After its creation was announced via nationwide broadcast, people lined up to buy the very first versions. It's lightweight, has been the subject of fierce patent battles and is so addictive you can't put it down, even when you know you should.
We're talking about jars of a Belgian cookie paste named speculoos spread.
Sugary, smooth and spicy like a gingerbread cookie, the spread is a relatively new take on a classic European flavor that caused a stir in Belgium, stormed the European market and has become a "you have to try this!" darling of the American foodie blogosphere.
Traditionally baked around the holidays for St. Nicholas Day, speculoos cookies have been popular in Belgium, the Netherlands and France for centuries. Named "speculoos" in Flemish from the Latin word for "spice," the cookies are subtly sweet, tasting predominantly of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, pepper and nutmeg.
Belgians have long known that speculoos cookies (Belgians say SPEK-yoo-loes, while Americans tend to say SPEK-yoo-loose) slathered in butter and placed between slices of bread break down into a pastelike consistency after a few hours in a warm lunch pail. In 2007, a popular television inventors competition "De Bedenkers" (The Creators) featured two speculoos spread recipes made from grinding the cookies with oil to get a pasty, spreadable consistency. Several companies sensed the intense buzz building around the prototype product in Belgian living rooms and brutally battled one another for patents to produce this new take on a seasonal favorite.
It was a smash. Imagine the Belgian equivalent of eating peanuts every summer at baseball games and then someone hands over the world's first peanut butter sandwich and says "try this." In its first year, speculoos spread outsold the wildly popular chocolate and hazelnut spread Nutella in some markets. Speculoos producers Lotus and Vermeiren Princeps both estimate one out of every two Belgian households now owns a jar of speculoos spread, a product that did not exist just six years ago.
Although Europeans flocked, American exposure to speculoos was mostly limited to passengers on Delta flights who munched the cookies offered under the name "Biscoff." About two years ago, jars of the spread, sometimes sold as "Biscoff" or "cookie butter," began to appear on the bottom of store shelves, inviting only the curious shopper or Belgian ex-pat. A blogger tried it here, a pastry chef there and, bit by bit, Americans are getting to know and love speculoos spread.
"It's almost the same reaction every single time," said Eddie Lakin, owner and chef of Edzo's Burger Shop in Chicago and Evanston, Ill., which features a speculoos milkshake. "They can't quite put their finger on exactly what. It's a totally unique taste, yet it tastes so familiar. But everyone loves it. I've never had one person who said it's so-so."
Lakin got the idea for the shake after chatting at the register with a college student who had spent time studying in Belgium. Sure, the Nutella shake Lakin offers is good, the student agreed. But have you tried speculoos spread?
While both sides of the pond like the product, European and American eaters crave it for decidedly different reasons. Steven Vavedin of Vermeiren Princeps estimates 95 percent of the speculoos spread consumed in Europe is spread on a piece of bread as part of breakfast or lunch. More a staple and not a sweet treat.
For Americans more used to savory salami or peanut butter, the sugary spice of speculoos doesn't quite feel like everyday fare. Some bake it into cookies or blondies for an added spicy twist. Some slather it between the speculoos cookies or on waffles to add a sugary boost. Some eat it on fruit, some pretzels and some swirl it into pancake batter.
Some don't see the need to waste time with such theatrics. They simply insert finger into jar, swipe and place in mouth.
However it's eaten, demand continues to grow. Major producers of the spread are tight-lipped about sales figures, but the coy aversions and enthusiasm to dish about the wonders of speculoos make it clear that America is bullish on the product.
If you ask Belgians, they're not surprised speculoos spread is catching on.
"Belgium is a very modest country," said Renaud Hendrickx, co-owner and chef of Hendrickx Belgian Bread Center in Chicago. "We're small but whatever we do is quality, so obviously it's bound to have a good reception. I guess I'm the only Belgian that's not modest."
Increasingly ubiquitous and dangerously addictive. Just be sure to wipe the speculoos off your hands before touching your smartphone screen.
Where to find it
Speculoos spreads can be found at Trader Joe's, Walgreens, Jewel-Osco, and at numerous online retailers. Speculoos spread does not contain any nuts or dairy but does contain wheat and soy.
Prep: 5 minutes
Cook: 8 minutes per batch
Servings: 10 pancakes