Springerle and speculaas are both traditional European biscuits, particularly famous around Christmas time in Germany and the Netherlands. Both are spiced, and both are found with intricate designs of people, animals and flowers embossed on the surface. But do you know your springerle from your speculaas?
Read on to find out where springerle and speculaas come from and the difference between them. We’ve also found you a traditional springerle recipe so you can have a go at making some traditional German Christmas biscuits. Happy baking!
What are springerle?
Springerle biscuits are delicately flavoured with ground anise. The anise was traditionally scattered on the tray that the springerle were baked on. In this way, the anise stuck to the bottom of the biscuits.
Some modern recipes now suggest mixing the anise in with the dough, and some also use a little lemon zest to bring out the sweet aniseed flavour.
Authentic springerle biscuits are very pale, and tend to be thicker than biscuits we’re used to.
Where do springerle come from?
The earliest surviving accounts of springerle show that they were being made in Germany as far back as the 14th century. The biscuit appears to have originated in Swabia, or Schwabenland, an area of southwestern Germany.
What does ‘springerle’ mean?
The name ‘springerle’ literally translates as ‘little knight’ or ‘little jumper’. Though the exact origin of this name is unknown, there are two possible theories.
One is that it simply refers to the way the biscuit dough ‘springs up’ during baking. Another is that the name refers to a jumping horse motif that was a popular design in the biscuit’s early days.
Were springerle always associated with Christmas?
Not at first. In fact, springerle were commonly baked to celebrate most religious holidays throughout the year. Many of the earliest surviving springerle moulds depict Christian symbols and figures from the Bible.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, gallant knights and fashionably dressed ladies became popular designs. These designs perhaps lent a more fun feel to a biscuit that was traditionally associated with religious occasions.
Larger designs depicting scenes of love and marriage took over as the most popular in the 19th century. Many moulds now feature Christmas images – Santa Claus, holly, stags, stars – and this is the time of year you’re now most likely to see springerle. However, designs based around birds and flowers that are suitable for any time of year remain popular.
No one really knows when and why springerle biscuits came to be associated mainly with Christmas. Perhaps it’s because the intricately carved moulds were similar to the ones used for speculaas biscuits, which have always been baked around the Christmas season. Or perhaps it’s because spices such as anise, although popular, were costly. It would therefore make sense to save your spices as a luxury for the Christmas season.
Whatever the reason, it’s hard to think of a better time of year for making these beautiful biscuits. Enjoy them at home curled up by the fire, or make a few batches to give as special homemade gifts.
Did you know? Springerle Trivia!
German ladies emigrating to America in the 17th century would make special space in their luggage for springerle moulds. They were highly prized as heirlooms and were handed down from mother to daughter as part of a dowry. Others would be jealously guarded relics of the influential German Gingerbread Bakers’ Guilds, some dating as far back as the 14th century.
Pear wood has been used to make biscuit moulds since at least the 17th century. It has a very fine grain, which is essential when you want to carve intricate designs without splitting the wood. It’s also ideal for food use – pear wood is odourless, non-toxic, highly durable, and can tolerate gentle washing after use. Small wonder it’s been the wood of choice for German biscuit moulds for hundreds of years!
What are speculaas?
Speculaas, also known as spekulatius, are biscuits flavoured with warming spices. Traditionally, a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom and white pepper is used.
In the Netherlands, speculaas biscuits traditionally tended towards a fairly thick and soft bake – rather like soft gingerbread. In Germany, you were more likely to find very thin and crunchy spekulatius. Nowadays, the two terms describe very similar biscuits.
The Flemish word speculoos is often used interchangeably with speculaas, but traditionally speculoos were separate biscuits altogether. A speculoos is a Belgian biscuit that’s made with fewer spices than the German and Dutch ones.
Where do speculaas come from?
Historical records show biscuits called speculaas being baked at least as far back as the 15th century, in the area of Europe we now know as the Netherlands.
The original biscuits would not have been the heavily spiced version we know today. The spices were likely introduced sometime between the 1600s and 1700s, when the success of the Dutch East India Company was at its peak. The Dutch East India Company brought a wealth of spices to Europe from the Indian sub-continent, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and even Africa.
The brisk spice trade throughout Europe at the time was the likely catalyst for a similar biscuit evolving in Germany.
What does ‘speculaas’ mean?
The true origin of the name ‘speculaas’ is unknown. As with springerle, though, there are several theories.
The first is that it’s derived from the Latin word, speculum, meaning ‘mirror’. It’s thought to refer to the way in which the biscuit dough is pressed into a mould – revealing a ‘mirror-image’ of the design in the mould.
Another theory takes the Dutch word Specerij as the starting point. Specerij literally translates as ‘spices’, suggesting that the name ‘speculaas’ refers directly to the ingredients.
Yet another theory takes us back to Latin with the word speculator. This literally translates as ‘scout’ or ‘explorer’, and is thought to be a reference to an epithet of Saint Nicholas – ‘he who sees everything’. This may seem like an odd link, but very early speculaas biscuits were often embossed with the image of Saint Nicholas.
Were speculaas always associated with Christmas?
Almost, yes! As mentioned above, early speculaas biscuits were embossed with the image of Saint Nicholas or with scenes from his story. Saint Nicholas’ Eve is celebrated on the 5th December in the Netherlands, and Saint Nicholas’ Day on the 6th December in Germany. People baked speculaas to give to each other as gifts during the celebrations.
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas is celebrated for around 2 weeks. The festivals start from the first Saturday after the 11th November, and run until Saint Nicholas’ Eve on 5th December. The celebrations are mostly for children, as Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children. Speculaas biscuits are always part of the treats gifted to children during this time.
In Germany, the traditions of St Nicholas’ Day have become inextricably linked with the Christmas season. On the night of the 5th December, children receive a visit from der Nikolaus or Saint Nicholas – the original Santa Claus! During the celebrations on Saint Nicholas’ Day, the 6th December, children who have been good will find chocolates, oranges and nuts. And – you guessed it – spekulatius are also often left as treats.
Today, you’ll see speculaas moulded into all sorts of designs. Animals and buildings – especially windmills – tend to be the most popular moulds, often engraved with intricate details and fine cross hatching.
Whether you call them speculaas or spekulatius, these biscuits are a perfect Christmas treat to enjoy with a mug of hot chocolate. Old or young, they’re sure to keep you warm and feeling the festive spirit! Homemade speculaas also make a wonderful Christmas gift.