Maybe you remember way back in April when a certain volcano had me grounded in Boston instead of en-route to New Delhi. I consoled myself then by baking mango cakes and reading Kiran Desai. Well, it happened again. No, not another ash-spewing Icelandic eruption, but our plans were thwarted.
This time I consoled myself with a trip to Holland instead. In the process I tagged along on my best friend Lindsay’s business trip to Cologne (Germany) and took myself on a 3 day trip to Budapest. What with the blanket of snow that descended on Europe almost as soon as I set foot on the continent, it was quite the trip. (Never travel with me. Really. I seem to have almost uncanny bad luck.) Having spent more time in the Frankfurt airport than I care to recollect here, I can only say that it was not the highlight of my trip.
Airport agony aside (ok and blizzards aside too), the trip was a beautiful blur of snow flakes, food, and friends:
While you all were busy with your turkeys, the folks on the other side of the Atlantic were already decking the halls, or I should say the streets. The city of Cologne is famous for its Christmas Markets this time of year. These small groupings of vendors selling mainly small gifts and bratwurst are a handy excuse to drink copious amounts of hot gluhwein all day long. Or at least that’s what Lindsay and I did. Nothing like a little rum to get you in the holiday spirit.
I arrived back in Amsterdam just in time for Sinter Klass. Sinter Klass is December 5 in the Netherlands, when children put out their shoes to be filled with small gifts from Santa. The Dutch celebrate the 25th also but, as I understand, it’s more a time for a cozy family dinner and maybe a few gifts exchanged between grown-ups.
While my shoes stayed on my feet, I did partake in the holiday sweets. Probably the most ubiquitous Dutch treat this time of year is the humble Speculaas. A crisp cinnamon ginger cookie, Speculaas comes in all shapes and sizes. As a side note, Speculaas I learned means “mirror” in Dutch, a reference to the stamped designs you find on some cookies – mirror images of the stamp or cookie mold used. My absolute favorite of the Speculaas was something called Gevuld Speculaas, meaning simply “filled Speculaas.” It’s essentially crisp ginger cookies surrounding a sweet and chewy homemade almond paste. Translation: the most insanely delicious Christmas-y treat to cross my lips in some time.
Back in Boston, I couldn’t resist making some of my own. The recipe here is adapted from Epicurious, and originally from an old issue of Bon Appétit. It yields a 9 or 10 inch tart, but I would think of this as more cookie than plated dessert. A small wedge of the Gevuld Speculaas would be perfect as a snack or after dinner with some tea, brandy, or better yet, Gluhwein. (I’ll post a Gluhwein recipe soon.) I’m planning to make another round to slice and give as holiday gifts.
Makes one 9 or 10 inch tart which can be sliced into 20-24 pieces. Keeps at least 2 weeks wrapped at room temperature.
For the Dough
- 2 ¾ cups all purpose flour
- 2 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 ½ tsp ground ginger
- ¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
- 1 tbsp molasses
- 1 large egg
Sift together the dry ingredients and set aside. In the bowl of a standing mixer or using electric beaters, cream together the butter, brown sugar, and molasses. Add the egg and beat well. Add the dry ingredients and mix until a uniform dough forms. Dump the dough out onto the counter and divide into 2 parts – one slightly larger than the other. For into 2 discs, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate until chilled – at least 1 hour.
For the Filling
- 1 ½ cups, 6 oz blanched sliced almonds
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- ¼ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1 large egg
- 1 tsp finely grated lemon or orange zest
- 2 tsp fresh lemon or orange juice
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp almond extract
Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and blend until the nuts are finely chopped and you have a thick paste. Refrigerate until needed.
For the Assembly
- Butter for the pan
- Flour for rolling
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tbsp water
- Pinch of salt
- ¼ cup sliced almonds
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9 or 10 inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Set aside. Remove the larger disc of dough from the refrigerator and, working on a well floured surface, roll the dough into a circle slightly bigger than your tart pan (12 to 13 inches in diameter). Carefully transfer the dough to the pan and press into the edges. Don’t worry if it tears slightly – just press it back together and patch any holes. Trim the dough so that it sits about ¼ inch above the edge of the tart pan. Spread the filling on top of the dough and then carefully fold the edges of the dough over the filling. Set aside.
Remove the second disc of dough from the refrigerator and again, working on a very well flour surface, roll the dough into a circle slightly bigger than your tart pan (12-13 inches in diameter.) Using a cake or tart pan as a guide, cut the dough into a circle the same size as your pan (9 or 10 inches depending.) Reserve the dough scraps to roll and bake as cookies*. Carefully slide the circle onto the back of a sheet pan (a bench knife works well here), and place in the freezer 5 minutes to firm up.
Once firm, transfer the chilled dough round onto the tart and press lightly to seal.
Meanwhile, combine the egg yolk, water, and salt in a small bowl and whisk well. Lightly brush the top of the tart with the egg wash and sprinkle over the sliced almonds. Bake 45-55 minutes until golden and set. Cool completely before slicing.
*Roll dough to ¼ inch thickness, cut with cookie cutters, and bake on parchment lined sheet pans at 325 until golden, about 8 minutes. Cool and top with powdered sugar or icing.