With Christmas just two weeks away, cooks across America are busy stocking their pantries with those special ingredients required for their holiday baking.  In fact, the busiest aisle in Meijer (a superstore founded by Frederik Meijer, a Dutch emigrant, in Greenville, Michigan just north of Grand Rapids) this week was the baking aisle, with shoppers piling flours, sugars, mixes, extracts, and colorful decorations into their carts. My great-grandmothers, Helena Reyst and Adrianntje Smouter, were also probably busy this time of year, preparing traditional treats for their families’ celebration of Sinterklaas, Christmas and New Year’s Day.  A trip to the market would have included extra eggs, butter and almonds to make holiday pastries and cookies.

Speaking of cookies, the word comes from the Dutch word, koekje, which means small baked cake. Cooks would test the temperature of their ovens by placing a small dollop of batter into the oven first before baking their goods.  Eventually these small testers would evolve into popular bite-size treats.  It is said that the early Dutch settlers in New York and Pennsylvania introduced the cookie to America. 

Cookies are definitely my passion; I find it extremely difficult to bypass a plate of them. Guess you might say it is in the genes. Growing up we did have two traditional Dutch cookies in our house Dutch windmill cookies and, at Christmas, my mom would make Jan Hagel cookies.

Dutch windmill cookies, Speculaas, are a traditional cookie baked during the celebration of Sinterklaas.  We are most familiar with these cookies in the shape of windmills.  But they can be found in various shapes, the most common being the windmill, Sinterklaas, Sinterklaas on his horse, and Dutch children dressed in traditional Dutch clothing and wooden shoes. Speculaas means biscuit, and it is a crisp, spiced almond cookie traditionally baked in wooden molds.  Here in Michigan there are three bakeries that distribute the cookies, Archway (originally founded in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1936, it has been bought out by Lance, Inc. and are now produced in Ohio), Voortman (founded in 1951 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada by Dutch emigrant brothers and now distributed from Burlington, Ontario, Canada near Toronto) and Steenstra’s (founded in 1947 by the Steenstra family in Wyoming, Michigan and now located in Hudsonville, Michigan just south of Grand Rapids).  Of the three, I like the Steenstra’s variety the best as they taste the most like homemade cookies, and is the only one of the three bakeries to make speculaas in various shapes all centered on the tale of Sinterklaas. Here in the Metropolitan Detroit area, all three varieties are usually available at Meijer.

If you are really adventurous you can try your hand at making Speculaas.  You don’t need wooden molds, a rolling-pin and some holiday cookie cutters will do.  But if you want to be authentic you can invest in some wooden cookie molds.  Land O’Lakes also offers a slightly different version that you might want to try. Or you might want to try Gevulde Speculaas, which have an almond paste filling pressed between two layers of dough.

So this holiday my cookies will include both Jan Hagel and Speculaas cookies in remembrance of my great-grandmothers.


Our recent Thanksgiving Day feast with family got me thinking about the food traditions that have become a part of this special American holiday every year.  Reflecting on my own menu for the day, I noticed that none of the many offerings on my table had any roots in my Dutch heritage. That seemed particularly strange to me having grown up in just a third-generation Dutch emigrate family.

This omission may be due to a lack of recipes handed down from my grandmother, Jennie Smouter Reyst, and also the blended culture that existed within the city of Detroit from the time my great-grandparents arrived in 1890 until the late 1960s. While most dinner tables on Thanksgiving Day feature roast turkey, the similarities end there across the various regions of the United States, and particularly among families in the Metropolitan Detroit area. From vegetables to salads and desserts, and even how the stuffing and potatoes are prepared for the Thanksgiving feast, are all influenced by the area we live and grew up in.

From the time my great-grandparents arrived in Detroit and settled on its east side, cultural foods abound.  From 1890 through the early part of the twentieth century, German influence on the east side and Russian on the west side could be seen in the food markets and bakeries in Detroit. Then by the mid-1900s Polish, Italian and Jewish immigration would add to this cultural mix. From a very early age, growing up in an east-side Detroit neighborhood comprised of German, Polish and Italian second-generation emigrant families, I was exposed to foods introduced by these various cultures, such as spagetti, pizza, galumpis (cabbage rolls), pierogis (Polish dumplings filled with either cheese or kraut), kielbasa (Polish sausage), Chrusciki (Polish angel wing cookies), paczki (Polish Fat Tuesday filled doughnuts), saurbraten, sauerkraut and sausage to name just a few.

So what happened to the Dutch influence? In contrast to the Dutch emigrants who settled in the western regions of Michigan, where there existed a large Dutch community extending from as far north as Muskegon and as far south of Holland, including Grand Rapids, the Dutch community within Detroit was relatively small in comparison to the growing population of this major industrialized city in America. My great-grandmothers probably prepared their first Thanksgiving Day feast, featuring foods that they were most familiar with from their homeland. But as the years went by, and the difficulty of obtaining food and staples required in those recipes, their menus likely slowly changed to blend more with their new home surroundings.

What special treats would Helena Reyst and Adriaantje Smouter, my great-grandmothers, have fixed during the holiday season? Having absolutely no idea, despite actually visiting The Netherlands (typical college student, I stuck with what was most familiar to me – McDonalds), I set out to find out what Dutch cuisine is actually like. Today’s Dutch menu is strongly influenced by all the cultures it has openly embraced since its golden age in the 1600s. So you are unlikely to find a strictly “Dutch” restaurant in the major cities of The Netherlands. They also eat much healthier today than at the turn of the twentieth century. But Helena’s and Adriaantje’s dinner menus would have probably featured foods that were higher in fat. Their holiday dinner would certainly have included a homemade bread, some fresh cheese, and maybe Jan Hagel (Dutch almond) cookies for dessert.

So I have added a new category for you to explore, Dutch Cuisine, and I will post some traditional Nederlander recipes for you to enjoy. I posted my first one, Dutch Apple Fritters; check it out and watch for new additions.