Archive for October, 2012

Speculatas, Spekulas, Speculoos, a delicious cookie by any other name and many delicious variations

Due to the fact that whenever my family makes a certain crunchy, spicy, Dutch-derived cookie which my mother has referred to as “speculatas”, and which various websites have referred to as speculoos, speculaas, etc., and which have just as many variants in ingredients, and preparation (my mothers’ have secret ingredients that Martha Stewart’s recipe doesn’t, and vice versa), my mother makes them as refrigerator cookies, some make them as molded cookies, with elaborate carved wooden molds. Anyway, the basic recipe/idea has been around since medieval times, so it’s had plenty of time to diverge into different varieties and to acquire varied preparation methods and ingredients.
All of this was unknown to my family, until my sister did some internet searches a few years ago, and discovered the medieval antecedents of my mother’s recipe for the best-loved cookies we give away. So, a few years ago, we bought some tiny but still expensive wooden carved molds and some gold dust powder and made the medieval molded version. They went over reasonably well, and the edible gold color powder was a nice touch that we’ve since used for other things, but, my mother’s original variety were still the ones acquaintances raved about. So the most recent experiments have been made with a view to commercialize them: put them into mass production & package them for sale! In order to do this, we have to figure out a way to make them more uniform in size, texture, etc.
This past weekend, my mother made three test batches. Batch A was made the usual way she does it, with butter softened on the countertop. They came out flavorful and of medium texture, as they usually do. (They also have significant variations in size, shape, mixture). Batch B was made with the butter still chilled and hard. Batch B came out the most flavorful, but firmer, crisper, and less inclined to “spread” when baked than the usual (Batch A). Batch C was made with proportionally less butter and more flour. The finished cookies were firmer & more consistent in color and texture than Batch A or B, but also less flavorful.
My mother, sister and I “taste-tested” last night, and Batch B “won”.

Add comment October 9th, 2012

Experimental Christmas cookie preview

Every year, my mother goes all-out making several varieties of Christmas cookies, and I do a lot of work on them, too. I mix up and bake some batches, decorate some while my mother bakes, and various other permutations on the theme. Most get eaten at home, but some get given to distant relations (a package gets shipped, along with presents, to the West Coast family of one of my uncles), many are packaged en masse for a gift exchange my sister runs, and some get given to neighbors and my mother’s mechanic, co-workers, etc. This means _a lot_ of cookies, completed well before Christmas for the sake of shipping. A couple years ago, I stayed up till 4am trying to produce enough by deadline. I ran out of regular flour, and used self-raising flour to make up the difference. No, you cannot run out and get a bag of flour at 4am on Staten Island if you don’t have a car and the freedom to leave. (Disabled family member involved.)
The cookies ended up edible, but “not up to standard”, saltier than usual, with a blander taste. Michelle decreed that they weren’t fit to give away and that I was the bad guy for having produced substandard cookies…this in spite of the fact that we were way past deadline, mom was too exhausted to continue, and I was overloaded with other work as well. This past year (2011) I declared that I would not stay up till 4am making cookies. In fact, I considered the acrimony I experienced last year to be reason enough not to play a role in the yearly mass cookie production, but as with all other things in my family, I got sucked in again. At least this year, the endeavor started earlier, and in stages: well before deadline, my mother mixed up the dough for several “staples” of our annual Christmas cookie production, and stored the dough batches wrapped in plastic wrap in the fridge for a couple of weeks; then we rolled out the dough and cut out the cookies in the first weeks of December. In several instances, my mother did the cutting and rolling, while I put cookie sheets into the oven and took them out of the oven. Given the relatively short baking times of most cookies, our having done this “assembly-line fashion” made it considerably more manageable for both of us. In some instances, she baked, I decorated. And for some of the batches, I was responsible for the entire process. This was the case, for instance, with the new variety added to this year’s lineup: Lemon Moons (based on the Lemon Slice cookies in the 1964 Betty Crocker cookbook, cut out with a crescent moon-shaped cookie cutter, and adorned with lemon-flavored icing made using the recipe for Italian Lemon cookies. For some reason, in this instance, as in the past, the production of new varieties of cookies has been largely, if not entirely, in my hands.
In the past, one of Michelle’s other aides added Russian Teacakes to the lineup: though they were good, their spheroidal shape and hard texture, as well as the fact that they contained walnuts, made them impossible for some to eat. They were also messy to eat, store, and move (powdered sugar coating!), involved a lot of work, and were outside of the family “comfort zone”. Then there was the year I made Kahlua Bites (from a recipe in Parade magazine) and Bourbon balls. They went over a little too well: my brother was home on leave and “bogarted” them!

