- a rectangular form 23×23 cm or 17×25 cm,
- greased and sprinkled with breadcrumbs
- 250 g all purpose flour
- ½ level teaspoon baking powder
- 1 ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- pinch of salt
- ¼ teaspoon crushed aniseed
- 150 g Muscovado sugar
- 125 g soft butter
- about 4 tablespoons milk
- flour for the working table
- 400 g almond paste*
- 1 small egg
- milk for painting
- about 50 white, split almonds for decoration
Saint Nicolas (Sint Nicolaas, Sinterklaas) is the Dutch version of Santa Claus, but his gifts are distributed on 5 December and are preceded during a fortnight by small presents in the shoes of the children who have put them piously ready the night before with some hay and a carrot for the Saint’s horse. In May already it is decided where the Saint will set foot on land in The Netherlands, supposedly coming from Spain in his steamer. He stands there clad in his bishop’s outfit, surrounded by his servants, all called ‘Black Peter’, armed with sacks full of sweets for all sweet children, such as chocolate letters, puff pastry filled with almond paste, marzipan, chewey chewey (taaitaai), and ‘speculaas’. The Saint rides on a white horse over the roofs of all houses, accompanied by his Peters who throw gifts through the chimneys into the children’s shoes. According to the children’s traditional Sinterklaas songs one of the expected gifts is a speculaas doll. Speculaas is formed in carved wooden moulds, such as dolls, or small mills. Hence the name, derived from Latin speculum (mirror). Also baked as a thick hard layer and then broken (brokken, ‘pieces’), or in a softer form and filled with almond paste: Gevulde speculaas (see recipe).
On the evening of 5 december the whole family gathers to receive presents which are accompanied with teasing poems supposedly written by the Saint and his Peters. At the start of the evening, a Peter’s hand throws pepernoten (pepper nuts, tiny balls, made from ‘speculaas’ dough, see recipe) through the half-opened door into the room.
In recent years this Dutch feast has to compete with Santa Claus who comes with Christmas, but is seen as a pagan intruder by most people. Many families see no other solution than to celebrate both – a rather expensive affair.
- Preheat the oven to 180˚C./350˚F/ Gas 4.
- Sift flour with baking powder, ground spices and salt in a bowl. Add the crushed aniseed. Mix with the sugar. Cut the butter with two knives through this mixture and add as much milk as is needed to knead a supple dough.
- Form two equal balls. Sprinkle a working surface with flour, roll out the balls as large as the form. Line the form, rim included, with one of the dough pieces.
- Mix almond paste with the egg. Divide this sticky mass with moist fingers over the dough in the form. Cover the paste with the other piece of dough. Push well. Discard the dough that is hanging over the rim.
- Paint the top with milk and decorate with almonds in neat rows. Prick little holes in between.
- Bake for 50 minutes on the lower ridge of the preheated oven. Push back possible bubbles with the backside of a spoon after 30 minutes. Leave to cool in the form, covered with aluminium foil. Cut into rectangular pieces before serving.
* Almond paste (Spijs):
200 g ground almonds; 200 g granulated sugar; 1 small egg; drop of bitter almond oil; pinch of grated lemon rind
Mix all ingredients and knead a smooth dough. Chill until use. Can be kept in the fridge for two weeks. Then it is advisable to use pasteurised egg (50 ml) and knead in a machine. Use left overs to fill pears or peaches and place under grill after having sprinkled them with icing sugar. Great with spongefingers, soaked in rum and whipped cream.
If you possess a wooden speculaas mould you can make dolls (speculaaspoppen) or cookies (speculaasjes) from the same dough. Bake these for about 20 minutes in a preheated oven at 175° C.
For pepernoten (pepper nuts hazelnut sized balls are rolled from the dough and divided over 2 baking sheets. Bake for about 15 minutes at 175 ˚C.