"it is as if the deep flavour of the coffee and unique taste and crunchiness of the Lotus Biscoff biscuit were made for each other." First Class
I'm a generalist. I know a little about a lot. I'm not an expert who knows a lot about a little. I loved the fact that in the first year of my university course our main focus was a daily, and year long course of lectures which introduced us to every subject that was taught on campus. I also loved the fact that we had to study not just one major subject for our subsequent honours degree, but two. Also that we had to boost those two main subjects with subjects including something from each of science, art and social science. It stood me in good stead for my eventual career as a librarian/cataloguer/manager and also for life generally. It expands your horizons. Gives you an open mind and introduces you to subjects you might otherwise know nothing about. Not to mention focussing you one what really interests you. It is also very useful in Trivia competitions.
It might seem that a blog about food is very specific, but as I have said on countless occasions food encompasses just about every field of endeavour you can imagine - including physics and maths, even philosophy and latin. Plus everything else in between.
Today's subject - Biscoff - might seem very, very specific, and in a way it is. But the wonderful thing is that it has taken me into a range of different subject fields - commerce and marketing, history, tradition, geography, religion, social media and, of course, actual cooking - both trivial and very serious.
It all began with this photograph of Biscoff-stuffed brownies by Ed Kimber in The Guardian newsletter. Biscoff was not something I recognised and so I wrote it down in my notebook of ideas to check out at a later date.
In actual fact there were two recipes in this article and it was the other one that really interested me - Sticky prune cakes because I just love prunes. And having now checked it out again - picture below - when I've finished this I may go and make some.
It's such a dismal day and I'm in such a dismal mood that it might be just what I need to pick me up. We met some very healthy conscious friends in the supermarket this morning and I noticed cookies in their trolley and joked about it to them. But now I'm thinking, well if they eat cookies, why can't I eat sticky prune cakes?
Back to Biscoff. You have to admit those cookies look very decadent and, if you are into chocolate, very tempting. The prune cakes might not look so sumptuous but they might be better than they look.
So who or what is Biscoff? Let's start there.
Biscoff cookies were invented back in 1932 in the small town of Lembeke in Belgium by this man - one Jan Boone. With his two brothers Emiel and Henri, they set up a business to make them, as they proved to be very popular. They named the company Lotus after the flower that symbolises purity.
The company has retained the name, even though in the years since then, other companies have been absorbed into the brand. And it's still a family firm, now in the hands of the original Jan's grandson, - also called Jan, via the current Jan's father and uncle.
And what is that name 'speculoos' on that original packaging?
Here we get into history, tradition, religion. In the 17th century the Dutch started making speculaas - a type of heavily spiced biscuit that was stamped with the figure of St. Nicholas or scenes from his life. The biscuits were traditionally given to children on St. Nicholas' day - December 5 in the Netherlands, December 6 in Belgium. The children would put out shoes stuffed with straw in the hope that St. Nicholas would leave them speculaas in exchange for the hay for his horses, because they had been good little children. The Dutch biscuits were spiced with all the spices garnered by the Dutch East India Company from it's colonies in South East Asia.
Speculoos, on the other hand, although used in the same way were more lightly spiced. The first recipe for them appeared in 1870 - written by a Belgian - Antonie Deplée
And here comes linguistics. There are three different theories for the name. (a) from the latin 'speculum' which means mirror - perhaps something to do with the rectangular shape which eventually took over from the more picturesque shapes. (b) from the latin 'speculator' which means 'one who sees everything' and which refers to St. Nicholas who was believed to see everything - particularly I guess whether the children had been good or not. (c) from the dutch word 'specerij' which means spice. So take your pick. The Dutch one seems the most obvious to me.
So what are they actually? Well according to Taste:
"Biscoff biscuits are caramelised shortcrust biscuits that are thin, crunchy and taste like cinnamon." Taste
Just biscuits surely?
The Lotus company pottered along, well more than pottered, but relatively locally until in the mid 1980s an American food broker called Michael McGuire who had been living in Europe and loving the speculoos suggested, on his return to America, to Delta airlines that they should serve them on their aeroplanes. Which they did. They were such a hit that both United and American Airlines followed suit a few years later, and they are now an absolute tradition.
"United and American Airlines eventually hopped on the Biscoff train, likely because of the cookie’s unparalleled shelf stability and tasty, uncomplicated appeal. Keep in mind that when I say “appeal” I mean “sugary goodness for which consumers go completely ga-ga.” Lillian Stone/The Takeout
Apparently Delta serve 80-85 million of them every year. I think at one point they were replaced with something else, but there was such an outcry that they were re-established.
Fast forward to 2008 and Biscoff spread is introduced which has become the latest food trend - largely because of COVID (social history) - you can make so many things with Biscoff spread - and I will come to that. In 2019 there came ice-cream and in 2020 Biscoff sandwich cookies. Biscoff is now the 7th largest cookie manufacturer in the world. And now you can get their products here in Australia.
There are hundreds and hundreds of recipes out there. Everyone from TikTok and Instagram influencers to Ottolenghi himself is having a go. Maybe I'll start with this one. It's a very, very short video showing you how to make Biscoff microwave cookies and the author is called @fitwaffle. 3 ingredients, assembled in a jiffy and cooked in a microwave. The bottom of the food chain really. Apparently this is what we all want today - quick and easy - the days of leisurely cooking during COVID lockdowns are over - it's back to no time to do anything. So just check it out.
That spread was described as a sleeper hit during COVID so much so that companies began to include it in their own products - Kit Kat is perhaps the most famous, but Woolworths, for example have a vanilla cake with Lotus Biscoff - and a cheesecake too. I'm sure everyone else has other stuff.
Apparently we were all into baking during COVID so here are some recipes using Biscoff biscuits or Biscoff spread, sometimes both together, which I found, including one from Ottolenghi, and and an incredibly complicated and WOW kind of cake from the Not Quite Nigella lady. Speculoos crunch bars - another from Ed Kimber; Biscoff bannoffee crumble slice from Greer Worsley/Australia's Best Recipes which also offered Baileys Biscoff hot chocolate. Ottolenghi's offering was relatively simple - Peaches with ginger custard and Biscoff crumble; very unlike that Biscoff cake from Not Quite Nigella.
All of which proved that this was not just a thing in the realm of the supermarket magazines, TikTok and Instagram, but something much wider. However, I couldn't really see what all the fuss was about. And then I found a very comprehensive article from Stella Parks of Serious Eats, which did a Felicity Cloake extreme version on making her own Homemade Biscoff.
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 ...
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." Stella Parks/Serious Eats
Fundamentally it came down to using exactly the right ingredients and techniques. The article was long and really interesting about the differences between American and Belgian brown sugar for example:
"no American brown sugar will never 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" Stella Parks/Serious Eats
Obviously nobody in their right mind would bother to do all of the things she does in the pursuit of making the perfect Biscoff knockoff and I think she even recognised this, but a quest for knowledge spurred her on. You wouldn't bother though when a packet from the supermarket will set you back a mere $2.00 for 8 biscuits. And we probably shouldn't have more than that should we?
Well we've just prevented another bit of minor flooding by brushing the water away furiously as the gutters overflow, so now I might go and make those prune teacakes. Unless it rains again.
Biscoff the name, by the way, is an amalgamation of biscuit and coffee.