taaitaai

TaaiTaai – A Tough Dutch ‘Cookie’

Taaitaai, literally translated, it means ‘toughtough’. It’s a Dutch style of cookie that you’ll only find in stores in November, until early December. With a slight anise seed flavor it’s a main stay of the ‘Sinterklaas’ celebration season.

The reason it’s called ‘toughtough’? Probably because it is quite a tough rye-based cookie! It’s not straightforward to make, requiring a very firm dough that can be hard to handle. And, it’s a little tough to eat. That is, you need some proper chewing. But, that does make for quite a unique type of cookie.

An rich, but vague history

Taaitaai belongs to a family of similarly styled baked goods, that have likely been made in the Netherlands for centuries, originating in the Middle Ages. Ontbijtkoek as well as pepernoten are close relatives of taaitaai. There are plenty of stories around the use of these products and when they’d be eaten, but whom.

These types of products traditionally played a role in marriage match making. They’d be made in man-shaped figures and given by a boy to a role. If the girl accepted and ate the cookie, that meant good news. If not, she’d rejected the proposal.

Taaitaai = (rye) flour + sugars

Taaitaai is made by mixing flour with a syrupy mix of sugar syrup, honey or possibly sugar. The exact composition will have depended on whatever was available. They don’t contain any, or very little fat and would traditionally have been quite chewy. Traditionally, they were often made with rye flour, probably because it was more (cheaply) available throughout the country that wheat flour. Nowadays, taaitaai recipes tend to use a mix of rye flour and wheat flour.

Rye absorbs a lot of water

Rye flour works quite differently then wheat flour does. For one thing, it can absorb up to four times the amount of water than wheat flour. This can make handling a rye dough very challenging, it can be very sticky. It also takes a while for the rye to absorb all water, it’s one of the reasons taaitaai recipes often call for a resting period.

Arabinoxylans absorb water

One of the reasons rye can absorb so much water is the present of arabinoxylans. These are a type of polysaccharide (thus carbohydrate) with a strong water absorbing quality. They aren’t present in wheat flour.

And retrogrades more slowly

The reason bread turns stale over time? Starch retrogradation. Fortunately, the starches in rye flour don’t retrograde as quickly, as a result, baked goods can stay fresh for a longer period of time.

Sweetening with honey

Before sugar become a common and cheap commodity in Western Europe honey was the most commonly used sweetener in many regions. However, with the advent of cheaper sugar (syrups), most taaitaai nowadays no longer contains any honey, or it contains considerably less.

taaitaai and pepernoten
Taaitaai (the heart and square-shaped pieces) and pepernoten, two typical snacks eaten in late November/early December to celebrate Sinterklaas.

Taaitaai dough can be tough to handle

A well made taaitaai is soft, but pretty chewy. You need some proper molar movement to chew it all up. To make it chewy, you need a chewy dough and this dough can be quite hard to handle.

When initially mixing the sugars with the flours, the resulting mass may look dry and impossible to process. This is where a little patience comes in play. Give the dough time to hydrate, for instance overnight. The allows the moisture to properly mix with the flours, recall how especially rye flour needs some time for this. A few hours later the dough will already be softer and easier to handle.

Refrain from adding too much water

In the recipe below, we do add a little extra water after the resting period to make it a little easier to bring the dough together. However, refrain from adding too much, even if you think it’s still very firm. Adding too much water will make the dough incredibly sticky because of all the sugar it contains.

Use some electrical powder to knead

Since this dough can be very firm and tough, kneading and mixing it by hand can be challenging, especially if you’re new to making it. A hand held mixer won’t be strong enough (the bowl will simply move around) so a stand mixer for at-home bakers will be a great solution to help you get it all mixed in.

The final dough should be smooth, only just slightly sticky. You should be able to roll it with a rolling pin, though it will take some effort.

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taaitaai with bite taken out to show inside

Baking powder will fluff it up

To ensure that you can actually eat the final product, taaitaai generally contains a leavening agent such as baking powder. The baking powder will start to form carbon dioxide once the dough is in the oven, creating little air pockets. It’s what makes it a chewy, but not molar-breaking cookie!

Anise seed adds flavor

The typical flavor from taaitaai comes from a sprinkling of anise seed powder.

