Today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, the fourth century Greek/Turkish bishop. Amongst his many other saintly responsibilities, Nicholas of Myrna is the patron saint of Amsterdam, and much beloved of the Dutch. Saint Nicholas’ major claim to fame however is that he may be the original model for Santa Claus. The conventional explanation is that the attempts of the Dutch to get their tongues around the name ‘Saint Nicholas’ came out more like ‘Sinterklaas’, which to English-speakers became ‘Santa Claus’. Luckily for our Christmas traditions, Nicholas was a generous gift-giving, child-friendly sort of saint, not a desert hermit or hungry ascetic, or our stockings would remain empty on the night – or we wouldn’t bother hanging them up at all.
In Holland and Germany, as I understand it, Saint Nicholas’ Day is the beginning of the gift-giving season. Originally, feast days of saints (indeed, any day on the calendar) began on the previous Eve, and St Nicholas’ biggest night of the year (except when he is in his Santa Claus form) is the night of December 5 when he visits all children while they sleep, leaving gifts or forfeits depending on their behaviour.
One of the traditional Dutch treats on this day are spiced cookies called speculaas. I give you a recipe for them from the New York Times of December 6, 1952.
¼ cup butter
5 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
Pinch baking powder
½ teaspoon cloves
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons warm milk
10 almonds, finely chopped
Citron peel, finely chopped
1.Cream well together butter and sugar until well blended
2.Sift together flour, baking powder and spices. Beat into the butter mixture alternately with warm milk. Add almonds and citron and mix well.
3.Shape dough into a long roll with floured hands, and chill in refrigerator about twelve hours. Or roll dough into a thin sheet, cut into oblongs with a knife, and stamp top with print from butter mold.
4. Bake cookies on greased and floured tin in a 375 degree F. oven for twelve minutes or until done.
Yield: about two dozen cookies.
[A previous St Nicholas' Day post is here. ]
Quotation for the Day.
Hors d'oeuvres have always a pathetic interest for me; they remind me of one's childhood that one goes through wondering what the next course is going to be like - and during the rest of the menu one wishes one had eaten more of the hors d'oeuvres.
Hector Hugh Munro