3 December 2012

Sinterklaas: Pepernoten

Sinterklaas is the time of year when it’s OK to throw biscuits into the corners of the room for children to scavenge and for naughty children to be carried off in hessian sacks. It’s a time to gather with family and close friends to exchange small gifts along with a teasing verse about something you did during the year (which you would usually rather forget). For me it is a time for fantastic baked goods, all of which have that heady combination of spices the Dutch have had a love affair with since the 16th century when the Golden Age of exploration sent them across the globe, in search of fortune and glory through nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and black pepper. As valuable as gold and worth dying for.
On the evening on the 5th of December excited children in the Netherlands and Belgium put out one ‘klomp’ and a carrot then try to stay awake to hear Sinterklaas as he rides over the rooftops on his white horse. Sinterklaas consults his big book and delivers ‘pakjes’ to those children who have been nice, while his companion Zwarte Piet deals with the naughty by putting them in a hessian sack and carrying them back to Spain where Sinterklaas spends the rest of the year. If you were only a little naughty you might get coal or a bundle of sticks from Zwarte Piet, a mischievous character but not malicious.
Growing up in Australia to a Dutch father Sinterklaas was always part of our December traditions, we felt extra special having another day of present giving that our friends didn't have. My sister and I worked out early on that our klompen were far smaller than our Opa’s big gardening klompen, and that a bigger klomp surely meant more room for presents. We would each solemnly place one big klomp on either side of the fireplace and hope that we would be remembered (by Mum and Dad if not Sinterklaas himself). On the morning of the 6th we would race out to see if the carrot was gone and Sinterklaas had been, always to find the klomp full of nuts, an orange, some chocolate, a couple of small presents plus my mother’s addition to the tradition – a toothbrush! She felt that leading into Christmas was a good time to reiterate oral hygiene as sugar always played a large role in our December diet.
One of the traditional foods of Sinterklaas is Pepernoten (literally Pepper Nuts), small biscuits, not unlike gingernuts, with the added kick of aniseed. Pepernoten are mixed with snoepjes (hard candies), and thrown by Zwarte Piet into the corners of rooms for children to find. While the Dutch are known for their immaculate houses, I certainly wouldn't throw anything into the corners of my house and hope that it would still be edible!
Pepernoten are very small somewhat chewy biscuits which go hard as they are left out. If you cannot find ground aniseed you can substitute ground star anise, it is from a totally different plant family to aniseed but will still impart the hint of liquorice found in Pepernoten. If you do not like liquorice you will not like Pepernoten, you would be better suited to Speculaas than just making these without the aniseed. When adding your pinch of aniseed or star anise proceed with caution as a little goes a long way, taste the dough as you combine it, you can always add more but will need to double or triple the recipe to dampen the flavour and that is an awful lot of Pepernoten.

  • 200 grams Self Raising flour
  • pinch salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • pinch of ground aniseed, to taste
  • 50 grams butter, melted
  • 60 grams treacle
  • 60 grams golden syrup
  • 3 teaspoons milk
  • 2 tablespoons icing sugar
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  1. preheat oven to 160˚C
  2. sift flour and spice together into a large bowl
  3. combine butter, treacle, golden syrup and the 3 teaspoons of milk in a separate bowl then add to dry ingredients
  4. using a spoon and then your hands, combine thoroughly into a stiff fairly dry dough
  5. roll into marble sized balls and press slightly with your thumb as you put them on to a lined baking tray
  6. combine the icing sugar and the tablespoon of milk and lightly brush over your little biscuits, this adds a thin crunchy shell to your Pepernoten 
  7. bake for 20 minutes, until golden
  8. allow to cool, mix with hard sweets then start throwing!

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