Jan Hagel Dutch Cinnamon and Almond Cookie

Are the American Santa Claus and Belgian St Nicholas (or Dutch Sinterklaas) related? When I casually mentioned that they must be, a Belgian friend vehemently denied that there is any relation. “Santa Claus lives with his reindeer on the North Pole, and St Nicholas lives in Spain,” she reasoned. Well, the Saint Nicholas I know from the Russian Orthodox tradition protects sailors and looks like neither the jolly Santa nor the regal Sinterklaas.

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Whoever St Nicholas is, his birthday is celebrated on December 5th in the Netherlands and on the 6th in Belgium, and it’s the main day for exchanging gifts around here. I simply go along with the flow. An extra holiday in the year? Why not celebrate it too!

Baking is a part of any celebration, and the pastry shops in both Belgium and Holland work overtime to produce speculoos, rice flan tarts, gingerbreads and other treats. This year my baking has a distinctive Dutch accent, and for St Nicholas Day, I made Jan Hagel (pronounced as yon hah ghel), a delicate cookie with a crunchy layer of almond flakes and sugar crystals.

janhagel3ajanhagel3b

While I was still figuring out who Sinterklaas might be, another riddle came my way. Who on earth is Jan Hagel? I turned to my Dutch reader Austenfan to shed some light on the mystery. As she said, “The word Janhagel was used once to mean riffraff, scum, lowlife and the like.” I was as puzzled as ever, but then she relented, “Jan is John, and Hagel is hail. The sugar on top is of course a symbol of hail stones. Jan being the most common first name for a man in the Netherlands really fits with the kind of simple and unpretentious cookies Jan Hagels are.” Simple to make, but the flavor of brown sugar, butter, cinnamon and toasted almonds is quite complex.

janhagel2

American bakers will recognize Jan Hagel as a bar cookie–the dough is formed into a rectangle, garnished with almonds and sugar, baked and then cut into small pieces. The coarse sugar strewn on top is usually the caramelized bits sold as Kandijsuiker around here. I’ve also tried Jan Hagels with white pearl sugar and with regular coarse sugar crystals, and they all work well. As the bits of sugar melt into the cookie, they become crunchy and add another layer of flavor and texture. Riffraff? I beg to differ!

janhagel4

Jan Hagel Dutch Cookie with Cinnamon and Almonds

The recipe has been adapted from Koekje (Cookie) by Cees Holtkamp and Kees Raat. If you read Dutch and enjoy traditional baking, it’s an excellent resource, and I’ve seen well-worn copies at the bakeries in Holland.

Note that American flour is much stronger than European flour, and it absorbs more liquid. You may find that your dough is too dry, in which case add more milk.

Yields about 16-20 cookies

12 1/2 tablespoons (175g) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup + 1 Tablespoon (125g) light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups (250g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon (5g) baking powder
1 teaspoon of milk (or more, see headnote)
1 egg white, lightly beaten
1/4 cup (25g) flaked almonds
coarse crystal golden sugar to garnish

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C.

Cream the butter with the sugar, salt, and cinnamon. Sift flour with baking powder and add to the sugar-butter mixture. Sprinkle milk over the mixture. Using your finger tips, mix everything until it comes together into a ball. If the dough feels too dry, add the milk drop by drop until you have smooth, soft, but not sticky, dough. Avoid overworking the dough, and the moment it forms into a ball, wrap it in clingfilm and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

Roll the dough directly on the parchment paper. If you find that the dough is too sticky, place a layer of plastic on top before rolling out. Once you have a 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) thick rectangle, peel off the plastic (if you used it). Brush the pastry with egg white, sprinkle with flaked almonds and sugar crystals. Press the garnish lightly into the dough with your hands.

