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Special Dutch holiday treat for festive Christmas cooks

The winter holiday season begins early in the Netherlands with a special Dutch treat called Sinterklaas, a unique and spirited celebration on Dec. 5, the eve of Saint Nicholas's Feast.

Festivities begin in the middle of November with the arrival by boat of the white-bearded, red-robed bishop figure of Sinterklaas in Amsterdam. Families gather to see Sinterklaas disembark and parade astride a white steed through the throngs. He is accompanied by a Moor, a colorfully costumed companion known as Black Peter, who cavorts mischievously among the crowd, showering small hard cookies called pepernoten upon delighted children.

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Following the arrival of Sinterklaas, Dutch shops take on a festive look. Bakery windows prominently display large pink pigs made of marzipan, the sugary almond-flavored paste. The marzipan pigs lose weight ounce by ounce and become filling for a special puff pastry called Boterletter, which is formed into large family initials and given as gifts to friends.

Small fanciful marzipan figures appear colored and designed to resemble a wedge of cheese, a sausage or fruits of every sort. These are often placed in children's shoes, put out each night from the time of the arrival of Sinterklaas until Dec. 5 with hopes for a small sweet daily. A carrot is left for Sinterklaas's horse also.

Initial letters in solid Dutch chocolate, ranging in size from 2 to 12 inches , are particularly popular gifts for children, and are often used as "name tags" on wrapped packages.

The excitement of Sinterklaas climaxes on the evening of Dec. 5. At the table set for a festive family meal the centerpiece may be a large and elaborately decorated package containing many other smaller wrapped presents. After a delicious dinner come the gifts, which tradition demands be imaginatively camouflaged. Presents may be concealed within an object, or hidden, only to be found by following a trait of clues. Each gift, though usuaally not expensive, has been chosen with great care and is accompanied by an original poem. These humorous verses, written to be provocative as to the nature of the gift, deceptive as to the identity of the bearer, and good-naturedly critical of certain characteristics of the recipient, are read aloud to the amusement of all.

Afterward coffee and a favorite Dutch sweet of the Sinterklaas season, such as Speculaas, are served. These crunchy brown sugar spice cookies are often baked in large wooden molds caved with the figures of Sinterklaas or Dutch men and women in traditional dress. Many stores sell Speculaas during the holiday season, but almost all the Dutch know how to bake their own. Speculaas 3 cups flour 2/3 cup butter, softened 1/2 cup dark brown sugar A pinch each of baking powder and salt Milk to soften dough, about 2 tablespoons 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon powdered cloves 1/2 cup slivered almonds

Mix all ingredients together, except for some of the almonds to be reserved for decorating. Knead into a soft ball. Roll out dough on a floured board to 1 /4-inch thickness and stamp out shapes with different butterprints or cookie cutters. Place on buttered baking sheet. Bake 20 to 25 minutes at 350 degrees F., or until brown. Cool on wire racks and decorate with remaining almonds.

You can also bake the dough as you would brownies, in a buttered square pan. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 30 to 35 minutes. Cool and cut into squares.

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