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.
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.
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.
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!
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