Why It Works
- Light brown Belgian candi sugar has a complex caramel flavor totally unlike American brown sugar.
- Baking soda seasons and leavens the dough, giving the cookies big flavor and crunch.
- Ceylon cinnamon is key to the beautiful aroma of this Belgian-style cookie.
- A lengthy creaming stage will both aerate and warm the dough, making it light and easy to roll.
If you're not completely obsessed with Biscoff, turn back now. This isn't about a cookie; it's about a way of life—learning how to make my all-time favorite speculoos from scratch. It's about picking apart a recipe to find out what makes it tick, not so I can make a "better" version, but so I can better understand what makes the original so great. Although, yeah, sitting down to freshly baked tray of crispy, caramelized cookies is pretty awesome.
At first blush, making Belgium's favorite biscuit for coffee doesn't seem like such a tricky task, the Biscoff ingredients list is exceedingly straightforward: flour, sugar, fat, brown sugar, baking soda, soy flour, and cinnamon. Yet nailing the recipe has eluded me for years. I've come close a time or two in the past, first sharing a recipe on Serious Eats back in 2012, but the result always fell in the uncanny valley of taste, similar in all the important ways yet disturbingly off base.
My previous attempts lacked the toasty sweetness and curiously floral aroma of the real deal, instead having a dark flavor and crunch more akin to gingerbread. But after five years of on-again, off-again recipe testing, I finally realized where I went wrong—the most important ingredients had been lost in translation, which had me questioning almost everything involved. Taking a closer look at each one is key to getting to a much more accurate recipe.
What Is Brown Sugar?
As it turns out, the answer to that question depends on where you live. In the US, brown sugar is a combination of refined sucrose and molasses, the latter a complex cocktail of fructose, glucose, amino acids, and minerals that give brown sugar its unique flavor (more on that here and info on how to make your own brown sugar here). The sucrose in brown sugar can come from either sugar cane or sugar beets, but the molasses portion is always derived from sugar cane. That's because sugar beet molasses is comparatively high in ash and nitrogenous waste, making it so bitter and acrid it is considered unfit for human consumption.
In Belgium, however, sugar cane was historically unavailable, leading sugar beet refiners to develop a different sort of brown sugar, one made with refined sucrose and caramel. Yeah. Caramel. So instead of the acidic, malty, slightly bitter, and vaguely fruity taste of molasses, Belgian brown sugar gives Biscoff a backbone of caramel flavor.
That means no American brown sugar will ever do the trick. Fortunately, homemade caramel sugar is kiiiiiinda my thing. Throw a bag of refined white sugar in a low oven, stir from time to time, and in about 5 hours you'll have a deeply caramelized sugar perfect for homemade Biscoff (try the recipe here). And if you don't have time for all that, Belgian-style brown sugar is easy to buy online; my favorite is Brun Foncé Candi Sugar from Brewer's Best, which gives my homemade Biscoff a deep, caramelized sweetness.
What Is Cinnamon?
As with brown sugar, the answer to this question depends on where you live. In America, supermarket cinnamon is almost always cassia, a reddish spice with the bold, spicy flavor most of us associate with cinnamon rolls, Snickerdoodles, and apple pie. In Belgium, however, the most common sort of baking cinnamon is Ceylon, also known as true cinnamon, a slightly more orange spice with a warm flavor and delicate, almost floral quality. Ditching cassia for Ceylon gave my homemade Biscoff the aroma they'd been missing, and a distinctive cinnamon flavor that wasn't so brash.
Getting away from America's molasses-y brown sugar and bold cinnamon style banished the gingerbready quality that had dogged my recipe, pushing my homemade Biscoff into clear speculoos territory. All that was left was to refine the flavor.
What Is Speculoos?
Speculoos, the cookie family to which Biscoff belong, are often described as a type of gingerbread, but that's a little misleading. Aside from their use of caramel sugar, speculoos don't have quite the same bite; their spice blend tends toward aroma rather than heat.
After looking at several traditional recipes, I began doctoring my cookies with a mix of white pepper, ginger, anise, cardamom, cloves, and nutmeg, in addition to Ceylon cinnamon. In early batches, these spices overwhelmed the caramel and cinnamon flavors, but my cookies tasted one-dimensional without them.
Eventually, I ruled out ginger altogether, then white pepper, both of which proved too assertive. With a good deal of tinkering across well over fifty batches, I narrowed my spice blend down to a few pinches of cardamom, cloves, anise, and nutmeg, which gave my homemade Biscoff a richly spiced aroma totally unlike the sharpness of gingerbread, and everything like my favorite airplane cookie.
What Is Baking Soda?
Most of us think of baking soda as a leavening agent that helps our cakes and cookies to rise, but it can also function as a flavoring (most famously, in pretzels). It's a trick I've used with my gingersnaps and malted butterscotch cookies, as baking soda can improve Maillard browning in cookie dough, adding an extra dose of toastiness and crunch. Indeed, bumping up the soda in my recipe beyond what was strictly necessary for leavening did just that, giving my cookies a toasty flavor and color.