Bake on the middle rack for 20 minutes, until it is just beginning to brown. Remove from the heat and cool for at least 5 minutes and then slice into narrow rectangles, about 1.5″ x 4″ (4 x 10 cm). Let cool completely and enjoy. Can be stored in a covered container for up to a week.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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72 Comments

  • Karen: Yum! Thanks for posting this recipe! December 5, 2013 at 7:43am Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure, Karen! 🙂 December 5, 2013 at 10:40am Reply

  • Jenna: These sound delicious! The only Dutch biscuit I know are the crumbly yellow ones that come in big blue tins. These sound even better. December 5, 2013 at 8:03am Reply

    • Victoria: Butter cookies are my favorites too, especially with a cup of hot tea and a small sauce of cherry jam. That’s the taste of childhood for me. December 5, 2013 at 10:39am Reply

  • rosarita: Delicious! Always enjoy your recipes V, once I get around to baking 🙂 Thanks! December 5, 2013 at 8:10am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! I love baking cookies, and around this time, the cookie production shifts into high gear. Well, a hot oven always helps to keep our drafty apartment warm. 🙂 December 5, 2013 at 10:39am Reply

  • Anne of Green Gables: I’m having a cup of tea at the moment and I wish I could have this biscuit to accompany it. Seeing your pictures, I can just imagine biting into the crunchy layer on the top. Unfortunately, I don’t have an oven here so I can’t do any baking. 🙁 Instead, I can make Hoddeok, a typical Korean winter snack, which also has brown sugar, cinnamon and nuts in it. Cinnamon is one of my favourite spices (in foods as well as in perfumes) and I can have it all year around, not just for Christmas!

    Talking about cinnamon reminds me of something else. Following your recommendation, I tested Spicebomb and I liked it albeit being quite sweet. That hint of chilli (among other spices) against the sweet background made me feel excited – like chilli in chilli chocolates! December 5, 2013 at 9:00am Reply

    • Victoria: I lived for several months without an oven, and I really was missing it. I didn’t realize how often I use it for baking and roasting.

      On the other hand, your pancakes stuffed with cinnamon and walnuts sound delicious! Do you make the dough yourself or buy the mix? December 5, 2013 at 10:37am Reply

      • Anne of Green Gables: I’m pretty lazy so I usually buy the mix. What’s important for me is to buy a mix that has high glutinous rice flour content because I love the chewy sensation. But really, it’s best to eat them in the street on a cold winter day in Korea. December 5, 2013 at 11:47am Reply

        • Victoria: That’s how I ate them for the first time, and the hot, fragrant pancake eaten on a -14C day was definitely one of my Seoul highlights. I haven’t made them myself yet, but they’re on my list. In Ukraine we make similar fluffy pancakes with regular wheat flour. My grandmother always added raisins and cinnamon to hers. December 5, 2013 at 12:57pm Reply

          • Anne of Green Gables: Sounds like you had a genuine Korean winter experience. 🙂 Did you also have some Bungeoppang (Taiyaki in Japanese)? There’s also Hoppang and I used to love roasted sweet potatoes which is becoming harder to find these days. Winter wouldn’t be the same without these snacks! What are the Ukrainian pancakes called? Cinnamon and raisins – perfect combination! I would love a hint of rum in it too. December 5, 2013 at 3:37pm Reply

            • Hannah: I love Korean food and this thread is making me really jealous. December 5, 2013 at 4:27pm Reply

              • Anne of Green Gables: 🙂 But I’m glad that Germany has a lot to offer during the Christmas season. I’ve been eating through all different kinds of Plätzchen. December 6, 2013 at 7:41am Reply

                • Hannah: My friends keep telling me they’re jealous that I get to be surrounded by Christmas markets but I’m watching my weight and I’m on a really strict budget so I don’t really care for them. I don’t have that big of a sweet tooth so my favorite things are savory crepes, anything that deals with bread and (melted) cheese, and Maronen. December 6, 2013 at 8:23am Reply

            • Victoria: The fish shaped cakes? Yes, I’ve had them too! The smell of the dough spiked with a little bit of vanillin is impossible to resist.

