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 Coffee Treats: A Class at Nordic Heritage Museum

Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_143116

When we bake with love, that’s when beauty comes into our creations, I told a sold-out crowd of students at the Nordic Heritage Museum on a recent Saturday. They were there to learn how to make a variety of Norwegian coffee treats, each one of the recipes beautiful or intricate in its own right. My objective in teaching is for students to leave a class with the confidence and ability to recreate the dishes at home. Teaching the steps of a recipe is only part of the equation. One of the most important parts, I believe, is the heart.

But until that Saturday in January, I hadn’t been able to fully articulate what makes a recipe work. Butter, sugar, flour, eggs–I had been playing around with that mix of ingredients in the weeks leading up to the class, making heart-shaped waffles (vaffler), prince cake (fyrstekake), and sandbakkels. I had studied how a handful of simple ingredients could yield such dramatically different results with just a few variations of ingredients.

In class I kept encouraging the students to just give it a try. Just put the batter in the waffle iron and practice–you’ll soon get a feel for how much to spoon in and how long to cook the waffle. Just make sandbakkel after sandbakkel, getting used to the feeling of pressing the dough into the crevices of the little tins until it’s as thin as you think it can be. Then when it was time to talk about the fyrstekake–an almond cake with a shortbread crust baked in a tart pan–I assured everyone that it really is easy.

Don’t stress out, I told students time and time again as they oohed and ahhed over the cake. Baking isn’t fun if you do. When it comes to crafting the crisscross or lattice topping that gives the fyrstekake a hint of elegance, you can get frustrated when the soft dough warms up too much and sticks to your work surface as you cut it into strips. Or you can roll with it, doing the best you can, and putting your heart into what you’re doing. Nothing about Norwegian cooking is fussy, as far as I’m concerned. Even the beautiful fyrstekake allows for grace, the filling puffing up into the top layer and rounding out the rough edges.

When you bake with love, that impacts the way you approach the food. It works its way into each cup of flour measured, the care taken in beating sugar into eggs, the way the dough is manipulated into something of beauty. I’m as much of a perfectionist as the next person–it was my downfall as a child trying to strike a balance between booksmart and just being a kid–but when it comes to baking, I do it because I love it, because I love people. I do it because I love watching how a few simple ingredients can be transformed into something that feeds and nourishes others–their stomaches and their souls. Sure, care and precision are important. But love is essential.

Thanks to each of you who attended the class last month–it was a joy to teach you to make some of my favorite Norwegian treats. I enjoyed meeting each and every one of you, and I hope I inspired you to work some of these recipes into your own homes.

If you’re in the Seattle area and interested in learning more about Nordic baking, be sure to check out the rest of the Nordic Heritage Museum’s coffee treats series. I kicked it off last month with Norwegian coffee treats, and the museum continues with recipes from the other Nordic countries in the months to come.

Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_155350 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_154300 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_144811 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_143906 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_142931

 Photos courtesy of Jeremy Ehrlich / Nordic Heritage Museum

Celebrating a Family Tradition in Nordic Design’s Christmas Magazine

Nordic Design Christmas Magazine 2013 Cover

One of my favorite holiday traditions is baking with my grandma and mom. Each November we start a months’ long routine of gathering in the kitchen to bake through our family’s traditional recipes. There’s lefse, krumkaker, sandbakkelse, and much, much more. I had the opportunity to share a little about the tradition–along with my grandma’s recipe for sandbakkelse–in Nordic Design’s Christmas magazine this year (find my story on pages 73-76). In addition to my story and some other great recipes, editor Catherine Lazure-Guinard has put together a great compilation of gift suggestions, ideas for decorating, and more. I hope you’ll check it out as you prepare for your Scandinavian Christmas this year!

My Article in Nordic Design Christmas Magazine 2013

Recipe in Nordic Design Christmas Magazine 2013

Images are screenshots from the magazine. Read the story–and check out the whole issue–here.

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