Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sweets and Snow

Have you ever had a song stuck in your head so deep that you just wanted to reach in and yank it out? Well, this is what's been going on for the last five days. This song has penetrated the inner workings of my mind, it has invaded my subconscious and is refusing to get out. I sing it, hum it, out loud or in my head, from the moment I wake up in the morning, throughout the whole day—making some people crazy and suicidal along the way—and before I go to sleep. Are these the first signs of insanity? Or are these the first signs of early Christmas fever?

Oh, the song. Do I have to say it? Ok, "Let it snow". Responsible for this song-that's-stuck-in-my-head-and-will-not-come-out-unless-someone-performs-a-lobotomy-on-me is the sudden snowfall. Yes, it's been snowing like crazy. And yay, I'm happy. I have been deprived of snow for, well, almost my whole life. Born and raised in Athens, Greece where it snows once every five years and with the snow lasting barely a day, I'm acting like a little kid who just discovered the key to the candy shop.

Snow and the upcoming holidays have also woken up the baker in me. Cookies, cakes you name it. I' m in the mood for baking them and, most importantly, eating them. These past few days, I've been focusing my attention on Dutch treats, which is only natural since everywhere you turn you see oliebollen (Dutch fried doughnuts), stroopwafels (Dutch caramel syrup-filled waffles) and speculaas cookies being sold. Here in the Netherlands, the holidays start early, as early as late November, when Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) arrives in the country by boat from Spain.

Sinterklaas is the predecessor of the North American Santa Claus and the Anglo-Canadian and British Father Christmas. He is the one who brings presents to the children and keeps track of who's been naughty or nice during the year. He arrives in Holland in late November and then he travels all around the country, riding on his white horse called Amerigo, visiting every city and village, meeting and greeting children everywhere.

Children all around Holland, leave their shoes (sometimes the traditional wooden Dutch clogs) by the fireplace or outside their front door every night, expecting to find presents from Sinterklaas the following morning. Inside the shoes they put a small note, a wish list of the presents they want to get and also hay and carrots for Amerigo, and in return, Sinterklaas sometimes leaves them small toys, candy and treats like chocolate letters (the first letter of the child's name), marzipan cookies and pepernoten (small Dutch spice cookies).

All this culminates to the big day, December 5th, the eve of Saint Nicholas Day. On the evening of December 5th, called Pakjesavond or the Evening of Gifts, Sinterklaas flies over the rooftops of the houses on his horse and with the help of the Zwarte Pieten, brings presents to all the children (much like Santa Claus on Christmas Eve).
Zwarte Pieten (the Black Petes) are Sinterklaas' helpers and they are the ones who go down the chimneys, becoming black from the soot, delivering the presents to the kids. Early next morning, on December 6th, Sinterklaas leaves silently the country and heads back to Spain.

One of the traditional gifts of December 5th is this sweet gift right here; Gevulde Speculaas, meaning filled speculaas cake or Saint Nicholas Slices. Speculaas is a Dutch spice cookie made from a hard dough which is traditionally shaped in carved wooden molds of wind mills and wooden shoes. Nowadays, the gevulde speculaas, which is a different version of this cookie, is more popular. It's made from a more pliable dough which is filled with amandelspijs, a marzipan-like but not exactly, almond paste. The Dutch adore amandelspijs as well as any kind of dessert with almonds in it. They use it in all kinds of desserts and cakes and they even eat it on its own.

The speculaas dough is rolled into two sheets. One sheet goes on the bottom of a square pan and is topped with the amandelspijs. This in turn is topped with the second sheet of speculaas dough, is decorated with blanched almonds, baked in the oven and then gets cut into beautiful little squares. You would think that the top and bottom of the cake is like a hard cookie, right? Wrong. It's nothing like that. The top and bottom layers are thin, soft and crumbly, something between a soft cookie and a brownie and have an intensely spicy flavor which comes from the nutmeg and the cinnamon, the aniseeds and cardamom, and the middle layer, the amadelspijs, is soft and full of almond flavor.

I don't want to bore you with the details of how your house will fill with spicy aromas while baking this cake but I can't resist. It will smell divine and you will get in the holiday spirit in no time. And then, when you taste this cake, you're going to wonder why I haven't come along sooner into your life to give you this recipe. Well, better late than never.

So, if you want to change things up a bit this year and try something different than the ginger and sugar cookies you've always been making, this gevuld speculaas cake is it. I have it for breakfast, as an afternoon treat and after dinner, and these little squares will definitely go into my Christmas gift cookie tins for friends and family. This is a Dutch delight and quite fitting to be the very first Dutch recipe to appear on my blog. And because three is always better than one, I'm also giving you instructions on how to create the famous Dutch speculaas and pepernoten cookies.

