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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 = (rye) flour + sugars
- Taaitaai dough can be tough to handle
- Airtight, it remains good for months
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 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.
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.
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
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!
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!