It was my Swedish great-grandmother who first handed me a ginger cookie. After that, I was hooked.
With plenty of crunch and just the right amount of spice, they're perfect with a cup of coffee or a glass of milk after a long day outside in the cold. And each year I count down the days until December, when they start appearing in bakeries and grocery stores (and my oven).
While I was sneaking into the kitchen and stealing them out of the cookie jar in Minnesota, Ulrika Pettersson, the owner of Unna Bakery, was making them with her mother and grandmother in Sweden.
When she moved to New York City, she decided to bring the tradition of Swedish cookies along with her. Ulrika works out of the Hot Bread Kitchen Incubator, and she invited me up to bake a few batches with her and compare our two recipes.
I'm not entirely sure where my now well-loved recipe for pepparkakor comes from. I wish I could say that I inherited it from my Scandinavian ancestors but I'm pretty sure it's based on the one that came from an American Girl Doll cookbook. Over the years, and through much trial and error, I've finally managed to get the balance of spice, ginger, and snap just so. As a bit of a history nerd, I've poured over all sorts of Scandinavian and Midwestern cookbooks new and old, trying to figure out just how I got this recipe, and this cookie, so stuck in my head.
Pepparkakor (Swedish Ginger Cookies)
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 3 1/4 cups flour
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger (be generous)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon allspice (if you have it)
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (to your liking)
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1 tablespoon water
Ulrika's ginger snaps, on the other hand, are far more traditional. She got the recipe from her mother, who got it from a classic Swedish cookbook. The cookies originated from the practice of serving sju sorters kakor or "seven kinds of cookies" at a kafferep, or coffee party. The practice began in the late 19th and early 20th century and dictated that the hostess of a kafferep serve her guests seven different kinds of cookies. No more, or she was considered a show-off, no less, or she was stingy.
Many of these cookies, like drömmar (dream cookies) and jelly-filled thumbprints, have become wildly popular across Scandinavia. But the ginger cookies seem to be everyone's favorite, at least in our opinion.
Unna Bakery's Swedish Ginger Snaps
- 125 grams almonds
- 200 grams salted butter
- 180 grams sugar
- 140 grams Golden Syrup
- 2 teaspoons ginger
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 360 grams all-purpose flour
My family's Christmas is a jumbled event of Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish traditions, and like many other Minnesotans, we've tried to take some of each and make them our own. In that spirit, I started playing with the pepparkakor recipe, using different spices and combinations of ingredients.
Ulrika, on the other hand, keeps the flavor very gingery and sweet. And her more traditional recipe calls for golden syrup, a baking ingredient that was not readily available in our kitchen growing up, to give her cookies a delicious caramel flavor. In many Midwestern recipes for pepparkakor I've come across, that's replaced by honey or, as I prefer, maple syrup.
"Tradition is very important," Ulrika told me as we cut the rolls of dough into bite sized cookies, "especially as you move farther from home." She's tried to keep many of her favorite recipes so that her young daughters can learn them as they grow up in Manhattan. Between stolen bites of dough (trust me, it's delicious), we both agreed that moving away from home inspires a craving for familiar dishes, places, and tastes.
I'm officially torn between the two recipes now, and can't wait to get baking as soon as I head home for the holidays. When we go to celebrate Christmas with my Scandinavian grandparents, I'll have to have both, and my ginger cookie-loving family will have to weigh in.
As a thank you for teaching me her ginger snap recipe, I dropped off a batch of my pepparkakor for Ulrika and her family. It was also sampled by her mother, who was visiting from Sweden.
A bit nervous to have my cookies reviewed by a ginger snap expert, I was over the moon when Ulrika gave me their review: They "loved them!"