It’s December! All things related to Christmas are now allowed and I’m no longer a total Scrooge. But before we get to Christmas, there’s Sinterklaas…
It’s actually quite apt that my first proper recipe blog post is about a Dutch speciality – I was born in The Netherlands, you see. We moved away before I turned two, so I don’t remember a great deal, but we were back for a few months when I was six and back again for my last four years of Secondary School. And wherever we’ve lived there have been lots of Dutch people around. So despite not actually being Dutch, Sinterklaas has always featured on my calendar.
According to the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas (or St Nicholas) lives in Spain but comes to The Netherlands to celebrate his name day, accompanied by some of his helpers, the notorious Zwarte Piets, who basically just cause mayhem (I was terrified of them when I was six). On the 5th of December, families will gather together and hand out a few presents that are cleverly wrapped up, often accompanied by a poem about the person receiving the gift. It’s a whole ritual, and it’s a lot of fun!
In the lead up to Sinterklaas, children leave their shoes out every evening in the hope that they will be filled with biscuits by Sinterklaas through the night. Well, I say children, but my Dad was always just as enthusiastic as I was about leaving his shoes out… Pepernoten (loosely translates as “spice nuts”) are one of the traditional biscuits that are distributed at this time of year. Of course, in The Netherlands, you can buy pepernoten in near-industrial quantities. In the UK, you cannot. Not even in small quantities. I love pepernoten, and I have so many happy memories associated with them, so there’s really only one option…. To make them.
I should warn you in advance – these take forever to make. But they are so worth it! I don’t particularly like aniseed, so I never put any in and they come out just fine. Also, this recipe is all about the flavours of the spices, so I tend to be quite liberal when it comes to quantities…
175g brown sugar
3 tbsp milk
2 tbsp treacle
275g self-rising flour
½ tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 ½ tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp allspice
Pinch of ground coriander
½ tsp ground aniseeds (Optional)
2 pinches of salt
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
2. Pour the milk, treacle, brown sugar and butter into a small saucepan. Place on a very low heat and stir until it becomes a smooth mix.
3. Mix the spices together with the flour and baking powder in a large bowl.
4. Pour the contents of the saucepan into the bowl and knead until it forms a firm and smooth dough (be careful at this point – I stupidly forgot that the treacle mix would be hot earlier, and enthusiastically plunged my hands right in. Oops.) Add pinches of salt during kneading.
5. Make small round balls of dough (a bit bigger than a marble) and place them on a buttered baking tray. Make sure that they are quite well spaced out in case they decide to melt into each other.
6. Bake for about 12-15 mins, then allow them to cool and harden for about 1 ½ hours.