Norwegian Christmas Cookies: Pepperkaker

Pepperkaker

(This is the third post in my series on the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies. I’ve shared recipes for krumkaker and Berlinerkranser so far, and I’ll be posting more delicious recipes in the weeks to come. Please follow along! Sign up for my newsletter and like my page on Facebook so you don’t miss a post!)

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

(This is the second post in my series on the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies. I began with krumkaker last week, and I have more delicious recipes to share in the weeks to come. Please follow along! Sign up for my newsletter and like my page on Facebook so you don’t miss a post!)

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

(This is the first post in my new series on the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies. Please follow along! Sign up for my newsletter and like my page on Facebook so you don’t miss a post!)

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

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies with Sea Salt

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies

A wooden spoon and a simple recipe are all it takes to create a memory. “I want to help Mama bake cookies,” he says, coming inside and finding out I’m starting to bake. The butter is melting in the saucepan, the coconut measured. There’s really little else to do. And that’s perfect for this particular early-May evening.

I scoop up my little boy and position him on my hip, holding him up with one arm as I show him how the eggs change properties when beaten with sugar in our cobalt blue stand mixer. He’s too heavy to hold like this for long, but with the addition of a little vanilla extract, the components are soon ready to bring to the counter and mix.

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies

He stands at the counter on a stool eager to help. I begin to stir the butter and coconut into the rest of the ingredients and quickly give in, handing him the wooden spoon. He is big enough to try. I am as ready as I’ll ever be to relinquish control of the process. I watch, hoping for minimal spills, as his little hand clutches the wooden handle. I hold the saucepan still as he concentrates and maneuvers the spoon throughout the coconut, the handle just the right size for an easy grip.

I do the rest of the work, dropping little mounds of dough onto parchment-lined baking sheets while he watches. He is just like his mother and wants to sample the dough before it’s baked. I must be asking a lot, to make him wait until the cookies are done and we have finished our dinner. But soon enough, soon enough, we’re all back in the kitchen–mom, dad, and son–each eating a cookie before bed.

Scandinavian Coconut CookiesAs many excursions, activities, and adventures I’m tempted to fill our days with, I know that moments like these are special. While I teach and nurture healthy eating habits with my son every day, these occasional baking sessions allow us to connect, to take a little time to engage in an activity together and finally to savor the results of what we have made.

My childhood memories are full of moments like this, helping my mom cook and baking alongside my grandma as she indulged my curiosity when I’d find a recipe of interest.

A wooden spoon and an easy recipe. Yes, that’s all it takes to make a memory. May you make some of your own in the coming days too.

Scandinavian Coconut CookiesScandinavian Coconut Cookies with Sea Salt
I first wrote about these cookies–adapted from Aquavit: And the New Scandinavian Cuisine by Marcus Samuelsson–almost four years ago. But I love how quick and easy they are to make and decided to revisit them with the addition of sea salt from semiswede.com. I hope you enjoy making them as much as I do. (Update: Do not use large flake coconut or the bags of moist, sweetened coconut. The flakes should be fairly small and dry.)

2 1/2 cups unsweetened, medium grated or shredded coconut
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 eggs
3/4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon flaky sea salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Melt butter in a small saucepan, then remove from heat and stir in the coconut until well-coated.

Beat eggs in a separate bowl to combine the yolks and whites. Add sugar and continue to beat until light and fluffy. Stir in vanilla extract.

Stir the coconut into the eggs until combined. Drop batter by rounded teaspoons into mounds onto the parchment paper, giving almost an inch between cookie. Flatten slightly using the bottom of a glass or the back of a spoon. Stir the batter occasionally as you work to reincorporate the melted butter. Sprinkle each cookie with just a little sea salt; you want to add just a touch of flavor, otherwise they’ll be too salty. Bake until golden, 8 to 11 minutes depending on the size of the cookie.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies with a Scandinavian Touch

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies

They’d all be here in 15 minutes, my mom alerted me in a text message. My mom and dad, grandma, uncle, and contingent of cousins were on their way, the first arrivals of a 21-person Thanksgiving feast. I reflected on the progress, what still needed to be done, and felt a sense of calm.

The tables were set, the turkeys in the oven and rotisserie, the soup simmering on the stove. Despite a short period of feeling pressured to get everything done a half an hour prior, my husband and I were ready to welcome the first of our first guests.