              The Ukrainian pancakes are called oladki, and they can be made with kefir and baking soda or with yeast (my favorite). Either way, they should be fluffy and golden. They’re not stuffed; instead, the ingredients are folded into the dough before frying. You can definitely add some rum as well. Or butter sauteed apples with cinnamon and rum. December 5, 2013 at 5:29pm Reply

              • Anne of Green Gables: Yes, those ones! You can smell them from a mile away. Oladki sounds delicious but I couldn’t find a recipe online. Is it similar to the Russian pancake Oladi (I could find recipes for this)? December 6, 2013 at 7:49am Reply

                • Victoria: Yes, it’s essentially the same dish. I found a recipe here that looks similar to mine, except that I use less yeast and let the dough rise longer in the first stage.
                  http://www.olgasflavorfactory.com/breakfast/oladi/

                  Or you can find many recipes online for oladi made with kefir and baking soda, but while quick, it’s just an ordinary pancake. I’m sure you’ve tried something like that in Germany or England. December 6, 2013 at 8:12am Reply

                  • Anne of Green Gables: Thanks, V. I’ll try the one made with yeast, maybe with my mum to make it more fun. December 9, 2013 at 8:34am Reply

    • rainboweyes: Maybe you should try Arquiste Anima Dulcis? It’s very spicy but not overly sweet. December 5, 2013 at 4:00pm Reply

      • Anne of Green Gables: Thanks for the suggestion, rainboweyes. It’s already on my ‘To sample’ list but I still haven’t got around to smelling it. December 9, 2013 at 8:37am Reply

  • Marieke: I’m flattered that you like our baking so much. 🙂

    Did you pick up much Dutch already? I thought that Brussels is mostly French speaking, no? December 5, 2013 at 9:15am Reply

    • Victoria: Marieke, not really, I didn’t pick up much Dutch, since I hardly ever encounter it in Brussels. On the other hand, I can read the recipes; it’s not too hard since the same words and phrases recur again and again. December 5, 2013 at 10:35am Reply

  • The Perfumed Veil: Do you know Ded Moroz? I love him. For those who don’t know, the Russian Santa Claus wears a frosty blue robe and has a female companion named Snegurochka. Here’s a pic:

    http://therealsasha.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/ded-maroz-and-snegurochka.jpg December 5, 2013 at 9:15am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, I know Ded Moroz from my Ukrainian childhood. It’s the equivalent of Père Noël (Father Christmas), a character unrelated to St Nicholas. I remember writing letters to him and Snegurochka when I was little. 🙂 December 5, 2013 at 10:16am Reply

  • Jillie: Can’t wait to bake these, especially as anything made with almonds will always make my husband very happy!

    I always thought that Santa Claus and St Nicholas were one and the same too – it’s what happens when every culture takes the bits they like most from other people’s religion or folklore. I seem to remember reading that our picture of Santa these days, in the red and white costume, actually owes a lot to Coca-Cola and their representation of him in their advertisements! December 5, 2013 at 9:46am Reply

  • Amer: I think the equivalent of Santa Claus in orthodox tradition, both Russian and Greek is St. Basil. We exchange gifts in his honor on the first day of the year and not on christmas. Also we bake something we call a “pie” but is really a sweet bread with a coin hidden inside. The one who gets the piece with the coin is going to be the luckiest of the people that share the bread (until next year of course). December 5, 2013 at 10:01am Reply

    • Victoria: Since I grew up in the Soviet, atheistic environment, I’m not that familiar with the older Russian/Ukrainian traditions. Based on what I observe in my grandmother’s village, they’re slowly returning, but what I find disconcerting is that the patriarchal elements are returning as well. But that’s already another, less joyous topic…

      In Ukraine we bake something called kolach for Christmas, a sweet, enriched bread in a shape of a circle. My family never baked it, but I’ve added it to our spread. If I were to put my husband’s holidays and my own, we be celebrating something every other day, so in the end, we just pick and choose what we like. 🙂 December 5, 2013 at 10:26am Reply

      • Amer: Really? I’d go for the every other day version 😉 December 6, 2013 at 3:35am Reply

        • Victoria: Too many holidays also gets tiring! 🙂 December 6, 2013 at 7:16am Reply

