Dutch speculaas cookies are unusually perfect for this feast day, in that they are traditionally made in the shape of St. Nicholas using very beautiful, very intricate hand-carved wooden molds that range in size from a few inches to a couple feet tall. They’re very impressive. They can also be made with regular cookie cutters, or cut out using a St. Nicholas-shaped template. The basic ingredients are simple; what makes them really special is the spices. I like to use cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, mace, white pepper, and cloves. It just smells so much like Christmas.
For the Cookies
- 3 1/2 cups All-Purpose Flour
- 1/2 tsp Baking Soda
- 1/2 tsp Salt
- 1 1/2 tsp Ground Cinnamon
- 1 tsp Ground Ginger
- 1/4 tsp Ground Nutmeg
- 3/4 tsp Ground Cardamom
- 1/4 tsp Ground Mace
- 1/4 tsp Freshly Ground White Pepper
- A Pinch of Ground Cloves
- 6 oz. (1 1/2 sticks) Unsalted Butter, softened
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- 1/3 cup Water
- Confectioners' Sugar, for surface
For the Royal Icing
- 3 Egg Whites (3 ounces pasteurized egg white)
- 1 tsp Vanilla Extract
- 4 cups Confectioners' Sugar
Whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, mace, white pepper, and cloves in a large bowl.
Cream the butter and brown sugar until it’s light and fluffy. While mixing, alternate adding some of the flour mixture and some of the water, until all is combined. Shape the dough into 3 disks. Pat each to a 1-inch thickness, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Dust the surface and cookie mold lightly with confectioners' sugar. Roll out each disk of dough to a 1/4- to 3/8-inch thickness (deeper molds will need thicker dough). Cut a piece of dough about the size of the mold.
Press the dough into the mold with your fingers then gently roll over the dough with a rolling pin. Using a knife, trim away any excess dough. Gently coax the dough shape out of mold with your fingertips and place it onto a baking sheet. Repeat, spacing cookies 1 inch apart, and placing equally-sized cookies on the same sheet. Freeze the molded dough shapes until firm, about 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Place the baking sheets into the oven, and immediately reduce the temperature to 275°F. Bake until the cookies are set and just beginning to turn light gold around edges, 55 to 65 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the cookie sheets or on wire racks.
Make the royal icing. Using a stand (or other) mixer and the whisk attachment, combine the egg whites and vanilla and beat until frothy. Switch to the paddle attachment, add the confectioners' sugar gradually and mix on low speed until the sugar is incorporated and the mixture is shiny. Turn the speed up to high and beat until the mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks. This should take approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Add food coloring, if desired. For immediate use, transfer the icing to a squeeze bottle, pastry bag, or zip top storage bag and pipe as desired. If using a storage bag, clip the corner. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Decorate the cooled cookies with the royal icing. Let them set until the icing has hardened, then enjoy, or store at room temperature in a covered container or zip-top bag.