Today, December 5th, is St. Nicholas Day. We’re leaving our plates out tonight in the hopes of collecting some goodies, but we’re not that optimistic. It’s not that we haven’t been well behaved. It’s just that, well, there’s no one here who’s going to be able to take up the mantle. The cats put out their plates and, the next they knew, treats had appeared. Just like that. They didn’t even bother to put their plates by the window, the way you’re supposed to. They still made out like bandits: two healthy portions of tuna fish.
Lucky for us, earlier in the day we got an invitation for tea and cookies at our friend Kazi’s. OK, it was actually an invitation to take part in a book club meeting at Kazi’s—and, boy, did we take part—but there were plenty of cookies and the tea was flowing. Kazi made one of our favorite types of cookies—a traditional Czech cookie called vanilkoví rohlicky. These “vanilla crescents” are very similar to Mexican Wedding Cakes and other nut cookies with a powdered sugar dusting, but they have that distinctive crescent shape to them, and with our shared Czechoslovak roots, we’re a little partial. Kazi tried out a new recipe that we brought back for her from the Czech-Slovak bazaar (see our earlier posting on the C-S bazaar for more details), and she immediately reported that it was an improvement on the recipe she’d been using up ‘til then. We had one bite and we were convinced, too. Then we had another, and another, and another (you get the picture).
On St. Nicholas day the custom is for children to draw up a list of all the gifts they’d like to get from Baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. They put this list out on a plate, or in a shoe or sock, placed on the ledge of an open window at the end of the day. Over night, some guy named St. Nicholas drops by, apparently, and if they’ve been good, they’ll wake up the next day to find mandarin oranges, chocolate, dried figs, hazelnuts, dates, candied fruit, almonds, et cetera, waiting for them. These tokens provide some kind of indication that they can expect more good things in a couple of weeks. If they haven’t ,they might find a piece of coal or a stick (indicating the beating they can expect later that day). Anyway, in a strange twist on this tradition, we arrived at Kazi’s on St. Nicholas day to find a plate full of goodies, and by the time we got up to leave, the plate was empty.
2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup butter
1 cup almonds or hazelnuts, finely ground
3 tbsp icing sugar
1 tsp lemon rind, grated
1 egg yolk
icing sugar with vanilla for rolling
Mix flour, almonds and sugar. Cut in butter and add egg yolk. With your hands, form a dough. Make long rolls one inch in diameter. Cover with plastic foil and chill for 10 minutes.
To form crescents: Cut pieces, 1/4 inch from the roll. With the palm of your hand roll out a small stick and bend it to form a crescent. Place on cookie sheet and bake at 350˚F about 10 minutes. They should be very light golden. When still warm, roll them in vanilla icing sugar. For best flavour, buy a stick of vanilla and hammer it to powder and mix with icing sugar or use package of vanilla sugar and mix with icing sugar.
Store in airtight container.
[From “Original Recipes Collected and Passed from Generation to Generation” (otherwise known as the Czech-Slovak Bazaar Cookbook), first edition, 1985—incidentally, the caption at the bottom of the final page of this cookbook reads: “Love is like a mushroom: You never know if it’s the real thing until it’s too late”—proceed with caution!]
An Endless Banquet’s St. Nicholas Day wish list:
• An end (properly settled, of course) to the Société d’Alcools du Québec strike (making alcohol runs across the border to Ontario just ain’t our trip)
• Kitchen Aid professional mixer
• Larousse Gastronomique des Patisseries, Pierre Hermé
• Larousse Gastronomique des Confitures, Christine Ferber
• Honey From a Weed, Patience Gray
• A good cookbook stand
• A large cast-iron pan