Wednesday, December 22, 2010

St Nich's Biccies

First published Canberra Times 22 December 2010.

The story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas who was said to be born during the third century AD in the village of Patara on the southern coast of Turkey. He was left an orphan by his wealthy parents, and legend has it, that over his lifetime he spent his inheritance helping the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving the poor and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. He was known for his generosity to those in need, his love of children, and his concern for sailors and ships. He died on December 6, 343 and the anniversary of his death became a feast day in the Christian tradition.

Photo by Steve Shanahan
During the 1800’s, political cartoonists and writers influenced the transformation of St Nic into Santa Claus. Along with a phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus to Santa Claus, we see a shift in appearance to a jolly elf-like character in a red suit.

In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas day is still celebrated on 6 December, by sharing biscuits, sweets, small gifts, and riddles. Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint's horse, hoping St. Nicholas will exchange them for gifts. Black Pieter, St. Nic’s vaguely scary assistant, throws small cinnamon spiced biscuits through the front door in preparation for St Nic’s visit.

These biscuits are also called Pepernoten (Peppernut) and it’s probably because they are so crunchy, although they soften up with age and the flavour develops. With my mother’s help, all the kids in our extended family were herded together to cook a large batch of these biscuits each year to throw around the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. The kids then scrambled in and out of the wrapped presents to find the biscuits, creating mayhem while the adults got quietly smashed on alcoholic egg nogs.

The smell of these biscuits baking is quintessentially Christmas, and they are easy and fun for the kids to make, even if someone older prepares the mixture to the dough stage.

2 cups sifted flour
½ tspn baking powder
¼ tspn salt
1 tspn white pepper
¼ tspn cinnamon
¼ tspn ground ginger
1 tspn grated orange rind
2 tspns grated lemon rind
1 tbspn butter
1 cup icing sugar
2 eggs separated (beat egg whites stiffly)
extra icing sugar

Mix the flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, orange rind and lemon rind in a bowl and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar in an electric mixer and add slightly beaten egg yolks, beating well until creamy. Gradually stir in the flour mixture, then the stiffly beaten egg whites, gently blending all ingredients. Refrigerate dough for 1 hour and let stand overnight at room temperature. Roll dough into small teaspoon sized balls, placing on baking paper lined biscuit trays a few centimetres apart. Press each ball down gently with the back of a glass. Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes at 170C. Sprinkle biscuits with extra icing sugar while still hot.