Friday, December 6, 2019

Pains d' Épices de Saint Nicolas for December 6 - Saint Nicholas Gingerbread (Nikolauslebkuchen)

Today, on December 6th, we celebrate the feast of Saint Nicholas (Sankt Nikolaus Tag). This special day always falls on December 6, at the beginning of Advent and it represents a time for celebration especially in Eastern Europe and many other countries including Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France and Italy. St Nicholas was a Christian bishop who was born in the port city of Patara in what we now call Turkey and reportedly died on December 6th, 340 AD. He lost both of his parents at a young age and was brought up in a monastery. He reportedly used his inheritance to help the poor and sick. Nicholas became a priest at the age of 17 and travelled through Palestine and Egypt before returning to Myra where he was made Bishop.

Saint Nicholas is referred to by many names throughout Europe such as Sinterklaas in the Netherlands or Nikolaus in Germany. On the night of December 5th, children put their shoes or a special SaintNicholas´ boot (Nikolausstiefel) in front of the fireplace or the front door to find them filled with traditional, seasonal sweet treats, clementines, oranges, apples, nuts and small presents the next morning (December 6th).

To mark this very special day, over the years I have baked a number of different treats. I love the Dutch Kruidnoten (Spice Nuts/Cookies - recipe HERE) or the Belgian Speculoos (Spice Cookies formed in special wooden moulds - recipe HERE), this year I have lost my heart to these 'Pains d'Épices de Saint Nicholas' - literally translated 'Saint Nicholas' Gingerbread'. The recipe hails form the Alsace region (France) and its basically a honey gingerbread dough, cooled, rolled out, cut out, baked and decorated. Easy as they are, these traditional cookies make formidable gifts on Saint Nicholas' feast day.

Pains  d'Épices de Saint Nicolas - Saint Nicholas Gingerbread (Nikolauslebkuchen)

  • 500g AP (plain) flour, plus some to roll out the cookies (OR use white spelt flour, around here 'Type 630')
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • a pinch of fine sea salt
  • 200g superfine (baking) sugar
  • 16g pure vanilla sugar
  • 1 tbsp Ceylon cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground anise
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 250g runny (liquid) honey
  • 100 ml water
  • 150g powdered sugar and some more water for the glaze

  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, vanilla sugar, and all the spices. 
  2. Then add the honey and half the water. Knead the dough by hand or with the dough hooks of your hand mixer. If it seems too dry, add more of the water (up to 100ml).
  3. Wrap the dough in kitchen wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least an hour (or longer).
  4. Pre-heat your oven to 180° C and line two baking (cookie) sheets with baking parchment.
  5. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough to about 1 cm thickness, cut out the cookie shapes, place on your prepared baking sheets and bake for about 10 to 12 minutes - the cookies should be puffed by not hard or dark brown.
  6. Cool the cookies on the baking sheets on a cooling rack, once they have cooled, place them directly on the cooling racks, mix the powdered sugar with some water and brush the cookies. Once the icing has set but is still wet, place a Saint Nicholas' paper cut-out on each cookie. Let dry completey and keep in a cookie tin in a cool place or gift wrap individually.

Like every year, our kids, as most of their frineds, lined up their big winter boots last night and this morning, their boots were miraculously filled with homemade Pains d'Épices de Saint Nicolas, Belgian chocolates, oranges, clementines, walnuts, peanuts and a few small gifts.

Saint Nicholas is famous for his many acts of charity, one of which involved a poor distraught man who had three daughters and who couldn´t provide a proper dowry. As Saint Nicholas learned of their plight, he came to their aid by throwing three small sacks of money through their window while they were asleep. So, in the spirit of Saint Nicholas it's seems like a wonderful and much beloved annual tradition to share some of our treats with friends and collegues, this year's most popular treat for sharing is lovingly decorated Saint Nicholas Gingerbread.

Bonne Fête Saint Nicolas! Have a nice Saint Nicholas' Day! Euch allen einen schönen Nikolaustag!


  1. Such a wonderful recipe, dear Andrea! I must try it even though I don’t have the right cookie cutter! My Sinterlas cuttr is a silly American version. Speaking of pain d’épices, I once made Julia Child's loaf version and it was terrible! Like Ziegelstein! I’m going to email you - I need help with a recipe for Himmel und Erd. Tchüß! D

    1. Dear David, yopu don't need a cookie cutter for this one, just take a piece of paper and craft yourself a nice-sized template, use a sharp kitchen knife to cut around the outlines, that's it. I know it is a bit tedious but it does work. And, personally, I have had a hard time finding St Nicholas as opposed to Santa Claus cookies cutters around here.
      Liebe Grüße nach Tucson!

  2. I adore gingerbread, and I like the touch of the paper doll on these. Also love the story behind them.

    1. Dear Gaye, this is a nice time to bake gingerbread in all its different shapes or sizes. And the St Nicholas' paper cut-outs looked rather charming - I couldn't resist.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I really love this information that you post. It's so interesting. And of course, the recipes!

    1. Dear Jeff, well, I can't help myself with all these wonderful historical facts and legends out there that I find so interesting. But, I also love these cookies and my family rather liked them to.
      Thank you for your kind comment!

  4. Andrea, your post is so full of interesting history and information! I am always amazed about how much we don't know! My mom always talked about St. Nicolas when we were growing up and reminded us that even though people say Santa Claus isn't real, St. Nicolas was. I'd like to know how we missed out on St. Nicolas' Day - I would have loved a shoe filled with goodies!

    The honey gingerbread dough in these must be so delicious! Decorating the cookie with the St. Nicolas paper cut outs is very pretty and festive!

    1. Dear Kelly, thank you or your wonderful comment! St Nicholas's Day is always special and we always celebrate it by baking special cookies and cakes or breads. I just love the fact we have the opportunity to celebrate a 'small feast' before Christams celebrations are upon us - a little quiet festive day before the big one. And filling boots is one tradition that I wouldn't want to miss either ;)

  5. Andrea, these cookies are so gorgeous! I love the cut-out attached to the icing! Love hearing about your local traditions for the month of December and some history about St. Nicholas! Lovely post, my friend!:)

    1. Dear Marcelle, there is a lot of history and legends that exist around the 6th of December and I love them all. I have baked a lot of different St Nicholas' treats over the years, this year I rather liked this recipe.
      Thank you for your kind comment!

  6. what lovely pains de epices for Saint Nicolas! lovely! hugs to you

    1. Dear Gloria, St Nicolas is such a lovely holiday, so I always try to make sure to bake something a bit special for this day.
      Thanks for stopping by, my friend!