Spices, St Nicholas and gingerbread men

How St Nicholas became our modern Santa Claus is fairly well known but worth revisiting very briefly. German immigration into the northern USA brought tales of the generous saint, leaving gifts of sweets and other treats in the shoes of good children on the morning of his feast (6th December). In time, these tales were conflated with the English figure of Father Christmas, dressed in green and crowned with holly, ruling over the festivities of the Christmas season. His bishop's mitre has over time been replaced with a hood and his white vestments traded for festive red, some say as a marketing tool for a certain American drinks manufacturer.


The association between St Nicholas and children is particularly strong in the area of west-central Europe that became Lotharingia when the Carolingian Empire was divided in 855. The area stretched from Flanders and Holland in the north to Lorraine in the south. Although the peoples that lived in this territory lacked any kind of linguistic or cultural unity, they nevertheless came to share certain customs and traditions, including those associated with St Nicholas. The many St Nicholas traditions from the region share common themes of reward for good children, punishment for malefactors and merry-making and spiced, sweet baking. The position of the saint's feast in the calendar makes it the perfect springboard for Christmas celebrations and the aroma of that festive baking hangs over many an Advent/Christmas market.

I first became aware of these traditions when living in northern France, in an area that had once been Flanders. There, St Nicholas' day is marked particularly as a celebration for boys, girls being celebrated a week later, on St Lucy's day. It is most often the grandparents' job to tell children the legends of St Nicholas and his care for the young, to encourage them to leave shoes by the window or fireplace and to hope for a small gift. They are warned, though, that naughty children could finish up being whipped like one of the evildoers in the legend. The following day, children wake to greetings cards from their grandparents and Godparents, often containing small amounts of money. There will be a few coins in their shoes, but there is often a small bunch of twigs tied together into a whip, as an affectionate acknowledgement that everyone's a bit naughty from time to time, so severe punishments are best left unused. Pain d'epices is the celebration cake for St Nicholas' day in France. It's a fatless, honeycomb-textured cake, flavoured with aniseed and honey. I'll post a recipe for this delicious cake in a future blog.

My sister and her family lived a number of years in the Netherlands. It is perhaps there that the celebration of the saint has become most deeply rooted. Sinterklaas arrives by boat, as befits the patron saint of sailors, and makes his way by canal or on horseback through the towns and villages over the next couple of weeks, accompanied by his somewhat problematic sidekick, Swarte Piet. Sinterklaas and his companions distribute sweets (candies), chocolates and button-sized biscuits called peppernoten and set about finding out who has been good. Children are admonished to be good if they don't want to be carried off to Spain (presumably to be put to work on a galleon, rather then for a holiday on the Costa Brava). His feast itself is often marked with an early finish from school, street celebrations and games, before he sails away again, back to Spain. If you're wondering why Spain features so significantly in this tale of a Turkish saint visiting a country on the North Sea, remember that Spain was once Holland's colonial master. Sea-trade between the countries would have encouraged devotion to the saint, but the treat of abduction or exile to Spain would have been very real in the 16th and 17th centuries.

My sister's memories of celebrating Sinterklaas with her children
(Image: EF Compton)
From mid-November onwards, you will find Sinterklaas biscuits (cookies) in bakeries all over the Netherlands. The dough is formed into the image of the saint, or can be cut into the shape of each child's initial. Two types of dough are traditional, each very different from the other. The older version is known as taai-taai ("tough-tough") and comes with those lovely, medieval flavours of honey and aniseed. The recipe calls for basterdsuiker, a kind of sugar unique to Dutch cookery. It is partially invert, which helps the dough to rise and keeps the biscuits moist. I have found that a teaspoon or two of golden syrup or black treacle does the same job.

Taai-taai biscuits (makes about a dozen 10cm figures)
190g soft brown sugar
1 dessertspoon golden syrup or black treacle
130g honey
230g plain flour
200g rye flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons ground aniseed
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 egg, beaten

Sift the flours and salt into a large bowl. Put 170g of the sugar, the syrup/treacle, honey and 80ml of water in a saucepan and heat gently until it boils. Remove from the heat immediately. Add the hot sugar mix to the flours and stir together to form a stiff dough. Leave the dough to rest for a day at room temperature.

Mix the remaining 20g of sugar with the aniseed and baking powder. Break up the dough. Sometimes it's easier to grate it, depending how hard it has become overnight - this is where you realise why it has the name it does! Mix in the sugar & spice mix and bring the dough together with a little more water (probably about a tablespoon or so).

Taai-taai to the right
Preheat the oven to 210C, gas #6. Roll out the dough and cut into letters or other festive shapes, or press into a floured mould to form Sinterklaas figurines. Brush lightly with the beaten egg and bake for 12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack and keep in an airtight tin for a couple of days before you eat them.


The other dough the Dutch use for Sinterklaas biscuits, and the one that is more popular these days, is butter-rich and spiced with cinnamon, ginger and clove. The English word ginger originally referred to any kind of spice, and it is this usage that is retained in the modern gingerbread. In Dutch, this dough takes it's name from the practice of pressing it into wooden moulds to create a mirror-image in the finished biscuit: speculaas (speculoos in Flemish).

Speculaas biscuits (makes 12-15 figures)
2 tablespoons milk
115g dark muscovado sugar
280g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon ground clove or allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped almonds
2 tablespoons chopped candied citron
150g butter, in 1-2cm cubes

Dissolve the brown sugar in the milk in a large bowl. Sift the flour, spices, salt and baking powder together into the bowl and stir into the sugar & milk. Mix in the chopped almonds and citron. Add the butter and work it gently through the mix with a knife until a dough starts to form. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth. Cover and rest in the fridge for an hour or so.

Preheat the oven to 180C, gas #4. Dust a wooden speculaas mould lightly with cornflour. (A pastry brush is handy for this.) Roll the dough carefully into the mould and cut around the edges of the image. Carefully unmould onto a baking sheet. Use any the trimmings to make pepernoten: roll pieces of dough into 1cm balls and flatten them with the palm of your hand. Bake both speculaas and pepernoten for around 15 minutes. Don't let them darken too much or they will become bitter. Cool on a wire rack and keep in an airtight tin.

Both these biscuits improve with age if kept in an airtight tin. Throw a little (just a teaspoon or so) granulated sugar in the tin with the speculaas & pepernoten to keep them crisp, but the taai-taai are best left chewy.

Every year, I wonder which of the Dutch biscuits I like best. Many of my family prefer the speculaas, but I love the old-fashioned taste of aniseed and dark rye. On the other hand, I also love the buttery richness of the speculaas, too. Every year, I finish up making both!

Next time: aperitif beers

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