By Charles J. Johnson Chicago Tribune
After its creation was announced via nationwide broadcast, people lined up to buy the very first versions. It’s lightweight, has been the subject of fierce patent battles and is so addictive you can’t put it down, even when you know you should.
We’re talking about a Belgian cookie paste named speculoos spread.
Sugary, smooth and spicy like a gingerbread cookie, the spread is a relatively new take on a classic European flavor that caused a stir in Belgium, stormed the European market and has become a “you have to try this!” darling of the American foodie blogosphere.
Traditionally baked around the holidays for St. Nicholas Day, speculoos cookies have been popular in Belgium, the Netherlands and France for centuries.
Named “speculoos” in Flemish from the Latin word for “spice,” the cookies are subtly sweet, tasting predominantly of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, pepper and nutmeg.
Belgians have long known that speculoos cookies (Belgians say SPEK-yoo-loes, while Americans tend to say SPEK-yoo-loose) slathered in butter and placed between slices of bread break down into a pastelike consistency after a few hours in a warm lunch pail.
In 2007, a popular television inventors competition “De Bedenkers” (The Creators) featured two speculoos spread recipes made from grinding the cookies with oil to get a pasty, spreadable consistency. Several companies sensed the intense buzz building around the prototype product in Belgian living rooms and brutally battled one another for patents to produce this new take on a seasonal favorite.
It was a smash.
Imagine the Belgian equivalent of eating peanuts every summer at baseball games and then someone hands over the world’s first peanut butter sandwich and says “try this.”
In its first year, speculoos spread outsold the wildly popular chocolate and hazelnut spread Nutella in some markets.
Speculoos producers Lotus and Vermeiren Princeps both estimate one out of every two Belgian households now owns a jar of speculoos spread, a product that did not exist just six years ago.
Although Europeans flocked, American exposure to speculoos was mostly limited to passengers on Delta flights who tried the cookies offered under the name “Biscoff.”
About two years ago, jars of the spread, sometimes sold as “Biscoff” or “cookie butter,” began to appear on the bottom of store shelves, inviting only the curious shopper or Belgian ex-pat. A blogger tried it here, a pastry chef there and, bit by bit, Americans are getting to know and love speculoos spread.
Most of the speculoos spread consumed in Europe is spread on a piece of bread as part of breakfast or lunch. More a staple and not a sweet treat.
For Americans more used to savory salami or peanut butter, the sugary spice of speculoos doesn’t quite feel like everyday fare.
Some bake it into cookies or blondies. Some eat it on fruit, some on pretzels and some swirl it into pancake batter. Some eat it straight from the jar.
1 cup flour
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup whole milk
1/2 cup speculoos spread, plus more for serving
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Combine all ingredients except vegetable oil in mixing bowl; whisk lightly. It’s OK if there are small lumps and streaks.
Heat 2 teaspoons vegetable oil in a large skillet over high heat. When hot, wipe away excess oil with a paper towel, leaving a thin film on entire surface. Reduce heat to medium-high; add batter in 1/4 cup portions. Cook until bubbles appear at edges. Flip; cook other side. Repeat with remaining batter, adding more oil as necessary.
Serve pancakes topped with more speculoos spread, along with maple syrup and sliced bananas, if you like.
Makes 8 pancakes. Per pancake: 169 calories, 9 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 27 mg cholesterol, 18 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 209 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.
Speculoos cookie spread
1 package speculoos cookies, 8.8 ounces, 32 cookies
1/3 cup brown sugar
7 ounces evaporated milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Pulse the cookies and the brown sugar in a food processor until they are crumbs. Add remaining ingredients; process until smooth. Transfer to a sealable container. The spread will firm up in the refrigerator.
Makes 2 cups. Per tablespoon: 58 calories, 2 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 2 mg cholesterol, 9 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 37 mg sodium, 0 g fiber.
Where to find it
Speculoos spreads can be found at Trader Joe’s and Walgreens and at numerous online retailers. Speculoos spread does not contain any nuts or dairy but does contain wheat and soy.