By the way, let me introduce to you a new page, the Recipe Index. I hope it helps you in your search for something delicious to cook.

Gevulde Speculaas - Dutch Speculaas Cake filled with Amandelspijs (Dutch Almond Paste)
Adapted from Janny de Moor

This cake is relatively easy to prepare and the speculaas dough can be made one day ahead and kept in the fridge wrapped in cling film. The same applies with the amandelspijs.

I don't grind the almonds too fine for the amandelspijs but instead I leave little bits of almond in, that render a different texture to the almond paste. You can grind them finely if you want, in which case the amandelspijs is smoother and resembles more the common marzipan in texture.

This cake should be baked in a square or rectangular pan but you can use a round pan as well. The pieces of the cake will not be uniformly cut but it's ok.

Yield: one square 21 cm cake


for amandelspijs (almond paste)
200 g blanched almonds
200 g sugar
1 medium-sized egg
One-two drops of almond extract or Amaretto liqueur
1/8 tsp lemon zest, freshly grated

for speculaas dough
125 g unsalted butter, softened
250 g all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp ground all-spice
A pinch of salt
¼ tsp aniseseeds, crushed
150 g soft dark brown sugar (or muscovado if you can find it)
60 ml full-fat milk

10 g unsalted butter for greasing the pan
Dried fine breadcrumbs for sprinkling over the pan
1 medium-sized egg
1 Tbsp milk + 1 small egg for brushing the top of the cake
50 g blanched, halved almonds for decorating the cake

Special equipment: 21 cm shallow square cake pan, fine sieve, food processor, rolling pin, cling film


prepare the amandelspijs (almond paste)
Grind the almonds in a food processor. As I mentioned before, you can either grind them finely or coarsely, depending on what kind of texture you prefer. I grind them coarsely in order to have small bits of almond in the paste. In any case, don't grind them too fine because they will start releasing their oil thus becoming too pasty.

Note: if you can find already ground almonds at your super market you can use them but I find them to be too expensive and I really don't mind grinding my own.

In a large bowl, add the ground almonds, the sugar, the egg, the almond extract or Amaretto liqueur and the lemon zest. Mix everything with your hands and knead until you have a homogeneous mixture. Form a ball and cover in cling film. Place amandelspijs in the refrigerator and leave it there until ready to use.

Note: at this point, you have the Dutch amandelspijs ready to use not only in this sweet but also in many other kinds of cakes or desserts. For example, you can cut small pieces of the paste and add it to a vanilla cake batter (as you would with chocolate chips).

prepare the speculaas dough
Sift the flour with the baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, all-spice and salt into a large bowl. Add the crushed aniseeds and dark brown sugar and stir with a spatula. Add the butter and, using two knives or a pastry cutter (this is the one I use) or even your fingertips, cut it into the flour mixture, until you have a mixture that resembles coarse bread crumbs.

Then, knead the mixture with your hands, adding all of the milk a spoonful at a time, until you have a smooth and elastic dough. Form the dough into a ball, cover it in cling film and place it in the fridge for 1 hour (or at least ½ hour).

In the meantime, prepare your pan. Grease the bottom and sides with the butter and then sprinkle with the breadcrumbs to coat. Shake out the excess breadcrumbs.

Take the dough out of the fridge and divide it into two pieces. The one must be a bit larger than the other. Take the larger piece of dough, shape it into a ball and roll it out using a rolling pin. The best way to do that is the following: lay a large piece of cling film onto a smooth surface and onto that, place the dough ball. Place another large piece of cling film on top of the dough ball and using the rolling pin, roll out the ball into a sheet with a thickness of about 0.3 cm and in size a little larger than the size of your pan.
In this way a) the dough will not stick to your work surface so you'll not have to flour it, b) the dough will not stick to the rolling pin and c) it will be easier to transfer the sheet onto the pan without breaking since you will be able to hold it by the cling film.

prepare the cake
Once you roll out the first speculaas dough ball, remove the top piece of cling film. Lift up the sheet from your work surface—holding it by the bottom cling film—and turn the sheet over and onto the pan. Carefully, press the dough so that it lines perfectly the bottom of the pan and ease it up the sides, leaving an overhang. Remove the cling film.

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

Take the amandelspijs out of the fridge, remove the cling film and place it inside a medium-sized bowl. Add a medium-sized egg and mix with your hands, incorporating the egg into the almond paste. You will end up with a slightly runny mixture. Spread it over the dough, evening it out with the help of a spatula.

Roll out the second piece of dough just as you did with the first and place it over the amandelspijs. Press the dough lightly all around the edges so the top and bottom sheets are securely sealed. Using a sharp knife, cut off the excess dough. (Keep the dough and use it to make peppernoten-see instructions below).

In a small bowl, break open the small egg and beat it lightly with a fork. Add 1 Tbsp of milk and mix. With the help of a pastry brush, brush the top of the cake.

