Ask Evan: Troubleshooting Speculaas (Heirloom Cookies from Holland)

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askevan_header_2Every Tuesday I answer a question from a Good Food listener.  You can email me a question, leave one on Facebook or add one in the comments section here.  This week’s question comes from Caroline:

My family roots go back to Holland, where formed cookies called speculaas are made. The dough is pressed into a carved wooden board, the excess sliced off, and the cookie knocked out onto the cookie sheet. The boards have intricate designs of people, animals, windmills, etc. Some of the designs are very large (18 inches X 6 inches).
The dough is very firm. The problem is that while baking, the designs tend to spread and get “mushy” looking. My great grandfather (who was a professional baker and whose recipe we use) was very frustrated with American flour when he visited the United States. My question is, is it likely that the difference in flour is causing the mushy designs? What is a good technique for keeping crisp, distinct designs in these types of cookies (any kind of detailed cookie cutter cookie as well)?

I asked Shirley Corriher for help with this one. She’s the author of the essential baking book Bakewise and her visits to Good Food are always enlightening.  She writes:

What you want to do to limit distortion is to limit “spread” or rise. This is why the dough is very firm–liquid in the dough turns to steam and would cause rise. Protein content of the flour determines how much liquid the dough absorbs.

You are absolutely right–a difference in flour is probably the culprit causing the mushy design. Try a high-protein flour like bread flour.

Speculaas are traditionally made with butter.  Use plugra the European butter or maybe slightly reduce the amount if using US butter—our butter has more water.

Here is a recipe from Saveur with photos of finished cookies that look quite detailed that come from their test kitchen.