Sunday, 7 December 2014

Recipe: Speculoos (and Santa)

I had my first mulled wine of the season last week, catching up with a friend who has a four year old daughter. Talk turned to Christmas, and how her daughter had loudly announced on the way home from playgroup that Santa couldn't be real because there'd been so many books written about him. Yes, at such early age, she'd clearly started to twig that something wasn't quite right about the thought of a chap dropping down the chimney. ("But surely the dog would bark and wake us up Mummy?")

My friend had, as most parents would, looked aghast, tried not to panic, desperately changed the subject, and decided to bring it up at another point. But how do you broach the subject with a precocious four year old who runs the risk of upsetting every other child in her class?

St Nicholas. That's what we came up with.

I first heard of Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, when I came to Edinburgh and moved in with a Dutch friend. A 4th century Christian bishop, he was canonised for being an all round good egg and champion of the impoverished. He is remembered for leaving sweets in the shoes of poor children - and for his most famous exploit, when he threw three gold coin pouches down the chimney of a pauper, who could not afford the dowries for his daughters. One version of the tale tells that the girls had been washing their stockings, and left them to dry by the fire and that the money dropped inside...
A facial reconstruction of St Nicholas - source
His saint day - 6th December - is celebrated across many continental European countries. In the Netherlands, it's bigger than Christmas for a lot of young children, and is celebrated the night before. On the evening of the 5th December, families eat a traditional pea and bacon soup, play games and swap gifts with little rhymes for each recipient. Shoes are placed in front of fireplaces and windows in the hope that sweets will appear inside. On the morning the 6th, St Nicholas heads off back to Spain (where he, slightly randomly given his Greek heritage, apparently spends most of his time).

He's become a controversial character in the last few years - mostly because of his attendants, Swarte Piets. Black-faced children accompany Nicholas on his arrival into town. The Spanish connection and the curly black hair implies that his servants are Moors - which makes it slightly dodgy... but politics aside, it still strikes me as fascinating how a saint who died 1600 years ago became our modern day Santa. It's believed that he travelled over to America with the Dutch West India Company. Combined there with the English tradition of Father Christmas, a friendly Yule-tide visitor who celebrates with friends (St Nicholas never quite made it over the Channel), the modern day Santa Claus was established.

Anyway. Back to Sinterklaas.

Ever since I've known my Dutch friend, we've had a Sinterklaas celebration together. It's normally a couple of days late, as she travels home to see her family - but it's become the start of my festive season. I volunteered to do some baking for our gathering, and was handed her family recipe for Speculaas, or Speculoos, cookies. Similar to gingerbread, but with less of the ginger, and with more cloves and cardamom, they are a really delicious and slightly savoury soft biscuit. I used my friend's spice mix - but if you don't have all of those ingredients, I reckon they'd be just as delicious with mixed spice as it's really similar, only without the cardamom.
Makes around 20.

120g butter
100g dark brown sugar 
200g self raising flour
1 tsp salt
1 egg
2 tsp spice mix 

Cream together the sugar, butter, salt and spices.
Add the egg, slowly sift in the flour and mix into a sticky dough. 
Bring into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for 30 minutes. 
Preheat the oven to 170C. 
Roll out the dough on a clean, floured surface, handling as little as possible to keep it cold. Ideally you want it about 7mm thick (I know, I know). Cut into festive shapes, or triangles. 
Bake for approx 20 minutes on a non-stick or lined tray. When you take them out, they will seem very soft and possibly undercooked but they'll firm up a treat as they cool.

Best eaten warm while they're still soft in the middle. Perfect with mulled wine or hot chocolate. 


  1. This is a beautiful post, with an excellent recipe. Very festive and informative!

  2. What a great recipe. My neighbours growing up were from Germany and got sweets in their shoes on 6 December. It was so cool. Add to that Kaffee and Kuchen and the big cone of sweets for starting school and I really wished I was German!

  3. I love Speculaas. In the Netherlands you can even buy jars of Speculaas spread - a bit like smooth peanut butter but sweet and spicy. It's delicious!