Saturday, 7 December 2013

St Nicholas Cookies And Hooky Cookie Jars

Yesterday was the Feast of St Nicholas. Celebrated more in continental Europe than in the UK, with present-giving and the distribution of sweets and cookies, he's obviously a saint worth cultivating! And although he has given rise to some, lurid, apocryphal stories, such as the one about resurrecting three unfortunate children from a butcher's pickling tub, (a chilling tale, immortalised in the old French carol - "Ils ├ętaient trois petits enfants, qui s'en allaient glaner aux champs."), and travelling about in his modern day incarnation, complete with sleigh, red-nosed reindeer and elves, he was a genuine historical figure who lived in the 3rd C AD. Fortunately, the ghastly butcher's pickling tub seems to be pure fiction, but the tradition about his provision of money, in secret, to a family, impelled, by financial need, to consider selling their three daughters into prostitution, is thought to have some basis in fact.

As you probably know, this is where the Christmas stocking tradition comes from. St Nicholas is said to have placed his secret gifts of money, for the three girls, in their stockings or shoes, that were hung in front of the fire to dry. Although he certainly came down no chimney and Myra, in modern-day Turkey, where he was Bishop, was about as far from the North Pole as you can get, it's nice to remember that good old "Santa" has a genuine pedigree!

I am a day late in posting this but I have been baking some of those spiced St Nicholas cookies that they make so beautifully in Germany and the Netherlands and thought I might share them with you.

They are traditionally called "Speculatius" or "Speculaas" cookies as they should depict the figure or face of St Nicholas on them.

(The word means image, I think, in both German and Dutch.)  They are traditionally made by pressing the dough into specially shaped and carved wooden moulds which are then banged on a work surface to release each shaped piece of dough before baking. I like the sound of these - Mrs T is always up for a bit of robust cooking action! - but didn't know where in the UK, I might obtain such a mould so I made do with getting D to cut out a template from a piece of plasticard, (snaffled from D's cavernous, model-making, resource stash), for me to cut round with a knife, to make a handful of proper  St Nicholas-shaped biscuits and using a star-shaped cutter for the rest of the dough.

Details, as per the traditional pattern used on the Polish version of these, called "pierniki", were added to the bishopy ones with piped royal icing - an activity fraught with cursing, clouds of icing sugar and blobs of icing from the piping container going everywhere, in more or less, three equal proportions. Mrs T and intricate icing do not instinctively mix. Take out the "instinctively", actually. The results are homely and not exactly professional but fun nonetheless and H kindly (and swiftly) ate up the ones whose expressions looked worryingly imbecilic, where the episcopal slippers had mysteriously and alarmingly fused together, or where St Nicholas's crozier had a strange, wilted or bendy appearance!

The recipe for the biscuits came from here, a wonderful website full of stories and traditions about St Nicholas. I've used the German recipe rather than the Dutch one. I found three large eggs were enough for the dough quantities given, so I'd suggest only using the four specified, if your eggs are small. The dough is a really lovely one to work with and the presence of egg means that the cookies keep their cut-out shape nicely without spreading too much in the oven. Makes a lot though so if you don't want too many cookies, I'd make half or two-thirds quantities.

On the same website is a lovely reminiscence of a Belgian lady, now in her eighties, of St Nicholas's Day in Belgium in the 1930s - simple, fun and heart-warming and with a profound thread to it that perhaps seems rather out of place in the modern celebration of this season - moral effort and "Santa's" visiting no longer hunt together much. Ade Bethune's narrative is a beautiful and nostalgic reminder of bygone days and makes one wonder whether we haven't lost something rather precious. You can find it here.

Some of the biscuits are for eating now, some are for packaging up in sturdy jam jars and sending as little presents to friends and family. Not just any old jam jar, though. Jam jars given a colourful, hooky flowery hat.

I know, I know - these hats possibly fall into the category of mug and apple cosies! But I love them! They were so quick and such fun to hook up, I found I couldn't stop making them this week - they have filled in all sorts of odd moments, colourfully and happily, and I like them on the jars very much.

Makes them jolly and Christmassy but not in such a way that they are only suitable for Christmas, if you know what I mean. Jars make good containers for sending biscuits in the post if you pack them carefully and have a good sturdy box to contain them, I've found. Hope it works this year.

As you can see in the top pic, I had what I thought was a happy idea of adding a few silver cake decorating balls to the jars which I thought might lodge among the biscuits in a decorative kind of way. Predictably, of course, they've all pretty much fallen to the bottom. With a bit of luck, the tipping and turning of being in the post might redistribute them!

