Tag Archives: biscuit

{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

{3} Pfeffernüsse

For the third part of the “Twelve Goodies of Christmas” I’ve made another of the festive classics – German Pfeffernüsse.

This is a classic version of the recipe, which contains a lot of spice and good amount of freshly ground black pepper. These pack a bit of a punch, but that is the way I like them – you often eat them with a glass of mulled wine, so they need to be able to hold their own and provide some contrast to the sweetness of the wine.

I’ve also jazzed up the decoration of these cookies – rather than just simple white icing, I added a sprinkling of crushed red peppercorns. This makes for a jaunty little festive touch and a little extra bit of extra peppery punch. It’s warm and aromatic, but without being too hot.

I made these last year, but as I recently did with my Aachener Printen, I’ve put a bit of effort in to getting the right ingredients, specifically the raising agent. In this case, it’s ammonium bicarbonate. Read more about it here, but essentially it gives more “lift” to biscuits, but it comes at a price – it stinks during the baking process! The strange aroma does vanish once the cookies have cooled, but it certainly livens up the process.

On balance, I think that it does make a difference – the texture is lighter, the resulting cookies are softer. Baking powder works, but ammonium bicarbonate is better if you can get hold of it. Look online, or I’ve put a source in London at the bottom of the recipe.

Now, you may ask, is it not a little early to make these things? Well, like a lot of spicy cookies, they get better if you store them for a while. So with them iced and decorated, these little fellows are tucked away in a box, waiting for Christmas.

To make Pfeffernüsse (makes around 20-25):

• 125g honey
• 50g brown sugar
• 25g butter
• 225g plain flour
• 50g ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ammonium carbonate(*)
• 1 egg
• 2 heaped teaspoons Lebkuchengewürz or mixed spice
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Making the cookies:

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and grease lightly.

Put the honey, sugar and butter in a small saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has melted. Leave for a couple of minutes to cool slightly.

In the meantime, in a large bowl combine the flour, ground almonds, ammonium carbonate, spices and pepper. Stir in the honey mixture and mix well. Add the egg and keep mixing until you have a smooth but sticky dough.

Using damp hands, divide the dough into around 20-25 portions – each should be the size of a small walnut. Roll each cookie into a ball between your hands (keep them moistened with water) and place on the baking sheet. Bake for around 10-12 minutes until puffed and just starting to brown.

Icing the cookies:

• 200g icing sugar
• 4-5 tablespoons kirsch, rum or water
• crushed red peppercorns

Put the icing sugar and kirsch/rum/water in a bowl. Mix well until you have a smooth, thick paste. It should just flow. Dip each cookie in the icing, then transfer to a wire rack to dry. Sprinkle some crushed peppercorns over the iced biscuits.

To get ammonium carbonate in London, you can buy this from Scandinavian Kitchen in the city centre (61 Great Titchfield Street, London W1W 7PP), tel: 020 7580 7161. Tube: Oxford Circus.

Worth making? I love these cookies. Sweet, spicy and very festive looking. Perfect with a glass of mulled wine after a bracing walk in the cold!

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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Scottish food: Oatcakes

Do you do superfoods? Every week, it seems like there is something that we should all be eating by the bucket-load to ensure we are all in tip-top-shape. Blueberries, spinach, grapefruit, pumpkin seeds, wheatgrass, cranberries, magic hocus-pocus desert cactus oil…OK, that last one is clearly made up, but I find it quite funny that we keep looking for the silver bullet to solve all our problems. If you haven’t worked it out by now, I am a great believer in “a little bit of what you fancy and everything in moderation” coupled with “eat what’s in season as that’s when it’s best“.

Making a not-very-logical link, what is behind this little rant? Well, I just read a piece on superfoods, and it just got me a bit wound up. Being told about this wonderful thing called “oats” as if they have just been brought forth from the Amazonian jungle. Meh. I’ve known about them for years. Many a winter morning has been kick-started with porridge. But I do agree that oats are pretty darn good – gluten-free (but make sure you buy from the right supplier!), low GI (so they release their energy slowly, so you have energy throughout the day), as well as the less sexy considerations that they leave you feeling full and are rich in fibre. That, and they are very Scottish. I like that!

Two of the most well-known uses for oats are intimately linked with Scottish cuisine – porridge and oatcakes. I realise that the former is very personal (some like porridge with milk and sugar, some make it with cream and add honey and condensed milk, others make it with water and a pinch of salt), so I will instead turn to oatcakes. I absolutely love them. Indeed, they are my snack of choice at work. I usually always have a packet or two stashed at the back of my filing cabinet in case I get peckish during the day. Some might think this is an attempt to show off and look virtuous, but I do happen to find them very tasty and incredibly more-ish, so really rather good for me that they are also healthy.

But how to make oatcakes? Easy? Worth the effort? Well, it is an absolute doddle. You just boil up water and butter, add salt, and pour into some ground oats. This makes a dough, then cut out the oatcakes. Bake, and you end up with a pretty stack of savoury biscuits a lot like this:

Commercial oatcakes are fine, but one of the best things about making oatcakes yourself is that they are very crisp, and have a lovely toasted nuttiness. That, and they are crisp without being too dry.

I find their texture works very well when you pair them with cheese – and in my case, that would be slivers of very tangy, mature cheddar. Perfect after dinner, as a snack, or to nibble on in the evening when watching a film. If you’re feeling fancy, you can even make very small oatcakes, and use as the basis for canapés for…eh…those glamourous parties that we are all throwing these days.

Just be warned – one you start making them, you might find it difficult to stop and switch back to store-bought!

To make oatcakes (makes 16):

• 175g medium oats(*)
• pinch of bicarbonate of soda
• scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 15g butter
• 75ml water

Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Grease two baking trays with butter or non-stick spray.

Put the oats and bicarbonate of soda into a bowl and mix.

In a saucepan, heat the salt, butter and water. Bring to the boil, then pour into the oats. Mix to a soft dough using a spoon, then with your hands. The dough should be soft and hold together, but should not be sticky.

Sprinkle more oatmeal on a worktop, lay the dough on top, and roll out the dough to 2-3mm thickness. Use a round cutter (6cm diameter) to cut out the oatcakes, and transfer them to the baking sheets. Gather the scraps in a bowl, add a teaspoon of water if needed, and mix until you have a ball of dough. Use to cut out more oatcakes, and keep going until all the dough is used up.

Bake for 30 minutes until crisp and just lightly golden at the edges. Leave to cool on the baking tray. Store in an airtight container.

(*) Make sure you use medium oats. If they are fine oats, the dough will be too dry. And don’t use rolled oats, as the texture will be all wrong, and then the guests at your glamourous party expecting perfect canapés will be shocked, and we don’t want that…

Worth making? The oatcakes you can buy are nice, but these are much nicer! They have a more “toasted” taste and additional nuttiness, which goes extremely well with cheese after dinner. Definitely worth trying!

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Filed under Recipe, Savoury, Scottish Food