Tradition is always changing. It’s fluid, not set in aspic like some people who see themselves as traditionalists and conservatives may believe. Just think of St Nicholas, the saint whose feast day is celebrated on 6 December and who morphed into Santa Claus.
Little is known of St Nicholas. He was of Greek descent and may have been born in the Roman period in 270 and died in the Byzantine period 70-odd years later. He was a bishop in Myra, now the small town of Demre on the south coast of Turkey. It was a long, baffling journey from there to the red-and-white clad fat man so beloved of children and soft drink advertisers today. As for traditions associated with St Nick, previously, in the Netherlands, his gift giving – or tellings off – occurred on the night of St Nicholas’s day. For most of us, that tradition shifted to Christmas Eve.
For the same reason, however much it pains me, I need to accept now that most people don’t even know or care that the Twelve Days of Christmas were from 25 December to 5 January. Although it’s been driven by modern commercialism and consumerism, the Christmas period has now moved forward, with many now celebrating from late November, then giving up between the second day of Christmas (Boxing Day, St Stephen’s Day) and the seventh day (New Years Eve, St Sylvester’s Day). People were especially desperate to get their decorations up this year as Covid-19 has been so tough. But even without Covid, the tradition has changed.*
Nice and spicy does it
Many cultures made a spice cookie or cake or even steamed pudding as part of their St Nicholas day celebrations. I’ve done the Dutch speculaas here before but here’s a Polish one. They include honey and various spices and are as such related to other European Christmas period cookies, notably lebkuchen. Basically they’re all gingerbread. These ciastka miodowe do not contain any butter, and the only fat comes from egg yolks. As such, they’ve got quite a solid crunch. Verging on hardtack.
I have this same recipe in two books: Feast Day Cookbook by Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger and Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf. The former was first published in 1951, so it’s likely the source for Schuegraf’s 2001 book. Either way, the recipe has been repeated all over the internet. Do an image search for ciastka miodowe and there are plenty that vary in style from Schuegraf’s stipulations. Which is good, as it means I can cut out the cookies with my kids and give them some freedom choosing the cutters.
I was hoping to ask about these with the one Polish parent I know at my kids’ school but with Covid queuing regulations, school gate chit-chat isn’t quite so easy as it once was.
Anyway. I’ve dragged this recipe kicking and screaming into SI units of measurement, or at least grams instead of cups and all that silliness.**
100g caster sugar
1 whole egg
2 egg yolks
500g plain flour
6g baking soda
4g ground cinnamon
2g grated nutmeg
2g ground ginger
Pinch ground cloves (ie less than 1g – cloves are so pungent I go easy with them; if you love the flavour, add more)
1. Warm the honey together with the sugar. I weighed them straight into a stainless mixing bowl which I can then warm on a low setting on an induction hob, but otherwise use a pan.
2. When you have separated two eggs, save the whites for later and beat the yolks together with the whole egg. This mix will be about 85g.
3. Add the beaten egg to the honey mix and beat well.
4. Sieve together the flour, baking soda and spices and add the pinch of salt.
5. Add the sieved mix to the honey and egg mix and combine, first with a spatula or wooden spoon, then by hand to form a fairly dry paste. Do not overwork it.
6. Wrap the dough then leave to rest for at least 4 hours or overnight.
7. Preheat the oven to 180C.
8. Lightly whisk some of the saved egg white. You don’t need peaks, just froth it up a bit.
9. Choose your preferred cookie cutters – round, stars, flowers etc. If you have young children, they may have strong opinions about this. My five year old baking assistant was keen on hearts.
10. Roll the dough to about 5mm thick.
11. Stamp out shapes and put them on baking sheets lined with silicon mats or parchment. (Or not, if you have well seasoned trays like mine.)
12. Brush the cookies with some of whisked egg white.
14. Bake the cookies for about 10-15 minutes, depending on how aggressive your oven is. Until nicely browned.
The Burton-Ripperger recipe adds a blanched almond to the top of each cookie before baking. This is optional, and absent from most of the images online from Polish sites.
Happy St Nicholas’s Day!
* Even here in Lewes, East Sussex, England, the most important tradition is Bonfire night – or more accurately, the Bonfire Season, where the various bonfire societies of the town and other villages and towns of Sussex, over a period of several weeks parade around, burn stuff, blow stuff up and stage wonderful pageantry, my favourite part of which is the tabs, tableaux, large papier- mâché effigies that skillfully satirise figures from politics and public life. My least favourite part of the celebration has been Lewes Borough bonfire society’s tradition of dressing up as “Zulus” – white people in blackface. The costumes may have been spectacular, but the blackface and imperial implications are a tradition that was long past its sell-by. Modern society doesn’t need this public racism. Although there was no Bonfire season this year due to Covid, I believe Borough has finally called an end to the blackface tradition. As I say, traditions change, whether organically or by necessary edict after years of campaigning by anti-racism groups.
** I’ve just bought a second-hand copy of a wonderfully comprehensive book called A World of Cakes. Quite excited to try some of the recipes, but not only does it use US cups, the author, Kyrstina Castella, can’t even decide how to list butter – she uses both sticks (which at least can be given a clearcut weight) and tablespoons. How do you measure butter accurately in tablespoons?!