Preheat the oven to 375°. With a pastry brush, spread 2 tablespoons of the softened butter evenly on two large baking sheets.
Combine 2 cups of the flour, the cinnamon, mace, anise, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, baking powder and salt, and sift them together into a bowl. Set aside.
In a deep bowl, cream the remaining 12 tablespoons of butter and the sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the milk a tablespoon at a time, then add the flour-and-spice mixture about 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition. When finished the dough should be firm enough to gather into a compact ball; if necessary, add up to 1/4 cup more flour by the tablespoonful. Should the dough become too stiff to beat easily, knead in the remaining flour with your hands.
Roll out the dough between two sheets of wax paper until it is about 1/2 inch thick (or roll into balls and flatten with a fork). Gently pull away the top sheet of wax paper and, cut the dough into shapes. If using almonds, press them gently into the cookies.
Refrigerate the cookies for about 30 minutes, then transfer them from the bottom sheet of wax paper to the buttered baking sheets with a metal spatula.
Bake in the middle of the oven for about 15 minutes, or until they are lightly browned and firm to the touch. The cookies will take only 8 to 10 minutes to brown and firm. Let cookies cool to room temperature before removing them from the baking sheets.
Stored in airtight containers, the cookies will keep for several weeks.
Double-acting baking powder contains two types of acids, which react at different times during baking. The first acid reacts by creating gases when mixed with the liquid in the recipe. The second type reacts by creating gases when the batter is exposed to oven heat.