Sinterklaas is come and gone, he’s hopped back on his boat – destination – Spanje! Dag, St Nicholas, tot volgende jaar (St Nicholas, till next year).
But no one calls him Nicholas. It is the name of a saint and much too ‘uppity’ for your everyday Dutch man. The Dutch pride themselves on being ‘equal’, except you’re the queen or otherwise blue-blooded. And so, St Nicholas became Sinterklaas!
For weeks now, the shops have been festooned with colourful decorations and talk of what he and his Petes will bring this year. Chocolate letters, from A to Z fill shelves on end.
We’re no exception. In the weeks post his arrival in the habour, the kids have put their shoes out a couple of nights (in a row) after singing Sinterklaas songs at the loudest octave ever (thankfully without neighbours calling the Police for breaking the peace). My carrots have not been safe for demands for food for Sint’s horse have come to the KB HQ, and my young, orange rootlings have been stuffed into 3 different shoes. Sint has also received well-coloured sheets of himself, of shoes and even of the black Petes, and all this before the kids turned in for the night.
The next morning, all the things in the shoes are gone. My carrots are back where they belong :-)…the colouring sheets hidden at the bottom of the ‘paper bin’ and in their place, chocolate letters in their initials– a standard Sinterklaas gift. Weeks ago, their shoes were filled with tangerines. Some nights, shoes are put out but he doesn’t come for he is busy visiting other kids. My kids understand and I feel like a fraud, for up till this year, I’d always told them the truth about Santa and Sinter.
This year, we really wanted to experience the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas and so when our friends invited us to celebrate with them, we agreed. Now, an integral part of this celebration is the Lootjes Trekken (a bit Secret Santa). You select a name out of a hat. You have to make buy and camouflage a present for the person you pick. This is called the ‘surprise’, and it is no joke, as I find out on Saturday.
Our celebration starts at 4pm on Saturday and at noon, I still haven’t made my surprise! I have the gifts to go in but the concept….is not yet worked out.
So I start with the food…cause what’s a celebration without food.
First I make some boterstaf, which is a traditional Dutch roll, like a sausage roll but not. Instead of meat, it is stuffed with Amandelspijs. – A mix of equal parts coarsely ground skinned and flaked almond and sugar. To this mix, whole eggs or egg yolks are added and flavourings like vanilla, orange and lemon zest are mixed in. Ideally, the recommendation is to make this 4-6 weeks in advance, leaving it to mature in the fridge. I make mine a few days before…that’s also acceptable.
With the left over puff pastry, I decided to make some twists, which I’ve always wanted to but never had the time. I wash them with some lightly beaten egg and I cut each strip lengthways with varying widths. Some are about 1cm and other 3cm. The ones, which are a couple of cm wide, are much easier to twist.
I dip some in black sesame seeds and the others are strewn with pan-roasted cumin seeds and freshly grated parmesan cheese.
I make some coconut jollof rice for we will have a meal later, some coriander pesto and creole sauce. I finish off the cooking by making some truffles and head upstairs, behind closed doors to make my surprise!
First of all, I have a magazine and some make-up for the recipient of my gift. Surprises are meant to be small, well-prized gifts and we agreed with our friends to spend about 10 euros each. That’s a very Dutch thing; extravagant gifts are ‘frowned upon’.
I have the ‘leg’ of a kid’s chair and I roll up the magazine in, along with the other bits. I then put that in a plastic bag and tape it all together. Next step, I get some fluff and fabric from previous creative projects (from a couple of years ago), thankful I still have them. And proud ‘cause I HATE to throw things away, knowing that they’ll always come in handy. My dear husband disagrees sometimes but then he is confronted with my props, plastic bottles and more everywhere he looks. What a darling.
As I work, the ideas are slowly coming…confidence growing with each passing moment. In the end, I have the makings of what could be a doll and confident that the results will be pleasant, I forge ahead, using more tape and ribbons to achieve my aim.
And then I’m done with it. It’s all complete. I have an object of affection, however grotesque….however; I think there is a strong resemblance to the Russian Matryoshka dolls.
My daughters come to the door, banging hard on it – they want to know what I’m doing. I let them know it is a secret and they promise not to tell but still I’m unyielding. In the end, they see my doll, they like it and we all head down.
I quickly wrap the other gifts for our friends and their kids in special Sinterklaas paper. Apart from the surprises, we will also exchange gifts. Those go in a special Sinterklaas jute bag, which my husband takes down to the car and leaves locked away.
It’s almost time, they’ll soon be here. In my head something is missing. And that is….CAKE. We can’t have a party without cake. I decide to create an orange cake from my standard yoghurt recipe. I haven’t made this before but who cares if I fail? I do! However, I trust this recipe and so I get a-baking. I substitute a fifth of the baking flour for almond meal and add the zest of three medium oranges and the juice of one. I tip it all into a brownie tin which has been buttered and almonded. A handful of almond flakes go over the top, along with some sugar nibs and we’re ready to bake…at 180 degrees in a pre-heated oven. Wahayyy, I feel accomplished, just knowing that there will be cake of some sort – good or bad. As soon as it is ready, I slice into ‘bars’ and tuck in – even before the guests arrive! As does hubby!