However, as Michelle had this year wisely tried to get us to plan ahead, and wanted input in the optional/new cookies in the lineup, she searched the internet for recipes she wanted to try well ahead of time (in November). She wanted cookies with lemon juice or flavoring as something different. Let’s face it, there aren’t many lemon cookies period, and lemon cookies as Christmas cookies are still more rare. Thus, I tried out a number of new recipes where there was lemon juice in cookies or lemon flavoring in cookies, or lemon icing on the cookies.
Here’s how they stacked up:
Lemon Sand Dollar cookies: everybody liked the taste well enough, but somehow sand dollars just didn’t fit with Christmas.
Italian Lemon cookies: good in theory, but too fat and difficult to mold to specifications in practice. The icing/lemon glaze was well liked, but tended to sink into the soft, bready, raised-dough cookie base. Also, we had to have a special shopping expedition well before making the test batch, because the recipe called for an entire bottle of lemon extract. They went over well with a repairman who came to the house as I was taking them out of the oven, but with Michelle? Not so much.
Then there were the lemon-ginger pinwheel cookies. Pinwheel cookies are pretty big around here, a Christmas season favorite, but we usually have chocolate-and-vanilla pinwheels, though I understand peppermint pinwheels (with peppermint extract in the dough and the non-chocolate dough dyed pink to differentiate them from the regular pinwheels) do exist, and we may have made them many moons ago. (My memory fails me, but my sister’s physical therapist was raving about them.)
The new and exciting pinwheel cookie variant turned out to be meh. I had expected the lemon part to be more conspicuously lemony, and the ginger part came out much softer in texture than the other dough used, and seemingly steamed and crumbly in consistency. Though I would make them and eat them under other circumstances, I agreed that they were disappointing, and not Chrismas cookie-worthy. There was another variety of lemon cookie wherein the somewhat inexact directions resulted in a yield of a small number of cookies, and thus it was deemed not suitable for Christmas cookie production. One could double and triple recipes, and in other circumstances, I have often done so, but no, I did not want to be fiddling with fractions at the 11th hour, so, though I liked these particular cookies, I agreed that they were not Christmas cookie candidates.
Cookie Cutter Ginger Crisps were a bit softer in texture than the average gingerbread cookies, but in flavor quite similar. Since I made the for the first time well before Christmas, I ended up producing something visually interesting as well as seasonally appropriate when I used maple and oak leaf shaped cookie cutters to produce cookies evoking the shape and texture of autumn leaves.
The Lemon Slice cookies from the 1964 Betty Crocker cookbook made a decent number of cookies, and while the cookies themselves could be more lemony (I should try adding lemon extract in addition to the lemon zest the recipe calls for), they were liked by all for flavor, color, and concept. The moon shapes and the addition of icing was Michelle’s idea, and due to the assertive lemon flavor of the icing, it did “add” something to the shortbread-tasting cookies. Due to the harder, denser texture of the cookies, the icing didn’t sink in, but formed a uniform coating on the surface of the cookie. So the cookies were very good in terms of both taste and appearance. There isn’t a recipe for these on the modern-day Betty Crocker website, though these “Lemon Rosemary slices” come close, and this admittedly “old” recipe from a back issue of Good Housekeeping magazine is similar.

I haven’t yet made the sugared cranberries, but I got the cranberries during one of the last days of the Union Square Greenmarket in December, and I plan to make them sometime in the near future.

Add comment October 9th, 2012


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