When law-trained French teacher Tania Nicaise moved to Singapore 6½ years ago, Speculoos biscuits were a rare find.
For the Brussels native, who is of Brazilian and Belgian parentage, the spiced shortcrust biscuits are a quintessential taste of home.
The biscuits, flavoured with a blend of spices including cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, are popular in parts of Europe, including Belgium and the Netherlands.
In the past, the Singapore permanent resident would have to trouble friends travelling here to bring the biscuits, as well as bottles of spreadable Speculoos biscuit butter. These days, she is glad the butter and biscuits are readily available at major supermarket chains around the island.
The 49-year-old has created a Belgian take on the traditional Italian dessert of tiramisu, by using crushed Speculoos biscuits in place of sponge fingers or ladyfinger biscuits.
She says: "Speculoos biscuits can be a little sweet, so I have also reduced the amount of sugar for the mascarpone mixture. I have included Granny Smith apples for a touch of tartness and extra flavour."
BELGIAN SPECULOOS TIRAMISU WITH CARAMELISED APPLES AND CINNAMON
For the apple layer
3 Granny Smith apples, about 125g each
1 Tbs acacia honey
1 Tbs vanilla sugar (see note for recipe)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
For the biscuit layer
180g Speculoos biscuits, such as Lotus or Delhaize brands, available in major supermarkets
Leftover juice from cooking the apples
For the mascarpone layer
3 eggs, 60g each
90g caster sugar
250g mascarpone cheese, room temperature
3 Tbs Lotus Biscoff Biscuit Spread, available in major supermarkets
1. For the the apple layer: Peel the apples with a vegetable peeler. Remove the core and seeds. Dice into 0.5cm cubes. Do not be concerned if they start to brown due to oxidation. Set aside.
2. Melt the butter in a pan set over medium heat. Add the diced apples and lightly saute for about three minutes.
3. Add the honey, vanilla sugar and cinnamon. Mix well. Cook until the apples caramelise, about five minutes.
4. Remove the apples from the pan, but keep the juices in the pan for later use.
5. For the biscuit layer: Place the biscuits in a plastic food storage bag and roughly crush them using a meat tenderiser or rolling pin. You can also crush them with your fingers in a mixing bowl. Combine the crushed biscuits with any leftover apple juices in the pan. Set aside.
6. For the mascarpone layer: Separate the egg whites and the egg yolks. Place the whites in a clean and dry mixing bowl and the yolks into another bowl.
7. Using an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Set aside.
8. Next, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until the mixture becomes fluffy and turns a light, pale yellow. Add the mascarpone and beat until well incorporated. Fold the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture in three batches. Set aside.
9. To assemble: Divide the crushed biscuits into two equal portions. Next, divide the first portion evenly among six 7cm-diameter glasses - spoon about two heaped tsp of crushed biscuits into the base of each glass. You can also use 10 5cm-diameter glasses - just be sure to distribute the crushed biscuits evenly into all the glasses.
10. Distribute evenly half the mascarpone mixture into each glass.
11. Top the mascarpone layer with another biscuit layer by dividing the second portion of crushed biscuits evenly among the glasses.
12. Spoon a layer of caramelised apple over the biscuit layer. Distribute evenly among all glasses. Then top each glass with the remaining mascarpone mixture.
13. Refrigerate for at least four hours before serving.
14. To serve, warm up 3 Tbs of Lotus Biscoff Biscuit Spread in a hot water bath or in the microwave. Leave to cool to room temperature, then drizzle over each glass of tiramisu. Alternatively, dust each glass with ground cinnamon.
Makes six to 10 small portions of tiramisu.
The recipe has been adapted from The Red Dot Melting Pot Cookbook: A Selection Of Our Favourite Recipes From Around The World (2017).
Note: To make vanilla sugar, split a vanilla pod and scrape out the seeds into two cups of white sugar. Mix well. Place the pod, along with the sugar, in an air-tight container. Leave to infuse for at least a week. It can be used in everything from cakes to tea and coffee. Ready-mixed vanilla sugar is also available in supermarkets.
She recommends using Lotus-brand Speculoos biscuits because they have a good balance of cinnamon and nutmeg flavours, while other brands tend to have a strong ginger flavour that does not work well in tiramisu.
She has been making tiramisu since she was in her 20s, when she worked part-time at an Italian restaurant in Brussels while pursuing her law degree.
Indeed, Italian cuisine is something that is close to her heart, says the home cook, who is also fluent in French, Portuguese and Italian.
She had lived in Modena, Italy, for seven years before moving to Singapore with her husband, Belgium-born Alpesh Patel, 41, an aerodynamicist-turned-management consultant. They have no children.
There, the self-confessed foodie familiarised herself with Italian produce, from Parma ham and aceto balsamico, or aged balsamic vinegar, to various types of cheese and Lambrusco wines.
She adds that while traditional tiramisu calls for coffee spiked with Marsala wine, cognac is also a good alternative. Other twists include using crushed pistachios and raspberries to make the Italian treat.
Her recipe for Belgian tiramisu with caramelised apples and cinnamon is one of 223 recipes in a newly launched cookbook called The Red Dot Melting Pot Cookbook: A Selection Of Our Favourite Recipes From Around The World.
The book is a compilation of recipes by participants of the International Cooking Club Singapore, a Singapore-based non-profit organisation with more than 300 active participants from 85 countries around the globe, who bond over cooking and baking.
Ms Nicaise has been part of the cooking club since it started in 2015. The club has helped her forge friendships and form a community.
"It is not easy when you arrive in a new country and don't know anyone. I was very lonely."
Her cooking group, which varies from about seven to 12 people, meets once a fortnight. Participants take turns to share recipes and host sessions at their homes.
The avid home cook is also a pasta specialist. Last year, she took a professional artisan pasta-making course in Bologna and plans to open a restaurant specialising in freshly made pasta in Brussels next year.
A Singapore outlet may also be on the cards, she says.
"In Brussels, there is no pasta restaurant that makes its pasta on site, like how dumplings are made at Din Tai Fung," she says.
"I thought it would be a good concept for the city."
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• The cookbook is priced at $49.90. Go to www.iccs.org.sg for details on how to order.