Norwegian Cardamom Buns (Boller)

Cardamom BunsIt smelled like the neighborhood Scandinavian bakery in my home the other day, with the aromas of freshly baked cardamom buns and hot coffee brewed as strong and dark as the Nordic night.

Boller—buttery, cardamom-scented buns —are just right with a smear of butter and a creamy slice of geitost (Norwegian brown goat cheese). Making them is as easy as can be, and yet the recipe used to intimidate me. You see, boller were among Grandma Adeline’s staples, one of those recipes I’ve wished that I would have learned how to make from her.

Over the years, Grandma taught me to make so many of her Norwegian recipes—lefse, krumkake, sandbakkelse, Norwegian heart-shaped waffles, and the list goes on. Before she taught me how to make those tender cardamom buns, however, she had the strokes. She couldn’t bake anymore. Just communicating was difficult.

I’d try every now and then to bake cardamom buns, usually under the guise of making Fastelavnsboller (which many people know by the Swedish name, semlor). It was easier, it seemed, to develop a recipe for those cream-filled treats that are eaten ravenously during the weeks before Lent, than it was to try to replicate something that was as tied to my childhood as my grandmother’s cardamom buns. But it occurred to me at some point that I didn’t need to obsess anymore about getting the boller just right—the ones I’d fill with cream were already as delicious as could be.

Cardamom Buns

Cardamom Buns

However, for those of us whose taste is as connected to our memories as is our sense of smell, perhaps it makes sense that I had worried so about replicating hers so closely. Recipes like boller—which are fragrant and flavorful with butter, cardamom, and yeast—seem particularly capable of connecting us to the past.

Scandinavians are some of the world’s biggest consumers of cardamom, that exotic spice that made its way to the Nordic countries from the Middle East centuries ago. Cardamom makes its way into countless treats, from boller and fika-worthy cookies to steaming pots of gløgg. Although the spice is not native to the Nordic countries, it is so woven into Scandinavian baking that the smell is enough to make many people nostalgic.

Cardamom Buns

I used to keep an empty spice jar in my office. It once contained cardamom. Each time I unscrewed the cap, the scent would conjure up memories of my grandparents, long since departed.

The lingering aroma faded and I discarded the jar recently. After all, nothing earthly can take the place of those dear people who taught me what it was like to be loved. In its stead, I’ve come to realize, the memories are stronger than anything physical could provide. Each time I bake or cook something Norwegian I’m trying to keep a bit of that heritage—with all its inherent hospitality and love—alive for those with whom I share it.

These cardamom buns are part of that.

Cardamom Buns with Geitost

Boller (Norwegian Cardamom Buns)
Based on my recipe for Fastelavnsboller, previously shared in The Norwegian American. At some point over the years of developing a boller recipe, I referenced a recipe of beloved Norwegian chef and cookbook author Ingrid Espelid Hovig. While this is no longer her recipe, I’m confident that the results are authentically Norwegian. And these boller are as delicious as can be.

1 stick (8 tbsps.) butter
1 ¼ cup milk
2 tsps. freshly ground cardamom
2 tbsps. active dry yeast
¾ cup sugar
1 egg
½ tsp. salt
4 ½- 5 cups flour
1 beaten egg, for brushing

In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add the milk and cardamom and heat until hot (don’t bring it to a boil), then set aside and cool until it’s lukewarm.

In a large mixing bowl, stir a half cup or so of the lukewarm milk into the yeast and a tablespoon of the sugar using a wooden spoon. Let sit until the yeast bubbles, about 5 minutes. Pour in the remaining milk, along with the rest of the sugar and the egg and salt.

Stir in the flour gradually, beginning with about half of the flour and then adding a half cup or so at a time until you have a dough that’s firm and releases from the sides of the bowl. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. Gather the dough and form it into a large ball.

Lightly grease a large bowl (you can minimize the dishes by wiping out and using the same mixing bowl you used to stir the dough). Plop in the dough, turning it around until it’s coated with the oil. Cover with a damp cloth and set to rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit and line two baking sheets with parchment.

Punch down the dough and shape into 12 balls. Place them on the baking sheets, making sure the smoothest side is up. Cover with a damp towel and let rise again, this time about 20 minutes. Brush with the beaten egg.

