We’re halfway through the 12 Days of Cookies – can you believe it?
Today’s post comes from yet another fellow MFA program survivor. Emily Louise is probably one of the best home cooks I know. I have had many meals at her house, from full dinners to desserts to just cookies and tea while we chatted about writing and life and teaching. And let me say, I have never had anything I didn’t like. Her cooking is thoughtful and caring and knowledgeable – she’s one of those cooks who seems to be able to substitute and link up recipes and make things work in a pinch in a way that is still delicious and intentional. I admire this because I’m not that kind of cook. I also admire this because I got to eat some of it.
Emily Louise is now a Philadelphia resident, where she is a college teacher (bless her soul) and where she is working on any and all of her numerous writing projects, including her blog, Wild Wisteria, a blog about faith, art, and equality.
Dutch Speculaas, A Dog That Ate My Mittens, and Adding Spice to Everything
The longest I’ve lived anywhere was Holland. Not Holland, Michigan, but the “real” Holland, also known as the Netherlands. These five and a half years—ages 4 to 9—shaped me immeasurably. At the British School of the Netherlands, I learned to be friends with Muslim Kuwaitis and Saudis, Indian Hindus, post-religious Finns, Protestant Nigerians, Roman Catholic Polish. From the Corrie Ten Boom house, our Dutch “grandparents,” and third grade history, I didn’t just learn about World War II and the Holocaust, but felt like I experienced it, in some small way. And probably best of all, I discovered I wanted to be a writer.
With my parents and younger sister, Anna, I learned to love tulips and rain, bicycling and skating on the canal behind our house (okay, so that only happened once, mostly my father paddled my sister and me in a rubber raft down the canal). We travelled and ate so much delicious foods—pannekoeken (thin, flat pancakes, covered with dozens of toppings), lumpia, or giant Filipino eggrolls, sold wrapped in newsprint in open-air markets, and stroopwafels, flat, caramel-filled waffle cookies, bought from carts. Many of these Dutch foods, like fine cheese and chocolates, have remained life-long favorites. Including speculaas, which are thin, crispy spice cookies.
Speculaas should be made in wooden molds (which are most often windmill shaped), but since my mother has the molds and lives 1700 miles away, I just used cookie cutters. This way, my 5-year-old friend from Egypt, Nour, could help me cut out the cookies. Nour, who has quite the thing for chocolate, was thrilled with these simple cookies. “Yum!” she said, as soon as I let her eat one. And then she ate another. And another.
When I was about Nour’s age, my mom, sister, and I were on a walk in the woods. From nowhere, a beagle puppy appeared. I took off my mitten to pet the dog, who grabbed the mitten in its mouth and ran off, never to be seen again.
I first wrote this as a fictional story when I was six. And I’ve been trying to write this story for 23 years, which is perhaps similar for many writers. We have experiences that shape us, but we struggle to communicate what they mean to us in ways that other people will understand. My most recent version—which includes speculaas—is too long to share here, but here’s a link to the full story on my blog Wild Wisteria: Mittens: A Story of Adult-like Children, or Child-like Adults.
From the beginning of “Mittens”:
On the first day of December, the mother took her daughter and her son to walk through the woods. The father stayed at home to prepare hot chocolate and set out speculaas, thin ginger cookies. This was a tradition the mother and the father would not think of changing.
The walk taught the children about the long journey Saint Nicholas, Sinter Klass, had to make to bring presents for good children and coal for bad children. How the children behaved on the walk, the mother told the children, was often what would determine what Sinter Klass brought them.
The girl was seven, the boy five. They solemnly put on their coats and woolen socks and boots. Their mother tied their scarves around their necks and pulled on their rainbow-colored knitted caps. The children could barely see through all the clothes, but this first of December was especially cold. The Nederlands rarely received snow, but it had snowed the day before. Perhaps there will be snow for Sinter Klass, the girl said to her brother. Then we can see the footprints of the horse on the roof or on the frozen ground.
The boy asked his father, might Sinter Klass and his horse fall through the roof? His father confirmed that the horse would not climb on the thatched roof, but would simply send Zwart Pete, his helper, down the chimney to deliver the presents.
The girl would remember this day for the rest of her life. … But the year she was seven, at the beginning of the walk, she still believed Sinter Klass was a real person who would reward or punish her for her behavior. … (Keep reading here.)
Modified from the Dutch Baker’s Daughter
Servings: 5 dozen
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Baking Time: 10-12 minutes
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla
2/3 cup white sugar
1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar (not packed)
2 large eggs
3 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 Tablespoons speculaas spice (see below)
8 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons nutmeg (fresh ground if possible)
2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cardamom
Apparently, according to the Dutch Baker’s Daughter, “This combination of spices can be found in recipes dating back to the fifteenth century.”
- Cream butter, vanilla, and both kinds of sugar until light and fluffy. Add both eggs and blend well.
- Mix the speculaas spices together. I used dried green cardamom pods, which I use in Indian cooking, and took out the seeds, then ground them in my coffee grinder. I added all the other spices and blended briefly. When you take the lid off, don’t stick your face near the coffee grinder, as the spices will overwhelm your senses!
- Whisk all of the dry ingredients together and slowly add to the butter mixture, combining until the dough pulls from the side of the bowl.
- Divide the dough in thirds. Wrap each half in plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
- Roll out dough on lightly floured surface to 1/4″ or 1/8″ thick (more thin the better) and cut with cookie cutters (or use proper Dutch wooden molds). Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes on ungreased cookie sheet. You want the cookies to be very crispy, so they should not feel puffy but more firm when you pull them out.
- Cool on cookie sheets set on top of wire racks.
You will have leftover speculaas spices, which will keep for your next batch, or you can do add a Tablespoon of it to a pot of hot chocolate. And add it to cranberry pumpkin coffeecake. And add it to my friend, Emily Barney’s Coconut Chai Oatmeal. Or add to canned peaches, a dash of lemon juice and bit of brown sugar, boil on the stove for a few minutes, then break the cookies over a dish of hot peaches.
I’m sure you will all find other creative and wonderful things to do with this really lovely spice mix. As my husband, Charles, said, when he got home during the baking of the cookies, “It smells like Christmas!”