Speculaas with rich almond stuffing
Speculaas or speculoos is one of the Dutch culinary specialties. It is a spiced biscuit, made with wooden forms or moulds. They are typically winterfood, and especially associated with the feast of 'Sint Nicolaas' or Saint Nicholas, the original Santa Claus. This feast is celebrated on 5 or 6 December. Speculaas is very old, the spices used date from medieval times.
The name seems to derive from the Latin speculum (mirror, the biscuits had the carved figure of the mould in mirror image). Old wooden biscuit moulds show biblical scenes, historic events, ships, windmills, mermaids, and of cours images of Saint Nicholas with the small children he had saved according to the legend. Single youngsters could recieve a 'vrijer' (male admirer/lover) or 'vrijster' (female admirer/lover). According to some this could be considered as a marriage proposal from the giver. These large speculaas dolls (maybe they can be compared to the 'gingerbread men') were often decorated with coloured icing, silver pills and even leaf gold.
The speculaas biscuits from before, say, 1850, were made with a very hard dough containingrye flour and honey. These biscuits were so hard they could only be eaten if they were dissolved into a sweet (and tasty) porridge.
In my youth we used to to eat small speculaas biscuits on richly buttered white sandwiches as a special treat.
The dough is easy to prepare, and children will love to help with it.
The amounts for the dough are for the speculaas with almond stuffing. If you just want to bake biscuits, you can easily halve the amounts, but you'll have to use even less butter (about a quarter the amount). If you are allergic to almonds, simply leave them out, and use paste of legumes instead of almond paste.
500 gram (4 1/4 cups) simple white flour
250 gram (1 cup) cold butter
250 gram (1 1/4 cup) sugar
2 eggs, stirred
1/2 decilitre (1/4 cup) cream
salt to taste (don't forget this, and be liberal, otherwise your speculaas will taste bland)
50 to 60 gram (1/4 cup) spices for speculaas
grated skin of 2 untreated lemons
200 gram (2 cups) flaked almonds, broken in to little pieces (optional)
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
Preparation in advance
Mix flour with sugar, salt, baking powder and soda and spices (don't forget the salt, otherwise the speculaas will be bland). Add the butter, cut it with two knives to little chunks the size of peanuts. Add almonds (optional) and lemon peel, and as much egg and cream as necessary to obtain a firm dough. Place the dough in a bowl, cover, and let it rest, preferably a whole night, in the refrigerator.
With this dough you can make small bisuits, called speculaasjes. To roll the dough out, the dough must be taken out of the refrigerator well in advance, because otherwise it will be too firm to roll out (because of the butter in it). Once the dough is rolled out, you can use either a cookie cutter, or real Dutch wooden speculaas moulds. If you use these, be sure to sprinkle the mould liberally with flour ever time you press fresh dough into it.
Tap the mould upside down on the worktop to free the speculaas dough. Cut the sides to make a neat form, and place the biscuits on a greased baking sheet.
Bake the biscuits in the preheated oven (175dgC/350oF) until done (about 20 minutes). Let the biscuits cool on a cake rack.
To make Speculaas with almond stuffing, we go on
Ingredients for stuffing
500 gram pure almond paste
1 or 2 eggs
1 to 3 tablespoons rose water
whole peeled and blanched almonds
egg, egg yolk, milk or cream
Preparation in advance
Stir the eggs with the rosewater. Knead the almond paste with the eggs and rosewater to moisten it. Don't add the liquids all at once, start with half the amount, then add a little at the time until the stuffing is smooth. Like the dough, the almond stuffing has to rest in the refrigerator for at least one day before use.
Divide the dough in two. Roll out one half, and cover a bakingsheet with it. If you have trouble rolling the dough out and transferring it to the baking sheet, just flatten it with your hand to your satisfaction. Spread the moistened almond paste on the dough, leaving about 1 1/2 inch around free.
Roll out the second portion of dough, drape it over the stuffing, press the sides of both dough sheets well together.
With a knife trace a pattern of lozenges. To guild the dough, brush it with egg, egg yolk, milk or cream. Decorate further with the almonds.
Bake the filled speculaas for 20 to 30 minutes in a preheated oven (175dgC/350oF).
Extra recipe: 'Banketstaaf' and 'Banketletter'
(Dutch almond pastry, literally meaning 'banquet stick' and 'banquet letter').
Roll out 350 gram puff pastry into a long, rectangular sheet.
Shape 250 gram almond paste into a thin roll (2 1/2 centimeter or 1 inch), place on the sheet of dough. Fold the dough over the stuffing, seal with egg. Cut away any excess dough.
You can leave the roll straight as a rod, but you can also shape it into letters (the Dutch also present each other with their initial in chocolate letters).
Adorn the 'banketstaaf' with halved almonds and/or the excess dough.
Let the pastry rest in the refrigerator for a half hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 220dgC/425oF.
Brush the dough with lightly beaten egg, eggwhite or milk, then bake it for twenty minutes.
All descriptions of ingredients
Almond paste - Almond paste can be bought, but you can easily make it yourself: grind blanched sweet almonds to a flour (or buy ground almonds), add as much sugar in weight as you have ground almonds, and add 1 egg for every 100 to 150 gram (about 1 cup) of almond flour, depending on the size of the eggs.
A cheap replacement of almond paste is a paste made with ground legumes (I believe haricot beans are used).
Spice mix for Speculaas - In the Netherlands you can buy the spices for speculaas premixed. I doubt whether that is the case elsewhere in the world. So here you have a mixture to make yourself: Take cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, white pepper, ginger and cardamom (everything powdered) in a ratio of 8:2:2:1:1:1 (whether you use grams, teaspoons or tablespoons, the proportions must be the same). The used spices betray the age of the recipe for speculaas: this combination of spices can be found in many fifteenth century recipes.
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