Take the blanched almond halves and place them one by one on top of the cake. Depending on how you' re going to cut the cake, place the almonds accordingly. I chose to cut it into small squares (you can also cut it into larger rectangular pieces) so I placed the almonds in such a way as to have one almond half on each square. Pierce some small holes near the almonds (so they will not be visible) so that the dough will not rise too much.

Place the pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, until the top is golden-brown and the almonds take a golden color. The inside of the cake must be cooked completely.

Take the pan out of the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool completely. Once cooled, remove it carefully from the pan and place it onto a cutting board. Cut it into pieces and serve.

You can store the cake in a cookie tin or an airtight container for up to 10 days. As the days pass, the cake will have a more intense, deep and full flavor.

Speculaas Cookies

The above recipe for the speculaas dough is the same one that is used to make the traditional speculaas cookies.
When the dough is baked on its own, without the amandelspijs filling, it becomes harder and more cookie-like.

Traditionally, wooden molds that depict everyday Dutch life are used to shape the cookies but nowadays, the Dutch choose mostly to bake regular sized and shaped speculaas cookies.

see the ingredients above for the speculaas dough

Prepare the speculaas dough just as in the above recipe and place it in the fridge for one hour. Take it out of the refrigerator and shape cookies in any shape you like—round cookies, stars, snow flakes, etc with a 0.5-1 cm thickness.

Place the cookies onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper and bake them on the middle rack of the oven, on 180 degrees Celsius, for 15-20 minutes.

Like with the gevuld speculaas, they develop a richer flavor the following days. You can store them in a cookie tin for up to 10 days.

Pepernoten - Small Traditional Dutch Spice Cookies

Using the same speculaas dough recipe, you can make pepernoten (or kruidnoten), which are small spice cookies that are eaten during the holidays in The Netherlands.

see the ingredients above for the speculaas dough

Prepare the speculaas dough in the same manner as in the recipe for gevulde speculaas and after you have taken it out of the fridge, shape it into small hazelnut-sized balls. I use the measuring spoon for 1.25 ml (¼ tsp) in order to make all the pepernoten of equal size.

Place the small cookies on a baking sheet lined with baking paper and bake them on the middle rack of the oven, on 180 degrees Celsius, for about 8 minutes. Keep an eye on them because they are very small and they tend to catch easily.

Like with the gevuld speculaas, they develop a richer flavor the following days. You can store them in a cookie tin for up to 10 days.


  1. Wow!!!....I just love it!!....when we went to Holland (last time in 2007), we just ate cheese and these almond paste cookies.....I was wondering how to make them.....Thank You!!......Abrazotes, Marcela

  2. Simply wonderful. I adore almond pastries. The texture of this cake is totally winning me over. Thanks for sharing this great recipe!

  3. This is amazing and exactly the kind of recipe I adore. Anything with almonds and spices gets my vote. We've had snow here too so everything looks quite magical. All my life I'd wanted a white Christmas and last year we finally got one so I'm hopeful for this year too. I can totally identify with that kid in a candy store feeling and whenever I wake up to see the white landscape all around, I just want to rush out immediately to enjoy it.

    Your cake and cookies look incredible and who could resist the clog shape!

  4. When I lived with a Dutch family long ago, I enjoyed the whole experience of Sint en Piet, Pakjesavond, the creating and reading of little poems and rhymes for people and their gifts, and Speculaas in all the stamped shapes.
    Many thanks for posting what I know will be delicious and authentic recipes for these beloved treats Dankjewel, Magda.

    And, congratulations on your blogiversary!

  5. I love the stories of tradition from other lands. keeping children happy, making sweets, celebrating; how universal these rituals are.
    I loved snow till I lived in apartments, but now that I have to shovel it, I dread it!

  6. That song would make me insane! I do sing all day, but it's to Roman so that at least makes me think it's ok. :)
    Your post looks amazing. Can't wait to get baking myself. So much to choose from, I don't know where to start sometimes!

  7. I really like learning abt new traditions and cultures of new countries.This is such a sweet post.The cake n cookies look perfectly baked n yummy

  8. Great recipe, great flavors, great photos! And oh I wish it would snow here! Boo hoo! If it meant snow I would sing Let It Snow non-stop all day! Happy holidays and I love this perfect holiday recipe.

  9. O you've actually made all that yourself... I am not slightly ashamed that I have never done that!! Great idea btw to make the pepernoten with a spoonmeasure.. :) I keep my fingers crossed for a white christmas indeed! (and I can't stop singing; I'm dreaming of a white christmas!)

  10. Another beautiful post, Magda! I will definitely try thes over the holidays - especially fun will be making the amandelspijs! I love marzipan and simply rolling it cocoa powder sounds be good - reminds me of when I lived in Germany! I think the tune stuck in your head was worth it to produce these two recipes. Thanks so much.

