Every year, at the start of autumn, all over the USA (and the internet), pumpkin spice mixes pop up. Even in Europe you can see it popping up in autumn, though not (yet) as prevalent.
Pumpkin spice though isn’t that special, it’s just a smart blend of spices (with quite a bit of cinnamon). It is actually quite similar to spice mixes that have been used in Europe for quite some time. In the Netherlands, a pretty similar, typical spice mix used in this time of year are ‘speculaaskruiden’ (which are similar but not the same as speculoos in Belgium and spekulatius in Germany).
Speculaaskruiden for me are a core part of the November and December months, just like pumpkin spice mix is in the USA. No pumpkins with them though, but cookies. One of the most common ones are probably ‘pepernoten’! So let’s dive into some spice mix science.
What are speculaaskruiden?
Speculaaskruiden (speculaas spices) are a mixture of spices. Which spices are actually in there and in which ratios can depend quite a bit on the recipe you find actually. The main ingredient in most recipes is cinnamon, often easily making up half of the recipe. Cinnamon in and by itself is a fascinating spice (as we discussed before) and it truly carries the spice mix.
Other very common additions are nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamon, mace, coriander, allspice, white pepper and anise seeds. Cloves and nutmeg tend to be the second most prevalent ingredients, but the more recipes you google, the more variations you will find. There isn’t really one set recipe which makes it so great to adjust it to your own liking.
Anise seed is also used in another classical soft cookie made in the same time of year as pepernoten: taaitaai (literally translated this means tough-tough).
Speculaaskruiden vs Pumpkin spice mix
So in my humble opinion, these two, the speculaaskruiden and the pumpkin spice mix aren’t really that different. The main ingredient of pumpkin spice mix is also cinnamon. Cloves and nutmeg also appear in most recipes. The list of possible ingredients then seems to be a bit shorter than for speculaaskruiden, containing mostly ginger and allspice. Ratios again can vary quite a bit.
Speculaaskruiden vs. Mixed spice
Once you go down the rabbit hole of spice mixes, you will find out that there’s more similar ones. Mixed spice (a slightly less appealing name maybe than pumpkin spice) is quite a common spice mix in the UK which main ingredient again is cinnamon. Other ingredients may sound familiar by now, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and allspice.
Spice mixes and culture
Spices mixes can be very personal and definitely seasonal. Actually, it was shown that those distinct smells and tastes tastes can be linked to your personal experiences. Especially strong spice mixes such a pumpkin spice mix, but also indian spice mixes, can immediately bring you back to a certain feeling (source). In the Netherlands, that smell of speculaas spices definitely reminds a lot of people of cozy dark evenings with family and friends.
Spice mixes in cookies
Spices may not be the most common ingredient of a cookie, but there sure are quite a lot out there. Spices work well in cookies since they can be mixed in easily and won’t lose that much flavour during baking (some only get stronger).
Baking with speculaaskruiden: pepernoten
One of the most prevalent examples of using this Dutch spice mix is to bake your own pepernoten. Literally translated, pepernoten means pepper nuts (even though nowadays they don’t really contain any pepper)!
Pepernoten are small (1-2cm in diameter) dome shaped cookies with plenty spices. It’s the spice mix and characteristic shape that makes them unique, not the structure itself.
Making crunchy cookies
They’re a great example of crunchy cookies. Crunchy cookies tend to contain quite a bit less butter and relatively more flour which toughens them up a little. Making crunchy cookies can be improved even more by baking them just a little longer. More moisture will evaporate while in the oven, making them even more crunchy.
Since the cookies are quite crunchy, it helps that some baking powder is added. This introduces air bubbles in the cookie and makes it a little easier to bite into.
Pepernoten aren’t very hard to make, which is probably why it’s one of those snacks that a lot of people tend to make at home. The recipe we’ve been using since we were small is the one below which is from a kindergarten magazine from years back. It still works great though!
Of course, for you non-Dutch speaking readers, we’ve translated it in English for you, unfortunately without the great images.
- 1 tbsp of spice mix (see below for details)
- 200g of flour
- 1 1/4 tsp of baking powder
- 100g of brown sugar
- 100g of butter (cut in cubes)
- 2 tbsp of milk (30 ml)
All ingredients below are powders.
- 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp ginger
- 1/8 tsp clove
- 1/8 tsp cardamom
- pinch of mace
- 4 crushed anise seeds
- Measure and mix the spices if you're making the spice mix yourself.
- Mix the spices with the flour and baking powder. Add the sugar and butter and knead together.
- The dough will still be a little crumbly probably and won't come together as a ball. Add the milk, it should now come together into a ball of dough. If not, add additional milk, max. 1 tbsp at a time.
- You can now leave the dough to rest in the fridge, wrapped in plastic foil.
- Form the dough into little balls and place on an oven tray covered with baking paper.
- Bake in the oven at 160C for 15-20 minutes (during will depend on the size of your dough balls).
- Leave to cool and enjoy!
Recipe Tip! Use these cookies when making this ice cream recipe, the spices in the cookie work great with this ice cream.