I grew up knowing the tradition by taste rather than by name. Syv slags kaker–or seven sorts of cookies. The way it goes, you wouldn’t be a proper Norwegian if you didn’t serve at least seven types of cookies at Christmastime. I only became aware of the tradition a handful of years ago, but there’s no doubt that my family’s propensity to load platters with multitudes of cookies stems from that particular part of our heritage.
My memories of Christmastime often take place in the kitchens and dining rooms of my mom and my grandmothers, the heart of the hospitality that pulses through my family. Grandma Adeline would drape clear plastic sheets over the china cabinet, shelving, carpet, and furniture come autumn, in preparation for baking potato lefse, the traditional flatbread that Norwegian-Americans love so much. As I wrote in an article about Christmas cookies for Edible Seattle magazine last year, once my maternal grandparents had frozen an adequate amount of lefse for the holidays and cleaned away any molecules of errant flour that had crept beyond the plastic sheets, they could relax (a bit at least) and begin baking cookies.
There were Norwegian favorites such as sandbakkels and krumkaker, plus a variety of other favorites. In my memories, Grandma Adeline is rarely siting still–rather, she’s on her feet rolling dough or drying dishes, always with a look of focus and joy in her expression. Sometimes I wonder where she got her energy.
In my research for the Edible Seattle article, I interviewed Dr. Kathleen Stokker, author of Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land. She helped me put in context the special nature of the family tradition.
Christmas has been extraordinarily special to Scandinavians, Stokker said, especially in Norway, which was the poorest of the Scandinavian countries and also had strong class divisions. For those who weren’t of an upper class, cookies infused liberally with butter would have been very special indeed. Farmers, among others, would have sold their butter and used lard instead for daily use–except at Christmastime, in which they’d use the butter to create cookies that reflected the celebratory time that it was. While I can now whip up a batch of cookie dough on a whim, my ancestors’ experience would have been much different. I now understand something of the context of the baking tradition that’s been passed down from generation to generation, one that’s as linked as much to hospitality and generosity as it is to the pleasure of eating something sweet.
You can read more about the tradition of the syv slags kaker in my first post of the series, which is about krumkaker. But in the meantime, let’s talk a bit about Berlinerkranser. Rich and buttery, these wreath-shaped treats were among the most popular in a survey of Norwegian Christmas cookies that Aftenposten—Norway’s largest daily paper–conducted in 1992.
These cookies are as Norwegian lutefisk and Jarlsberg cheese, writes Sunny Gandara, the voice behind the blog Arctic Grub and one of my contributors at The Norwegian American, where I’m the food editor. The name, Berlinerkranser, she says, could be related to a history of German immigrants bringing their baking skills into Norway, as well as Scandinavians going to Germany to study the trade.
The interesting, or perhaps peculiar, thing about these cookies is that the dough begins with a mix of both cooked and raw egg yolks.The eggs are the centerpiece of these rich, buttery cookies, and the result–if done right–is a cookie that’s substantial while remaining tender and delicate. The yolks give the cookies a subtle yellow glow, and they augment the buttery characteristic without tasting entirely of eggs.
Norwegian cookbook author Astrid Karlsen Scott granted me permission to adapt her recipe for Berlinerkranser in my Edible Seattle article last year. But this season I wanted to take my research a step farther. Berlinerkranser can be a bit finicky to make, especially as the dough has a tendency to break easily when shaping. I collected and analyzed recipes and compiled as many tips as I could find to ensure that anyone will have success when baking Berlinerkranser. Read on after the recipe for tips, and please be sure to leave a comment with yours as well.
When I took my first bite of Berlinerkranser still warm from the oven yesterday, I savored the warm, comforting experiencing of letting the cookie almost melt as it disintegrated in my mouth. The buttery richness took me back to my childhood, and I finally remembered a taste memory I had forgotten–my grandma Agny’s Berlinerkranser. Mom recently told me that Grandma used to make these cookies, but I had forgotten. The memories are vague–it’s been many years since those Christmases at her home. But–as I’m sure you know–we never forget the taste.
Berlinerkranser (Berlin Wreath Cookies)
This recipe is very good, if I do say so myself. The cookies, especially when warm out of the oven, are rich and eggy, warm and comforting. Be sure to enjoy one or two for yourself to enjoy–perhaps with a cup of coffee–before setting them out for guests.
2 hard-cooked egg yolks
2 raw egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup butter (I use salted), at room temperature
2 1/2 cups flour
Egg whites, lightly beaten (reserved from the raw eggs above)
1/4 cup pearl sugar
In a mixing bowl, mash the hard-cooked egg yolks (you can do this with a fork, or you can do what Magnus Nilsson does in The Nordic Cookbook and press the yolks through a sieve). Mix in the two uncooked yolks. When smooth, add the sugar and whisk vigorously until smooth. Next you’ll add the flour and the softened butter, alternating, a little at a time, working as little as possible. It will still appear crumbly, but it will come together when you press it. Divide the dough into two thick logs, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight.
When you’re getting ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375, line two baking sheets with parchment paper, and remove dough from the fridge (you want it to warm up slightly before you start shaping them—about a half an hour).
Divide each piece of dough into 14 even pieces. Put half of the dough back in the fridge to stay cool while you work on the first half—the dough can be challenging to work with as it gets warm. Roll each piece into a log about 1/3-inch in diameter, and about 4-4.5-inches long. Form each into a wreath with edges overlapping, and press together. Place the cookies on the baking sheets, about two inches apart. Chill in the refrigerator for 15 minutes or to help them keep their shape—if your baking sheets won’t fit, you can transfer them very carefully on the parchment onto a surface that will. Dip the tops of the chilled cookies into the beaten egg whites and then into the pearl sugar. Bake in the middle rack of the oven for 8-10 minutes, or until the cookies are very lightly golden.
Cool a little on baking rack, then transfer with care to a baking rack—perhaps just sliding the whole sheet of parchment on. Store in an airtight container. Freeze if you’re making them well in advance.
Makes about two dozen.
I discovered that recipes generally resemble each other, with virtually all of them beginning with two hard-cooked egg yolks and two uncooked egg yolks. Recipe vary slightly in the amount of sugar used, ranging from 1/2 to 1 cup (I’m using 2/3 cup, which is somewhere in the middle, and I wouldn’t recommend any more–but you can use a smaller quantity if you’d like them a little less sweet). The amount of flour also varies quite a bit, from 1 1/4 to 3 1/3 cups. You don’t want to use too much flour, I read, as that will impact the texture—you want them to be tender. Also, work the dough as minimally as possible.
As for rolling the dough, one recipe said that working as little as possible, while still incorporating the ingredients, should help.
Getting the temperature just right is also key, as I learned from Gandara, as you want it neither too warm nor too cool. She suggests removing the dough from the refrigerator about a half an hour before forming the cookies. I find that putting unused portions of dough back in the fridge while I work keeps them from warming up too much.
I’m grateful for discovering the tip of putting the shaped dough back in the fridge for a while–15 minutes perhaps–before proceeding. The chilled cookies are so much easier to dip into the egg white and sugar at this point, and this step might help them keep their shape as well.