Bake in the center of the oven, one sheet at a time, for about 10 minutes until golden on top. Watch carefully, as the buns quickly darken. Rotate the baking sheet if needed for even baking. If the buns are browning too quickly and the insides need additional baking time, then cover the tops with a sheet of aluminum foil. Cool on a wire rack.

Makes 12.

The Easiest Gravlax

The cure begins by tucking the salmon into a blanket of sugar, salt, and dill. By the time the ingredients are fully applied, there’s no trace of the fish. The vibrant red of the sockeye is buried—as its name gravlax (“grave salmon”) suggests—in a mound that resembles freshly fallen snow.

We’ve been making gravlax, a Scandinavian cured salmon with roots that go back to the Middle Ages, for years in my home. It’s our go-to holiday appetizer, the constant fixture in our Christmas feast. The rest of the menu almost doesn’t matter; no matter how complicated or simple I make the task of designing the menu, gravlax is there.

The beauty of gravlax is in its simplicity; while many recipes call for additional spices and flavorings, I prefer to let the essence of the salmon shine. With nothing aside from salt, sugar, dill, and perhaps a bit of aquavit or vodka, the flavor of the salmon intensifies, transforming the fish into an even more rich and luscious version of itself.

When making gravlax, I know that I’m celebrating something of my heritage, joining in a centuries-old tradition, albeit one that’s morphed considerably over time.

Thinking of the origins of gravlax—which appears in documents as early as the 1300s–I imagine Norway in the Middle Ages and see a land of jagged topography lined with frigid waters that bleed into its shores and cut through the mountainous landscape. These fjords are a landmark of sorts of Norway, as recognizable to the rest of the world as are the country’s medieval Stave churches and the Viking ships unearthed over the past 150 or so years. Some things are sure: The waters were cold. The winters were dark. People needed food.

And that’s where preserved fish comes in. Gravlax, of course, gets its name from its origins. Grave salmon, buried salmon. These days, preparations like mine literally bury the salmon in a coat of sugar and salt. But its roots go back to a different kind of preservation, burying fish in the ground, wrapped in birch bark, where it would ferment.

Today a type of fermented fish, rakfisk, remains a Norwegian delicacy. The Swedes have surströmming. But the fish fermentation of the Middle Ages has otherwise largely been replaced by today’s curing methods, which draw out moisture and accentuate flavor, leaving behind the softest, most velvety texture. The results are satisfying and sophisticated, yet simple and uncomplicated—just good ingredients prepared simply. What food should perhaps almost always be.

Over the years I’ve come to see gravlax as less of a recipe than a technique. It’s almost a formula: high-quality salmon with a two-to-one cure of sugar and salt and traditionally a scattering of fresh dill. All other ingredients are optional and vary. As with any traditional recipe, variations abound, ranging from the simplest to others incorporating fruits, vegetables, spices, and spirits to lend varying essences and hues to the fish. I’ve seen recipes with orange and horseradish, and others that call for beetroot, the latter of which lends the most gorgeous magenta ombré effect to the sliced salmon. I’m sure they all yield excellent results, but I like my gravlax traditional, the flavor of the already-rich sockeye concentrated and accentuated only with a hint of dill.

Years ago we read Mark Bittman’s article about gravlax in The New York Times and have almost always used The Minimalist’s Gravlax recipe as our base, though over the years it’s begun to feel less like a recipe, more like a technique. In a nutshell, we take a fillet of sockeye salmon (previously frozen to kill parasites and bacteria), then defrost it and cover it with a thick blanket of sugar, salt, and chopped fresh dill. In the winter months, we leave it out in a cool spot for a few hours, then refrigerate it for about 24 to 36 hours before wiping or rinsing off the salt mix and slicing the salmon thinly. Making gravlax is so simple. It’s about using good fish, understanding the process, and not getting intimidated by something that just looks fancy.

When it comes to serving gravlax, it’s as easy as setting out some crispbread or crackers, lemon wedges, a dill-flecked mustard sauce sweetened with a bit of honey, and perhaps some capers and chopped red onion, so that guests can assemble it to their own taste. I find that simple is best, and that gravlax needs little more than a cracker to bring it one’s mouth. Of course, one can also feel free to serve it alongside potatoes, on smørbrød (open-faced sandwich), or as the centerpiece of a salad.

No matter how you serve it, it’s hard to beat something as simple yet elegant as this.

And to think it only required a simple cure.

