Hello and welcome to 2015’s edition of the 12 Bakes of Christmas! Regular readers might have noticed a bit of a slowdown in posts in the last few months. I’ve not lost my love of cooking, but a recent arrival has been keeping us all rather busy, which has certainly also made Christmas this year a lot more special!
I’m kicking off a little later than usual this year, as my first bake Taai Taai (rhymes with bye-bye) originates from the Netherlands, where today – 5 December – is Sinterklaas (their Belgian neighbours confusingly celebrate it on 6 December, but as these cookies are Dutch, we’ll go with the earlier date). Sinterklaas is the day on which St Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, the origin of the name Santa Claus) is said to come from Turkey to distribute gifts and sweets to children by leaving them in clogs, or these days, more modern types of shoe. Alongside presents, it is traditional to get a chocoladeletter (your initial in chocolate!) as well as pepernoten and kruidnoten (spicy little biscuits – recipe here).
Taai Taai literally means “tough tough” in Dutch, and that name reveals their texture. Whereas the classic speculaas is often crisp and buttery, these are, well, tough and chewy.
So what is the story behind these little tough guys?
Well, I have struggled to find out about their true origins. Some sources suggest that lovers would exchange spicy speculaas cookies with their beloved, but if the lusty suitor got a taai taai from the source of their affections, then it was literally “tough” luck and the prospect of romance would vanish like melting snow. Others write that human figures made in taai taai were actively exchanged as tokens of affection between lovers, with some even going so far as to cover them with gold leaf! Whatever their true story, they are clearly a much-loved part of Dutch festive baking, and they are great fun to try making at home.
If you make these, it’s important to get what the texture should be like. They are not soft and cake-like, nor are they crisp. They texture is a bit tough and rather chewy, so it provides a good workout for your jaw. If they dry out, then they are almost impossible to eat, but if this happens (or even if you’ve baked them a little longer than you should have) then it is easy to fix. Just pop the taai taai in an airtight tin with a piece of soft bread. Leave overnight and the next day the taai taai should be soft again, and the piece of bread will be dried out. Magic!
In the interests of science, I’ve tried out a couple of versions. One was made using baking powder, the other with baking soda. The soda version was, by a country mile, the best result. The baking powder taai taai were (rather ironically) too hard and tough, and not amount of letting them soften in a tin with a slice of bread helped. Using soda, however, provides a lighter bake, which puffs up more evenly, and the overall colour was much better. So there – I’ve suffered a dud bake so that you don’t have to! The recipe that I based these cookies on comes from Het Nederlands Bakboek (the Dutch Baking Book) by Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra. It is a fantastic repository of just about any recipe that you could want from the Netherlands, and something I think is well worth getting hold of if you’ve got even a passing interest in the baking traditions of the Netherlands.
When it comes to flavour, you’ve got some freedom – I’ve seen versions that just use mixed spice, others use just aniseed, but I think the nicest way to go is a mixture of the two. The aniseed, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves really complement each other and provide you that “Christmas flavour”. Make sure that you crush any aniseed just before using, as they can lose their aroma quickly once they’ve been ground down.
If you’re doing this properly (i.e. you’ve got far too much free time and you’re worked out how to put very sticky dough into a wooden mould without it sticking to the inside), then you should try to make these in the shapes of people – Sinterklaas himself, or men, women or various animals. While the dough does puff up, the egg wash means that the details do appear fairly clearly on the surface. One solution might be to use cutters with patterns, rather than moulds you press the dough into, and work with very cold dough to prevent sticking.
However, if you’re me and trying to make these in a very short time window (before a certain someone wakes up…) then roll out the dough, cut into rectangles (I did 5 x 7cm, and yes, I used a metal ruler to be as precise as possible). Brush with the egg wash, leave to dry for a moment, then score using a very sharp knife. This will give you a fairly fancy pattern on top which looks like it involved a bit more than just six lines with a kitchen knife.
If all this talk of sugar and spice and all things nice has whetted your appetite for festive baking, here are the 12 Bakes of Christmas from 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Get those cookie cutters ready and fire up the oven!
To make Taai Taai (makes around 16) – adapted from Het Nederlands bakboek by Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra
• 125g honey
• 40g black treacle or molasses
• 85g golden syrup
• 2 tablespoons water
• 150g plain flour
• 120g light rye flour (or more plain flour)
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• pinch of salt
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon freshly-ground aniseed
• 1/2 teaspoon ginger
• 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1 egg, beaten
1. Preheat the oven to 210°C. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and rub very lightly with butter or flavourness oil.
2. Put the honey, treacle/molasses, golden syrup and water in a saucepan. Heat gently until the mixture comes to the boil, then leave to cool to lukewarm (don’t use it while too hot – you’ll activate the baking soda and, worse, burn your hands!).
3. In the meantime, prepare the dry ingredients. Mix the flour, baking soda, salt and spices in a bowl, then sieve to make sure everything is combined.
4. Pour the lukewarm honey mixture into the dry ingredients and mix to a soft dough. You might need to add more flour – add a spoonful at a time until the dough is firm enough to work with, but it will still be soft and a bit sticky.
5. Sprinkle the worktop with flour. Place the dough on top, sprinkle with a little more flour, then roll out to 1cm thickness. Use a sharp knife to cut into individual pieces (I went for 5 x 7cm). Transfer to the baking sheet, leaving enough space for the cookies to expand.
6. Brush each piece with beaten egg. Leave to dry for a moment (30 seconds or so) then use a sharp knife to score a pattern on top. This works best if you press the knife into the dough, rather than scoring as it will pull the dough out of shape.
7. Bake the taai taai for around 8-10 minutes (depending on size), turning the tray half-way. They should be evenly puffed up and the top should be a rich brown colour.
8. Once cool, transfer to an airtight tin. If the taai taai are too hard, add as slice of soft bread – the next day, the cookies will be softer and the bread dried out!