Tuesday December 6th is St. Nicholas Day, named for the benevolent saint of children and fishermen. A much-loved holiday in Europe, I “adopted” this tradition into my own celebration of the Christmas season because it celebrates the ideals of simplicity, goodness, and sharing. Translation: it’s a day set aside to do something nice for friends, neighbors, and someone who needs a bit of cheer.
One of the reasons I love St. Nicholas Day is that many Americans are unfamiliar with this traditional European holiday, making it easy to surprise friends with a small gift of kindness. When little is expected, a simple gift can mean a lot, and I’ve always felt that gifts from the kitchen are particularly treasured because they are made with love by one’s own hands.
Last year, I created red and white felt mittens, filled them with homemade gingerbread men, and hung the mittens from neighbors’ doorknobs where they were sure to be discovered. Another year, I made heavy craft paper cones, filled them with candy cane-shaped sugar cookies, and wrapped them in clear cellophane before delivering them anonymously. There’s something so fun about being a “Secret Santa” on St. Nicholas Day, imagining the surprise and joy of the recipient when your gift is found.
This year, I’m making Holiday Molasses Spice Cupcakes, generously adorned with fluffy cream cheese frosting and decorative garnishes – some homemade like the Santa faces I piped with frosting, and Royal Icing poinsettias, holly leaves, and Santa bears I received from ExpressCreations (www.express-creations.com). After the frosting was dry, I tucked my gifts-from-the-kitchen into festive boxes that are as special as the sweet treat within.
For me, the packaging is an important part of any gift – hopefully evoking what I like to call the “how cute!” reaction. This year, with the help of adorable holiday packaging from Wilton (www.wilton.com), my cupcakes will be delivered in “gingerbread house” boxes tied with red ribbon; colorful holiday “cottages” perfect for a single cupcake; winter wonderland cookie boxes decorated with friendly snowmen and reindeer sledding down hills that comfortably hold four cupcakes, and “yummy” snowman treat boxes decorated with images of gumdrops and peppermint candies. Who could resist….
On St. Nicholas Day or any day throughout this beautiful season of giving, think how fun it would be to share a little surprise from your kitchen with unsuspecting friends or family. A simple gift from the heart, made with one’s own hands, can leave a treasured memory long after Christmas is past.
Holiday Molasses Spice Cupcakes
1 ¼ cups milk
2 teaspoons vinegar
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 ¾ cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon molasses
3 ¼ cups flour
1 ¾ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
11/2 teaspoons Saigon cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon vanilla (add 2 teaspoons vanilla when baking at high altitude)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine milk and vinegar, stir, and set the mixture aside until the milk sours.
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter and sugars together until the mixture is light; stir in the molasses. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition.
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger until well blended. Gradually mix the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture, alternately with the sour milk, scraping the bowl often, until the batter is thick.
Line cupcake pans with inserts and fill each cup ½ full. Bake 18 to 20 minutes until a tester inserted into the center of the cupcakes comes out clean. Remove them from the oven and cool 3 minutes, then remove the cupcakes from the pans and transfer them to a wire rack to cool.
Cream Cheese Frosting
¾ cup unsalted butter, softened
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
Dash of salt
9 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
5 to 6 tablespoons whipping or heavy cream
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter, cream cheese, and salt. Gradually add confectioners’ sugar, alternately with the cream, beating well until the frosting is light and fluffy. Stir in the vanilla and mix well.
When the cupcakes are cool, transfer some of the frosting into a large piping bag fitted with a large star tube, and pipe a swirl of frosting to cover the top of each cupcake. Sprinkle with holiday sprinkles or tinted sugar and set them aside. If desired, tint the remaining frosting as desired, transfer it to piping bags, and decorate as desired.