The Simplest Gravlax
I notice the beauty of the sockeye each time we bring a fillet into our home. We always use sockeye for our gravlax, with no exception. It’s my favorite kind of salmon; the  color is only a hint at the flavor and the richness of the fish, whether grilled or poached, cured or sashimi-style. Each time I unwrap a fillet I marvel at the beauty of the fish—its vibrant color and silky texture portend the deliciousness to come.

1 ( approximately 2 pound) fillet of best-quality salmon, skin on, previously frozen
1 bunch dill
2 cups sugar
1 cup salt (I use kosher)
3-4 tablespoons vodka or aquavit

Line a large baking sheet with plastic wrap, leaving enough over the ends to wrap over the salmon. Top this with a layer of parchment paper similarly sized. (The double layer helps to contain the mess when draining the excess liquid, although a single layer of plastic wrap will do in a pinch.)

Rinse the salmon and pat it dry. Remove any pin bones and transfer it to the prepared baking sheet.

Thoroughly wash and dry the dill, then rough chop the whole bunch, including the stems (you’ll be removing the dill later, leaving just its essence behind). In a medium bowl, mix the dill, sugar, salt, and vodka or aquavit, then scatter it on top of and underneath the salmon, being sure to pack the cure ingredients on every part of the fish. Wrap the salmon, first with the parchment and then the plastic wrap.

At this point, you can refrigerate it immediately or take Mark Bittman’s advice and place it in a cool location (he recommends below 70 degrees) to rest for about 6 hours before refrigerating it, which will shorten the amount of time it needs to cure.

Check the gravlax every 12 hours or so, pouring out excess liquid (some is okay and can be used to baste the fish, but drain some out if it’s excessive) and turning the fish. After the salmon has cured to your liking (at least 24 hours, or as long as two days), drain off the liquid and pat the salmon dry, removing excess curing ingredients from the surface (alternatively, you can rinse them off and then pat dry if you don’t like the little flecks of dill left over). Slice very thinly.

Leftovers, if you have any, should last about five days and can also be frozen. I’ve also taken the advice of Michelin starred chef Titti Qvarnstrom, previously of Sweden’s Bloom in the Park, who taught at Seattle’s Nordic Culinary Conference last year, and briefly steamed thicker portions of leftovers. These make a wonderful addition to salads.

Makes enough for a crowd.

Norwegian Apple Cake with Autumn Spices (Gluten-, Dairy-, and Egg-Free)

Norwegian Apple Cake

When the leaves begin to turn and the air becomes laced with a chill, I know that fall has finally arrived. It’s my favorite season, the one that brings back memories of crunching through fallen leaves as a child, picking out the perfect pumpkin to carve, and sipping steaming cups of apple cider to brace against the cold.

This time of year it seems as though either pumpkin or apple arises as an individual’s favorite fall flavor. Pumpkin doesn’t have much of a place in traditional Norwegian cooking and baking, but apple sure does, with apple cake (eplekake) being a true favorite. Typically a rich buttery sponge cake with apple slices wedged in the batter, it’s as simple as can be, requiring little more than good ingredients to create a comforting cake.

Norwegian Apple Cake

Norwegian Apple Cake

I’ve begun experimenting with alternatives to gluten, dairy, eggs, and even sugar in my baking, and I recently decided to see if I could convert my own eplekake recipe into one that would work with a number of dietary restrictions. The first time I put it to the test, I used gluten-free flour, which I had never used before, swapped out the butter for a vegan butter spread, used coconut sugar instead of cane sugar, and tried my hand at a flax “egg.” Honestly, I almost didn’t serve it to the guest who was coming for coffee—I was nervous that I had tried too many modifications at once. But my guest was pleased and I think the results were just right; upon making the cake this way again since, I’ve found that I prefer it. While it’s hard to improve upon a classic, this version has a heartier texture and dare I say tastes a little healthier, which is a good thing when I want to enjoy a slice with my morning coffee.

If you’d rather use all-purpose flour, real butter, and brown sugar, then by all means go ahead. And the flax egg (which is simply ground flaxseed soaked in water) can be swapped out for two real eggs. I’ve made this cake both ways, and while the results are different depending on the ingredients, both versions of this cake are delicious.

