Speculoos is the golden spice cookie that comes wrapped in plastic and sits on the saucer of your espresso cup in nearly every cafe throughout the Hexagon. In the past decade, a single, plastic-wrapped speculoos has replaced the chocolate-dipped almond or malted milk ball that was the typical sweet treat alongside a cafe exprès. So, in that light the speculoos might be considered a newcomer, yet it has a long history.
Like any spice cookie, it can be traced back to Genghis Khan, who roved the steppes with spice bread in his bags. But more recently – in 1932 to be exact – two Belgian brothers, the Boones, decide to create a cookie company in the Belgian village of Lembeke. They called their company Lotus, and launched themselves into production of cookies that they packed in a box decorated with a lotus flower. The cookie was an instant success and became a sensation when they had the idea to package it individually for distribution during the Brussels World Fair in 1958. Not only did the packaging keep the little cookie fresh, but it made it more available to the masses. And today, we the masses still love it, to the tune of 400,000 individual speculoos served alongside cafe exprès every day.
Speculoos are simple and satisfying and here in France they serve a similar purpose to the American graham cracker, in that they make a perfect for cheesecake crust. But their uses go much further afield: they get crumbled over chocolate mousse, are used as a breading for fresh foie gras, and sometimes are whisked – after being crumbled – into a sauce for steak. They are also happen to be ideal if you have that singular craving for a graham cracker slathered with peanut butter and you find yourself in this graham cracker-less country. The speculoos is your substitute. Don’t, though, offer this particular combination to a French person – you’ll risk being thrown out of the country.
I became just slightly fixated on developing a worthy speculoos recipe, because I have a recipe in my new book – Plat du Jour (out in 2021) – that calls for speculoos crust. I was concerned the cookie be difficult to find in the U.S., so I decided to provide a recipe. I will admit to working on it for days, doing so many tests I lost count. The version below, though, has passed the blind taste test with a dozen French palates. Each time, tasted against the commercial version it was instantly noticeable and just as instantly preferred. But I am chagrined to admit it doesn’t perform as well as the commercial variety in the crust-test. The butter content must be too high because it doesn’t bake up perfectly.
I will be speaking and signing books at Ris, in Washington DC, on November 2, all around a beautiful meal created by Ris Lacoste. Please join me!
That said, you will love to make these, they go together in an instant, and if you serve them to a group be prepared. There will not be one – not one – leftover. But if you want to vary your cheesecake crust, I’m afraid you’ll have to opt for the commercial variety. You can find them at Trader Joe’s.
- 1-1/2 cups (220g) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1-1/2 generous teaspoons cinnamon preferably from Vietnam
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 10 tablespoons (155g) unsalted butter at room temperature
- 3/4 cup (110g) light brown sugar gently packed
Preheat to 400°F (200C). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Sift together the dry ingredients onto a piece of parchment or waxed paper.
Cream the butter and the sugar together in a large bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer until it is pale yellow and light.
With the mixer set at low, add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix just until all the ingredients are blended together to form a soft dough.
Turn the dough out onto a piece of parchment paper and shape it into a rectangle, with your hands. Lay another piece of parchment paper over the dough and carefully roll out the dough until it is about ¼-inch (.6cm) thick. Even out the edges of the rectangle as best you can, then cut the dough into 3 x 1 -inch (7 x 2.5cm) strips. Don’t be concerned if all of the cookies aren’t EXACTLY that size, nor if your edges aren’t perfectly straight. Any “imperfect” cookies are for the ones you love.
Transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheets, leaving a half inch (1.25cm) between each cookie, and bake in the center of the oven until they are golden, about 12 minutes. You may need to rotate the baking sheets to bake the cookies evenly.
Remove from the oven and transfer the cookies to a cooling rack. The cookies will become nice and crisp as they cool.