Airtight, it remains good for months

Taaitaai can remain good to eat for quite a long period of time. Its main enemy is the air. Over time it can dry out, becoming even more chewy and dry. However, as long as it’s stored in an airtight container, it will remain good for a long period of time. It’s dry enough, that is, the water activity is low enough, not to grow moldy, but soft enough to remain edible.

As a matter of fact, taaitaai is at its best a few days after baking. Whereas the outer edges may be dry and crunchy shortly after baking, they’ll turn softer again when stored in a closed environment. The moisture from the inside of the taaitaai will migrate to the outside, evening out moistness all throughout the product. It’s a phenomenon we don’t like happening for freshly baked pies, but it is great for taaitaai.

taaitaai

TaaiTaai

Yield: 40 portions
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Additional Time: 8 hours
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 9 hours

An anise seed flavored Dutch cookie, typically eaten for the celebration of Sinterklaas in early December/late November. It's a tough cookie, somewhat challenging to make, and to eat you'll need to chew properly ;-)!

This recipe is a slight adaptation from one out of the Banketbakker (by Cees Holtkamp) and het Nederlands Bakboek (by G. Pagrach-Chandra, 2012).

Ingredients

Day 1

  • 170g brown sugar
  • 90g honey*
  • 40g brown sugar syrup*
  • 100g water
  • 230g all purpose flour
  • 200g rye flour
  • pinch of salt

Day 2

  • 25g water
  • 20g brown sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp ground anise seeds

Instructions

  1. Add the brown sugar, honey, sugar syrup and water to a pot, and bring to a boil. Take from the heat as soon as it's boiling.
  2. In the meantime, mix the flours with the salt in a bowl.
  3. Pour the sugar mixture into the flours and mix using a spatula or using an electric mixer. The mixture will be very thick and hard to mix. At this point though, it's not important that it's mixed through perfectly. A few lumps here and there are ok.
  4. Cover the bowl and leave to rest for at least an hour, preferably overnight. If left overnight, it does not have to go into the fridge, it's sugary and dry enough not to spoil in the short time span.

Day 2

  1. Use a stand mixer to mix the dough with the remaining ingredients (water, sugar, baking powder and anise seeds). It's a very tough dough to mix, to mix it slowly and give it some time. Do not be tempted to add more water unless it truly does not come together. You do not want the dough to become very sticky, it may become a little sticky.
  2. Roll out the dough on a sheet of parchment paper or other non-stick baking mat. It should be about 3/4 cm thick (0.3 inch). Move the dough around to prevent excessive sticking if necessary.
  3. Cut the taaitaai dough into pieces using a cookie cutter or simply cut into squares. Keep in mind that sharp edges may turn quite hard in the oven, so best not to make them into stars and the likes.
  4. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 210°C for 12-14 minutes. Thinner, smaller pieces take less long to bake than thicker, larger pieces. The taaitaai should not turn dark brown, you want it to remain slightly soft in the center.
  5. Once it's cooled down, enjoy! If the sides are slightly dry and tough, pack the taaitaai in a closed container and leave it in for a day. You will notice that the taaitaai will become slightly softer around the edges due to moisture migration.

Notes

*You can replace all the honey with sugar syrup and vice versa. Using just honey will give a more pronounced honey flavor which we did not like. Subbing the honey can make for a vegan version.

Resources

Eetverleden, Speculaas, speculatie & hylikmaker, Dec-5, 2019, link

Mc.Gee H., On food and cooking, 2004, p. 545, 470-471, 450

Pagrach-Chandra, G., Het Nederlands Bakboek, 2012

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2 Comments

  1. I’m interested to know if there are any other cookie recipes that call for boiling sugar before making the dough, and what effect this has on the product. It’s an interesting technique that I’ve wondered about for a while, but never seen before. How far could you take this idea? Could you add flour after making fudge or toffee, then bake that dough? I’m going to have to experiment!

    • Hi Ezra,

      I’m pretty sure there are more cookie recipes that call for boiling the sugar. One of the most important things it does is that the sugar dissolves in the water. By dissolving the sugar it won’t be present in the form of those larger grains anymore. As a result, it impacts crunch and texture. Curious to hear how your experiments go!

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