Purpose of this Blog...

You may have noticed that not all books are equal in capturing children's imaginations and in cultivating those innocent, tender souls. My goal is to help you find the ones that do!
(Painting by Mary Cassatt: "Mrs Cassatt Reading to her Grandchildren" -1888)

Monday, December 5, 2011


On December 5th, the evening before St. Nicholas Day, children in Belgium put their shoes (or small baskets) on the hearth - along with hay, water, carrots, and a sugar lump for the saint's horse, with a glass of wine for the saint. The children may also include a picture they've drawn (or a list) showing what they would like. They believe St. Nicholas rides on horseback over the rooftops, dropping his gifts down their chimneys. What do they find in their shoes the next day?  Chocolate, oranges, marzipan, small toys, and ...speculoos cookies!

Originating in Belgium and the Netherlands, speculoos cookies were first traditionally baked to celebrate St. Nicholas Day. The name may derive from the Latin speculum, "mirror", in reference to the bas-relief image of Saint Nick stamped into the cookies. These cookies (some very large) are still displayed every year on December 6 in the windows of Dandoy, in Brussels.

Alternatively, the name of these thin, crunchy cookies could have been derived from specerij, the Dutch word for "spices". The cookies are flavored with holiday spices—cardamom, cinnamon, clove, ginger and nutmeg—plus white pepper. Less spicy and sweeter than gingerbread, speculoos cookies make a perfect accompaniment to a hot cup of coffee or cocoa.

Biscoff (as in "BIScuits for COFFee") is the most readily available brand of speculoos cookies. An all-natural (nut-free) spread is made of the ground sp├ęculoos cookies.  And it's lucious! It was created in 2007 on a Belgian reality TV show contest seeking the year's best new invention. The sp├ęculoos spread made by contestant Els Scheppers was a top finalist.

My daughter discovered this spread when she and her husband were living in France. As of about two months ago, and to our extreme delight, it's finally available in the U.S.  You have to try it on apple slices!

By the way, did you know that St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of bakers?

What does all this have to do with children's books?  I found two wonderful picture books about baking to share with you today. (Even St. Nicholas would have liked them!)

The Baker's Dozen: A Saint Nicholas Tale, by Aaron Shepard, gorgeously illustrated by Wendy Edelson (Make your own St. Nicholas cookies!  Aaron has included the recipe here, on his website).
Van Amsterdam the baker was well known for his honesty as well as for his fine Saint Nicholas cookies. He always gave his customers exactly what they paid for -- not more and not less. So, he was not about to give in when a mysterious old woman comes to him on Saint Nicholas Day and insists that a dozen is thirteen! The woman's curse puts an end to the baker's business, and he believes it would take Saint Nicholas to help him. But if he receives that help, will it be exactly what he imagined? This is a great way to teach young children about the the joy of giving, and about the life of St. Nicholas.

Christmas Cookies: Bite-Size Holiday Lessons, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, with cute illustrations by Jane Dyer.

Similar to Rosenthal and Dyer’s previous book, Cookies: Bite-Size Life Lessons (2006), this adorable picture book offers a variety of terms defined in child-friendly ways, while relating to the theme of Christmas cookies: FRUSTRATED means, "I can’t believe we burned them again" / PERSEVERANCE means, "We tried and tried and tried, and finally we made the perfect non-burned batch,”/ and HOPE means, "I’m filled with good feelings about what will be.”

A variety of cutely dressed children and animals are depicted throughout the book with a little carryover of characters from one picture to the next. A sugar-cookie recipe is included in this "sweet" and wholesome Christmas story. Ages 3-6.

Happy St. Nicholas Day tomorrow, and Happy Reading!

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