Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Sinterklaas. I have written about this old Dutch tradition several times before but if you’re new here, here’s the gist: Sinterklaas is a very old saint (like 700 years old) who lives in Spain and arrives in the Netherlands at the beginning of winter to celebrate his birthday on 5th December by giving presents to everybody who has been good (and many who have not). In this he is aided by his helpers, Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) who climb through chimneys to deliver presents and scatter pepernoten wherever they go. What I have not mentioned is that the Sinterklaas feast is very much a young children’s feast. Many families, when children grow up and no longer “believe”, decide to celebrate Christmas instead.
We celebrate the Sinterklaas’s birthday on 5th December, together with Remco’s family including our two nephews and a niece who are still young enough to be wildly excited about the occasion.
But Sinterklaas arrived in the Netherlands almost three weeks ago and families with young children have been submerged in excitement for a very long time (according to Remco, some of his colleagues can’t wait for Sinterklaas to leave again so peace and calm can be restored and their children can go back to sleeping at night and generally behaving normally).
But since our children no longer wake up at 5 AM to go downstairs to check whether the good saint has left a present in their shoe, we would have been mostly deprived of the seasonal excitement, if it weren’t for Sebastiaan.
You see, Sebastiaan sings in a choir.
A couple of weeks ago he came home from a rehearsal and announced that his teacher has a beautiful old boat which she lends to Sinterklaas so that he can arrive in style over the channel. And that all the members of the choir are going to dress up as Zwarte Pieten and go on the boat with Sinterklaas and sing. We were somewhat skeptical, since Sebastiaan is not the most reliable source of information (“Are you sure she said she has a boat? Big enough for Sinterklaas and all the helpers?”). But it all turned out to be true and so I had to borrow a costume and buy some thermal underwear for him and on the big day he was on the boat next to the good saint, greeting the cheering crowds and handing out candy. And boy, was he nervous! Almost as if he were five again. And so through him, we all got to experience the feast in a new way.
In the past years I have shared recipes for many of the traditional sweets connected to the feast: the pepernoten which Zwarte Pieten put in their sack and liberally hand out to children (Sebastiaan loved doing that), speculaas, honey almond speculaas pie…
But I have not yet shared a recipe for this almond letter. It is puff pastry filled with almond paste, shaped as an “S” for “Sinterklaas” (and in our case also for “Sebastiaan”, of course). It can be made in under an hour if you use store-bought almond paste and puff pastry. Or you can go to town and make everything from scratch and spend several days on the project. This time, I chose middle ground, making the almond paste but buying the puff pastry. Almond paste is not difficult to make, even though a bit time-consuming if you peel the almonds yourself like I did, but the taste is so infinitely better than store-bought – especially this recipe made with honey. I have made the puff pastry myself once in the past, back when I was crazy, but can’t say the difference was as dramatic as in the filling.
Please note that if you make the almond paste yourself, it is best to do that a couple of days in advance. If you peel the almonds yourself too, it is best to let them dry for two days before making the paste.
250 g (9 ounces) puff pastry
300 g (11 ounces) almond paste (see below)
1 egg beaten
halved almonds to decorate
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius (400F).
On a floured surface, roll out the puff pastry to a 50 x 15 cm (20 x 6 inch) rectangle. Roll the almond paste into a long thick sausage – it is best to dust the surface with confectioners sugar to stop it from sticking. You can also divide the paste into several smaller sausages to make it easier. Line the almond paste in the middle of the rolled out dough. Brush one side of the dough with the beaten egg and wrap it loosely around the almond paste. Put the long ‘sausage” (seam side down) on a baking sheet lined with parchment and shape it into the letter “S”. Brush the surface with egg, decorate with the halved almonds and brush once more. Bake until golden, about 25 to 30 minutes.
350 g (12 ounces) blanched almonds
200 g (7 ounces) honey
1 tbsp beaten egg
grated zest of 1 lemon (organic)
Grind the almonds very finely in a food processor. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until you get a fairly smooth paste. Store the almond paste in an airtight container in the fridge until needed. Leaving it for a couple of days will improve the taste. The recipe makes more than you’ll need to fill the letter. I used the remaining paste to make 4 mini-rolls that we enjoyed with coffee/tea. For that I wrapped the paste in squares of 12 x 12 cm of puff pastry. See photo below: