Beginning of November, the holiday season arrives in The Netherlands and Belgium. The days are quite short and coziness is the prevailing mood. The streets are first decorated for the arrival of Saint Nicholas/ Sinterklaas on December 5th and later on for Christmas. This is the season of what is known as Speculaas in The Netherlands and Speculoos in Belgium. This is also the spice mix that gives its particular flavor to cookie butter (the spread/ paste made of crushed speculoos cookies). Just like in North America the season tastes like pumpkin spice, in The Netherlands and Belgium it tastes of speculaas/speculoos.
You will notice that across this post I use both names, speculaas and speculoos. It is because this particular mix of spices belongs to both countries and it is spelled slightly different in Dutch and Flemish. I want to respect the historical roots of these ingredients which date back to the 13th century (when The Netherlands and Belgium had different geographical delimitations and neither existed as they are known today).
The name speculaas/ speculoos has no single origin. According to some sources, it comes from the Latin word “speculator” which means “someone who sees everything”, a characteristic attributed to Saint Nicholas and his ability to see children’s behavior (and accordingly reward them or not with presents). Others believe the spice mix took its name from the fact that the cookies flavored with this mix were the mirror (speculum) image of the wooden mold used to shape them.
The first use of a spice mix bearing a similarity to speculoos/ speculaas is recorded in the Belgian region of Vlaanderen in the 13th century however, it was a different mix than the one we use today. The current mix of spices dates back to sometime in the 17th century and is a by product of trade and Dutch/ Belgian colonial expansion in Asia. In this first recorded use, a local baker created something called “peperkoek”. Originally, this cake like peperkoek was made from bread crumbs and other leftover bakery products. These ingredients were collected and pressed to create the ‘peperkoek’ which was augmented with black pepper mixed with honey, other spices and sugar to conceal the age of the resulting thick bread. Eventually, this type of cake evolved into its own speciality and by the 16th century it was picked by French bakers where it became known as “pain d’epices”. By early 1700s, this mix of spices was widely used in The Netherlands and Belgium, particularly in the regions of Utrecht, Friesland, Deventer and Groningen, each with it’s own types of cakes and cookies.
Nowadays speculoos/ speculaas is the basis of the flavor profile of the cookies and pastries (pepernoten, taaitaai, speculaas cookies, cakes, desserts, etc) eaten throughout the holiday season. They are a distinctive local flavor that eventually went global when cookie butter became popular (and rightfully loved).
The basic spices in the speculaas/ speculoos mix are cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger powder, cardamon and white pepper. Variations include a number of other spices such as star anise, coriander seeds or even pulverized orange rinds. No matter the variations, the base flavor profile is strong cinnamon.
When Starbucks disembarked in Northern Europe with the ubiquitous pumpkin spice flavored coffees, they became an instant hit. I was surprised that there were no more widespread efforts to create a local product, though. Something that tasted like the Dutch/ Belgian holidays season. In 2012, the Dutch Starbucks’ locations had something called “Speculaas Latte” however I haven’t seen it last year (or this one for that matter). I searched for commercially produced speculaas/ speculoos syrup and found that Monin (a very common brand of syrups around these parts) had one but it wasn’t as popular as I had expected. Also, there were few, if any recipes to create one’s own (and those I could find in Dutch/ Flemish used crumbled cookies instead of the spices).
So, as it is bound to happen, I created my own. This syrup is wonderful for lattes or cappuccinos and it works very well with chocolate milk. Depending on preferred level of sweetness, use one or two tablespoons per large drink (120 ml/ 4 oz coffee with 3/4 cup of milk). I suspect it’d be great in holiday themed cocktails but I haven’t tried that yet. I also plan to use it as flavoring on overnight oats.
Speculaas / Speculoos / Cookie Butter Syrup
1 cup water
1 cup sugar (I use raw, unrefined cane sugar but any sugar will do; I expect these flavors would work very nicely with palm sugar as well)
2 cinnamon sticks
1 nutmeg (smashed into pieces)
2 teaspoons cloves
2 cardamon pods (smashed)
1 heaping teaspoon powdered ginger
1 teaspoon white pepper grains
1 star anise
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
Place all ingredients in a small sauce pan over medium fire. Stir continuously until all sugar dissolves. Once the sugar has dissolved, and the syrup is about to boil, lower to minimum and continue cooking (do not let it boil, you want a gentle simmer) until the syrup thickens a bit and reduces, around 10 minutes. Remove from fire and allow it to cool with the spices (you want the syrup to continue infusing with the flavors). After around half an hour, pass the syrup through a sieve and transfer to a glass jar. I do not mind a bit of leftover powder from the spices but if you want a completely crystalline syrup, use a cheese cloth. The syrup keeps in the fridge for at least one month (if it lasts that long)