Speculaas, Dutch gingerbread biscuits, studded with whole almonds and baked as a slab are the most laid-back festive bake. Break off a chunk whenever you fancy, as big as you like!
Making gingerbreads is rarely about the gustatory delights the biscuits provide. Some like them soft, others crunchy; iced or coated with chocolate; with sprinkles on top or with jam inside. The main point of making gingerbreads for Christmas is that it’s easy and fun.
Cutting out Christmas shapes for Lebkuchen biscuits, the classic German gingerbreads that are adored in my house, is the key event of a very entertaining evening every December.
The baked and cooled Lebkuchen are iced, some distinctly more thickly than others depending on who wields the icing brush. Sprinkles are sprinkled, as garishly as possible, and colourful icing gel draws squiggles.
Once you get through the frosting, the biscuits are delightfully soft, honeyed and flavoured with citrus peel. The dough needs to be made in advance, with lots of honey and ground almonds.
The Dutch version, speculaas, is much more laid back as you might expect.
The dough is super easy, and I suspect any other recipe for soft biscuits that you like might work as well, if spiced up with more ginger, cinnamon and cardamom than you would ever think appropriate.
The leavening agent here is buttermilk in conjunction with bicarb of soda which makes the gingerbread puff up with airy texture.
But the laziest thing about it is baking it in one big slab, a lump of gingerbread roughly rectangular in shape, that can be broken up into chunks as generous as you please. Or maybe even left whole, like a big festive tablet that everyone can break pieces off themselves.
Speculaas, speculoos or Biscoff?
Santa’s speculaas from the Netherlands are not the same as Belgian speculoos, hard, but not spicy, flat biscuits derived from the Dutch festive ones.
They are the foil-wrapped, Lotus-branded things you usually get with your coffee at the hairdressers. Dark colour comes from the caramelised butter they contain and that is also their flavour without a touch of cinnamon or nutmeg.
From that, bizarrely, they developed in Belgium speculoos-flavoured spread also known as Biscoff or cookie butter. I have even spotted Biscoff flavour ice cream on the English south coast last summer. Wonders never cease.
How to make Dutch gingerbread dough?
You don’t even need a mixer: the only step worth attention is thoroughly stirring all the dry ingredients together so the incredible amount of spice is evenly distributed and sugar doesn’t antisocially clump.
Do not cut down on the spices – I promise all of it is what you need to add to get the truly festive, fragrant cookies. If you have your own, favourite gingerbread spice mix, use it, only copiously.
The mix of dry ingredients needs butter rubbed in, any way you like, with fingers or two knives, and the buttermilk moistens the crumb so it can be gathered into barely cohesive dough. The recipe tells you to rest the dough in the fridge but frankly, it’s pretty chill already.
How to bake speculaas?
The amounts below make a slab about 30 x 25cm or thereabouts so if you have a similar size rimmed baking tray, line it with parchment and you can just press the dough into it, more or less evenly.
Dutch speculaas are traditionally decorated with whole blanched almonds and they suit it very well.
Then baking – and the timing of it depends on how you soft or crunchy you like your gingerbread. 35 minutes will give you soft and chewy biscuits while the closer to 45 minutes you get, the more brittle they will end up.
Stored in an airtight cookie jar or tub, they will soften slightly.
More gingerbread biscuits
German Lebkuchen, in the plain or jam-filled, chocolate-coated luxurious version are as good as the Dutch speculaas, if not better.
Classic English ginger snaps should, as the name suggests, be crunchy and brittle.
In between soft and crunchy, these stem ginger biscuits are slightly chewy and flecked with chunks of delicious, preserved ginger.
More Christmas cookies
German festive baking is excellent so no wonder the cinnamon stars, Zimtsterne, are listed as first here.
Possibly the nicest, soft and almondy Italian ricciarelli are a cross between marzipan and a French macaron.
Last but by no means least, mince pies with the loveliest crust and homemade filling.