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With Christmas, or Jul (Yule) as we say in Scandiland, closing in, I thought I’d share one of my seasonal favourites with you. There is no Jul without Pepparkakor!
Pepparkakor are lovely biscuits that can be eaten all year round. Lovely just the way they are, they can also be decorated with icing as in the picture above, or eaten with butter and/or cheese. Try them with Gorgonzola for a true taste bud treat. Or put them in the Christmas tree!
EDDA’S SPICY PEPPARKAKOR
The dough needs to rest for at least a day, so it has to be prepared in advance. This recipe will give you roughly 300 delicious pepparkakor, but you don’t need to make them all at once. Make the dough in advance and get your friends or family together for a creative bake-off.
- 300 g butter
- 5 dl/2,1 cup sugar
- 1 dl/0,4 cup (dark) syrup or molasses
- 1 tbsp ground ginger
- 2 tbsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tbsp ground cloves
- 2 tsp ground cardamom
- 1 tbsp bicarbonate soda
- 2 dl/0,8 cup water
- 15 dl/6,3 cups all-purpose flour
- Leave the butter out to get to room temperature. You want it to be soft, but not melted.
- Mix butter, sugar and syrup well in a large bowl.
- Add ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and bicarbonate soda and mix it all together.
- Now, we add the water and mix it with the butter/sugar/spice.
- Work the flour into the mix and knead it properly until you have a nice biscuit dough.
- Wrap the dough in foil and stick it in the fridge to chill for at least a day = 24 hrs.
- When the dough has ‘rested’ for at least 24 hrs – it will keep for weeks as long as it’s wrapped in cling film or stored in an airtight container – get it on your baking board/mat or whatever you normally use and cut it into manageable pieces. Now, pick one piece and flatten it out as much as you can with a rolling pin or a bottle.
- And now for the fun part: Make biscuits. You can use cookie cutters, you can make paper templates and cut them out with a knife, or you can let your creativity flow and see what happens. Pepparkakor can be round or heart-shaped. They can look like Christmas trees, people, pigs, stars, cats, dogs or whatever you can think of, really. You can also make whole villages with little houses and fences and trees and whatnot.
- Put the biscuits on grease-proof paper and bake them in the oven for 4-5 mins at 225C/437F.
- Allow them to cool off and decorate them, if you want, or eat them plain, whichever you prefer. If you make them thicker, and let them bake longer, you can put ribbons in them and hang them in the tree. Or decorate them for a dinner party and put a pepparkaka on each plate to show your guests where to sit. Or do it for the family. Or your friends. Or…
- Pepparkakor, like most biscuits (that’s cookies if you’re American) will absorb moisture if they’re not kept in an airtight container. To make sure you always have fresh, brittle ones you can bake them in batches. The dough will keep, remember, and if you spread the baking out you’ll get to enjoy that lovely smell of freshly baked pepparkakor again and again.
VARIATIONS & SUBSTITUTIONS
For substitutions, you can experiment with pretty much everything but the spices. (More on that below.) Some bakers prefer to use shortening or a plant-based margarine, rather than butter. The sugar and syrup can be replaced by sweeteners or sweetener-mixes.
Now, I am something of a Yuletide traditionalist, so I don’t really like to experiment too much with the flavours. Having said that, pepparkakor can be eaten at any time of the year, and given that they are supposed to make you kind(er), I see no reason why we shouldn’t have some fun and experiment with different variations. Just not for Yule, okay.
Here are some ideas you can try out to see if you can get in touch with your inner sockerbagare. Sugar bakers were a guild back in the day, and there were very clear rules in place for what they could and could not bake, and how/where they were allowed to sell their goods.
Orange pairs very well with most Yule food. The citrusy notes from the zest complement the spices beautifully and add what Sir Bear, no doubt, would describe as a “delightful burst of flavor” in every bite. Peel the outer layer of zest off an orange and chop it into tiny bits. Add in together with the wet ingredients as you prepare your dough. Alternatively, you can use the fine side of a grater or, by all means, food-grade orange oil/essence. How much? Well, that’s a matter of taste, isn’t it? Experimentation is the name of the sockerbagar-game, my friend.
