Belgian Spice Cookies

The latest Chloe Ellefson Mystery, The Lacemaker’s Secret, celebrates Belgian heritage, so of course my research included foodways. I quickly came across references to Belgian Spice Cookies, also called Speculoos.

These crisp spiced shortbread cookies are also popular in the Netherlands, where they’re called Speculaas. Children in both countries often receive the cookies on St. Nicholas Day in early December.

In North America the cookies are often known as Windmill cookies, because several bakeries produce them in that shape, or Biscoff cookies. (Delta Airlines has been handing out Biscoff cookies since 1986.)

Lotus

This company sells Speculoos as Biscoff cookies in the US. (Wikipedia)

Since Speculoos date back only to 1932, when a Belgian bakery started producing them, I included them in the mystery’s 1984 timeline. Chloe Ellefson enjoys a taste at a St. Nicholas celebration at Heritage Hill State Historical Park in Green Bay.  

Even though my maternal grandmother (who was famed for cookie-baking) had family roots in the Netherlands, I had never made Speculoos before.

None of the vintage Wisconsin/ethnic cookbooks on my shelf include a speculoos recipe. The Milwaukee Public Library’s wonderful Historic Recipe Collection turned up this recipe for Brussels Spice Cookies.

Belgian Spice Cookies

Milwaukee Journal, December 27, 1962.

A quick online search turned up lots of Speculoos/Speculaas recipes. The cookies themselves are pretty basic, but bakers use a lot of latitude with spices. The simplest use only cinnamon, while others call for various blends of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, coriander, and/or pepper. Some people simplify by using Pumpkin Pie Spice.

(WIkipedia)

Traditionally, bakers used shallow wooden molds to imprint elaborate designs in the cookies. The dough can also be cut into shapes or decorated with a cookie stamps. Most recipes call for rolling the dough to no more than 1/8 inch.

However, Wisconsin’s fabulous New Glarus Bakery sells delicious Speculaas that are thicker and unadorned. 

Speculaas cookies from New Glarus Bakery

Speculaas cookies from New Glarus Bakery

Some recipes call for sliced almonds to be sprinkled on top of (or even on the bottom of) the cookies; some mix sliced almonds into the dough, as the New Glarus bakers did. And some substitute almond flour for some of the regular flour.

When I put out a call for favorite recipes readers recommended several sources, including the New York TimesA Spruce Eats.and Cooks Illustrated. (The latter requires membership for web access; a free trial is available.) You can also find good information in the September, 2018 print edition of Cooks Illustrated. Belgian Foodie is another good source.

After some experimentation I came up with my own favorite:

Speculoos
1-1/2 c. all purpose flour (I use white whole wheat)
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. cardamom
1 t. nutmeg
1/2 t. cloves
1/2 c. softened butter
1/2 c. dark brown sugar
1/2 c. raw sugar or Turbinado sugar
1 egg

Mix flour, soda, and spices in a bowl and set aside.

I particularly love cardamom, so I only buy whole pods and grind them just prior to baking.

Cream softened butter with the sugars.

I use raw sugar (left), but because the crystals are larger than regular sugar, I buzz them in a spice grinder until fine (right). Belgian bakers used a special dark sugar (sometimes beet sugar) that is not readily available in the US.

When smooth, beat in the egg.  Gradually add the flour mixture and mix until dough is completely blended. Place dough in an airtight container (or wrap in plastic wrap) and store in the refrigerator for at least several hours to allow spices to blend.  Note:  It will be easier to roll the dough if you flatten it into a disc shape before chilling.

Preheat oven to 350 and grease baking sheets.  Roll dough approximately 1/8 inch thick.  Use cutters or stamps as desired to shape the cookies.

Bake for approximately 10 minutes, or until cookies are a light golden brown around the edges.  Remove pans from the oven and allow the cookies to sit for two minutes before removing them to a cooling rack.

For my first batch I used antique cutters passed down from my grandma; for the second, I tried using modern stamps.  

cutters

I like soft cookies, so I didn’t worry too much about getting the cookies as thin as 1/8 inch.

With so much variety, you can’t go wrong. Try mixing up a batch for your book discussion group or family. I think they’ll be a hit!

belgcookies

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5 Responses to “Belgian Spice Cookies”

  1. Liz V. Says:

    I have had those cookies without realizing their history. Thanks, although you have made me hungry!

  2. Lois Scorgie Says:

    How amazing cookies from different parts of Europe are so alike. The cookies made in New Glarus look identical to Mom’s Swedish icebox cookies.The Swedish cookie trecipe has less spices.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Lois, I also find that fascinating. It’s so easy to think that such-and-such is Norwegian or Dutch or Belgian, but tastes and traditions don’t stop at political borders. I enjoyed seeing so many variations on spice cookies. Interesting that the New Glarus ones resemble you mom’s Swedish cookies!

  3. Mary Jean Samer Says:

    My mother also made a spice cookie that looked the those made in New Glarus, she too called Icebox cookies and they have to be made over a couple of days. My Mother wasn’t Swedish or Belgium but German and Irish. I liked your comment Kathleen, that traditions (and recipes!) don’t stop at political borders. True! Also, I wanted to comment on how wonderful I thought The Lace Maker’s Secret was! I got it for Christmas and didn’t start it right away, but just finished it today! Bravo! I think I cried throughout the last 20 pages, but it was a good cry. Cry for happy! I also loved learning about those little chapels! What a lovely idea. Please, please, PLEASE keep writing that series! So looking forward to the next one. MJ Samer

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