Norwegian Apple Cake

Norwegian Apple Cake with Autumn Spices (Gluten-, Dairy-, and Egg-Free)
(Glutenfri norsk eplekake med høstkrydder)

2-3 large apples
2 cups gluten-free flour (I use Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour)
2 tsps. baking powder
½ tsp. cinnamon, plus more for dusting
½ tsp. freshly-ground cardamom
¼ tsp. kosher salt
1 cup unsalted vegan butter spread (I use Earth’s Balance), at room temperature
¾ cup coconut sugar, plus more for dusting
2 tbsps. ground raw flaxseed/flaxseed meal
5 tbsps. water
2 tsps. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease an 8-inch springform pan.

Peel and thinly slice the apples and set aside.

In a medium sized mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cardamom, and salt. To prepare the flax egg, stir the ground flaxseed and water in a small bowl and let rest for five minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter spread and sugar until it’s pale and silky and mousse-like, about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the flax egg, mixing well. Stir in the vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture and stir until incorporated.

Pour the batter into your prepared pan. Arrange the apple slices in a decorative circular pattern around the bottom of the pan, starting in the center and working your way out.

Dust cinnamon and sugar over the top of the cake. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes, checking occasionally. The top will be deeply colored, but feel free to place a sheet of foil over the top if it’s coloring too quickly. Cool on a baking rack, then remove from the pan.

Makes 1 8-inch cake

Norwegian Apple Cake

Fårikål (Lamb and Cabbage), Norway’s National Dish)

I remember the first time I tasted fårikål, the national dish of Norway. I had read for a long time—years maybe—about this stew of lamb and cabbage that is Norway’s national dish. It seemed too simple, I thought—just lamb and cabbage, with water, salt and pepper, the building blocks of most stews. Most recipes I’d seen were light on details, too. It must be easy to mess up, I figured, so I stayed away. Emboldened with a deadline and a job to do, however, I set to work this past spring at tackling this dish that had previously intimidated me. With Fårikålens Festdag, Norway’s fårikål feast day, coming up in the fall (it’s always the fourth Thursday of September), I knew I’d have to write about it. As food editor of The Norwegian American, I didn’t feel right outsourcing our coverage of this annual classic yet again.

Armed with a small quantity of bone-in lamb, cabbage, and a handful of recipes, I began the traditional process of arranging the ingredients in the pot, letting it all simmer, and trusting that over the next couple of hours some sort of culinary magic would take place. The results, let me tell you, exceeded my expectations.

I knew the finished dish would be simple, but I couldn’t anticipate the way the modest list of ingredients—humble ones for that matter, as mutton and tougher cuts of meat would typically be used—would somehow yield results that were just right in their restraint. The flavors of the cabbage and lamb shone individually and yet informed by one another. The whole peppercorns added an herbal, subtle floral note that was almost imperceptible and yet accented the flavor of the lamb.

I’ve since come to appreciate the dish for not only its simplicity, but also its ease. After layering or nestling the ingredients in a pot, all you need to do is wait for a couple of hours, perhaps boiling some potatoes to serve on the side, and dinner is served. Of course, we don’t always have that amount of time for dinner to cook, but one of the wonderful things about fårikål is how easily it reheats, and some people swear that leftovers get better over time. (That served me well last week when I cooked a batch of fårikål early in the day and chilled it until dinnertime, when we had only a brief amount of time for dinner before rushing off to an event.) Still, there’s nothing saying you have to make a large batch of fårikål to enjoy it. I’ve found that I prefer small-batch fårikål, the type of dish that might serve two hungry adults or a small family.

Aside from perhaps the small quantity, the recipe I’m sharing today is typical. Many recipes call for layering the ingredients in a pot. This is a small batch, so nestling them is fine. Don’t mess with the dish as it cooks, aside from checking it every once in a while; let the cabbage retain its shape. As unattractive as the dish often is—and that’s to be expected—this is one way to thoughtfully preserve the visual integrity of the ingredients, letting the eyes as well as the mouth perceive the simplicity in which the dish’s key ingredients are allowed to shine. Serve with boiled potatoes—red-skinned ones with flecks of bright green parsley will further add visual interest when serving. Flatbread and lingonberry preserves round out the meal.

The ingredients themselves reflect foods that are integral to the region. Sheep are plentiful and a fixture of Norwegian mountains. Cabbage has a significant role in Nordic history—it’s one of the oldest vegetables in the region, writes Camilla Plum in The Scandinavian Kitchen, who adds that it was the only vegetable grown in the Viking age. Though it mutes to a nondescript color as it cooks down with the lamb, it’s flavorful and is so cozy and nourishing.

