Only a very select few months (those before December) will you be able to find taaitaai in the stores. It’s a very seasonal sweet baked good, in between a cookie and a cake, with mixed in spices, mostly anise seeds. Taaitaai is a typical element of the Dutch ‘sinterklaas’ celebration and can be found next to the pepernoten sold around that time. They taste best when eaten together!
Whereas pepernoten are crunchy cookies, taaitaai has quite a tough structure. Funnily enough, the name taaitaai mean ‘toughtough’, but somehow it still is a seasonal hit. Even though taaitaai may be a little tough to chew on, it’s still soft enough to be devoured. It probably doesn’t meet your definition of a cookie and that also shows in the way it’s made. It’s very low in fat and uses plenty rye flour, even though you’d normally not find rye flour in cookies.
Rye flour breads
Centuries ago the Dutch already made so called ‘koeken’, which is probably best translated into sweet breads (similar to a pumpkin or banana bread but without the pumpkin or banana). These sweet breads would be made with plenty flour and honey as a sweetener. Taaitaai has probably been derived from these sweet breads, being a special festive variety.
If you’ve ever worked with rye flour you will know it behaves very different than regular flour. This is due to various differences between the flours. The first is the presence of a lot arabinoxylans. These are a type of polysaccharides (thus carbohydrates) which aren’t present in regular flour. These polysaccharides can absorb a lot of water. As a result of this, rye flour can absorb up to 4 times the amount of water than regular flour.
Also, dough made with only or a lot of rye flour cannot form a strong gluten network. Apart from a gluten network ‘regular’ breads are also stabilized by the starch in flour. However, in rye various enzymes tend to be active that actually break down this starch. This makes it even harder to form a strong gluten network.
When baking sweet breads or taaitaai though, you aren’t necessarily looking for gluten formation. Also, to create a soft and moist product the water absorption of rye flour is very advantageous. In other words, rye flour seems a good solution especially so since it also retrogrades a lot less than regular flour (increasing the shelf life of your product).
Sweetening with honey
Before sugar become a common and cheap commodity in Western Europe a lot of sweetening was done using honey. Taaitaai is a typical example of such an application. The moist honey and sweet flavour contributes to taaitaai’s unique texture and flavour. Nowadays though, a lot of them aren’t made with honey anymore but with other sugar syrups.
Below you can find the recipe for making taaitaai. It is worthwhile to make a few additional notes before you dig in.
This recipe starts by bringing a sugar mixture to the boil. The main reason for doing so seems to be to dissolve all the sugar and create a liquid syrup. It is important to leave the sugar syrup mixture to cool to room temperature before adding it to the flours. Adding it when it’s still hot will cause the cooking of some of the starch in the flour, thickening the mixture.
In the olden days, the dough would sometimes be rested for months before actually baking it in the oven. Since rye flour can absorb a lot of water, but will not do so immediately, it is certainly worthwhile to rest the dough for a while. You shouldn’t rest this recipe for months, but at least one hour up to overnight will help the flavour evolve and the moisture to be absorbed.
- 230g flour, all purpose
- 200g rye flour
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 16 anise seeds
- 190g brown sugar
- 130g honey
- 100g water
- Grind down the anise seeds using a mortar and pestle. It doesn't have to be a very fine powder, but the seeds have to be broken up.
- Mix the flours, salt, baking powder and anise powder.
- Bring the honey, brown sugar and water to the boil. Take from the heat as soon as it's boiling.
- Leave the sugar mixture to cool down to body temperature.
- Pour the sugar mixture into the flours and mix by hand using a spatula or with a stand mixer. It will be quite sticky and tough, this is normal. If it really is too sticky to handle, add a little flour.
- Leave to rest for at least an hour, or overnight (place in the fridge if storing overnight).
- Roll out the dough on a sheet of baking paper. Use plenty flour if the mixture still is too sticky.
- If you prefer to make smaller pieces, cut the taai taai now. You can leave them lying against each other during baking, they'll break apart easily after baking.
- Bake in the oven at 210C for 12-15 minutes. The taaitaai should not turn dark down.
- Once it's cooled down you can eat it. However, the sides tend to be dry and tough. It's best to pack the taaitaai in a closed plastic bag (once cooled down) and leave it on the counter for at least 1 day. You will notice that the taaitaai will become softer and develops a more balanced flavour profile.
Mc.Gee H., On food and cooking, 2004, p. 545, 470-471, 450
Pagrach-Chandra, G., Het Nederlands Bakboek, 2012