We’ve hosted feasts in the past–large groups of so many people that we’ve made big batches of chili or ribs and let our guests serve themselves with paper plates and plastic cups. But being our first sit-down meal with more than about 15 people, this event required quite a bit of extra preparation. So off I headed to Ikea for a ridiculous amount of plates, utensils, water glasses, and wine glasses (and a necessary serving of Swedish meatballs in their cafe), and I braved the pre-Thanksgiving holiday rush at the mall to find linens. And then there was the food. Last Sunday I realized that I could minimize my time at the grocery store–guaranteed to be crowded any time in the following days–by ordering most of my groceries online. By the time Tuesday rolled around, I told the women in my Bible study that I was feeling strangely relaxed about hosting such a feast–perhaps that was cause for concern?

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies

But before I knew it my house was full of relatives from both sides of my husband’s and my family, who were happily mingling and sampling from bottles of bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau, Côtes du Rhône, Grenache, and Tempranillo. Soon the dining room was full of relatives hungrily eating a first course of butternut squash and chipotle soup garnished with cocoa-toasted pumpkin seeds and served with aged-cheddar biscuits. While the bowls were emptying, my husband carved the turkeys and the side dishes were passed: Mom’s sweet potatoes in orange cups and her classic sausage dressing, my mother-in-law’s creamy mashed potato casserole, a perfectly sweet-tart cranberry sauce from my sister-in-law, and a squash and radicchio salad from my brother-in-law.

The calm I had felt in the days leading up to the event had not been the calm before the proverbial storm, but rather a sense of peace and confidence that everything was under control, that the day would turn out to be what it should be: a time to spend with loved ones and to reflect on all the things we have to be thankful for.

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies

A few days ago I even managed to bake a batch of cookies–not for Thanksgiving, but just for fun. I had seen a recipe for cardamom thumbprint cookies in Food & Wine and wanted to give it a try, adding lingonberry preserves to the mix for an extra-Scandinavian touch. We certainly didn’t need any more sweets–we had more pies, cakes, and cookies than we could eat–but baking these amidst all of the holiday preparations gave me a chance to do a little something for myself and it also resulted in being able to send home a box of treats with some family members last night.

With Thanksgiving in the past and the countdown to Christmas now here, I’d like to share with you the first in a series of cookie recipes I’ll be featuring on Outside Oslo in the coming weeks. Whether your Christmas preparations include making the traditional syv slags kaker–seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies–or perhaps making just a few batches of favorite family cookies, I hope you’ll find ideas and inspiration here on the blog. I’m aiming to share seven cookie recipes in the weeks to come, but even though I’ve read that it wouldn’t be a proper Norwegian Christmas without at least seven types, I’m modifying the tradition for my family and choosing to do as many–and only as many–as we can make while still maximizing a sense of togetherness, fun, and holiday cheer. Whether that ends up being three, four, seven, or ten types, I’ll be happy with the results.

I hope that you all had a good Thanksgiving and that you have a blessed holiday season.

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies

 Almond-Cardamom Thumbprints with Lingonberry Preserves
Adapted from Food & Wine, December 2013

1 cup fine almond flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Approximately 1 cup lingonberry preserves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and prepare two baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper or using a Silpat baking mat (I did the latter and baked the cookies in rounds batches).

Whisk almond flour, all-purpose flour, cardamom, and salt together in a medium bowl to combine. In a medium-to-large bowl, beat the butter and sugar using an electric mixer for about three minutes, until it becomes light and fluffy; scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary to fully incorporate the ingredients. Beat in the egg and vanilla extracts, then turn down the speed to low and mix in the dry ingredients, just until incorporated. Turn out the dough onto your work surface and knead it a few times, forming it into a ball.

Shape the dough into little balls using a tablespoon measure and arrange them on the baking sheets about an inch apart. Make an indentation in the center of each–Food & Wine suggests using a teaspoon for this–and bake until slightly firm, about 10 minutes. Reinforce the indentation in each cookie one more time and return the cookies to the oven until they start to turn lightly golden and feel dry to the touch. This should take about seven more minutes.

Immediately transfer the cookies to a rack. When completely cool, stir the lingonberry preserves in a small bowl to create a smoother jam (it’s okay to leave the berries intact), then carefully spoon a little into the center of each cookie.

Makes about two dozen cookies.