For as simple as fårikål is, the results are fantastic. The challenge for many may be the cooking time, a long time for a weeknight. If you’d like to mark Fårikålens Festdag this month with a batch of homemade fårikål but don’t have the time, feel free to make it in advance—it reheats easily and will taste just as good—perhaps even better—the next day.

Fårikål (Lamb and Cabbage Stew with Peppercorns, Norway’s National Dish)

1.5 pounds lamb (shoulder, shank, or neck) cut into 1 ½-inch pieces
1.5 pounds green cabbage, cut into wedges
1-2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
water to barely cover (approximately 4 cups)

In a large pot, nestle the lamb amongst the cabbage wedges. Sprinkle the peppercorns and salt over it, then add water to just barely cover. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for about two hours, until the lamb is remarkably tender and pulls easily away from any bones.

To serve, carefully lift the cabbage out of the pot and arrange it in bowls with pieces of the lamb. Pour over the broth, and make sure to distribute peppercorns between the bowls.

Serves 2, with perhaps a little left over for the next day’s lunch.

Cardamom-scented Fastelavnsboller (Semlor) with almond and cream

Fastelavnsboller

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the scent of cardamom filling the house when baking boller. These plump Norwegian buns with the slightest touch of sweetness need nothing–aside from perhaps a smear of butter—to make them a treat any time of the year. But during Shrovetide of Fastelavn, the time leading up to Lent, these fluffy buns get stuffed with rich almond filling and clouds of whipped cream, transforming them into the over-the-top delicacies known as Fastelavnsboller in Norway and Semlor in Sweden. I’m sharing my recipe over at The Norwegian American this week–find the recipe here!

Fastelavnsboller

Fastelavnsboller

Fastelavnsboller

Fastelavnsboller

Norwegian Christmas Cookies: Fattigmann

Fattigmann

Gathering the dough into a ball, I inhaled the scent of the cardamom and butter, warm in my hands. Like all those memories from my childhood, the feelings stirring in my heart filled me with a sense of love, a security in belonging.

My family’s roots burrow deep into Norwegian and Norwegian-American history. With a dad who immigrated as a preteen and a mother who’s also Norwegian, by way of North Dakota, the culture and heritage of my family’s past was as familiar to me as the sandwiches, salads, pizza and burgers that were part of my American childhood. Though I could identify many of the flavors and treats as Norwegian–probably because they came directly from my grandmothers–I knew them well. I loved the flavors, too, even though it would take many years to realize just how special they were. Today, I keep an empty spice jar in my office. Recently containing cardamom, it was too precious to discard it when I replaced the spent stash. A whiff of nostalgia awaits, with the unscrewing of the cap.

I write about Norwegian food (and if you’re new around here, that’s where I’ve directed my energy as a former news journalist turned food writer) because I believe with all my heart that one of the most profound ways we can show love and extend hospitality and acceptance with those around us is at the table. I never could have realized as a child at any of those family dinners that I was receiving a gift–one of unconditional love and of selfless hospitality, of my Norwegian-American heritage, and of my family itself. But I felt it in my heart. When I was mature–or perhaps wise–enough to realize it, I discovered a truth that I will always cherish.

Fattigmann

Fattigmann

So today I bring you a recipe for fattigmann, a cardamom-scented Norwegian cookie that somehow brings all those memories of childhood back with just its aroma. To many, fattigmann–which can be translated as “poor men”–are an essential part of Christmas, a requisite member of the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies. These represent an important element of the baking tradition in that they’re fried. Norwegian Christmas cookies fall into three camps: baked (like Berlinerkranser and pepperkaker), cooked on irons (like krumkaker and goro) and fried (like fattigmann, smultringer, and rosettes).

Though they’re known as fattigmann amongst Norwegians, people in other Nordic countries know cookie, or crullers, of this type as klenäter, klejner, kleina, and kleynur. I could go on about the history and cultural context–and I will someday–but for now, I’m hoping that the personal and familial significance resonates with and perhaps inspires you. Because it’s never just about the food. We need to eat for sustenance, sure. But I think that those of us with Scandinavian-American backgrounds (including those who appreciate the culture for other reasons) value the food of our heritage because it reminds us where our families have come from. It prompts memories of special times and people in our lives. No matter what those recipes or dishes are for you, I’m hoping that I’ll inspire you to make some of those and to reflect on the people you cherish.

