Americans have peanut butter slathered on bread, on a banana, or on a branch of celery: it shines by its versatility.
It can be salty, sweet, or both. It can be crunchy, it can be smooth. Best of all, it's even (somewhat) good for the human body. Peanuts pack a lot of protein, I hear, making good old PB a guilty pleasure in disguise.
In many European countries, peanut butter is seen as one of two things. Either it comes across as an American novelty sold next to Newman's Own popcorn and barbecue sauce, or it is consumed as a staple in Asian and African cooking. Whatever way you look at it, peanut butter doesn't come near the tabletop when it's time for the four o'clock goûter.
That isn't to say that children don't spread anything on their tartine besides butter and jam--which, if you ask me, is already heavenly enough. Specialty spreads are making it big these days in the Old World, and I'm staying around to get a piece of the action.
One of them doesn't need an introduction: you all know Nutella. Loved by kids and teenage girls alike, it comes in multiple sizes, hoarding a substantial chunk of the grocery store aisle. The chocolate-hazelnut combination is hard to resist, and there are many great artisan versions made with milk or dark chocolate.
Nutella isn't the only one out there, though. New spreads are trying to get "leur part du gâteau" and secure a spot in family cupboards. New addictions may just see the day sometime soon.
Staying in the realm of chocolate, remember Ovaltine? Called Ovomaltine in French-speaking Europe, the chocolate malt powder is very polarizing: you either love it or hate it. For those who enjoy it, take chocolate, malted milk powder, and imagine them turned into a paste. A paste with crunchy, malted chocolate bits. Enough said, right? Slathered on a large slice of fresh rustic bread, it becomes phenomenal and complex--this isn't just for the K-12.
Another paste has been making the rounds lately. Speculoos, the traditional Northern European spiced cookie, has become the object of a media frenzy, judging from a recent New York Times article. Lotus, the famous speculoos brand, has started producing and selling speculoos spread based on a winning recipe from a consumer contest. If you're lucky, your European grocery store will stock both versions, à la peanut butter: crunchy and smooth.
Speculoos paste is exciting for its taste, but also its versatility. Let's take a look at flavors first. If you've ever bitten into a speculoos cookie, you're probably familiar with the warmth the crisp, buttery treat exudes. Cinnamon is the dominating spice, with a cast of characters that would make any gingerbread swoon: star anise, cloves, ginger and nutmeg, to name a few.The spread, surprisingly enough, is an amazing way to highlight this warmth: a spoonfull of the smooth version is silky, as buttery as the cookie, and really lets the medley of flavors shine through.
That same spoonful should also be enough to evoke a flurry of dishes where speculoos paste would be right at home. On the sweet side, it goes without saying that any kind of bread would be happy to have speculoos spread as a snack-time date. Thinking a little further, it could easily be incorporated into a mousse preparation, or slathered onto ladyfingers for a new take on classic tiramisu. When it's time for dinner, keep the jar by your side: it could easily turn a coconut-shrimp curry into a culinary prowess. One paste, a million ideas--this is no gadget. Word out there is Galak, a white chocolate sub-brand of Nestlé, is launching a white chocolate-speculoos paste of its own. Visions of spoonfuls making their way onto fresh baguette are budding in European minds everywhere...could Nutella be in danger?
Not for now, it seems. European children will always love a four o'clock snack, and the snack, in turn, seems to have a thing for spreads. Looks like we're going to need larger cupboards.