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On the top of the Belgian cookie food chain proudly stands speculoos: crunchy, spicy, and official candy of mythical folk figure Sinterklaas. The artisanal treat is a staple of the tiny country’s rich food culture and here’s what you need to know.
The origins of the tan delicacy made out of butter, brown sugar, and spices are found almost four centuries ago. Speculoos can be traced back to at least 1650 when bakers were already making the biscuit alongside their bread. Made on the eve of Sinterklaas, children that had been good throughout the year would wake up to their shoes – which they’d set up the night before – stuffed with not only presents but also generous helpings of speculoos cookies.
Put there in the middle of the night before December 6th by Sinterklaas, or ‘de Sint,’ and his helpers (who enter your house through the chimney), speculoos is closely tied to an ancient and typical tradition of the Low Countries. Sinterklaas, a wise and white-bearded fellow who keeps an eye on kids’ track records each year, makes his way from his residence in Spain to Belgium and the Netherlands by boat every year to dole out rewards and punishments. Children that have been well behaved receive presents and candy, while their more mischievous peers are carried off in a burlap sack all the way back to Spain – or so the legend goes. Thankfully, the records of kids actually being taken are non-existent, making Sinterklaas a joyous occasion that heralds the start of a new holiday season. The only real risk kids run during the Sinterklaas period is a stomachache as a result of the tons of yummy speculoos they’ve been munching on.
This tradition also explains why the delicacy comes in so many different shapes and sizes, with all kinds of patterns on top. Ever since its conception in the middle of the 17th century, bakers have dedicated themselves to creating molds with figures and patterns in which to form the cookies. Traditionally, they’re of Sinterklaas or his helper Zwarte Piet – or Black Peter, named that way long ago because of the soot he’s covered in from head to toe after sliding down the chimney – but it’s possible to make them with any image you want on top. In fact, it is believed that the name speculoos derives from the Latin word speculum, or mirror, since the cookie is the mirror image of the wooden mold in which it’s been made. If you happen to walk into a Belgian bakery as the holidays are approaching, don’t be surprised to find a meter-tall slab of speculoos depicting Sinterklaas waiting for a parent to splurge on.
While speculoos, and its slightly spicy flavor (ingredients include cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, and ginger), tickles many a Belgian adult’s nostalgic tendencies, the shortbread biscuit is more than ever a thing of the present. What used to be a well-kept Belgian and Dutch secret mostly consumed during winter and fall has become a year-round treat that’s experiencing its big break across continents. Cookie company Lotus Bakeries – maker of speculoos cookies since 1932 – now ships to over 40 countries, with a first US production site to open in 2019.
Undoubtedly having a huge part in the current speculoos boom is its fairly new spinoff, speculoos spread. The brilliant idea of grounding up Belgium’s beloved cookies into a paste you can put on your sandwich was presented by two different inventors on the Flemish television show De Bedenkers in 2007 and has been a smash hit ever since, inciting lawsuits over its patent rights and launching speculoos as a delicacy worldwide. It didn’t take too long for speculoos ice cream and speculoos cheesecake to make their delicious entry after that.