I returned home the other day and was surprised by the warmth and smell that greeted me. Cinnamon and cardamom, clove and ginger. Warm butter and sugar. The scents of baking. Earlier in the day I had made pepperkaker, but I hadn’t noticed just how fragrant the cookies were until I left for a while and then returned. This is what I want my home to smell like all season long.
This time of year I think a lot about the experiences of the holidays. I think about the senses, how the music we listen to and the decorations surrounding us impact our experience. I keep things pretty simple, all in all. But there are touches that can make all the difference. That’s why I’ll be putting a pot of gløgg on the stove whenever we’re expecting guests and churning out buttery and spiced cookies as often as I can. No matter how much or how little I manage to decorate the house for Christmas, the aromas and warmth pouring out of the kitchen will convey a sense of the season, one that’s inviting and welcoming, one that hopefully hints at the hospitality of my mom and grandmothers, whom I hope to emulate.
There’s a lot of talk out there right now about hygge, that Scandinavian word that somehow encapsulates big ideas of coziness, community, and a sense of well-being in an economical five words. I’ve been striving to embrace that lifestyle, or state of being, for a while now.
This time of the year it’s easy to feel the darkness. My friend Dianna posted a photo on Instagram today of her morning coffee, a candlelit scene capturing the available light while it lasts. She lives in Tromsø, a Norwegian city above the Arctic circle, where the sun will make its final appearance next week, not to return until January.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we never truly say goodbye to the sun, though it’s often shielded by veils of cloud and fog; for those working office hours, the sun may have set by the time one heads home from work. We feel the darkness too. Yet for all that’s missing during the late autumn and the winter months, there is much to celebrate, much to embrace during this time. The darkness doesn’t have to be something to dread. Rather it can be an excuse–an opportunity–to pull out all the stops and get as cozy as can be. Baking cookies is one way to do so.
I’ve been writing about the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies, here on Outside Oslo in recent weeks, and today I’m sharing my recipe for pepperkaker, crisp, richly-spiced cookies that are similar to gingersnaps. Out of all the Norwegian Christmas cookies I’ve made, these might be the most fun. Anytime you can roll out dough and cut it into any number of shapes, it’s going to be a good day.
Pepperkaker are unfussy and forgiving, easy to make with the family. Once the dough comes together and rests in the refrigerator overnight, you’ll be ready to bake cookies at a moment’s notice, anytime you have little hands who want to help with rolling and shaping cookies.
That’s part of what’s so special about this time of year. For me, it’s not about the cookies themselves. The cookies are the excuse for spending quality time with people, for building relationships and extending hospitality. I can’t separate my memories of the holiday season from the cookies that my grandmothers served while I was growing up, and then the regular baking sessions that I shared with Mom and Grandma Adeline in recent years when my grandmother was well enough. There’s a glow in all those memories, one created by time spent with dear ones. There’s a saying—supposedly a Norwegian proverb—that goes like this: Cookies are baked with butter and love. Based on my own experiences, I can say without a doubt that this is true.
Pepperkaker (A Norwegian Gingerbread)
I analyzed many recipes for pepperkaker (spelled pepparkakor in Swedish) while creating the one I’m sharing with you today. The spices vary considerably, most notably the use of black pepper. People have different opinions on its presence, and I omit it. Recipes generally include both cinnamon and cloves, and often ginger. An addition that I use, that I don’t always see, is cardamom—freshly-ground, of course. Another thing to note is the syrup. I use golden syrup—specifically Lyle’s, which I can easily get at the grocery stores around here. It wouldn’t be as authentic to use molasses or honey, although there are recipes that use such alternatives with good results (my mother-in-law uses molasses, and her pepperkaker are fantastic). If you can get your hands on golden syrup, you’ll find that it produces a rich sweetness that accents the spices without being cloying or tasting flat.
2/3 cup butter (I use salted)
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup golden syrup
1/4 cup cream
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly-ground cardamom
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
In a medium saucepan, mix the butter, sugar, and golden syrup over medium-low heat until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves. Cool a few minutes, then stir in the cream and the spices.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and the baking soda. Add the butter mixture and stir until the ingredients are incorporated and a dough comes together. Divide into two pieces and wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
When it’s time to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper–you’ll be baking one sheet at a time, but this way you can keep rolling out and shaping cookies while one tray bakes. On a very-lightly floured surface, roll out a little of the dough very thin, about 1/8-inch thick. (Keep the other portions chilled—you want the dough you’re working with to always be cold.)
Cut the dough into the shapes of your choice and transfer to the baking sheets. Bake one tray at a time for 5-7 minutes, until the edges are barely starting to turn color. Remove from the oven and cool on the baking sheet.
Store in an airtight container.