05 December 2010

5 December - St. Nicholas Eve; Speculaas and Pfeffernusse

Weather: If it storms on the first Sunday of the month, it will storm every Sunday.
Fortunately, no storms today.  Just overcast and dreary.
Astronomy: New Moon tonight.  When you see the New Moon (which looks like a very thin crescent) turn over the coins in your pocket as a wish for more coins to join them.
This is the Second Sunday in Advent, when we hear the words of Saint John the Baptist, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make straight in the desert a highway for our God!"
Tomorrow being Saint Nicholas Day, tonight is Saint Nicholas Eve, which has its own set of traditions, for tonight the Good Bishop pays a visit to each household to discuss the good or bad deeds of the children, all of which are kept in his Golden Book.

From the Every-day Book and Table Book, 1838, an account of Saint Nicholas Eve in Leeuwarden, West Freizeland (now Friesland, a province of the Netherlands):

"At last a loud knock is heard, in an instant the games are suspended, and the door slowly unfolding, reveals to sight the venerated saint himself, arrayed in his pontificals, with pastoral staff and jewelled mitre.

In fine, the family peccadillos being tenderly passed over, and the more favorable reports made the subject of due encomiums, good father Nicholas gave his parting benediction, together with the promise (never known to fail), of more substantial benefits, to be realized on the next auspicious morning.

Before retiring to bed, each member of the family deposits a shoe upon the table in a particular room, which is carefully locked, and is opened the next morning is the presence of the assembled household; when lo! by the mysterious agency (doubtless) of the munificent saint, the board is found covered with bon bons, toys, and trinkets."

The first act of this evening is a visit by the Saint and his henchman, Black Peter (Zwarte Piet; in France, le Pere Fouettard; in Germany, Knecht Ruprecht).  The front door opens slightly, and a black-gloved hand tosses in little sweets.  While the children collect the treats, the Bishop and his black-clad servant enter.  Black Peter is much to be feared, for he holds a large black bag, into which bad children will be tossed and carried away until they are good again.

Saint Nicholas asks the children about their behavior since he last saw them, sometimes even mentioning deeds which they thought they had hidden.  No, the Saint sees all, and will reward them according to their deserving.  He takes his leave; Black Peter with him, perhaps holding a bundle of birch twigs and eyeing someone who had not been as good as he should.

Tonight, good, thoughtful children will leave their shoes near the fireplace, along with carrots, hay, bread, or perhaps a lump of sugar and a cup of water for Saint Nicholas' magnificent white horse (or donkey), which he rides from rooftop to rooftop.  [Calculating children will also do this, hoping that their past misdeeds may be overlooked in this act of speculative generosity. Trust me. I know.]

They then go to bed, saying a prayer that the saint will remember them (in a good way!) and wait in hope and trepidation for what they will find in their shoes in the morning.  For tonight, as Saint Nicholas rides from roof to roof, Black Peter will slip down the chimney and leave gifts from the saint: sweets, candies, and little gifts for the good children, birch switches for naughty children.

Read here how Maria von Trapp and her family celebrated Saint Nicholas Eve.  The Wikipedia article has more on celebrations in different countries.

Well, perhaps children are too savvy these days, and know that, good or bad, they will still get the latest gadget toy.  And perhaps Saint Nicholas Day has been subsumed into the gift frenzy that is Christmas.  You can always revive this night of a yearly examination of conscience.  It can't hurt (unless you get the bundle of birch twigs).

Pepernoten or PFEFFERNUSSE (pepper nuts) are one of the sweets given to children today, as an earnest of good things to come. (Remember that pepper is a spice.)

This is a two-day recipe, as the unbaked cookies have to stand overnight.  It also makes about 90 cookies.

In a medium bowl, stir together 3-1/2 cups of flour, 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon EACH of nutmg, allspice, and cloves, and 1/4 teaspoon EACH of salt, pepper, and mace.

In a large bowl, beat 4 eggs until fluffy, then gradually beat in 2 cups of sugar; continue beating for about 15 minutes or until thick and fluffy.

Add the flour mixture, one third at a time, blending thoroughly with each addition.  To the last third of the flour mixture, add the grated peel of 1 lemon (about 1-1/2 teaspoons), 1/2 cup finely chopped candied citron (I substitute finely chopped raisins, California of course), and 1/2 cup unblanched ground almonds (which I have left out before, with no problem).  Mix well.

Turn half of the dough out onto a floured board and roll out to 1/2 inch thick.  Cut with a 1-inch cutter (a shot glass works).  Place cut-outs on greased cookie sheets 1 inch apart.  Re-roll the scraps and continue making 1-inch circles until the dough is used up (if you don't have enough cookie sheets, roll up the other half of the dough in a piece of waxed paper, and wait until your cookie sheets are free).

Let the circles stand uncovered at room temperature overnight.  When ready to bake, preheat your oven to 300 degrees F.  Turn the cookies over so that the moist side is up; put a drop of brandy in the center of each (brandy makes them 'pop', giving them a topknot).   Bake for about 20 minutes or until the cookies 'pop' and are baked through (test by cutting one in half; if it is not sticky inside, then it is done).  Cool on wire racks.

Some like to roll each cookie in powdered sugar as it comes out of the oven, then letting it cool.
Traditionally, Dutch Speculaas and  German Spekulatius made its first appearance on Saint Nicholas Eve. This is a recipe for SPECULAAS that I use with my "Tom Kitten" mold.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine 4 cups of flour with 1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar, 4 teaspoons of baking powder, 1 tablespoon of ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon EACH of salt, ground cloves and nutmeg (ginger too, if you like), and 1/2 teaspoon EACH of pepper and ground aniseed.  Mix in 1 cup of softened butter.  Then add 1/3 cup of milk, and knead mixture into a soft dough (add a little more milk if necessary, 1 tablespoon at a time.  You don't want Speculaas soup.)

Roll dough on a lightly floured board to 1/2-inch thickness.  Cut out cookies with a 2-1/2 inch diameter cutter; press a blanched almond into each cookie. Or if you have a cookie stamp or the traditional wooden cookie mold, especially one of Saint Nicholas, use them to form the cookie and leave off the almond.  (Follow the directions for using your mold, which means greasing and flouring it before use. You will then take up a small portion of dough and press it into the mold.  Turn the mold over onto a baking sheet and tap to release cookie.)  Another idea is to roll out your dough on a bed of crushed almonds, before cutting out the cookie shapes.

Bake on greased cookie sheets in the preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until they are golden brown.  If your mold produces a cookie that is 1/8 inch thick, cut baking time down to 10 - 12 minutes. Cool.