Evy Ballegeer was born in Belgium and raised in the small town of Maldegem, in the north of the country near the Dutch border. “Belgians tend to stay put, so my whole family and my high school friends live close enough for me to cycle between them when I’m home to visit.”
Another enjoyable pastime is coffee accompanied by the traditional speculoos, a thin, crisp, flavorful cookie. “Most Belgians cook very well and enjoy good food. Since Belgians value hard work and modesty, many people aren’t aware of their culinary skill, but every restaurant is good, even little snack bars. Every bakery makes speculoos, so almost no one makes them at home.”
Evy’s family maintained the tradition of “the little 4’oclock,” a time to take a break for a cup of good coffee and a little something sweet. Just one or two little speculoos are perfect. When she was a child, her first taste of coffee was dipping her speculoos into her grandmother’s coffee. “Eventually, the adults gave us our own coffee, just so that crumbs didn’t end up in their coffee.”
Speculoos has a long history in Belgium, going back to the 17th Century. Recently, children (and adults) also enjoy making their own “cookie butter,” softening speculoos by dipping them in coffee and then spreading them on bread.
When Evy joined her fiancé in New York City, she was filing stories for De Morgen newspaper in Brussels. “My assignment was to write about everything New York. I had the opportunity to interview Tom Wolfe and other interesting people, so I enjoyed it. When we moved to California, I continued to work as a journalist, writing about start-up founders for a Belgian publisher. After learning what made entrepreneurs tick, I was ready to try it for myself.”
Passionate about food, Evy decided to test her interest in cooking for others than her family, so she worked at the Berkeley Unified School District’s kitchen make 2,000 children’s lunches every day for a few months. “I still liked cooking, but I didn’t know what to do with that desire. So, I took the savory course at Tante Mare’s Cooking School in San Francisco. Afterwards I got an internship at Nopa Restaurant.”
“They had an opening in pastry, and since Nopa makes everything in house, it was varied and challenging. I asked if I could put speculoos on the dessert plates. What is an everyday treat for Belgians was a huge hit. Restaurant guests asked if they could have ‘just one more,’ or if they could have some to take home.”
That lit a creative spark in Evy. First she made boxes of assorted European cookies at the holidays. Of the nine varieties, the one that was everyone’s favorite was the speculoos. She had found that there was no artisanal speculoos in the U.S., so she decided to bring back the traditional recipe and traditional wooden molds.
The root word of speculoos means mirror, so each cookie is a mirror image of the mold. In Belgium, each bakery would have its own molds made using imagery that was significant to them or their town, such as the bakery’s logo, or the town’s patron saint. Similarly, Evy has chosen four Belgian themes that are personally significant to her. (See the sidebars for the stories behind the images.)
“Little Belgians has brought together so many important threads in my life,” Evy says with pleasure. “My nostalgia for Belgium, the history, culture, the food, the creativity of crafting them, and of course the fact that people love them!”