Swedish Almond Rusks

Swedish Almond Rusks in Bowl

Food has taken on a special characteristic since I became a mother. Sure, I always enjoyed baking, cooking, feeding others, sharing a meal, dining out. But now it’s about so much more than that: It’s about introduction. The naturally sweet flavors of steamed carrots… Toothsome mushrooms sauteed in olive oil and garlic… Ripe strawberries that spew juices as you take a bite… When you’re the one being the first to share such simple, pure flavors and textures with someone with a budding palate, even the most seemingly humble produce that you might otherwise end up dressing up with spices and sauces comes back into focus, reminding you of how delicious it was to begin with.

And then there are the sweets. Homemade cookies, a lopsided birthday cake that made up for flavor what it lacked in presentation, the very first taste of ganache still warm from the pan–these are some of the treats that I have been able to share with my son, a child who talks about “Mama’s cookies” (referring to the rusks I’m sharing with you in today’s post) even while he eagerly eats grilled wild Alaskan sockeye salmon and cole slaw.

Swedish Almond Rusks with Coffee

Swedish Almond Rusks on Baking Sheet

When introducing my son to solid food, I took the stance of many mothers around me: only organic fruit and vegetables, homemade over processed whenever possible, limited empty calories, and no sugar. An ideal introduction to the exciting world of food choices out there, for sure. With a healthy foundation and a daily diet that focused on the nutritive qualities of food, I eventually began to incorporate foods that carry with them a softer, harder-to-define value: that of the heart.

If you’ve been reading Outside Oslo for any length of time you know about my belief that food fosters communication and connection, bridging generational gaps and helping us to identify with and learn about the heritage and culture of our own family and of people we love. Whenever I bake lefse with my 94-year-old grandma, my son gets to enjoy it, still soft and warm from the griddle. When he watched me mix up the dough for a Norwegian fyrstekake recently, I didn’t stop him as he reached for a piece of dough and sampled it. The same goes with these almond rusks pictured here. I kept a handful of them around this week (after giving a good portion of them away, as I love to do with baked goods), and he inevitably spotted them in the kitchen and wanted to try them. I let him. I have helped to steer his palate toward healthy tastes, and part of that training involves the occasional treat, enjoyed in moderation.

Swedish Almond Rusks

Swedish Almond Rusks

Though I bake often, sharing many of the recipes here on the blog, we don’t generally keep a lot of sweets in the house. Whenever possible I wrap up the cookies or half a tart and give them away. It’s a pleasure to be able to give a little unexpected gift to someone, sharing something handmade and from the heart. These little rusks made it easy to do so: They’re sturdy so they travel well, and they keep for a while.

Rusks, as they’re known in Scandinavian cuisine, are a twice-baked cookie or bread, much like the Italian biscotti. This particular recipe is flavored generously with cardamom, that wonderful spice that defines much Scandinavian baking, and dotted with slivered almonds. When freshly-baked these rusks are not so hard that you couldn’t eat them on their own, but they’re excellent dipped briefly into a cup of coffee. They are just enough to elevate the essential morning or afternoon cup into a special experience. And since food is about so much more than just sustenance, I encourage you to whip up a batch and share them with your family or friends this weekend.

Swedish Almond-Studded Rusks
Adapted (barely) from Scandinavian Classic Baking by Pat Sinclair

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup slivered almonds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prep a baking sheet by lining it with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, cardamom, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and set aside. Beat the eggs in a small butter and set these aside as well.

Using an electric mixer, beat the butter until creamy, then gradually add the sugar while continuing to beat, letting the combination take on a light appearance. Add the sour cream, almond extract, and the prepared eggs, and beat to combine. Reduce the speed to low and begin to add the flour, adding it gradually and allowing a soft dough to form. Add the almonds and beat just until combined.

Place the dough on the parchment paper in the form of three logs, each about a foot long. The dough is sticky and the rusks are rustic, so don’t worry too much about a smooth appearance at this step. Press them down to flatten slightly, then bake until they’re light brown and firm, about 25 to 30 minutes.

Remove from the oven and leave on the baking sheet to cool a little while you go about your business. After about 10 or 15 minutes or so, when they’re cool enough to touch but still warm, cut each log into diagonal slices about 3/4-inch thick. Turn the slices so they’re flat on the baking sheet and return to the oven to bake for another 8 to 10 minutes. Turn them over and toast the other sides for 8 to 10 minutes, then cool.