The pattern for the flowery covers is another of Sue Pinner's from her Granny Square Club (details of how to join here, as per my previous post) but Nicki Trench also has a pattern for jam jar covers in her "Cute And Easy Crochet" which I've used in the past, if you fancy hooking up a few. I prefer Sue's flowery ones, myself.

Even though the dough made loads of cookies, they seem to have disappeared very quickly - some have gone in the post, some have gone to a village Christmas bazaar, some are destined for a work event tomorrow, quite a lot seem just to have been eaten! Only thing to do is make some more to fill my remaining jars!

Wishing you all, a little belatedly, a happy Feast of St Nicholas!

E x


  1. Dear Mrs T
    Delicious looking St Nicholas biscuits and the crochet jar covers are a fabulous idea too! I am worryingly behind with Christmas preparations - only one present sorted so far.
    Best wishes

  2. I have been doing a blogging Advent calendar and found out a lot about St Nicholas Feast Day, something I had never knew before. I love your biscuits and I have to say they would be perfect for my boss as a Christmas present as he wears a mitre!! The ginger is coming out of the cupboard tomorrow! Have a wonderful weekend. xx

  3. That was a interesting read and the cookies look yummy, love the little jam jar lids too, thanks for sharing Mrs T
    Clare x

  4. Your cookies look delicious, I love all the history behind them. And those jar hats are just so clever, I love them, so colorful and cheerful. They will make great presents.

  5. Oh my those cookie jar lids...I could eat them, never mind what's inside! Just lovely! :) x

  6. Dear E - lovely post, thanks for sharing. Those biscuits look scrumptious (I love that word) so will be making with D (9 years old) later this week. xx

  7. Beautiful toppers. The cookies look yummy and you have nudged me to get on with cookie making. I'll take a peak at your recipe.

  8. J'ai aussi fait du pain d'├ępices pour la Saint Nicolas !...
    Il y a de magnifiques moules ici :
    (mais les prix !!!...)


  9. You've done such a nice ,thorough research. I like your cookies,too. And the crochet top on the jars looks fantastic.

  10. Your cookies look wonderful Elizabeth so I'm not surprised that they disappear fast. Reading Ade Bethune's account summons up such a different way of life - I think you're right that we have lost something rather precious. I love the idea too that it was just for the children and can imagine how wonderful the gifts looked with the fruit and nuts scattered amongst them. Something to recreate with some hat bedecked jars of cookies mixed in?

  11. What a wonderful post. I may try those cookies. Could they be rolled out and cut out with cookie cutters? I love spice cookies. And the jars with the colorful covers. That must have been fun making them. Nice work. Have a Happy Christmas. xxoo. JO

  12. Delightful; the cookies and the jar covers, both. The covers remind of brightly colored ornaments. What a great idea for any season/holiday! Gosh, I wonder how many broken off heads, arms, legs, petals etc. I have consumed over the years. ;-)

  13. I love Ade Bethune's story although it makes me feel wistful. I wish my own children could have that sense of wonder and also that relief of relationships made right -- lessons I find difficult to impart. I think your Saint Nicholas cookies are very fine. I do understand your frustrations with decorating them. I am afraid that while my food usually tastes good, it is often lacking in more aesthetic appeal;)

  14. I think the icing on your St Nicholas biscuits is really good! I am not, err...gifted, when it comes to icing anything with accuracy or skill. I really like your jar hats, they are less fussy than some other ones I've seen and would make a jar filled with sweets or cookies look really exceptional. x

  15. I bought a big jar of locally made molasses when I was in the mountains at my knitting retreat this past October for the express purpose of making spicy holiday cookies or gingerbread. I really need to get to work, but I haven't even been home much on the weekends, and we had a big construction project--involving tearing down a wall--last month. I am longing for an entire day at home when I can do some baking. Once again, you've inspired me to slow down a bit. I love your jar toppers. Liz

  16. We always celebrated St Nicholas day when I was little (and not so little) .St Nicholas would come and knock on the door on the evening of the 6th, bringing small hessian bags full of nuts, chocolates and tangerines. He would open his big book and find my name and the notes about me he had made during the year. Quite terrifying actually because I never wanted to be the one child that had been naughty... I tried to keep the tradition going when I moved to the IK from Switzerland but St. Nicholas didn't get my change of address card and has never been. We still bake the traditional "Gritibaenz", which are little bread men made from a enriched yeasty dough that are traditionally eaten in Switzerland on St. Nicholas day.
    Myra is a beautiful spot, I went there many many years ago.
    I am adding your pages to my reading list, I have really enjoyed this post, and the others ones I have had a chance to catch up with.

  17. Aah....another of your posts that just inspires me to do something and also gives me a warm feeling of visiting with a friend over tea - I love the history! Thank you


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