Cookie

Traditional Swedish Ginger Cookies, Two Ways

December 18, 2015

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).

Photo by James Ransom

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.

Photo by James Ransom

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.

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.

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.

We'll take both types, please! Photo by James Ransom

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!"

4 Comments

Greenstuff December 20, 2015
We have your dichotomy right within our family! My brother's wife, with no genetic connection to Sweden, makes the American Girl recipe. Her cookies are big and thick, and they absolutely love them. I make the family Luciapepparkakor recipe for smaller, much thinner cookies. Our recipe is different from many cookie recipes, as it calls for heavy cream instead of butter.
 
Author Comment
Taylor R. January 15, 2016
Yum, yum! I love all the variations of this cookie, because after the ginger-y goodness, they're always so different, and each one has a story. I'd love to hear your family's recipe (Heavy cream?? Yes please!)
 
Greenstuff January 15, 2016
Glad to oblige, Tayor Rondestvedt. The recipe I use is from a 1953 cookbook Swedish Food, written in Sweden for English speakers. It<br /> makes a lot of cookie dough, but it freezes well. And of course it's useful to have a lot if you want to make a gingerbread house. <br /><br />1 1/2 cups heavy cream<br />2 1/2 cups brown sugar<br />1 1/4 cups dark syrup<br />1 tablespoon ginger<br />1 tablespoon grated lemon peel<br />2 tablespoons baking soda<br />9 cups flour<br /><br />Mix everything but the flour, and stir until smooth. Mix in the flour--it's tough work, and I always do it with my hands. The goal is for the dough to be smooth. Cover and let rest overnight in the refrigerator. <br /><br />Roll it out nice and thin. Cut into shapes, place on a greased cookie sheet, brush with water, and bake at 250 (yes, that low) for about 11 minutes. Leave on a sheet to cool. If you're making a house or other structure, it's better to overbake rather than undercook, because they can soften.
 
Author Comment
Taylor R. January 16, 2016
Thank you, thank you! I can't wait to try them!