Makes about 36 rusks.

Swedish Almond Rusks in Bowl on Tray

Danish Vanilla Cookies and the Search for a Lost Recipe

Danish Vanilla Cookies on Parchment

When I gave a speech about connecting heritage and food to a group of Norwegian women last spring, one of them said that she wished her 20-something-year-old son would take an interest in Scandinavian cooking like I have. Obviously an important part of her life, the food of her heritage hasn’t yet become a connecting point between the generations. I wish I had a solution for her, a way for her to convince her son to take notice of the richness and memories woven into old recipes and the food served to generations of family members. Until that happens though, I hope the woman makes a point to collect and gather her family’s recipes, writing down memories and stories as she goes.

I certainly don’t expect everyone to get as giddy as I do about handwritten recipes and boxes of notecards with ingredient lists in elegant penmanship. But I do know that food is one of the easiest ways to bring people together and prompt connection. It’s a way to carry on traditions and to conjure up memories.

I’ve written before about how I have only a few recipes from my late grandmother Agny. Most were lost after she died. The few I have come from old church cookbooks and my other grandma’s collection of recipes. One of my great regrets is that I didn’t join Grandma Agny in the kitchen and bake with her, listening as the process coaxed out stories of life in Norway. It’s a tradition I share with Grandma Adeline and my mom, and one I feel so privileged to get to enjoy.

Danish Vanilla Cookies in Process

Danish Vanilla Cookies Cooling OffFor the last couple of years I’ve been trying to recreate some old cookies that Grandma Agny used to make. Sweet and buttery, with a pleasant, toothsome crunch, the cookies were a staple at Christmastime. All I know is that they were a traditional type of Scandinavian cookie that Grandma shaped in an unconventional way. Formed into parallelograms with horizontal lines pressed into them with the tines of a fork, they were delicate and pretty, and Grandma served them with pride.

Many of you have offered ideas for what those cookies could have been, and I’ve been following your leads and baking through recipes in my Scandinavian cookbooks. I’ve come close at times, but I’m not there yet.

The fun part of the process is discovering cookies that I’ve never made before, including these Danish vanilla cookies. With an easy dough made little more than the normal butter, sugar, flour, egg, and baking powder, they’re flavored generously with vanilla, which lends a rich quality to them that pairs perfectly with a glass of milk. Think sugar cookies with an extra punch of flavor.

As I took my first bite, still warm from the oven, I analyzed the flavor, comparing it against the cookies I have filed away in my memory from so long ago. Not quite. These cookies are too crisp, too. I’m encouraged, though: I have a new recipe that I’ll be sure to make again and again, and thanks to the suggestions that some of you have left on my Facebook page since I asked for ideas yesterday, I have plenty of direction for where to take my search next.

Danish Vanilla Cookies with MilkDanish Vanilla Sliced Cookies (Vaniljesmåkager)
Adapted (barely) from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas

1 cup salted butter, at room temeperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Powdered sugar, for decoration

Cream butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl until smooth, then add egg and continue beating until the batter is light. Mix in the vanilla extract. Stir together flour and baking powder in a separate bowl, then add to the batter, mixing until all the ingredients combine and form a stiff dough.

Turn out the dough onto a work surface and knead briefly, further incorporating the ingredients without overworking them, then separate the dough into two portions and roll each into a log two inches in diameter. Wrap the logs in waxed paper and foil and chill in the refrigerator.

At this point you can either wait an hour or so, until the dough is chilled through, or you can wait and just keep the dough in the fridge until you’re in need of some freshly-baked cookies. According to the original recipe, the dough will keep for up to two weeks.

When you’re ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Slice the chilled logs into rounds about 1/8-inch thick and place on the prepared baking sheets about an inch apart. Bake in the top third of the oven for about ten minutes, until the tops begin to turn golden around the edges. Allow to cool slightly, then dust with powdered sugar.

Yields about 30 cookies.

Part of the WanderFood Wednesday Recipe Swap

Finnish Aunt Hanna’s Cookies

Finnish Aunt Hanna's Cookies

As I was reviewing my posts from the month of February the other day, I noticed an interesting–and unexpected–pattern: All the recipes were for savory dishes. As someone whose lifelong culinary proclivities have bent slightly more on the side of baking than cooking, seeing such an across-the-board trend came as a surprise. I’m seeking to change that today with a recipe I briefly mentioned back in January: Finnish Aunt Hanna’s Cookies. These cookies come together easily and would be perfect with an afternoon cup of tea. Enjoy, and I’ll be back with more savory and sweet recipes soon!