Then the guests arrive and the day begins. After the kissing and hugging exchange, we have some drinks and the snacks..the cheese sticks and olives from FBC. While the kids play, the adults settle down to play multi-lingual scrabble! Words from any language are permitted and the combination of English and Dutch words is super-liberating, more room to be creative and manipulative.
My friend has to go outside to the car a couple of times, shhhh for the presents have been hidden in the trunk of the car
Shortly after, my friend’s 10 year old heads to the ‘ladies’ and the next thing we hear is a loud bang on our door. Everyone goes silent for a moment and then we scream – Sinterklaas and his Petes are here.
We rush to the door and what do we find? A mass of presents. My children are astounded and excited. What has he brought? We start bringing in the boxes and finally, they’re all in.
Then we do the rounds. This is the way it works: deciding which present should be picked first is usually awkward but once that’s done, it all works well. So, someone gets a present, opens it and selects a gift (usually labelled) and that person opens his/her gift and gets to pick the next person….and on and on till all the gifts are opened.
It’s a good thing that all our presents are well-labelled. Some presents are accompanied by rhyming poems and others are not. Some are big, others small. Amidst the whole pile are the surprises, which the adults exchange.
My husband’s surprise is first on the list. He receives a huge box and in it a lovely decorated book. He tries to open it but the pages are stuck together…glued shut.
His plans to quickly go through the book to get his gift – fobbed.
He ploughs ahead, undeterred till he strikes gold….or not. It is a postcard and on the back it reads Fop kado – fake present.
He has to keep going through this Encyclopedia Britannica and he stumbles on what must be it. I think in his mind, thoughts of gift vouchers are rife when he spots an envelope! Again – nothing but another note saying, ‘keep looking, you’re on the right path’. He continues on till but still no joy.
Hints later, he looks on the outside of the box and he sees a slip of a note which says…je kado is in the keuken! (your gift is in the kitchen)! And the search is over- he see’s his gift, nicely wrapped on the plate rack.
The evening saw other outstanding ‘surprises’:
A wooden shoe, which needed screwdriver and hammer to reveal its bounty;
A box (for me), filled with tissue paper (3 whole rolls I find out later), which is fodder for kids play. The first layer reveals some ‘Delft Blue chocolate’. I look further knowing there’s more to come. I go through it and find a huge cookbook. Thinking it is the same trick as my husband’s with the glued pages, I quickly scan through. It is a copy of the yellow pages and in it, two recipes stuck on. Disappointedly, I asked with all the grace I could muster, ‘Is this all?’ and the answer was NO! Smiling, heart racing, I looked right through to the end of the guide and had to discard it. My final search revealed an envelope in the box….and the words – your Kado is in the Keuken. How’s that for popular Dutch tricks.
When it was time for the recipient of my surprise to open hers, and all the adults start saying…’oh, let’s see what Sinterklaas brought you’, my daughters both shouted out – no, its not Sinterklaas, its Mama who made it! That was an ‘oops’ moment for sure. We hastily agreed and moved on quickly, with some story about me being a Sint helper! Later on my friend told me that the surprises should have gone in the bag with the other gifts but hey, first time around. Another ‘oops’ moment was to follow and we didn’t know it.
Now between the surprises, the regular gifts were opened and the excitement flowed with reckless abandon. The kids got loads of pressies, which thrilled them to no end. Anyhow, one of the last surprises was the one my dear hubby made. It was a well wrapped box and on opening it, what confronted us was a damp cereal box, nested in a wooden box. As the recipient tried to open the box, bits of mud and leaves literally sprang out….to cries of ‘oh, the mischievous Petes’ have done it again.’
Eventually, the gift was extracted from its secure cellotape wrapping and then another ooh-oh….followed when she held it up, all wrapped up. Daughter #1 said, ‘Mama, you have the same wrapping paper’ (which was a gift from a friend and has been in our bedroom for the last 6 months). What to say but smile at the coincidence and move on….rapidly
Apparently, all the tricky surprises are attributed to mischievous Petes and the funny Petes, who seemed to have ruled the evening.
Eventually, all the gifts were opened and the sounds of growling tummies sent everyone running to the dinner table.
We shared a meal, had some wine and then sat back and chatted for a while longer. Then it was coffee and cake time….and the orange cake worked a treat, along with the boterstaf. Did I mention that by the time the orange cake made it to the dessert table, it was half gone! And that wasn’t just me, you need to meet my husband to know how much of a cake and bread lover he is, so he shares firmly in the blame.
We found the whole thing gezellig – a word that epitomizes cozy, comforting, friendly and enjoyable all at once. It is the ‘nirvana’ of the Dutch, to attain gezelligheid and we did it!
Soon the night came to an end and everyone went to bed. With super lovely memories.
Fast forward to Monday evening. I’m talking to the girls and determined to tell them that its all a celebration, I say ‘do you know that Sinterklaas is not real?’. The violent ‘yes he is’ that hit me seals my lips. But not forever. I will try again
Now things can return to normal and we can get set for Christmas. The shops too. On the night of December the 5th, after hours, staff work at breakneck speed to transform the shops and by the morning of the 6th – its only Christmas stuff on the shelves.
My Christmas plans include
Making a poached pear and cranberry sauce; Trying my hands at making a bread and chestnut sauce and sharing some of my favourite handmade, tree/window decorations and more. See you soon.