Fattigmann

Fattigmann
Fattigmann
As with many of the Norwegian Christmas cookies, you’ll want to plan ahead for these: Mix up the dough on one day, fry the cookies the next. Ideally you’ll use a fattigman roller (available at Scandinavian supply stores and online), although you can use a pastry wheel as well. As for the Cognac, if you have it, then go ahead and use it. Bourbon will also work in a pinch.

5 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup whipping cream
1-2 Tb Cognac or brandy
1 3/4 cups flour
1/2-1 teaspoon freshly-ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup melted butter
Canola oil, for frying
Powdered sugar, for dusting

In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar thoroughly. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until stiff peaks form. Gently fold in cream and brandy. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, cardamom, salt and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients a bit at a time, alternating with the melted butter, adding a little more flour if needed to make a dough that will roll well, but work the dough just as little as needed. Refrigerate overnight.

When you’re ready to make the fattigmann, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8 inch thick. Cut using a fattigmann roller and separate the diamonds. Work one of the ends through the slit, repeating with each one. I find that it’s helpful to hold one end up and give it a slight shake to let gravity gently elongate the dough before placing it in the hot oil.

Heat about two inches of oil to 350-375 degrees in a heavy pan. Working in batches so they fit in a single layer, fry the fattigmann, flipping them with tongs when one side is golden, and removing as soon as the other side colors. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined surface to drain and cool slightly, then dust with powdered sugar. These are best the day they’re made.

Fattigmann

Norwegian Christmas Cookies: Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

I never tire of seeing the variety of cakes and cookies in the Scandinavian tradition. With little more than butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, and often a scattering of spices, we can create an extensive assortment of treats. Sometimes elegant and elaborate, often simple, the recipes of my heritage have helped me to understand more about where my family came from, as well as those who came before me.

I’ve been writing about the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies, in recent weeks, and today I’m sharing my family recipe for sandbakkelse, or sandkaker, those iconic tart-shaped cookies that many Scandinavians and Scandinavian-Americans love so much.

Flavored with almond, sandbakkelse (I’ll use this name throughout my post, as that’s what my family knows them as, although they’re just as commonly called sandkaker) can be served plain as a cookie, or they can be filled. They’re delicate and crisp, and honestly they’re so good that they don’t require a filling.

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

Sandbakkelse are formed by carefully pressing dough into little tins until they’re as thin as can be while still holding together when baked. It can be a tedious process, I suspect, if done alone. But when made in the company of loved ones, perhaps while sipping a glass of wine and nibbling on something savory, it’s a wonderful way to connect, to spend time together and create memories.

It’s hardly about the cookies, is it? For me, at least, the cookies have been the excuse for gatherings, a reason to get together in the kitchen and bake with those who are dear. Mom, Grandma, and I began our regular baking sessions quite a number of years ago. We’d get together throughout the year, as often as once a week in the months leading up to Christmas. Grandma wanted to teach us how to make the treats that our family had loved throughout the years, including lefse, krumkaker, and these sandbakkelse.

We haven’t been able to bake together in recent years, Grandma isn’t well enough. But last week, we all gathered around the table again. Though my grandmother–the woman who taught me to make sandbakkelse–couldn’t actually make the cookies, it meant so much to have her there with us, supervising and giving her approval on the ones that looked just right.

I’ve shared this recipe before, in an old, old blog post and in other publications, but it wouldn’t be a proper syv slags kaker series if I didn’t share it again. In a 1992 survey in Aftenposten of people’s favorite Norwegian Christmas cookies, sandbakkelse/sandkaker made it into the top seven, along with smultringer and hjortetakk (these two tied for first place), krumkaker, sirupsnipper, berlinerkranser, goro, and fattigman. For many people–myself included–these are one of the most delicious treats of the Christmas season.

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

My Grandma’s Sandbakkelse / Sandkaker
While it’s very typical to make these cookies with ground almonds, some families–mine included–use almond flavoring instead. It’s difficult to mimic the flavor of real almonds, and extract can be overpowering if overdone. However, the flavoring is used sparingly in this recipe and is accented with vanilla extract. The result is delicate and fragrant, a real treat. Sandbakkel tins are available in Scandinavian supply stores and you should be able to find them easily online. My favorites are the ones handed down from generation to generation in my family, but any should work just fine. 

