Biscoff. Belgian Spice Cookies. Dutch Windmill Cookies. Spekulatious. Speculoos. Dutch Speculaas Koekjes (cookies) have been adapted and renamed numerous times throughout history, but none are quite as good as the originals. These spicy cookies embody the warm and comforting feelings we seek out during those cold winter months and are part of cultural traditions that have roots much deeper than the mini “Biscoff” packets you enjoy on your flights with Delta Airlines.
After the establishment of the Dutch East India Company and the colonization of the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, the Netherlands created a monopoly on valuable spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves, all of which make up the gingerbread-esque flavor profile that Speculaas cookies are known for. With so many new and exotic flavors abundantly available to the Dutch people, these spices were quickly integrated into the culture. They have become most common in traditional Dutch dessert recipes, especially ones that are linked to significant holidays.
Throughout Europe, people celebrate St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, as he is more affectionately known in the Netherlands and most other Germanic countries, on December 5th with a large feast to honor all of the wonderful miracles he is believed to have performed as the patron saint of children and sailors. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas’ Day is celebrated almost exactly like Christmas. Choose to be good all year and Sinterklaas will bring you an assortment of delectable Dutch treats, or choose to be naughty and suffer the consequences, which vary depending on which old Dutch grandmother you choose to believe (or what websites you trust). Before bed on December 5th, children leave their shoes out with the expectation that Sinterklaas will come and fill them with treats for the children to discover in the morning. His most common gifts are Speculaas, often imprinted with his own image, and giant chocolate letters that resemble the first letter of each child’s name (my personal favorite gift every year).
The St. Nicholas’ Day traditions in my household functioned a little differently while I was growing up. This was, in part, because we received our chocolate letters on December 25th. My mother always insisted on this fabled arrangement between Santa and Sinterklaas, dictating that we would receive our St. Nicholas Day gifts on Christmas so Santa could deliver them for Sinterklaas on his route. That way Sinterklaas wouldn’t have to sail his boat all the way to our home in Los Angeles after visiting all the children in the Netherlands. Now I understand that she just did that to put all the holiday celebrations on one day and get it over with, but as a child, I resented waiting an extra 20 days for my chocolate.
My parents also decided that they wanted to keep a bit of the illusion of Sinterklaas for themselves by creating a divide in our home: children could have chocolate letters, but Speculaas was a special treat for the adults. I watched with envy as they unwrapped their aromatic cookies and savored them for the rest of the season while my sister and I would finish all of our chocolate before New Year’s Eve without second thought. I was given a cookie here and there to silence my incessant begging, but it was not until the Christmas after my 18th birthday that I received my very own box for the first time (which was also entirely finished before New Year’s Eve).
Now, what used to be an exciting treat during the holiday season has become pretty ubiquitous on grocery store shelves. It has even amassed a near cult-like following since the invention of cookie butter, the history of which is confusing and convoluted in itself. All you really need to know is that the Lotus company (the company that makes those Delta cookies) was at the forefront of all cookie-butter-related scandals, and now people spread cookie butter all over everything as if it were an adequate nut butter substitute! Unlike peanuts or almonds, Speculaas does not have any nutritional value. I don’t know about you, but celery with peanut butter still sounds a lot more appealing than using cookie butter as an alternative.
I am partial to Speculaas in its original form; however, I do have the capacity to acknowledge the fact that cookie butter does have its place. While I am completely in favor of slathering it on toast or pancakes to spice up otherwise bland breakfast foods (in Holland, children eat sprinkles on buttered bread so we are really in no place to judge), I urge you to steer clear of cookie recipes that use “cookie butter” as a fat replacement. Just make Speculaas or settle for Biscoff!