          • Amer: yes but then you can have the rare privilege of celebrating a day for not being a holiday …dee…. O_O December 6, 2013 at 3:10pm Reply

  • Hannah: My mom hates baking but my next door neighbor always baked for us. She’s Greek. I prefer baklava over Lebkuchen, to be honest. Unfortunately (since I do not want to gain weight), I am not having a shortage of either.
    These sound good but I think I’m banning myself from cookies. December 5, 2013 at 10:48am Reply

    • Victoria: The nice thing about cookies for me is that they’re small. So, it’s a little indulgence, as long you stop at one. But we know how difficult that can be. 🙂 December 5, 2013 at 11:07am Reply

      • Hannah: There’s a big platter filled with cookies, chocolate, and gingerbread that is replenished daily in the living room.
        I think this cookie may be really similar to Zimtsterne (cinnamon stars), minus the almonds and brown sugar. December 5, 2013 at 2:49pm Reply

        • Patricia: Oh, I make my grandmother’s recipe for cinnamon stars every year. December 5, 2013 at 3:26pm Reply

          • Victoria: I would love your recipe, Pat! 🙂 December 5, 2013 at 5:25pm Reply

            • Patricia: You got it! I’ll scan it and email later today :). December 8, 2013 at 3:49pm Reply

        • Victoria: Oh, I’m envious of your platter! I wouldn’t be able to resist either.

          Zimtsterne with white glaze on top? I thought that Zimtsterne are usually thick and chewy, made with ground almonds, egg whites, cinnamon, etc. Janhagel, on the other hand, are crunchy. December 5, 2013 at 5:24pm Reply

          • Hannah: Oh, there was something I have been tasting in them but haven’t been able to figure it out. The ground almonds. The Zimtsterne are my favorite thing on the cookie platter. December 5, 2013 at 5:40pm Reply

            • Victoria: They also look so pretty on the displays at the bakeries set against the evergreen branches and Christmas ornaments. December 5, 2013 at 5:43pm Reply

  • maja: St. Nicholas in Orthodox Church is celebrated on the 19th of December and yes, he is a protector of sailors and travellers in general 🙂 What we had in Eastern Europe around New Year’ eve was Grandpa Frost 🙂 very similar to Santa Claus. I like all three of them 😉
    I am so envious of other people’s ovens at the moment as my is currently a bad gas oven that burns everything in minutes. A good oven is so important. And I can’t wait to bake something crunchy to go with a cup of steaming tea with, let’s say, rose petals. 🙂 December 5, 2013 at 10:53am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much, Maja! I completely forgot about December 19th, which we never celebrated when I was little. My grandmother now follows more of the customs, because everyone else in her village does, but when I was growing up, I don’t remember celebrating Christmas. We got our presents on Jan 1st from Father Frost (Ded Moroz). I only learned some of the traditions as an adult. On other other hand, while we never celebrated Christmas, the Easter traditions were always strictly followed.

      My current oven is a convection that has its own quirks. I still can’t get used to it, so I burn something on regular basis. 🙂 December 5, 2013 at 11:17am Reply

      • maja: I grew up in a similar environment. Some of the traditions were preserved in rural parts of the country but children with urban background had no idea about religious holidays. I have mixed feelings about it today but in the end I am really happy with my growing up waiting for Deda Mraz only. 🙂 December 5, 2013 at 12:19pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’m conflicted about it too. Plus, in the Eastern Ukraine, so many traditions are mixed, so it’s hard to say what’s specifically Ukrainian, what’s Russian or what’s pan-Slavic in general.

