It’s Guy Fawkes Night as I start writing this recipe up – November the fifth. The night when fireworks light up the sky (and scare the wildlife and people’s pets) and bonfires blaze across the UK.
By this date in the UK the weather has turned for the worst, the clocks have recently gone back plunging us into darkness an hour earlier in the evening and the big chill has set in. No matter that the winter solstice is still six-seven weeks away, it’s already wintry. Everyone has certain foods that are synonymous with the start of deep winter and evoke that combined smell of autumn leaves, burning fires and even sulphorous fireworks. These foods for me include old family favourites I was brought up with such as bangers and mash, seasonal thick soups, jacket potatoes and treacle toffee.
Over the winter I’ll make several batches of my winter toffee to share out, give as presents and, of course, a treat for ourselves. Just a few days ago I was lucky enough to be sent a batch of special speculaas mix from vanDotsch spices to try. I didn’t want to go straight down the route of making speculaas cookies (that’s too obvious for me – although I expect I’ll end up making a batch or two) I thought I’d combine spice and confectionary. Turns out that the warming, spicy, Christmassy speculaas goes famously well with the creamy treacly flavour of my toffee recipe.
So what is speculaas?
If you’re thinking you’ve never heard of speculaas before there’s a high probability you’ve tried it without even realising it. Ever had a little rectangular ginger-y biscuit with your coffee? Those commercially made, bite-sized biscuits so beloved of coffee shops and baristas are speculaas biscuits. Speculaas is a warming, festive spice mix mainly associated with the Netherlands, although versions are also found throughout Belgium, Luxembourg parts of north eastern France and Germany under slightly different, localised names such as spéculoos (France) and Spekulatius (Germany).
It’s synonymous with those pretty, pressed Christmas biscuits. I read that traditionally families would have their own variations of the spice recipe and their own heritage biscuit moulds. Although the mix clearly differs from one household to another, all versions have a similar base which might include warming cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom and white pepper. This mix from vanDotsch Spices comes from the company owner’s family recipe and has a ‘secret mix of six spices’ together with high grade cinnamon, cloves and ginger. I’ve been to the Netherlands a few times and have consumed quite a few speculaas koekjes (of course…) and, although I can’t compare side-by-side with a typical mix, this particular speculaas does taste pretty good to me.
Be careful!! All toffee is hot Hot HOT while you’re making it. Please don’t get burnt – wear long sleeves and use gloves when pouring the toffee out.
Purchase the vanDotsch speculaas spice mix online (you can even buy carved biscuit moulds too) from the Speculaas Spice Company, which is run by Steven Dotsch, an Amsterdammer (or Mokummer) now living in London. This particular speculaas spice mix is based on his Grandmother’s unique blend.
- Large heavy bottomed pan
- Small baking tray (20cm x 20cm would be ideal but you can ‘cheat’ with a larger tray as I do – more later)
- Kitchen foil
- Wooden spoon
- Sharp heavy knife
- Something to break the toffee up with – a rolling pin, back of a heavy knife or a toffee hammer if you have one
- A jug or glass filled with cold water
- A sugar thermometer (though you can do without this)
- Unsalted butter – 115g
- Granulated sugar – 115g oz
- Demerera sugar – 115g oz
- Single cream – 100ml
- Bicarbonate of soda – 1 teaspoon (5g)
- Black treacle – 1 tablespoon (15g)
- Golden syrup – 1 tablespoon (15g)
- Cider or white wine vinegar – 2 tablespoons (30g)
- Speculaas spice mix – 1 1/2 teaspoons (7.5g)
- Extra unsalted butter for greasing, about 15 g
- Prep your baking tray first:
If you have a small tray that’s roughly 20cm x 20cm (or more-or-less the same volume) then you can just line it with the foil, grease it with the extra unsalted butter and leave to one side
If you have a baking tray that is larger than this, you can ‘fake’ the right size by using foil. Rip off a sheet of foil that will cover the tray. Cover the tray with the foil and press it down into the sides and ‘corners’. Now, make a pleat in the foil to shorten the tray size and use the overhang of the foil to secure it in place on the tray edges
Grease this foil tray with the butter and set to one side for later
- Weigh the butter and sugars and place in the saucepan (if you have an electronic scale you should be able to weigh them directly in the saucepan) and put over a gentle heat to melt the butter
- Add the golden syrup, black treacle and vinegar and turn up the heat to medium, stirring gently at first to help the ingredients combine
- When the ingredients are melted turn up the heat to almost full and bring to the boil – bring up to about 110C, or a rolling boil for about 2 minutes
- Now add the cream, speculaas and bicarbonate of soda and stir briefly and gently
- Bring to boil – you need to get to just about the ‘soft crack’ stage which is 132C – you can test this by dropping a little of the toffee in a jug of cold water without having a sugar thermometer (I actually do both – have a thermometer and use the water test). If it can be formed into a ball that’s just a little bit squishy, then it is ready. (If it is still too soft and maybe even starts dissolving in the cold water then it needs boiling for longer – keep testing every 30 seconds to get to the right stage)
- When it is ready turn off the heat and wait for the boiling to subside a little (this reduces the chance of it spitting and you getting burnt)
- Once calmed down enough, pour the toffee into the greased tray – be careful not to handle it or get it on your skin
- Leave to cool for five minutes
- Once it’s cooled enough to touch (it’ll still be warm though) it can be marked with a knife into squares. Warm a knife in hot water and dry, then drag the blade across the top of the toffee, pressing down a little to create a score line. You don’t need to do this step – you can just smash it into irregular pieces. All this is doing is giving break lines in the toffee so when you smash it when it is fully cold it should break into squares (you’ll get some irregularities – it’s not an infallible method and depends on your smashing technique too!). I wouldn’t try to chop the toffee into squares at this stage as its edges deform under the pressure of the knife and the toffee often sticks to the knife blade (I speak from experience). Even irregular shards look better than toffee that’s been cut into shape when still soft, as the shards have lovely crisp edges
- Leave to cool completely in the tin
- Once cold, peel off the foil and smash into chunks
- Store in airtight containers (don’t expose to moisture as this will start to dissolve and degrade the sugar content) – and it will keep for a week or so under these conditions