  11. My son is headed to Amsterdam in a few days and your post is so timely! I enjoy reading on these Dutch pastries (the one filled with almond paste sounds and looks superlative) but also now I can definitely stress that he needs to be prepared for the snow!

  12. Marcela — cheese and speculaas, my two favorite Dutch treats as well!

    Nisrine — thanks

    Vanessa — we had a white Christmas last year here too. Too bad I wasn't around to enjoy it though, I was in Greece visiting my family and we had about 20ºC. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it will snow again this Christmas!

    Nancy — thank you. So, you know exactly how good these treats taste!

    vegetarianirvana — shoveling snow, no not so much fun :)

    Nicole — the snow has stopped falling but the song is still stuck in my head :)

    sinfully spicy — thank you

    Jamie — thank you and don't worry, I'm sure the bad weather will be coming your way too :)

    Simone — a white Christmas would be perfect!

    David — thank you!

    Joumana — your son must be prepared for a very very cold Amsterdam!

  13. This has put "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof back into my head (we watched it on Saturday). I love how steeped in tradition these recipes are :)

  14. I love reading about each countries Christmas traditions! And what delicious little sweet snacks! :D

  15. What a beautiful selection of holiday treats. My favourite is the delicious looking cake. Mmmm.... I can almost imagine how it would taste with a nice hot cup of tea on a cold day like today.
    Wishing you happy holidays daaaaaahling.
    *kisses* HH

  16. Traditional tasty bites...what beats that?

  17. Beautiful! Love these Dutch traditional recipes. I have a Christmas stuck on my head too! "Rudolph the red nose reindeer........" Argh!!

  18. How beautifully you shared this Magda...the tradition, the aromas, the recipe. Love the clog mold, and the spicy cookie dough. Anything almond is right up my street! Delicious post!! Have a great holiday season!

  19. Super photos AND a great recipe! I can't wait to try it!
    (the cutest version of let it snow is with Dolly Parton and Rod Stewart.)

  20. I'm so excited to learn about your holiday traditions. I bookmarking it now so I can try the recipe for Christmas eve. Now if only I could find the mold for that adorable shoe!

  21. that is seriously some beautiful and intricate cookies/treats

    I'm so glad I found your blog. I'm also an expat :)

  22. Like the Dutch, I too love all things almond. All of these treats look incredibly good, but I'm most smitten by the cake.

  23. When I studied in Amsterdam long ago, my roommate's mother used to make the most wonderful speculaas cookies and cake I had ever tasted. Our kitchen’s aroma was unparalleled.
    BTW, the word speculaas comes from Latin speculum= mirror because they are a reflection of the wooden mold.

  24. I don't know what I like more: the recipes (especially the first one), the clog shaped cookie, the blue and white props throughout the post or the description of Dutch Christmas tradition. But one thing is for sure, if this is what the snow does to you, the LET IT SNOW, LET IT SNOW, LET IT SNOW!!

  25. They look so beautiful and sound so yummy! great job!
    Thanks for sharing!

  26. Loved the sweets and also the blue porcelain dishes!!!

  27. I love cookies with almond paste and just posted about amygdalota, but these sweets you've featured here have got me swooning! I love all those spices and I am certaint he house smells divine during the baking process.

  28. Love the gevulde speculaas!!!!!!!!! It looks stunning, you're inspiring me to get up and make it. Have a great holiday

  29. How come I have never come accross speculaas + almond paste IN ONE RECIPE...I make speculaas cookies once a month (at least)because I got hooked to these while in Brussels and France!..And since I am Moroccan, so almond paste is not very strange to our baked goodies.
    Putting my fave stuff in 1 recipe is just amazing..I'll be trying this soon..

    PS: I just discovered this blog and it looks awesome..My blog is also about recipes from around the world..always fun!

  30. Thank you for the wonderful recipe for Gevulde Speculaas. I am not sure how I stumbled into your blog but I am so happy I did :) I baked the speculaas and it is simply delicious! One of my friends who is Dutch was quite impressed! ευχαριστώ πολύ!

    1. Hello there. I'm happy you did too. :) I'm glad you enjoyed the speculaas! Παρακαλώ!

  31. Hi Magda, how long can an almond paste be stored in the fridge (its with the egg already), i double wrap it nicely with plastic, its been sitting for 3 weeks now as i was totally busy and forgot all about it, i do not want to waste it but i also don't want to have a food poisoning due to eggs TIA :) Xx

    1. Hi TIA. No, I wouldn't eat it after three weeks. I'm afraid you have to throw it away. As I mention in the recipe, the almond paste can be made one day before using it and kept in the fridge. No longer than that.