          There is a wonderful 1964 film called Morozko. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have English subtitles, but if you want see Russian Ded Moroz in all his splendor Russian-style, fastforward to the 49th minute:
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXvEUeM34qs December 5, 2013 at 1:27pm Reply

          • Natasha: i watched this movie as a child and now my daughter watches it. we also like Tsar Sultan and Ruslan and Ludmila. December 5, 2013 at 2:32pm Reply

            • Victoria: How sweet, Natasha! For now, I just watch them with my husband (the ones with subtitles, that is). 🙂 December 5, 2013 at 5:21pm Reply

          • maja: Thank you so much, this is wonderful. I have probably seen it as a child since our Sunday mornings on TV were dedicated to Russian fairy tale movies. 🙂

            I remember liking this one a couple of years ago:
            http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/wiredscience/2012/12/rusny12.jpg

            🙂 December 6, 2013 at 11:23am Reply

            • Victoria: That’s such a cute card! If you put старинные новогодние открытки in Google Images, you’ll see other great examples of New Year and Christmas postcards. Some are from the Soviet era, and others are of the pre-revolution vintage. It’s interesting that the earlier cards didn’t use the typical winter imagery we associate with the holidays now. December 6, 2013 at 12:27pm Reply

              • maja: utterly adorable! 🙂 thank you. December 7, 2013 at 3:48am Reply

  • Lucas: In Poland we also celebrate St Nicolas birthday on December 6th. In our language the day is called “Mikołajki” and it’s the day when we gift each other with sweets and sugary things to make a day lovelier.
    Chocolate figurines of St Nicolas silhouette are most popular that day.
    Your cinnamon and almond cookies sound yummy. I think I might try to do them soon.
    I’m going to bake cupcakes with a sparkling frosty glaze tomorrow December 5, 2013 at 11:32am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so glad that I wrote this post, because I’m learning so much about the different St. Nicholas’s traditions. No wonder that my local Polish store now has lots of different new sweets I haven’t seen there before.
      Your cupcakes sounds very festive! 🙂 December 5, 2013 at 11:40am Reply

      • Lucas: St. Nicholas’s brithday is really well celebrated in Poland. I’m sure that your local Polish store looks great, sweets shops here also look super cute now, with all these chocolate figurines of raindeers, baubles etc.
        Frosty chocolate is my favorite. It’s a specific kind of chocolate sold not in bars but each little piece is packed separately. They melt instantly in your mouth and release all flavor. December 5, 2013 at 12:31pm Reply

        • Victoria: Do you have a brand name or a Polish name? I could check at my Polish store to see if they carry it. December 5, 2013 at 1:28pm Reply

          • Lucas: Those that I like best are made in Germany, Moritz Eiskonfekt is their name.

            From Polish brand you should check E.Wedel and Goplana. They don’t manufacture frosty chocolates but make the best chocolate here (and I believe one of the world’s best too) December 5, 2013 at 2:28pm Reply

            • Hannah: When I went to Warsaw for a university-organized trip, our tourguide gave us these bags of chocolate and the chocolate was really, really good. I don’t remember the brand, though. I also bought chocolate covered prunes and those were good. Polish hot chocolate is really good, too. And those bread rings in Krakow. Polish food in general is good. December 5, 2013 at 4:36pm Reply

              • Victoria: My best memories of Warsaw have to do with food! The rose jam stuffed brioche is one of many reasons I would love to visit again. December 5, 2013 at 5:31pm Reply

            • Victoria: Thank you, Lucas! I will look for them. I know for sure that I’ve seen E.Wedel chocolates at my Polish store. December 5, 2013 at 5:18pm Reply

  • iodine: I feel I can smell them through the screen!
    Not much familiarity with Saint Nicholas here in Italy- even if I know that in some areas, i.e Trieste, it’s the day in which children get their presents- but your post reminded me of a very funny short story by David Sedaris on Dutch St. Nicholas “Six to Eight Black Men” 🙂 December 5, 2013 at 11:46am Reply

    • maja: St. Nicholas bones are in Bari and he is the city patron, if I remember well. Nicola is such a typical nam in that part of Italy actually. But I don’t know if there is a strong connection between the saint and Christmas traditions. December 5, 2013 at 12:10pm Reply

      • Victoria: I was just watching a fascinating documentary on pilgrimages with Simon Reeve, and I was thinking that if I made a pilgrimage, it would be to Bari. December 5, 2013 at 12:58pm Reply

    • Victoria: The cinnamon and brown sugar combination gives them a heady perfume, and when you bake them, the whole kitchen smells like a pastry shop!

