Swedish Advent coffee gatherings and the must have baked good of the season.
The season of Advent is upon us. In Sweden, Advent is holy, not just because it represents a religious tradition, but more practically it celebrates and honors light. Every Sunday through Christmas a new candle is lit, until the four long candles in the Advent candlestick are burning in unison. Throughout the month of December, windows blaze with the traditional triangle shaped candelabra, bringing a hue of gold to the otherwise dark and long winter nights.
Just as candles are an integral part of celebrating Advent, so are pepparkakor. Gingerbread cookies are the staple of Swedish Advent coffee gatherings and celebrations and the must have baked good of the season.
I grew up, every December, carefully rolling out gingerbread dough. In the early years, it was an awkward dance of pushing and pulling a rolling pin about half my size. Flour tended to go everywhere, and I would end up grinning with dough pieces stuck all over me. Yet my mother simply left me to it, and if I rolled too hard and the dough got stuck to the countertop, I was forced to find a solution myself.
Dust with flour, roll, pull up dough, flip over and repeat until just the right thickness to slice into with a Swedish cookie cutter. These cookie cutters were carefully kept in a large tin – which had at one point in the early 80s held Danish butter cookies certainly purchased at duty free on one of her connecting stops in Copenhagen. Hearts, pigs, Christmas gnomes, the classic gingerbread couple; I loved, and still love, sorting through and picking out my favorites. Feeling lazy? There were always the Franska Pepparkakor to make, a much simpler process of rolling out a log and slicing the cookies. In fact, if Swedish Jul for Dummies were a book, this recipe would be in it.
But pepparkakor are one thing, and a pepparkakshus (gingerbread house) is quite another; same dough, same concept and yet when you move from cookie to house, baking takes a completely different level of culinary creativity.
Enter, my father. Not known for his kitchen prowess – to his credit he is well versed in the world of exotic, black teas – gingerbread house making was his turn to put his carpentry and mathematical brain to use in an area normally left to my mother and I.
In his mind, a pepparkakshus was a serious matter. This is why, two decades later, we still have the same designs, meticulously drawn onto graph paper and cut out with an X-Acto knife, kept in the same, yellowed folder, “Jul” marked in red pen on the outside.
He put the same energy into crafting our annual pepparkakshus as he put into building our own house. Case in point: the pepparkakshus was always constructed with melted sugar, a binding agent that no child under the age of 12 should ever play with. But once dad had constructed the house, I got to decorate it, and he would watch as I sloppily poured icing all over the top, at first attempting to make a design and later resorting to the excuse “I just wanted to make it look like it snowed on the roof.” Fortunately like any good father he was never upset at his daughter’s decorative destruction of his architectural masterpiece.
Of course every kid-friendly holiday treat has to have an adult alternative, and beyond the pepparkakshus, my father’s other seasonal claim to fame is a mean batch of glögg, Sweden’s mulled wine. Whereas expertly crafting gingerbread houses was probably more of a fatherly duty, glögg was a personal masterpiece, picked up at about the same time that he wandered into the Nordic lands and stumbled upon my enchanting mother.
There has never been an Advent that I can remember that he didn’t have a batch brewing in our cast iron, red enamel pot- a kitchen item that’s probably as old as I am. During the month of December it sits there on the back left burner, ready to cook up another round. For not being a man of the kitchen, I can call my father at any given moment and he can rattle off his well-mastered glögg recipe as if he were reciting multiplication tables, which is helpful since even in a studio apartment, December is not December without the smell of glögg warming and a plate of pepparkakor.
Two years ago my father sent me a gingerbread house kit from a trendy grocery store that will remain nameless. The result was disappointing. No planning and no process, without even getting to the taste issue and the fact that the kitchen didn’t smell like spices. Tradition requires commitment, and for the month of Swedish Advent that commitment is making a good batch of pepparkaksdeg (the dough) and baking out a batch of cookies and constructing a house, no matter how old you are.
Now to find the glögg mugs.
Pepparkakor (Gingerbread Cookies)
(About 75-100 cookies)
¼ cup (50 ml) heavy cream
2/3 cup (150 ml) light syrup* or molasses
Almost one cup (200 ml) sugar
3 ½ oz (100 gram) butter
One tablespoon ground ginger
One tablespoon ground cloves
One teaspoon ground cinnamon
One tablespoon ground cardamom
One teaspoon baking soda
3 cups (700 ml) flour (+ some for the rolling out)
Melt the butter and the syrup on low heat. Let cool before adding the other ingredients. Work the dough well. It’s important that the spices are freshly milled. Let the dough rest overnight in a cool place so the spices have time to fully develop their aromas. The resting will also make it easier to roll out the dough.
Roll out the dough and cut out shapes with gingerbread cutters. Bake in the oven at 375ºF (190ºC) for about 6-8 minutes. Keep an eye on them as they burn easily.
This dough can also be used for a gingerbread house. Just roll it out slightly thicker. Have fun!
This recipe is a modification of the original at the Swedish shop Svensk Hemslöjd in Stockholm.
*You can buy light Syrup (ljus sirap) at Ikea. You can also use ”Lyle’s Golden Syrup” that you can find in British food stores.
Franska Pepparkakor (French Gingerbread Cookies)
1 cup (almost 250 ml) almonds, chopped
7 oz (200 g) butter
1/2 cup (120 ml) sugar
1/2 cup (120 ml) molasses
4 tsp ginger
4 tsp cinnamon
4 tsp ground nutmeg
4 tsp cardamom
2 tsp allspice
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp baking soda
3 cups (700 ml) flour
Cream butter, sugar and molasses.
Mix dry ingredients with almonds, then combine with butter, sugar and molasses. Knead together with your hands.
Roll dough into cylinders, about 12 inches long and wrap in wax paper. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Cut dough into 1/4 inch slices. Bake at 380 for 10-12 minutes.
This recipe is adapted from the Swedish classic: “Sju sorters kakor.”
Illustrations by Johanna Kindvall