the edges onto the filling – you want a seam of around one centimetre (half an inch), so you might need to trim the excess.
5. Roll out the other half of the dough, and trim to the size of the tin. With a little water, moisten the seam you’ve left on the base, then add the topping to the tin. Press the edges lightly, then use a blunt knife to score lines to mark the edge of each piece. You can do 4 x 4 (for 16 pieces) or 5 x 5 (for 25 pieces).
6. Take the reserved 1/3 egg. Mix with two tablespoons of cold water and brush to top. Place an almond in the centre of each piece.
7. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then remove from the tin. You can either cut into individual pieces now, or keep whole and cut pieces as needed.
Worth making? This is straightforward recipe if you’ve got the time, and a nice idea if you want something that is almond-based by want to steer clear of using a lot of marzipan. The flavour works wonderfully with the spices in the pastry too.