The History Of Jan Hagels, Traditional Dutch Christmas Cookies
Jan Hagel cookies (or Jan Hagel koekjes, as the Dutch call them) are one of those delicious recipes that are passed down from generation to generation. We’ve heard from many of our readers of Dutch descent who tell us these cookies were a Christmas tradition baked by their Oma (grandmother), and they look forward to enjoying them every holiday.
After doing some more digging, we found that Jan Hagels are the near-perfect cookie: a mix of buttery and flaky delicate shortbread crust coupled with crunchy nuts—traditionally either walnuts or almonds—and sanding sugar. After you try this recipe, they may just become a part of your holiday traditions as well!
What’s in a Name?
While Jan Hagel was not an actual person, the moniker tells quite a story in and of itself. In Dutch, “jan hagel” or “janhagel” (pronounced “Yahn Hahgel”) means “unruly mob,” “ragtag,” or “swarm.” It’s a fitting name for a cookie made with a hodgepodge of nuts, and many theorize that the cookie takes its name from the sort of people who enjoyed them most. After all, in 17th-century Holland, “janhagel” was a slang term for sailors, common people, riffraff and people on the fringes of society.
“Jan Hagel” can also be translated as “Johnny Hail,” which some believe to be a reference to the large crystals of rock sugar used to coat these cookies. Other names include “Hollanders,” “Dutch hail cookies” and “sugar hail cookies.”
Origins of the Jan Hagel Cookie
Who made the first Jan Hagel cookies? No one is quite sure who first made them or when, but we do know that these cookies date back to at least the 17th Century. The Dutch book, Winterfeesten en Gebak: Mythen, Folklore en Tradities (Winter Festivals and Pastries: Myths, Folklore, and Tradition) says that these cookies may actually have originated in France.
One version says the cookies were brought to Antwerp, Belgium, in the 19th Century by a French family; another claims that Jan Hagels made the transition from France to Holland during the time of Napoleon (the late 1700s and early 1800s). A French soldier stationed in Holland is said to have passed the recipe on to a Dutch baker. The problem with both of those stories, however, is that there are other mentions of Jan Hagel cookies that predate both the 19th Century and the early Napoleonic era.
The Jan Hagel Legend
There is one tale that old-timers from Holland love to tell about these cookies. According to legend, Jan Hagels are the cookies that angels serve to people when they reach St. Peter’s Gate in heaven. Different versions of the story say that these cookies are served to children or orphans as they enter Heaven, but whichever version you believe, it’s a beautiful story that fits these heavenly cookies perfectly.
A Seasonal Tradition
Though most people recognize Jan Hagel cookies as a Christmas tradition, in reality, the Dutch serve these cookies throughout the holiday season. In fact, they’re one of the traditional desserts served for the Feast of St. Nicholas and its eve, which fall on December 5 and 6 each year. Because this holiday is so close to Christmas, the tradition of serving Jan Hagel cookies extends throughout the season.
This year, make Jan Hagel cookies a part of your own family traditions with this classic recipe.
Jan Hagels Christmas Cookies
1 cup salted butter, softened (2 sticks)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 egg, separated
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup finely sliced almonds (chopped walnuts can also be used)
Sanding sugar (kandij) (optional)
Heat oven to 350ºF. Lightly grease a 15 1/2″ x 10 1/2″ x 1″ (half sheet) pan. In the bowl of a standing mixer, combine butter, granulated sugar, and egg yolk.
In a separate bowl, sift together flour and cinnamon, and add to the butter mixture on low speed until thoroughly combined (mixture will be crumbly but will come together when pressed into pan). Press dough into baking pan. Place plastic wrap or wax paper over the dough and use a small rolling pin to roll out dough evenly in pan. Beat egg white and water until frothy and brush a light layer over dough, then sprinkle with nuts and sanding sugar. Bake 20-25 minutes until lightly browned. Let rest in pan for 5 minutes. Using a sharp knife, immediately cut into finger-like strips. Leave to cool and crisp up, before transferring to a wire cooling rack to cool completely.