Inspired by Melinda from Melbourne Larder, I decided to whip up a batch of these speculaas during the week. I had never heard of speculaas until they were featured in this month's Gourmet Traveller, but the description grabbed my attention: baking speculaas "will make your kitchen smell like the inside of a gingerbread house." Who could resist that?
I have always been completely taken by gingerbread houses, from Hansel and Gretel onwards. When I was little my mother made a beautiful gingerbread house once at Christmas time. I think she used a recipe in "The Cooking of Germany", part of a Time Life series, which featured an amazing gingerbread house on its cover. I remember Mum's gingerbread house sitting proudly on the dining room table, tiled with lollies, so picture-perfect that I was completely dazzled by it. It was in the dining room to keep it away from little hands, but I kept sneaking in to look at it. Sadly the Sydney humidity ensured that within a day or so of completion, it had collapsed in on itself, and we wound up picking the lollies out of the gingerbread rubble. Poor Mum. (Note to self, if I ever attempt a gingerbread house, make sure to use a local recipe, not one that presumes European winter conditions.)
So, on to the speculaas and my attempt to make my kitchen smell like a gingerbread house.... This recipe certainly creates a lovely crisp biscuit, with rich spicy gingerbread flavours, and your kitchen really will smell superb while you are making them. The downside is the work involved. Like many Christmas treats, these speculaas are much more a labour of love than a simple batch of biscuits. Firstly there is a spice mix to make. Then a dough which needs resting overnight. Then the dough needs to be rolled out, and returned to the fridge for more resting, and then it is cut with cookie cutters and returned to the fridge for more resting. And only then does it hit the oven and turn your kitchen into a gingerbread house. Incidentally, the final resting is to ensure that your cookies hold the intricate patterns of some speculaas cutters, but I got a bit bored and impatient and reduced it dramatically with no apparent ill-effect. As long as your biscuits aren't too intricately patterned, you cold probably get away with it too. Incidentally, in case you are wondering, my cutters are supposed to look like Christmas ornaments, but I think they wound up looking a little like some sort of medical instrument. You've got to laugh - at least they tasted good.
If you are cooking something from Gourmet Traveller this month and would like to join Melinda and I, on our new We Made It challenge, drop us a line either here or at Melbourne Larder.
Australian Gourmet Traveller December 09
Makes about 30-40 biscuits
500 gm (3 1/3 cups) plain flour, sieved
2 tsp baking powder
220 gm butter, softened
250 gm dark brown sugar
2 tbsp milk
8 green cardamom pods
5 star anise
1 tsp white peppercorns
1 piece of mace
2 tbsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp finely grated nutmeg
For speculaas spice, finely grind cardamom, cloves, star anise, peppercorns and mace in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Transfer to a large bowl, add cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, stir, add to flour and baking powder, and set aside.
Beat butter, sugar and a pinch of salt in an electric mixer until creamy (3-4 minutes). Add milk, beat to combine, then add flour mixture and mix until just combined. Form mixture into a dough with your hands on a work surface (add extra milk if mixture is too dry), shape into a disc and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate to rest (8 hours-overnight).
Preheat oven to 170C. Roll pastry on a lightly floured surface to 5mm thick, then refrigerate until firm (30 minutes). Cut into desired shapes (see note) and place on trays lined with baking paper. Re-roll scraps and repeat. Chill until firm (20 minutes), then bake in batches until light brown and crisp (10-12 minutes). Cool for 5 minutes on trays, then transfer to wire racks and cool completely. Speculaas will keep, stored in an airtight container, for 1 week.