Hasselt 'speculaas' biscuits: just that little bit different ...
A visit to the Limburg capital is not finished if you haven't tasted one of the local specialities: the Hasselt 'speculaas' biscuits. Trade the well-known crackling herbal biscuit for this tender delicacy with your coffee.
First this. There is quite a bit of 'speculation' about the origin of the name 'speculaas'. Some sources refer to the old name for flat sweets that used to serve as a table decoration. And then it would have originally meant 'fantasy good'. Others claim the word is derived from the Latin speculum, mirror. The cake is indeed the mirror image of the wooden form in which it is prepared.
You and I know the hard, dry and spicy biscuit based on cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, pepper and anise that melts so nicely with coffee. The speculoos,now available all year round in all kinds of flat figures, but in the past mainly baked and eaten in the shape of the saintly man during the Saint Nicholas period. Saint Nicholas, who is honoured on 6 December, is among other things the patron saint of bakers.
Hasselt speculaas, however, is a different story. In documents from the 19th century, we read that the corner building of the Hoogstraat and the Aldestraat was a magnet for the city's gourmets. There, you could go and buy the biscuits that the baker Lieben had made especially for his wife's birthday, after a long search, trying them out and 'speculating' - another explanation for the word 'speculaas'? One of the ingredients, the fiery dark brown sugar, was a residual product of gin firing, one of those other Hasselt traditions. The fake baker's servant made off with the recipe, improved it and was inspired by the speculation of his ex-boss as an appropriate name. Before the First World War, it was a success story. Two bakers sent out merchants to sell thousands of kilograms of the snack. Wallonia and Brussels in particular could not resist the temptation.
If you want to get to work yourself, you need: butter, brown sugar, flour, eggs, a special type of cinnamon, ground almonds, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder ... the right proportions, the right baking time and temperature and, of course, the hand of a master and connoisseur. Then you conjure up that delicious pastry with a slightly crispy top layer and a more tender bottom layer. But watch out for light and air. Light makes the sugar fade and air makes it harden. So keeping it in a tin box is the thing to do.