Sinterklaas time is also the time that the children get to "set" their shoe by the fireplace or backdoor. The shoe is filled with straw and a carrot for the horse Amerigo, and often has a written letter to Sint with a request for presents. The shoe is always set out right before going to bed. As you can imagine, the next morning is a mad dash to make it to your shoe first, so that you can see what Sint or his helper Piet have left you in return! It's often a small token - a mandarin orange, a small gift or, if you're lucky, a chocolate letter.
In the old days, according to this source, gifts would be covered with a sheet, instead of individually wrapped. A letter made from bread would indicate what presents would be for which child. Later, these letters became chocolate letters and can still be found in all the letters of the alphabet, so that there is a letter for everybody.
The most popular letter is the letter M, not in the least because the perception is that it has the most chocolate....but one look at the weight of both an I and an M reveal that both letters hold exactly the same amount of chocolate. For some reason, the facts don't matter: an M still seems like a better deal than an I!
For those of us that live abroad, it can sometimes be difficult to find chocolate letters so that we can continue the tradition with our families, or the stores we order from have run out or don't have the letters we need anymore. So let's make our own!
Making your own chocolate letters* is really very easy: all it takes is chocolate, a little bit of butter ( 1 oz per 4 oz of chocolate) and all the sprinkles and edible cake decorations you can find. It would be a great afternoon activity to do with the kids and let them decorate their own letters.
For approximately 8 small letters
Chocolate, 1 lb
Butter, 4 oz (room temperature)
Melt 12 oz of chocolate over a pot with warm water, or in the microwave, but be careful to not overheat or burn the chocolate. Dark chocolate should not surpass 118F (48C) and milk chocolate should not get hotter than 113F (45C). Remove the pot from the heat and stir the remainder of the chocolate into the melted chocolate to bring down its temperature to between 86F and 88F (30 to 31C). Be careful to not have any water or steam get to the chocolate - it will seize up. (More info on tempering chocolate here).
When all the chocolate has melted, whip the butter airy and fluffy until it turns white, then stir in the chocolate. Place a piece of parchment paper on the back of a baking sheet, and tape it down. Slide your printed letters under the paper. Prepare a piping bag with a star tip, and fill the bag.
Now pipe the letters onto the parchment paper. You can pipe high or double for thicker, higher letters, or do a single pass. If you don't like how you piped it, you can remove the chocolate and add it back to the bag. If the chocolate spreads too much because it's still too warm, put it back in the bag and wait a little bit longer.
You have a bit of time before the chocolate starts to set. Decorate the letters with edible glitter, kruidnoten or chocolate chips for the kids, or go for grownup flavors like a dusting of chili powder, pistachios or sea salt. Place the letters, after they're done, in a cool area to set up: it will take about two hours. You can then wrap them, or eat them :-)
*The easiest letters to pipe are the S and the O, but if you're adventurous or experienced, definitely try different shapes. I printed out the letter S in Calibri font at 520 points so that it would match the traditional small chocolate letter of 4.5 inches by 3. The large letters measure 6 x 4 inches.