Sunday, December 13, 2015

Speculaas Cookies

"One can tell a lot about a person from the type of cookie they like to eat," my grandmother Cica used to say. Strictly speaking, she was not really my grandmother, given that she was my grandfather's sister. But in the Serbian language, the term applies broadly to all siblings and relatives, and that is how I remember her. Moreover, Cica adored her sister-in-law, my maternal grandmother Persida; the two of them were inseparable and thus, I never knew the difference.

Cica always wore black and spoke in short, cryptic sentences. She was six feet tall, at least in my memory. In reality, she probably was not more that five and a half feet, but her personality made for the lack of inches. Sometimes she looked like her brother, my grandfather; sometimes she looked like her other siblings; but most of the time, she looked like no one else in our family. "My sister grows wheat in her right sleeve and hiprose in her left. She has vanilla hidden in her pockets and walnuts stashed in her purse," my grandfather Vasilije often joked lovingly about his sister, because these were the key ingredients in vanilice, Cica's signature cookies. Vanilice (pronounced vah-ny-ly-tseh) are tiny Serbian cookies made for holidays and special occasions. Vanilice, which means “little vanillas”, are bite-sized walnut cookie sandwiches with jam and vanilla scented powder sugar.

I grew up in a family where every lady had a rolling pin and spatula surgically attached to their bodies: my mom, aunts, grandmothers and grandaunts, my close and not-so-close female relatives. They were the Sisterhood of Cookies and the high priestesses of fine baking. Cica was the guardian and the champion of our family recipe for vanilice -- given how passionate we were on the subject of small cookies, this was a role of utmost importance. Three generations of cooks in my family made vanilice from Cica's recipe, but, even though she personally supervised each and every member of the clan and even though we tried hard and practiced often, our vanilice never tasted like the ones Cica made.

"It must be the jam," my mom proclaimed once, determined to get to the bottom of the issue. "Cica uses rose hip jam, while everyone else uses apricot. I bet it's the jam." To prove Mom's theory, we ran to the market, sourced piles of rose hips and spent the entire weekend making the jam. Making rose hip jam is one big royal pain in the behind, yet we did it on a quest for cookie excellence, but at the end of the day the cookies still did not taste like Cica's. They never did, no matter how hard we tried.

Mom's other (desperate) theories involved: 1) a (deliberate) omission in the recipe; 2) special atmospheric conditions in Cica's pantry where she stored her vanilice for two days before letting anyone touch them; and 3) "super-natural-qualities" of a pot she kept them in. We pondered the secret of Cica's cookies often, but deep inside, we all knew the truth. It was not the jam, or the recipe, or the pot, or the pantry -- it was Cica's magic and love of cookies. She was born for cookie-greatness. It's that simple, you either have it in you or you don't. We are all meant for one kind of greatness or another, like playing a violin, or chess, or being brave, or skilled with a brush. We might have a gift for turning words into poetry, graffiti into art, or serve into an ace; we might be endowed with curiosity, be clever with formulas, good at cracking jokes, or blessed with a big heart. And cookies were Cica's greatness. That, and a big heart too.

"Grandma Cica," I asked her once, "is there a secret to your recipe for vanilice?" Mom turned positively red, while Cica answered in her usual cryptic way, "Most people do not know how to measure their cookies... They measure them only in weight and volume, they count the pieces and count 50 of them, but the depth of their cookies is always greater than their weight, volume and count, and there can be a pound or even a ton of flavor in one cookie alone."

Cookies were Cica's destiny. She was able to sum up every person by the way they ate her vanilice. She was able to read person's dreams and fortunes by the way they tilted their head and closed their eyes, while munching on a cookie. “She has a long neck, this little one of yours,” she once told my mom, “and as for you, you little long neck princess, you have dreams in your curls and desire in your hands. And you will journey far and wide chasing your desire and your thirst, which resemble pain and happiness united.”

When I was four-and-a-half, Cica looked at me, winked at my grandmother Persida and said, “this child is ready.” And suddenly, by some kind of black magic, my grandmother produced a miniature rolling pin, a miniature wooden board, a tiny apron, and the tiniest of the tiny spatulas... That is how I was initiated into the Sisterhood.

I have been baking vanilice ever since.

About three weeks ago, right before Thanksgiving, Food52 ran Your Best Holiday Cookie from Anywhere in the World contest, and I entered vanilice. I never thought much about it afterward, because: a) Food52 is a community of many mighty good cooks, and b) the map of the world is paved with magical cookies -- just think about it -- chocolate chip, laddu, mbatata, brigadeiro, Linzer, Ischler, rugelach, gingerbread, melomakaron, samsa, pizzelle, biscotti, speculaas -- there is so much cookie goodness on this planet, and vanilice is one modest cookie. I never thought much about it, and even forgot about the contest, but my grandmother Cica must have given it a thought, she must have done her magic, and she must be looking at me right now, from up above, smiling, because eventually, vanilice won the contest. I had my share of wins on Food52 and it is always one-of-a-kind feeling, but if I had to pick a win that was truly special, well, you might have guessed it...