      I love David Sedaris’s story, but I haven’t read that particular one. Off to see if I can download it on Kindle. December 5, 2013 at 12:52pm Reply

  • rainboweyes: Oh boy, do these cookies look delicious! And the recipe sounds quite easy.
    I will bake them for my son’s school advent party next week. And the marzipan/poppy seed macaroons I found in a cooking magazine yesterday.
    By the way, I bought exactly the same Grümmelkandis from your photo and use it for sweetening my black tea. I haven’t thought of using it for baking but that’s a great idea! December 5, 2013 at 3:55pm Reply

    • Victoria: I hope that you like them!
      Many Dutch and Belgian pastries use large chunks of sugar or large sugar crystals for the interesting caramelized effect. I’ve written before about my amazement of seeing so many varieties of sugar at the supermarkets, and I’m still working my way through them. I just realized I might have picked up this particular brand on my last work trip to Germany, since this kind of caramelized sugar is much easier to find there (or in the Flemish parts of Belgium) than in Brussels. December 5, 2013 at 5:37pm Reply

  • Sally: I am fascinated reading about all of the different representations of Santa from the posts here. I grew up with “Father Christmas” in England – my hubby knew him in Ireland as “Daidi na Nollag” which I believe is Gaelic.
    Baking was (and still is) an intricate part of our Christmas traditions as I grew up. Mince pies are a great favorite of mine as is the Christmas pudding (very rich dried fruit concoction which is steamed in muslin and served with hot brandy butter, after being doused in brandy/rum and set alight). It would also have silver sixpences baked into it – how we hoped to find one one our spoon! I love the sound of your cookies – I’m going to add them to my repertoire! December 6, 2013 at 12:27am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s interesting that the tradition of baking a coin, a bean or some other object into the cake exists in so many cultures.
      When I lived in the UK, I couldn’t wait for the holiday season to be able to buy mince pies. They’re still among my favorite Christmas treats! I also tried making the pudding last year for the first time, and it was tasty. Except that it took us forever to finish it, since it’s so rich. I might even still have some in the freezer. 🙂 December 6, 2013 at 7:16am Reply

    • Anne of Green Gables: Love mince pies and Christmas pudding! In my first year in England, I didn’t want to have mince pies because I thought that it had minced meat in it! 🙂 December 6, 2013 at 7:37am Reply

  • fleurdelys: I predict that these will be baked in my home during the holidays! I love the sound of rice flan, is it a combo of my two favorite desserts, rice pudding and flan? December 6, 2013 at 10:46am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it’s a very eggy mixture based on rice pudding, and it’s baked in a tart shell. The contrast between the buttery, crumbly pastry and creamy pudding is irresistible. December 6, 2013 at 12:22pm Reply

  • Aisha: We celebrate St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6, and I use the day to teach my son about the real St. Nicholas. I use a website hosted by the St. Nicholas Center. Our son also gets a few gifts on St. Nicholas Day, such as an Advent calendar and a book. Not many around the United States celebrate the day, but a few families do. 🙂

    The cookies look really yummy, by the way. I just finished baking 5 dozen palmiers and 5 dozen candy cane fudge pieces for an annual church event. I’ll have to try your recipe, and if they turn out I’ll have to make them next year for the event. 🙂 December 14, 2013 at 2:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: You’ve been busy, Aisha! And your baking output sounds very impressive. I’m trying to decide which dessert to make for the Christmas party, so I’m leafing through my notebooks. Palmiers are some of my favorite cookies.

      St. Nicholas was an impressive person, and I’ve recently learned that he is also considered a patron of perfumers! December 16, 2013 at 6:57am Reply

      • Aisha: Oo! A patron saint of perfumers! I knew there was a reason why he’s one of my favorite saints. 😉 December 16, 2013 at 11:25am Reply

        • Victoria: You felt it intuitively. 🙂 December 16, 2013 at 2:18pm Reply

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