Virtually all commercial speculoos, including Biscoff, include soy flour, likely as an emulsifier. Having lived in Japan, I know firsthand how delicious roasted soy flour can be, so I didn't want to brush it off as a strictly industrial thing. It's an ingredient I often use at home—I sprinkle it over vanilla ice cream and I add it to homemade graham crackers for an extra dose of nuttiness—so I decided to give it a try in my version of Biscoff as well. I found that even just a half-teaspoon improved the texture of my dough, and gave the finished cookies a slightly nutty aroma. Although roasted soy flour is cheap and easy to buy online (try Shirakiku Kinako soybean flour), I wouldn't say it's a make-or-break ingredient as much as a very tasty bonus, so don't sweat this one if you're not interested in having a whole bag on the shelf.
Putting It All Together
Even with all the right ingredients, homemade Biscoff require a few special considerations compared to a typical cookie dough. First and foremost: proper creaming. Cookie doughs that contain more sugar than fat require extensive creaming and scraping for proper aeration. Even with my KitchenAid pro, it can take up to 10 minutes, so if you have a less powerful mixer, don't rush it. This is particularly true in cool weather, as pantry ingredients like sugar will be chilly enough to slow the process down.
In the early stages you'll see a dense ring of caramel-sugar and butter at the bottom of the bowl. Give it a scrape from time to time and keep creaming until the mixture lightens in both color and consistency. From there, add the all-purpose flour all at once and keep mixing until the dough comes together in a ball. Don't worry about overmixing, the quantity of sugar will keep the cookies tender, but undermixing will lead to a crumbly dough.
Speaking of crumbly doughs....in Belgium, plain flour is very soft, so this is definitely a recipe where high protein, hard red wheat all-purpose flours will not perform well. My recommendation is bleached Gold Medal all-purpose flour, not because it's bleached but because it's a blend of red and white wheat, providing a great balance of protein and starch that more closely mimics the softness of Belgian flour.
Due to the extra baking soda in the dough, these cookies will spread and puff quite a bit. For that reason, they're best rolled quite thin and cut in simple, geometric shapes. I cut mine into 2-inch by 3/4-inch rectangles with a fluted pastry wheel (such as this Happy Sales pastry wheel). Instead of trying to re-roll the scraps (which would toughen as they absorb more flour), I simply pile them down on one end of the baking sheet—they freeze well and make amazing cookie crumbs for pie crusts and no-bake cheesecake, or even homemade Biscoff ice cream.
In the end, careful attention to the right ingredients and techniques will make these copycat cookies extraordinarily like the original: caramelized, crisp, and nutty. Even if you're not obsessed with actual Biscoff, every baker can benefit from learning how to make speculoos with real Belgian-style brown sugar and spices.
- 5 1/4 ounces light brown candi sugar, such as Brewer's Best, or deeply toasted sugar (about 2/3 cup, firmly packed; 150g)
- 3 ounces unsalted butter, soft but cool, about 70°F (6 tablespoons; 85g)
- 3/4 teaspoon baking soda (4.75g)
- 3/4 teaspoon ceylon cinnamon (1.5g)
- 1/2 teaspoon kinako (roasted soybean flour; 1g), such as Shirakiku, optional
- 1/4 teaspoon ground or freshly grated nutmeg (0.25g)
- Shy 1/8 teaspoon (0.35g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or use the same weight
- Shy 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves (0.15g)
- 1/16 teaspoon ground cardamom (0.10g)
- 1/16 teaspoon ground anise (0.10g)
- 1/2 ounce tap water (about 1 tablespoon; 15g)
- 5 1/2 ounces ounces all-purpose flour (about 1 1/4 cups; 155g)
Adjust oven rack to lower middle position, and preheat to 350°F. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine candi or toasted sugar with butter, baking soda, cinnamon, kinako, nutmeg, salt, cloves, cardamom, and anise. Cream on medium speed until fluffy, soft, and pale, about 10 minutes, pausing to scrape the bowl and paddle as needed if the sugar seems dense and compacted at the bottom of the bowl.
While creaming on medium speed, slowly splash in the water a little at a time. Once it disappears into the fluffy butter/sugar mix, reduce speed to low and add the flour all at once. Continue mixing until the dough begins to gather around the paddle.
Turn the dough onto a clean surface, and knead gently to form a ball. Pat into a rectangular shape, then dust with flour, above and below. Roll to a thickness of 3/16-inch, using a ruler for guidance. Slide an offset spatula beneath the dough to loosen, and brush away the excess flour.
With a fluted pastry wheel, cut the dough into 3/4-inch strips, then cut crossways to form 2-inch rectangles. With the offset spatula, transfer the cutouts and scraps to a parchment-lined half sheet pan, leaving an inch between each piece to account for spread.
Bake until cookies are golden brown, about 16 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through if needed to ensure even browning. Cool to room temperature directly on the baking sheet; the cookies will not crisp until fully cool. Enjoy with coffee, and store leftovers in an airtight container up to 1 month at room temperature; the scraps can be ground to use for crumbs and frozen in an airtight container for up to 3 months.
Like many copycat desserts, these cookies hinge on a number of key ingredients; if you don't have them on hand, it's better to save this recipe for another time. With each substitution, the incredible flavor and texture of these speculoos-style cookies will be lost.