Speculoos is a kind of crunchy cookie or a flat biscuit popular in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. Its shape is usually rectangular with a decorative image imprinted on the cookie’s face, although modern versions of the cookie can be in varied shapes. These cookies can be eaten warm or cold and are a good accompaniment to beverages such as tea, coffee, or hot chocolate.
There are many variations of the name of the cookie, depending on the country. Speculoos is commonly called as such in France, but is known as “speculaas” in Netherlands and “speculatius” in Germany. The origin of the word is not certain, but some say that “speculoos” comes from the word “specerij,” which means “spice" in Dutch. Others credit the Latin word “speculum,” pertaining to the wooden mold used for the cookies.
Traditionally, speculoos was baked on St. Nicholas Day’s Eve, on the fifth or sixth of December. The decorative images on the cookies were usually characters or scenery taken from accounts told about St. Nicholas. The most common image would be St. Nicholas himself, sometimes decorated with edible red dye for his red-hooded coat. According to the Belgian and Dutch Christmas customs, children would fill their shoes with hay for the horse of St. Nicholas and would place the footwear near the chimney. The next morning, the shoes would be filled with speculaas and other presents.
Speculoos cookies use common ingredients such as butter, flour, and eggs, but what gives the cookie its unique flavor is the Belgian brown sugar called “vergeoise brune," made from beets. This sugar also gives the cookie its rich brown color. Modern recipes usually substitute the vergeoise brune for dark brown sugar that is more widely available. Another factor that makes these cookies so unique is the use of varied spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and even pepper. Chopped nuts such as almonds and walnuts can also be added for texture and flavor.
The dough is usually prepared by mixing the dry ingredients separately from the wet ingredients. The dry ingredients are then slowly added to the mixed wet ingredients until the ingredients have blended well. It is important, however, not to mix the dough too much or too quickly, as this might result in very hard cookies. The dough is then rolled thinly, cut into pieces, molded, and baked. Many recipes would recommend refrigerating the dough first before stamping it with the mold, as the imprint would be more apparent.