During the course of writing a book about technology start-ups, Evy Ballegeer was so inspired by her subjects that she decided to create a company of her own.
Yet instead of jumping into the software business, she chose cookies.
“I was already kind of looking for something else to do,” said Ballegeer, a former journalist. “So many newspapers were letting go of people, and I felt it was time to look for something else. And in writing about all of these entrepreneurs, I got inspired to take on a project myself.”
In 2014, Ballegeer started Little Belgians, a company that makes speculoos cookies, which the Berkeley resident grew up eating in her native Belgium.
Ballegeer wants to dispel a notion that many Americans have about the cookies. When she offers samples, people often make that same mistake. Her Little Belgians, and speculoos cookies in general, have little in common with the speculoos “cookie butter” sold at Trader Joe’s that is often used like Nutella.
That cookie butter is “a watered-down version of what [they are],” she said. “These cookies have been around since the seventeenth century.” Cookie butter — made from palm oil and cheap cinnamon, said Ballegeer — “has only been around for the last 15 years. Speculoos have much more than that, they have butter and a rich mix of spices. It’s not this palm oil thing at all.”
Real speculoos are thin cookies that taste of vanilla and spices, almost always served alongside a cup of coffee in Belgium, said Ballegeer. They come in different shapes, like a much more sophisticated animal cookie, but they all taste the same.
Ballegeer’s cookies, in particular, are thin and seemingly light, a cross between a gingersnap and a butter cookie. It’s easy to eat one or two and get that hit of sugar without feeling overly indulgent.
In Belgium, Ballegeer said, “they are in every pantry, in every household. You eat them with coffee during the day, and also for breakfast, the way the French put a bar of chocolate on bread in morning. We like cookies dunked in coffee; we start the day that way.”
Ballegeer said that since she grew up in a country where food is such a part of its culture, she was always a decent cook. She enrolled in San Francisco’s now-closed Tante Marie culinary school, thinking that she might open a bed and breakfast. But when she started an internship at San Francisco’s Nopa, she ended up working in the pastry department because of its friendlier hours. Amy Brown, who later opened San Francisco’s Marla Bakery, was then running that department, which churned out a cookie plate every evening as part of the dessert menu.
“At some point, she let me put speculoos on there,” Ballegeer said. “While they were very common to me, here they were something special because people were not familiar with them.”
Meanwhile, to make some extra money, she started making the cookies at home and selling them in Christmas cookie boxes to friends and friends of friends. Her happy customers immediately started encouraging her to start her own business.
The cookie business combined many things she already liked to do. “I like history and I like traditions,” she said. “This cookie is traditionally made with a mold, and as it’s made by a specific wood carver, it said something about the town. Plus I have nostalgia for Belgium, and all those elements came together in a simple cookie like speculoos.”
There are four designs to the cookies, all of them personal to Ballegeer. There’s a house cookie, which is based on a house on a canal in Ghent where she used to live. There’s an umbrella, since Belgium is known for its rainy weather and a bicycle, since bike racing is a national obsession. And there’s a pigeon, which has a stranger story. “Pigeon racing” was a phenomenon among men of Ballegeer’s grandfather’s generation, though it’s not what it sounds like. Participants would pick up a pigeon, release it somewhere, and whomever’s pigeon made it home first would win a prize at a local café.
“I picked it because both my grandfathers died when I was pretty young, but I remember them standing in overalls in their yards, waiting for the pigeons to drop,” she said. “It’s another element of nostalgia for me.”
Since the cookies have such prominence in Belgian culture, there are a multitude of recipes in existence. Ballegeer experimented until she came up with her own, using organic ingredients and the perfect mix of ginger, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon.
By trial and error, she tinkered until she got the proportions just right. “My kids were my main testers and they still are,” Ballegeer said. “One of my sons has a great palate and he’s only 11. They were also involved when I did the shelf tests to see how long people could keep them.”
Little Belgians are sold in the East Bay at the Berkeley and Oakland locations of Market Hall Foods, Artis Coffee, the Berkeley Natural Grocery Company, Modern Coffee in Oakland and online.
“My first delivery was to Bi-Rite, and the other was The Pasta Shop,” she said. [Eds: The Pasta Shop is now called Market Hall Foods.] “I was very lucky that I had two stores right here that are not only trendsetters here but nationwide. If you can say you’re at Bi-Rite that opens a lot of doors.”
Want to break out of your comfort zone and try a new place to have dinner tonight? Check out the Nosh Neighborhood Guides to some our favorite eating and imbibing spots.