Finnish Buttery “Aunt Hanna’s” Cookies (Hannatädinkakut)
Adapted from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas

1/2 cup softened butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup whipping cream
Sliced almonds or almond halves, for decoration

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare your baking sheets by covering them with parchment paper. Cream butter and sugar in a mixing bowl until combined. In a separate bowl, stir together flour and baking powder, and gradually add the flour mixture to the butter and sugar. Add the cream and keep mixing until the dough comes together and stiffens. At this point, you can proceed if the dough is workable, otherwise chill for a little while.

To form the cookies, roll a teaspoon of dough into small bowls and place on the baking sheets, spacing them about an inch and a half apart. Gently press a few almond slices or a halved almond onto the top of each cookie, and bake until the cookies have set and barely started to turn golden. Allow to cool; the original recipe calls for cooling on the baking pan, but I removed mine to a wire baking rack immediately to keep the bottoms from browning too much.

Danish Blackberry-Lemon Slices

Danish Vienna Fingers Horizontal

They say that good friends listen. And if that’s the case, then I’m lucky to have Rika as a friend. I arrived at her house on Monday with a plate of cookies I had made over the weekend. As we sat sipping a latte and tea out of the largest mugs I’ve ever seen, she asked me about my cookies.

These are Danish Vienna fingers, I explained. And these are Finnish Aunt Hanna cookies, though I don’t know why they’re called that. And these are Norwegian brown butter cookies.

Finnish Aunt Hanna's Cookies

Though I’m paraphrasing here, you get the point; I was telling her what the cookies were called, as briefly as possible so as not to bore her with details about my baking exploits. But then can you guess what happened next? She asked questions to draw me out. She wanted to know about my cookies–really know about them. How are they made? What makes each what they are?

Now that, friends, is a good friend. But what’s even more amazing is that if the same logic holds true for this blog, then you are good friends too. You listen even as I I ramble about food-related childhood memories or giddily tell you about my recent visit to Tartine.

Norwegian Brown Butter Cookies

And with that, since I mentioned the cookies I brought to Rika’s house, let me tell you a little more about one of the varieties, the jam-filled ones pictured at the beginning of this post. Something about these cookies just tastes decadent. They’re pretty, but not ornate. The lemon really comes through, giving a lovely bright contrast to the deep richness of the blackberry jam. Although I’m sure it would undo anything traditional about these cookies, I can imagine all sorts of flavor combinations–lime and blueberry, orange zest and marmalade with an almond glaze, chocolate cookies with raspberry preserves, and the list goes on.

Since we’re talking about friendship and cookies, let me take the opportunity to say thank you for being here. Thank you for checking out what’s on this blog and coming back again and again. Each time you leave a comment and let me know that somehow something I’ve said has resonated with you, it makes my day. I wish I could share some of these cookies with you.

Danish Vienna Fingers

Danish Blackberry-Lemon Slices (or Danish Vienna Fingers / Wienerstänger)
These cookies are adapted, barely, from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas, which is one of the first Scandinavian cookbooks I purchased and still one of my favorites. Traditional and authentic, each recipe I’ve tried has been a success, and the author does a great job putting the recipes in context of the cuisines from which they come.

2/3 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup blackberry jam
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice

To make the dough, cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and then beat in the egg until the mixture lightens. Add the lemon peel, flour, and baking powder, and beat until a dough forms, then chill the dough for about 30 minutes (this is a great time to clean up the kitchen if you, like me, are trying to get into the practice of cleaning while you go).

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide it into quarters, rolling each section into a 15-inch log and placing at least two inches apart on baking sheets. Using a long, flat object such as a knife or ruler, press down gently down the center of each log, creating a lengthwise groove (you’ll fill it soon with jam).

Bake the logs for 10 minutes, then remove and spoon the jam down the groove. Return to the oven and bake for about 10 more minutes, until the logs’ edges turn a pale golden color.

To make the icing, mix together the powdered sugar and lemon juice with a little bit of water. When you remove the cookies from the oven, let them cool a little and then drizzle them with the icing and cut the cookies diagonally into 3/4-inch cookies while still warm.

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