Manala, mannele, männele – same thing, it just depends which part of Alsace you come from, how you spell the Alsatian for the « wee man » eaten on December 5th and 6th.
Each important Saint has its own tradition in France and Saint Nicolas on December 6th is no exception. Here in Alsace he’s almost as important as Santa Claus who comes as usual on December 24th. Lucky Alsatians, because he doesn’t exist in most other parts of France.
There are lots of stories about St Nicolas, but the most popular one is of 3 children who wandered off and got lost. Cold and hungry, they were lured by a wicked butcher into his shop where he attacked them and salted them away in a large tub. St. Nicolas came to the rescue, the butcher repented and the boys were restored to their families.
This story led to St Nicolas being recognized as the patron saint of school children. The evil butcher became Père Fouettard, who stays at the saint’s side, not as a slave but as a loyal follower showing his gratitude by helping anyway he can.
At home on the 5th, children put their shoes near the chimney and sing a song to Saint Nicolas before going off to bed. There is a very nice version of the most widely known song here at saint-nicolas-chansons.html. Generally the children sing about being good and studious in return for goodies!
In the morning magic! the shoes are overflowing with special Saint Nicolas sweet treats namely—chocolates, gingerbread and clementines. If there is a local Saint Nicolas, he often visits the nursery and primary schools on December 6th distributing more goodies.
In our first year in Alsace we followed Saint Nicolas on his donkey around the village catching sweets he was chucking out of his bag. The Père Fouettard was dressed in black, wielding a bunch of sticks with which to beat the naughty children!! After the village tour everyone headed to the village hall to sing songs and devour manala, clementines and hot chocolate.
Aah at last the manala…this is a delicious slightly sweetened fluffy bread also called brioche made in the shape of Saint Nicolas
These are usually pretty big – about 15cm long and are traditionally dipped into hot chocolate before being eaten. For this reason they aren’t especially sweet, here’s the recipe I use which came from my daughters friend.
Manala – makes about 12
500 g plain flour with a pinch of salt
100 g sugar
100 g butter
200 g luke warm milk
25 g (or half a cube) of fresh yeast
Dissolve the yeast in 100 g of luke warm milk, then stir in 100 g of flour a spoonful at a time. Leave aside for 20 mins.
In a pan melt the butter with the rest of the milk and the sugar and then pour into a large clean bowl. Stir in the yeast mixture. Add the lightly beaten eggs and spoon in the remaining flour with the salt, stirring after each addition.
Suddenly it’ll get too thick to stir so will need to be mixed by hand. Knead for 10 mins and if the dough gets sticky add a dusting of flour. Keep adding flour and kneading until the dough doesn’t stick to the bowl. Cover with a damp cloth and leave somewhere warm for about 45 mins to double in size.
Next take a lump of dough and make a sausage shape about 3cms by 12cm. Form the head and using scissors, cut the legs and arms of your wee man. Don’t cut the arms too thin or they’ll go crispy and dry in the oven. Place your manala on a baking tray and paint with egg yolk, leave aside for 30 mins.
Heat the oven to 150 °C
Finally, finally! Use choc chips or raisins to give the wee man eyes and buttons and pop in the oven for 15 mins. They’re done when they are golden and puffy.
Make some hot choc and start dipping!
They don’t keep very long so if you have made too many, they can be frozen and defrosted just like normal bread, or toasted or split and spread with butter and/or jam.
If you’d like them a bit sweeter, it’s common to mix some icing sugar with water and paint a very thin layer of icing on the manala when they are still warm.
Maybe next time I’ll use a manala shaped cutter to make my wee men even more handsome!