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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.