Vanilice was the very first cookie (and the very first food) I ever made. It was also the very first post I wrote on the blog, short and shy, because three years ago I lacked the confidence to write anything longer than a paragraph. And it was the first cookie I made with my daughter -- in a way, but not quite so, because we cheated a little -- although I know that Cica would not object. A couple of months ago Miss Pain's second-grade class staged an elaborate project to recreate the life in New Amsterdam and the Dutch beginnings of New York City. Every child in the class was assigned a role to play: a firefighter, a tavern owner, a Styvesant advisor, a teacher, a sailor, a beaver... That was another occasion where I suspect that Cica intervened from upstairs, because, surprise, Miss Pain was given the role of a baker! How appropriate!!! The apple does not fall far from the tree and Miss Pain spent a great deal of effort preparing for her task and deciding on what to bake, until she settled on speculaas, the fragrant and delicately embossed cookies Dutch are so famous for. We invested over a month into speculaas trials, making one unconvincing batch after another, both in terms of flavor and aesthetics. Until it finally hit me -- why not use vanilice dough, add spices and bake them in silicon petit fours molds! It worked like magic. Miss Pain was initiated into the Sisterhood with style, and the two of us traveled from Serbia to Holland via seventeenth century New York City on a spoonful of spices. Kind of like a magic carpet dusted with cinnamon, cloves, orange zest and brown sugar.

Vanilice, speculaas, chocolate chip, laddu, mbatata, brigadeiro, Linzer, Ischler, rugelach, gingerbread, melomakaron, samsa, pizzelle, biscotti, ... All the cookies of the world, united. The good folks from Food52 put them all on a map, the cookies and the stories behind them -- make sure you visit here to take a look, because I cannot think of anything more important this holiday season. All the cookies of the world and all the people of the world united. If we all carried spatulas and rolling pins instead of something else, if we all told stories, and took photos, and cultivated a little bit more love, this world would be a much better place. This holiday season let us all pick a place on the map and bake somebody else's cookie. And let's think of them, and their families on the other side of the globe. Pick a place and bake a cookie, even though you might have never done it before, because it is never too late to start.

Speculaas Cookies

* 160 g butter
* 125 g medium brown, Turbinado or Demerara sugar
* 125 g ground walnuts
* 300 g all-purpose flour
* 1 egg yolk
* 1 whole egg
* 2 tbsp lemon juice
* zest of one lemon
* zest of one small orange
* 1 tbsp ground cinnamon
* 1 tsp ground nutmeg
* 1 tsp ground cloves
* 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
* 1/2 tsp salt
* 100 g powder sugar, for dusting (optional)


* embossed baking silicon molds for making petit fours, I used the following:

About two hours before making the cookies remove the butter from the refrigerator and keep it at room temperature until it becomes soft. In a mixer fitted with paddle, beat the butter with the sugar until creamy and fluffy. Beat in the egg and egg yolk until fully incorporated. Add the lemon juice, orange and lemon zest, salt and spices and mix until fully incorporated. Add the walnuts and mix well. Add the flour and beat on slow speed until dough forms. Cover the dough and refrigerate for at least three hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 325°F convection bake (350°F regular bake).

Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and form balls of about 3/4-inch in diameter. Place the balls of dough into silicon molds. Press the dough into the molds and then flatten the top with your fingers. Put the molds in the fridge for about 15 minutes. Bake for about 14 minutes. Remove the molds from the oven, wait for a minute or two and then remove the cookies from the molds. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

If you desire, roll each cookie in confectioner's sugar. Store the cookies in a tin box, or in a container with tight lid.


  1. Dear Aleksandra,

    I have found out about your blog through the vanilice recipe in Food52; Every time I read it, I am so moved, but this post brought tears to my eyes. We come from the same land and in my family it was my aunt, who had the magic of vanilice. She passed away four months ago. I can't tell you how happy I am that your recipe won the contest. Many greetings from Maryland, Jelena.

    1. Dear Jelena, thank you for taking the time to write. It is so nice to "virtually" meet you. I am sorry about your loss. That, for me is probably the most important reason to try and preserve our recipes. Every recipe has a story and every recipe kindles a new memory. Every time I walk into the kitchen, my mom, grandmothers and aunts are with me, and I get to relive some of the wonderful moments we had together. I hope we stay in touch...

  2. Absolutely beautiful post, the story of Cica and Persida and the cookie making magic is mesmerizing. A rich family history that lives through you and your daughter. Your speculass are almost too beautiful to eat. I am so pleased your wonderful Vanilice won the contest and the cookie map is just wonderful.

  3. What a lovely story! I truly love your storytelling and photos, they go so well together. It made me wish i had grown up there with you all as my family never baked, in fact in Colombia most homes don't have ovens and those that have use them as storage for pots and frying pans.
    Thank you for sharing

  4. What a great story, thank you for sharing! More Michelin Star Chefs will be coming to my next Lunch with LT and your cookies can be a great way to close the lunch and serve with coffee. I will make sure no dogs are around when taking the picture!

    1. Hi Laura, thank you! Very kind of you to stop by. It took me a while to connect the dots -- you are Your Guardian Chef!!! Would love to hear back from you and the chefs if you make the cookies. All the very best and Happy Holidays!

  5. Prekrasno posebno jer je iz Srbije

  6. Hello there, I just discovered you since you found me on Instagram. I must say, I don't know you, haven't been following you for years to develop a 'feel' for you, but I'm already drawn to you! My background is German, and while the cuisines may be different, the traditions and ingredients share a lot in common. I know this isn't a recipe that most would be looking at in February, but these flavours are my most favourite, year round! I will make them in July if so inclined. So, this will hopefully be the start of a lovely online friendship as I continue to explore your stunning blog. Most respectfully, Jennifer Emilson

    1. Jennifer, it is so nice to digitally meet you. Like you, I crave these flavors year around -- they get into you and you carry them around. I hope we will stay in touch, all the best, Aleksandra.

  7. The photographs are amazing :)

  8. Dear Saska -I am embarking upon the vanilice making quest with my 3 girls today. We browsed for a bit before I remembered to google your blog! OMG love all the photos, recipes, and stories! You are absolutely amazing! Best, Ivana

    1. I neglected the blog for a while, and just saw your comment. Hope you are all well. Sending lots of love.


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