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt

Cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and almond extracts and stir until combined. Add flour and salt and mix until incorporated and the dough comes together. Gather the dough together, flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least 15 minutes.

Now comes the fun part: shaping the cookies. To start, pinch off a little dough and roll into a ball about 3/4 of an inch in diameter. Place into the center of the mold, using your thumbs to flatten the dough into the mold. Rotating the mold as you go, work the dough out from the center of the mold and up the sides. You’ll want the dough on the bottom to be as thin as it can be while still holding up when baked. As you work, take special care at the ridge where the bottom connects to the side. Dough tends to collect here, and it’s easy to let this part be too thick. Delicately continue to work the dough from this ring up the sides. Using your hand, scrape off the excess dough from the top of the mold, and set aside while you form the rest of the cookies.

When it’s time to bake, arrange them on a cookie sheet (if you’re using different shapes of tins, try to keep the like tins together in a batch so they cook evenly) and place in an oven preheated to 375 degrees. Watch closely as the cookies bake, as they quickly go from done to overdone. When they’re just starting to take on a slightly golden hue, remove from the oven and take the molds off the cookie sheet to cool.

Allow the cookies to cool for a while, and then carefully remove from the tins. This is done by inverting the molds onto your work surface and giving a little tap. The cookies should pop right out.

Yield: About 5 dozen cookies, depending on size of tins.

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

Norwegian Christmas Cookies: Pepperkaker

Pepperkaker

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.

Pepperkaker Diptych

Pepperkaker

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 Diptych

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

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.

Norwegian Christmas Cookies: Berlinerkranser

Berlinerkranser

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.

Berlinerkranser

Berlinerkranser

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.

Berlinerkranser

Berlinerkranser

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

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.

Tips:

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.

Berlinerkranser

Norwegian Christmas Baking: Krumkaker

Krumkaker

I still remember what it was like, cupping my hand under my mouth to catch the crumbs. Biting into a krumkake at my grandparents’ house at Christmastime, I knew that the cookie would inevitably shatter. I just had to be ready to contain the pieces to a moderate mess.

The cone-shaped cookies, as golden as my locks of wavy hair, were a staple on both sides of my family. Somehow, perhaps due to years of practice, both of my grandmothers managed to make countless krumkaker, each one consistent in color and shape, nestled safely in round tins ready for visitors.

Krumkaker

Krumkaker

Biting into the delicate cookies was always a delight, one that was as expected as the garland of Norwegian flags strung around my grandparents’ tree and the riskrem (rice cream) these dear people served after a traditional Norwegian celebration meal of roast pork, spiced medisterkaker meatballs, the sour cabbage known as surkål, and a variety of vegetables simply prepared.

I came upon my late grandmother Agny’s krumaker recipe by accident a while back. It was nestled among recipe clippings and cards that my other grandma had given to me when she downsized to a retirement community. I’m thankful that Grandma Agny shared her recipe with Grandma Adeline. Written in her elegant handwriting on a scrap of blue paper, with a personal note saying “good luck,” it’s a treasure of mine—one of only three recipes of hers that I have. Had she not been generous enough to share it, I never would have gotten it.

A few days ago I heated my krumkaker iron—an electric model that makes two cookies at a time—and whipped up the batter, following Grandma Agny’s recipe for the most part, with a few tweaks. I added water, a little at a time, until the batter was just barely thicker than heavy cream. Pouring a teaspoonful into the center of each decorative circle, I closed the iron and hoped for the best.

The first couple of cookies, waffles, or pancakes are always sacrificial, as far as I’m concerned. It takes a few tries to get the temperature and the timing just right. Krumkaker pose an extra challenge because they are rolled around a cone while still hot—let them cool too much and they become too brittle to work with. But before I knew it, I had amassed two platefuls of beautiful krumkaker, much like the ones I had grown up eating.

Krumkaker

Krumkaker

Krumkaker are among the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of cookies, that are a must at Christmastime for Norwegians. And they’re certainly a favorite type. Back in 1992, Aftenposten—Norway’s largest daily paper—surveyed people and compiled a list of the most popular varieties.

Krumkaker were on the list, along with smultringer and hjortetakk (these two tied for first place), sandkaker, sirupsnipper, berlinerkranser, goro, and fattigman.

