le pain d’épice de st-nicolas

st-nicolas_spice_breadLast year, I made this pain d’épice, a traditional Burgundian spice bread. The traditional blend of spicy was so distinct and earthy; I was blown away. Far less sugary flavor, far more warmth–you can taste the history of this bread, imagine a family celebrating a holiday while huddled around a fireplace.

This year, I was desperately missing Lorraine & the celebrations for the patron saint, Saint Nicholas. (Here’s a link to the St-Nicolas celebrations we enjoyed when living in Nancy.) So, I decided to bust out my Trésors de la cuisine lorraine cookbook & make another kind of traditional spice bread–more like the gingerbread men we see each Christmas. But without ginger.

According to Trésors, these spicy cookies were first associated with St-Nicolas in the 18oos. The flavors have stayed largely the same, which was a serious luxury in those early days. In France, the cookies are still most frequently cut into the shape of St-Nicolas or his donkey, then decorated with royal icing.

This has been my most difficult translation project–from figuring out if “potassium carbonate” quasi-directly translates to baking powder, working with what I have in the cupboards instead of buying pounds of pastry flour, deciding if they really wanted me to be using powdered sugar. Aaand… what to do without “a small glass of kirsch”? I opted for combining the lemon zest and liquor, using apple cider instead. Trust me. The flavors are somehow nearly effervescent.

Here’s what I ended up with: a traditional blend of spices with the Midwest mixed in. The flavors that really stand out? Cardamom & apple cider, adding just a hint of aaaah to the warm flavors. Warning: this makes approximately one bagillion gingerbread men.


  • 3 1/3 cups whole wheat bread flour
  • 4 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons ground clove
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 1 1/2 cups apple cider


  1. Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk together.
  2. In a double boiler (just do this, with some water simmering in the pot), stir together the honey & molasses until they’ve warmed & thinned. You don’t want any bubbles or real heat–just a smoother texture that will incorporate into the dry ingredients more quickly.
  3. Pour honey-molasses mixture into dry ingredients and whisk together until pea-sized bits have formed. Keep scraping & stirring so it’s really worked through there. This is a lot like making a pie crust.
  4. Now, add the cider a bit at a time, stirring the mixture well. When a moist, sticking-together-well-like-a-dough-should mixture is formed, stop adding cider. You don’t want it sticky, but you don’t want loads of pea-sized balls falling all over either. Whole wheat flour tends to soak up all the moisture, so if you feel you need more than 1 1/2 cups of cider, you’re probably right. Remember: just add about 1/4 cup at a time.
  5. Knead the dough for a bit, to make sure you have a nice, uniform texture. Let it sit for an hour so the flavors can get all in each other’s business.
  6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  7. Lightly flour a counter top & your rolling pin. Roll the dough out to 1/4-inch–this will take several batches. Cut into whatever shape you like. I did snowmen, gingerbread men & rectangles. I thought the rectangles would be nice for dipping into apple butter as an afternoon snack. (Plus I got tired of rolling & cutting & rolling. The rectangles speed this up quite a bit.)
  8. Place the cut cookies on a nonstick cookie sheet. You can put them quite close together, as they’re just puffing up a bit & not really expanding.
  9. Bake for 5-7 minutes. You want them to be slightly browning on the bottom, so that they hold together, but still soft to the touch. They’ll harden up as they cool.
  10. Remove from cookie sheet immediately. Let the cookies cool completely.
  11. Decorate, if you like, but I suggest just dipping them into coffee, tea, mulled wine or apple butter.

About meganbetz

human geography PhD Student at Indiana University; wife, reader, writer, baker, gardener
This entry was posted in being French. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to le pain d’épice de st-nicolas

  1. Pingback: week 2 | francofile

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