Food & Wine

Ancient stories, modern rituals mix in St. Nicholas

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St. Nicholas is remembered today in spicy winter cookies. Photos courtesy of .

Cloves and nutmeg, cinnamon and mace, ginger and cardamom – spices can signal the season of Advent just as surely as holiday albums and festive domestic greenery.

December is a month for gingerbreads, and many countries have done their part to contribute subtleties of texture, sweetness and aroma to the genre.

The speculaas, or spiced biscuit, has reached local markets in the form of Trader Joe’s “cookie butter” but has origins in Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

This brown cookie, sometimes stamped with the figure of St. Nicholas, resonates with ritual and magic that make it a fitting highlight of the season.

Growing up, I would taste such a cookie exactly once a year – after receiving it, heart aflutter, from the hands of St. Nick himself.

Nicholas’ story dates back to a third-century village on what became the southern coast of Turkey. As the story has it, Nick was a wealthy orphan who used his inheritance to assist those in need. He became the Bishop of Myra. Legends of his deeds (before and after his death) recount his provision of dowries for three young sisters menaced with slavery, and his supernatural rescue of a young boy kidnapped by pirates. Venerated as a saint, Nicholas inspired December traditions for young people that appear in American homes to this day.

Nicholas’ feast day itself, Dec. 6, often passes unremarked in the United States. But in Europe it serves as something of a “First Christmas,” a day for presents and games celebrating the early days of Advent. He’s still seen as a gift-giver – pitching sweets in an open door (or down a chimney?) and leaving presents in shoes or stockings left out at night.

When viewed as a generous member of a community rather than as a distant sprite lodged at the North Pole, St. Nick provides a more human picture of magnanimity and shared celebration. This isn’t to say he can’t be awe-inspiring.

As a young girl, I would gleefully await the appearance of the Bishop of Myra at my church. Each year a gigantic-seeming man in ornate embroidered robes, crowned by a miter and wielding an elaborate wooden crozier, would appear, bearing a basket of gingery cookies to share with his flock.

I was convinced that the man hiding behind an elaborate beard was indeed the local bishop, taking a break from his weighty church business to mingle with the children and impersonate his ancient predecessor. Years later I learned that whichever priest was available donned the bishop’s clothing and assumed the St. Nicholas role. This doesn’t take the shine off my memories of seeing an important man take time for cookies.

At my childhood church, parishioners mixed batches of cookie dough at home and then gathered in a kitchen to bake with the church’s distinctive, ancient-looking cookie molds – a kind of carved stamp against which you press the dough, creating the embossed figure of St. Nick. Sunday School parents originally organized the tradition as a way to celebrate rituals and reflect on the stories behind the season.

If you host a baking party to try the recipe below, you might also appreciate a pot of Dutch Bishop’s Wine to warm you while you work. I don’t think that was a tradition in our church’s kitchen, but it could be in yours.

For more information on St. Nicholas and additional recipes and traditions associated with his story, visit

St. Nicholas Cookies (Speculaas)

• 1/2 cup melted butter

• 2 cups brown sugar

• 1 tablespoon vanilla

• 1/3 cup milk

• 1 egg, beaten

• 4 1/2 cups white flour

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

• 1 tablespoon cinnamon

• 1 teaspoon ground ginger

• 1 teaspoon nutmeg

• 1 teaspoon cloves

• 1 teaspoon anise (optional)

Cream butter and sugar well, using heavy-duty mixer. Add egg, milk and vanilla. Sift dry ingredients together and add slowly to creamed mixture. Work in last portion by hand. Dough should be firm but not crumbly or sticky. If for some reason you get a batch that is too dry and crumbly, beat in milk, 1/2 tablespoon at a time.

Roll into 2 1/2-inch thick log and chill thoroughly.

To bake, preheat oven to 350 F.

Divide dough into 12 equal portions and roll each into a smooth ball. Spray cookie mold lightly with oil. Press ball into mold, working from center of mold out. Make back smooth and edges even, approximately 1/8-inch thick. Carefully peel cookie from mold and place on large, greased cookie sheet. Alternately, roll out dough and use a cookie cutter to create St. Nick silhouettes.

Bake 15 minutes. Cool on rack.

Makes 12 large cookies.

Bisschopswijn (Dutch Bishop’s Wine)

(Adapted from “Roots in Holland”)

• 1 bottle red wine

• 1 lemon

• 1 orange

• 20 cloves

• 2 tablespoons sugar

• 1 cinnamon stick

• Pinch of mace and/or saffron (optional)

Wash lemon and orange. Stud each with 10 cloves. Put all ingredients in pan. Cover and simmer gently 30-60 minutes, tasting for preference. Serve in heat-resistant glasses.

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