The syv slags kaker fall into three categories: baked, fried, or cooked on special irons or griddles. The krumkaker fall into the latter and are the oldest of these cookies, along with goro. They go back to at least the 1700s, writes Kathleen Stokker in Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land, and the blacksmiths who made them would integrate their initials into the pattern. In Norway, the design might differ depending on the area or the family. With ties to waffles, another treat made on an iron, the roots of these cookies go back at least a thousand years.

Krumkaker

Krumkaker

As a child, I incorrectly associated the word krumkake with “crumb cookie,” an appropriate name for my experience with them. I have since learned that krum actually means curvature and reflects the cookies’ signature cone shape. As with any number of traditional cookies, variations abound. Some people flavor them with vanilla, others with cardamom. Some shape them into cones, others into cigars or bowls. While I grew up eating krumkaker plain, as many people do, they’re also often served with fillings such as whipped cream and berries or perhaps multekrem (cloudberry cream) or trollkrem (whipped lingonberries with egg whites).

As I baked the season’s first batch of krumkaker with my kids the other day, I watched with anticipation as they tasted them. I, of course, knew the cookies would break apart. I wanted to catch their surprise and then reassure them quickly that it was okay—to let that know that this is among the pleasures of eating these very old, very beloved cookies.

KrumkakerKrumkaker
Today’s bakers have a choice: stovetop or electric irons. There are benefits to either type, with tradition and romance associated with the former and convenience, speed, and ease of cleanup with the latter. I personally use a dual-krumkaker electric iron that Grandma Adeline gave me years ago. Whichever model you choose, they’re available at many cookware and Scandinavian shops, as well as online. Don’t forget to pick up a couple of cone rollers, too. There are some beautiful, handcarved ones out there, which would make lovely Christmas gifts. As for technique, yours will vary a bit depending on your preferences and your iron. Please see a variety of tips following the recipe.

1 ¼ sticks of butter (10 tablespoons) (I use salted)
1 teaspoon freshly-ground cardamom seeds
3 eggs
¾ cup sugar
1 cup flour
Up to 1/2 cup cold water, or as needed to thin batter to the right consistency

In a small pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Remove from the heat, stir in the cardamom, and let cool a bit.

Beat eggs and sugar together until light and fluffy. Mix in the cooled butter, then stir in the flour until the batter is smooth. Mix in cold water, a little at a time as needed, to thin the batter almost to the consistency of thick, heavy cream—it should pour well but still coat the spoon.

Heat your krumkaker iron and lightly grease it. To bake the cookies, drop a teaspoonful of batter into the center of the iron. Bake until both sides are golden—this takes about a minute on my iron. To remove, slip a metal spatula—some people use the tip of a blunt knife—under the cookie and slide it off, then immediately roll onto a cone and set aside to cool.

Transfer to an airtight tin shortly after they’ve cooled, or serve immediately. They can also be frozen.

Tips:

While everyone’s technique, timing, and workflow will differ, I like to slide the cookies off the iron onto a piece of parchment paper and immediately put more batter on the iron; by this time my krumkaker have cooled just enough to be workable (though still hot), but not so much that they become brittle. By the time they’ve set enough to transfer off the cone rollers and retain their shape, the next batch are just about ready to remove and roll.

Be patient and give yourself plenty of grace. It takes a little while to get the hang of the timing and rolling. Some krumkaker won’t turn out just right, but that’s okay—part of the fun is sampling while you go, and the imperfect cookies provide a great excuse to do so.

Some years ago when I was first learning to make krumkaker, I asked my surviving grandmother, Adeline, how to roll the cookies onto the cones without burning my fingers. “You just have to do it,” she said. Not satisfied that making krumkaker should have to hurt, I posted a question on Facebook a year ago, asking readers for tips. While some people echoed my grandmother’s thoughts, that you just have to deal with it (“Asbestos hands that’s all,” wrote one person), readers posted a variety of tips that I want to share with you here:

Some people use rollers from Norway that have a clip attached, which allows you to slide the krumkaker off the iron and roll it in one step with minimal contact with the hot cookie. Others use gloves, even the cotton ones available at the drugstore—just make sure you’re using food-safe materials. Others use a dishcloth or parchment paper as a shield for the hands while rolling. Another great tip I learned from one reader is to keep a small glass of ice water nearby—that way you can cool your fingers immediately after rolling the krumkaker.

Krumkaker

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