If you love almonds, like me, maybe you can try an almond-infused twist. Adding finely chopped (slightly roasted) almonds, a few drops of almond oil/essence, or a few spoons of nut butter to the dough adds a unique flavour. (You may have to reduce the amount of butter if you add nut butters.) And in case you opt for the chopped almonds, you also get a little bit of a crunch.
There is already cardamom in this recipe, but if you want to level up the aromatic warmth of your biscuits, you could always add some more. It won’t change the taste, but it can enhance the overall spiciness of your pepparkakor and lift the flavour into another dimension. I know, it sounds silly, but what can I say – I love cardamom.
Molasses & Syrups
Experiment with different types of molasses. While dark molasses is traditional, you can try using light or blackstrap molasses to vary the intensity and sweetness of the cookies.
You can spice things up even more by incorporating a chai spice blend into your dough. Traditional chai is made from cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, star anise, and black pepper, so it is similar but not the same. Adding chai spices to the pepparkaksmix will give you extra rich and aromatic biscuits.
Lemon and/or Lime
If you enjoy a zesty kick to your biccies, why stop at orange? I bet it would be interesting to add adding lemon and/or lime zest to the dough as well. Not necessarily with the oranges, but who knows?
I haven’t tried this, but mixing some cocoa powder, or finely grated chocolate, into the dough could give it a decadent twist. Chocolate and spice can be a surprisingly delightful, and hot, combination. We like that.
Use honey instead of some of the sugar. It will add a different kind of sweetness and depth to your biscuits, and may even give them a lovely golden colour.
I can’t think of any more combinations right now, but if you have some ideas I’d like to hear them. Playing around with tastes and textures is so much fun, and it can put so many new spins on the old classics. Good times to be had both on your own or together with friends, family or that special someone.
Thicker pepparkakor needs to bake longer, but you can decorate them and hand them in the windows or in the yule tree. Or you can make placeholders for the table.
- Pepparkakan has a history that dates back to medieval times in Scandiland. They were initially created by nuns who used ginger and other spices for their supposed medicinal properties.
- Like the lussekatter, our pepparkakor also have a few traditional shapes. Most common are the hearts, stars, pigs, goats, horses and the men/women we call gubbar and gummor. Hearts are for love, affection, and warmth. Stars represent hope, guidance, and the lights that adorn our homes during the dark winter months. For Christians, they may also represent the Star of Bethlehem. Pigs represent good luck and prosperity. We eat ham, not turkey, for Yule and the julgris (Yule pig) is a popular shape, especially in Sweden. Goats are for fertility and prosperity, and our Yule Goat is a mythical creature who may be traced back to the same roots as the lussekatt. Fear of a shapeshifting devil, fallen angel or god, depending on whose account you find most credible. Pepparkaks-people represent family and togetherness, especially during the holidays. Horses are for strength and endurance.
- Pepparkakshus, gingerbread houses, are just thicker pepparkakor made into buildings. The concept of decorating our homes with pepparkakor dates back to the 16th century, and it became especially popular during the Yuletide in Scandiland.
- Sometimes, we decorate the pepparkakor with patterns, some of which may be symbolical. They patterns can vary and might include intricate designs, swirls, or geometric shapes that add an artistic touch (or a spell perhaps?) to the spicy biscuits.
- Pepparkakor are as important as lussekatter to the Lucia celebration on December 13th and they both have symbolic meanings steeped in mythology and folklore.
- Queen Christina of Sweden was fond of pepparkakor, which contributed to their popularity.
- Pepparkakan is a beloved part of the Yule celebrations. We have a traditional song about the pepparkakor who come, hand in hand, to celebrate Yule with us. Sadly, every year, they have to leave the tomte and the goat back in Pepparkakeland, because they never want to leave the dang pig home alone. Why piggy couldn’t just come with them? Well, that’s a mystery. It’s just one of them things you have to roll with.
- When Lucia arrives on the 13th, she normally has a few pepparkaksgubbar in her train of followers.
- When Sir Bear first tasted pepparkakor, he knew what they were. Kind of. Turns out pepparkakor are popular in North Carolina, where they have at least two bakeries making them. Over there, they are called Merovian biscuits, and that’s a rabbit hole I’ve just managed to crawl back out of, so further reporting on this discovery will have to wait for another day.