Here in North Carolina, yesterday’s dreary and overcast day felt like the holidays, but I found myself needing a soundtrack to truly get in the spirit. So despite my principled stance of waiting until December to turn up the music, I shuffled my Christmas playlist and took a trip down memory lane.
Growing up in Florida, I dreamed of a white Christmas. A Christmas where we would take our horse-drawn sleigh across snow-covered fields before settling down before a roaring fire to roast chestnuts. I wanted to bundle up against the elements and trudge through the snow to sing carols. Yes, North Florida does have cold days, but most of the time I’d head out the door in a wool sweater that would inevitably be shed for the tank top underneath.
As the holidays approached we would do our best to get in the Christmas spirit. Lights were hung and garlands drape. We even roasted chestnuts over an open fire one year in an experience that while memorable, does not bear repeating. Yet despite all our efforts, the temperature most years would be just a bit too high.
And that’s where music came in. We’d come home from selecting the perfect tree and the stereo cabinet would be flung open as we picked the ideal record for decorating. One of my favorites was Johnny Mathis’ Merry Christmas. Johnny, looking dapper in a red coat, stands with skis in a snow-covered field on the album cover. As we cranked up the air conditioning to have a fire, I carefully placed the needle on the record in the hopes that Winter Wonderland could transport all of us to a chillier holiday clime.
Days later, still no signs of even a frost on the horizon, my mother carefully orchestrated cookie decorating for me and my brothers. To set the mood, Wynton Marsalis’ played his trumpet in the Crescent City showing us that you didn’t need to be up North to get in the spirit. And mere hours after that, with sugar flowing through our veins, we played Mannheim Steamroller’s Carol of the Bells on repeat.
Music was the critical piece. While we couldn’t change the temperature, songs about snowmen and reindeer made it feel like the holidays that I had always imagined. And to this day, while my chances of a white Christmas are better (although still fairly low), all it takes is a few carols on the radio to get me into that holiday spirit.
The smell of that first batch of Christmas cookies is another one of my favorite signs that the season is upon us. Yesterday, as Tony Bennett sang My Favorite Things, I mixed up a batch of these holiday speculoos to get the season off to a sweet start. Speculoos (also spelled Speculaas) are spice cookies popular in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Simple to make, they are a great way to use up some of those rarely used spices that are lurking in the back of your spice cabinet. Thin and crispy, speculoos have a flavor similar to gingerbread. Drizzled with a little royal icing they make a nice accompaniment to a cup of coffee or a mug of steaming apple cider.
So regardless of whether your Christmas soundtrack is more Bing Crosby singing Mele Kalikimaka than Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting singing Loesser’s popular Baby, It’s Cold Outside, turn up the volume, preheat the oven, and get your holiday season baking. Happy holidays!
Holiday Speculoos – Printer Friendly Recipe
Makes about 2 dozen cookies
Traditional speculoos are stamped with an image. While it’s certainly worth the extra effort, I take the easy way out and simply cut out the cookies with regular cookie cutters. I give the cookies a little character by drizzling royal icing spiked with a bit of lemon juice over them.
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup packed dark brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon molasses
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
Pinch of ground red cayenne
For decorating: Royal icing (recipe follows), optional
Beat the butter, dark brown sugar, and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the molasses and beat just until combined
In a large bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter and sugar mixture beating on medium speed until the dough forms a rough ball. Divide the dough in half and wrap each half in plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and as long as overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Working with one dough ball at a time, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to a ¼-inch thickness. I find that brushing the dough with flour using a pastry brush and rolling the dough out on parchment paper keeps the dough from sticking. Cut out the desired shapes using your favorite cookie cutters. Carefully transfer the cutout shapes to the parchment-lined baking sheet.
Bake for 8 to 10 minutes depending on how crispy you would like your cookies to be. Cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.
While the first batch is baking, roll out the second ball of dough and repeat the above steps. Scraps can be gathered together in a ball and rolled out again.
Cookies can be served plain or, if desired, can be drizzled with royal icing.
1 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons dried egg whites
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 tablespoons warm water
Fresh lemon juice, to taste
Food coloring (optional)
In an electric mixer, beat the confectioners’ sugar, dried egg whites, vanilla extract, and warm water on low speed until combined. Increase the speed of the mixer to medium and beat until the frosting is thick and has a glossy sheen, about 4 minutes. If the icing is too thick, add a little more warm water. If too thin, add some more confectioners’ sugar. Add lemon juice to taste.
Color the icing with food coloring if desired. While icing can be drizzled over cookies using a spoon, I find that you have the most control if you pour the icing into small squeeze bottles. Squeeze bottles can be found at most restaurant supply stores and small bottles, perfect for decorating, can be purchased at Michael’s and other craft stores.