Going Dutch...

My mother likes to say that I was born forty, and while that is probably true for the most part, I do have a healthy, if somewhat repressed, inner child. Like any child, I do love my toys; my "toys" just happen to be mostly baking and cooking tools.

I have just about every cookie tool imaginable: icing tips, piping bags, boxes of cutters, a cookie press -- you name it, and I've probably got it. Up until last year, however, there was a tool missing from my formidable arsenal. I didn't have any cookie molds, usually used to make springerle cookies, which I've never been able to get excited about because I'm not a fan of anise. However, when I was putting together the line-up for last year's Cookie Bonanza, I encountered another type of cookie that uses molds for decorating -- speculaas.

Speculaas are Dutch spice cookies reminiscent of gingerbread, but without the molasses that drives me away from most cookies in that category. As soon as I discovered them, I was consumed with the idea of trying them, but I didn't have any cookie molds, and I had already picked out a spice cookie for my giveaway anyway. Still, I couldn't get them out of my mind. I came across a website that sold a huge variety of striking molds reproduced from antique springerle and speculaas molds, and formulated a rather daunting wish list, knowing full well that I wouldn't be able to afford the expensive tools.

After heavy hinting around the holiday season, my aunt, Brenda, came through for me at Christmas, and I was the proud owner of a nutcracker-embossed cookie mold. The nutcracker was a particularly evocative image for me, as I had collected the ugly-cute figurines as a child, and still have them today, though I haven't used them for seasonal decorations in years. Now that I had the mold, all I had to do was wait for Christmas to roll around, so I could try give my new toy a spin.

I've been trying to scale back my plans for this year's Cookie Bonanza, in light of all the time and energy I'm expending on our move, so I decided that speculaas, in addition to being this year's spice cookie, would also have to function as this year's decorated cookie. I simply don't have time this year to spend three days meticulously piping sugar cookies, even though I firmly believe they're the primary "wow-factor" in each year's giveaway. Since I'd never made them before, it was a decided risk.

I took my recipe from Martha Stewart, though not from Cookies, my usual source of inspiration. Clearly, Martha's professional food stylists have struck again, because my cookies were not nearly as attractive as hers. Their surface was cracked, and the designs were not as crisp as I had hoped. Plus, the powdered sugar that I was instructed to apply to the molds left dusty residue on the cookies that couldn't be brushed off, leaving them looking almost moldy. I was somewhat disappointed, to be sure.

People tell me, however, that the appearance of my baked goods is secondary to their taste, and these speculaas are winners in that department. They are light and crisp, almost like a graham cracker, but with a warm, spicy flavor to them. Being Dutch, they have more cardamom and less ginger than your typical American spice cookie, which I found to be a refreshing change of pace.

Even if they won't be the aesthetic star of the show I had hoped they would be, I'm not ashamed to give away these speculaas for my friends and colleagues to eat. If you have a cookie mold hanging on your kitchen wall for decoration (they seem to float around many people's homes as family heirlooms, especially if you are of central European descent), certainly consider giving speculaas a try. They're easier to make than springerle (no pesky drying period prior to baking), and no objectionable anise flavor. Put your toys to use as well!

adapted from Martha Stewart

3 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon mace
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
pinch of ground cloves
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 c. light brown sugar, packed
1/3 c. water
powdered sugar, for work surface

1. Whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, mace, white pepper, and cloves in a large bowl.
2. Cream butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in half the flour mixture. Beat in water, then remaining flour mixture. Shape into 3 disks. Pat each to a 1-inch thickness, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 1 hour.
3. Dust surface and springerle mold lightly with confectioners' sugar. Roll out dough to a 1/4- to 3/8-inch thickness (deeper molds will need thicker dough). Cut a piece of dough about the size of the mold. Press mold firmly into dough, flip over, and gently roll over dough with a rolling pin. Flip over, and press onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Using a knife, trim excess dough. Gently coax dough out of mold with fingertips and onto a baking sheet. Repeat, spacing cookies 1 inch apart, and placing same-size cookies on same sheet. Freeze until firm, about 1 hour.
4. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place 1 sheet of cookies in oven, and immediately reduce temperature to 250. Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until cookies are set and just beginning to turn light gold around edges, 55 to 65 minutes. Let cool on sheets on wire racks.

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