This week, wonderful readers, is a very important week for the Dutch. For on Friday it will be the fifth of December, which is the national holiday of saint Nicolas, or, as the Dutch lovingly call him, ‘Sinterklaas’.
Sinterklaas is suffering from some bad publicity these days. He’s got these assistants with a pretty unfortunate skin colour (they’re black, supposedly from getting covered in soot by creeping into peoples houses through chimneys), and he’s come under fire for being a backwards slave driver who really has no place in modern society. His Pieten, as they are called, might have to undergo a bit of modernisation soon, which is cool with me, if I can be entirely honest. It’s an unpopular opinion, but traditions change all the time, and I don’t see why the colour these fellows are painted should make such a difference to a holiday that’s really all about presents and food.
You see, Sinterklaas is pretty much the Dutch equivalent of Christmas. As I mentioned before, Sinterklaas is a sort of proto-Father Christmas, who was modelled largely after his example. He goes around the country and he drops off presents for no particular reason. He also hands out tonnes of sweets.
The most traditional of these sweets are called pepernoten, and they’re essentially tiny little mini biscuits, flavoured with spices such as cinnamon and cardamom. They’re pretty delicious, but I don’t really care much for sweets and therefore I don’t really tend to eat them. This fact doesn’t stop my mother, bless, from bringing me some every time she visits me in foreign cities, and recently I ended up, as so often before, with a bag of pepernoten that I was sure I wasn’t going to eat. My Italian friends tried a few last year, but it turned out difficult to get through a whole bag in a household of only three people, so this year I decided to put them to good use, rather than eat half and bin the rest. I used them for the base of a spicy, boozy, autumnal pear cake, which was every bit as awesome as expected!
This recipe calls for pepernoten, or at the very least, speculaas. If you can’t get a hold of those, you can try ginger nuts, which are slightly differently flavoured but still pretty delicious, or otherwise take some plain digestives and spice them up yourself. See the bottom of the ingredients list for the spices to use, or get mixed spice, which will definitely do the trick.
- 200 gr pepernoten
- 80 gr butter
- 3 pears
- juice of 1 lemon
- 2 tbsp icing sugar
- 500 gr mascarpone
- a half or whole glass of marsala
- 100 gr sugar
If you’re spicing up your cake yourself, use:
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
- 1/2 tsp white pepper (trust me – they’re not called pepernoten for no reason)
- 1/2 tsp ginger powder
- the minusculest pinch of salt imaginable
Pop your pepernoten in a blender or foodprocessor and grind them up to a fine floury powder. Melt your butter, mix it with the pepernootpowder and press it into a spring form cake tin, preferably lined with some baking parchment on the bottom. Press it down well, cover with some cling film and put it in the fridge for at least half an hour.
Now here’s where you have to make a choice: pears on top or mascarpone on top. I went for mascarpone on top, because I thought it looked nicer, but there’s a serious downside to this method: pears are leaky little bastards, and they ooze all of their delicious peary juices all over your pepernootbase, which will then go soggy. If you plan to eat this thing straight away, that’s not really a problem, because you can just assemble the cake about an hour before eating and the juice won’t have so much time to ruin the base, but you’ll have to finish it in one go. If you don’t think you’re likely to finish the cake within the hour, maybe go for pears on top – you’ll have to invest a little bit more time in slicing them nicely and arranging them in a visually pleasing pattern.
Either way, chop up your pears into small bits (bottom pears) or in elegant long slices (top pears), chuck them in a bowl, add the lemon juice and the icing sugar, mix and leave for a while.
In the meantime beat your mascarpone with the sugar and some marsala. Go easy on the marsala at first, and keep tasting – if you’re like me, and you like your desserts quite boozy, go for an entire glass, don’t be afraid. The spices can be a little bit overwhelming and you risk not tasting the marsala at all if you don’t add enough.
Once you’re happy with your mascarpone, cover the base with it, then top with the pears, which you’ve drained of all juice. Alternatively, drain your pear chunks, put them on the base, then top with the mascarpone. Now chill the whole thing for about an hour, then serve.