Christmas cookies, spiced up:
Embrace Nordic traditions with Norwegian Pepperkaker
To kick off the holiday baking season, I’m turning to my Norwegian heritage with a recipe that is new to my repertoire, but a timeless classic in Norway: Pepperkaker.
I can’t believe I waited this long to meet this amazing cookie. In Norwegian, pepperkaker literally means “pepper cookie” due to the generous amount of spices used to flavor the dough, including ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and even black pepper.
Variations of these wonderfully thin, crispy gingerbread cookies are a holiday favorite throughout Scandinavia, where they’re known as pepparkakor (Sweden), brunkager (Denmark), piparkokur (Iceland) and piparkakut (Finland).
I was inspired to make pepperkaker by a set of nisse-shaped cookie cutters I received from my son, Gio, for my birthday in November. Nisse, or tomte in Swedish, are the mythical Nordic creatures adorned in tall, pointy red hats and full beards, often with only just a nose poking out. They are charming, playful and filled with a magical whimsy that is hard to resist, especially at Christmastime.
I have a slight obsession with anything nisse-related, which Gio has fed for the past decade in partnership with Stabo Scandinavian Imports, our favorite local Scandinavian shop. Formerly located in the West Acres Mall, Stabo has been a shared happy place for Gio and me since he was a toddler, and we make it a point to stop by their new location whenever we’re in downtown Fargo.
While our family culture leans heavily Sicilian, I am always delighted to see Giovanni embrace his Nordic roots with just as much gusto and passion, and I can’t help but think that Stabo (where they know him by name) has played a part in building that connection. Like baking together, these are the kind of experiences that create lifelong memories and make small, locally owned businesses such a vital part of our community.
Anyway, back to cookies. For a cutout cookie, pepperkaker are surprisingly easy and fun to make and most of the ingredients are pantry staples, except for the golden syrup. A common ingredient in European baking, golden syrup adds a lovely, rich sweetness to the cookies that enhances the spices without overpowering them. You can substitute with either light molasses or an equal mix of light and dark corn syrup.
Pepperkaker dough is pliable enough to hold even the most complex shapes, and so forgiving that you can re-knead and use leftover scraps without sacrificing texture. Overnight refrigeration gives the dough its strength and resilience, and it can be stored in the fridge for up to three days before using.
For the crispiest result, I roll the dough out as thin as possible without it tearing until at, or just under, an eighth of an inch.
This recipe makes quite a large batch, yielding over six dozen nisse/tomte cutouts from my experiments. You can decorate the cookies with icing or powdered sugar, but with their fragrant, spice-filled flavor and signature snap, pepperkaker are deliciously perfect all on their own.
Finally, it feels like Christmas in our home.
“Home with the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at email@example.com.
(Norwegian Gingerbread Cookies)
Makes: Many (about 7 dozen nisse/tomte-sized cookies)
2/3 cup butter, unsalted
2/3 cup granulated sugar
½ cup golden syrup
¼ cup heavy cream
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1½ teaspoons ground cardamom
1½ teaspoons ground cloves
¼ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt (skip if using salted butter)
In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the butter, sugar and golden syrup, stirring until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and let mixture cool for 3 minutes. Add the heavy cream, spices and black pepper; stir until fully incorporated.
In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the flour, baking soda and salt on low speed until combined. With the mixer on low speed, add the warm butter mixture and beat for 30 seconds, then increase speed to medium-low and beat until the ingredients are fully incorporated and a dough forms, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide in half. Shape each half into a ball and press into a disk. Wrap each disk in plastic and refrigerate overnight, or for at least 8 hours.
To bake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll out 1 disk of dough until 1/8-inch thick, or even just under, being careful not to tear the dough. The thinner the dough, the crisper the cookie.
Dust a cookie cutter with flour and cut the dough into desired shapes. Transfer cutouts to the parchment-lined baking sheet, leaving about 1 inch between cookies. To ensure the cookies hold their shape while baking, chill the cut cookies in the fridge or freezer for 5 to 7 minutes before baking. Collect any dough scraps, form into a ball, press into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 15 minutes before rolling out again.
Working in single batches, place the baking sheet on the center oven rack and bake until the edges just start to turn golden-brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from oven and leave cookies on baking sheet until fully cool, then transfer to a wire rack.
Leftover dough may be refrigerated for up to 3 days before rolling out and baking. Pepperkaker are perfect served plain or decorated with royal icing or a dusting powdered sugar.
To store: Pepperkaker are best stored in a metal tin, as plastic will cause them to soften. The cookies will keep, properly stored, at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
Sarah’s Tip: In lieu of golden syrup, substitute either ½ cup of light molasses or combine ¼ cup each of light and dark corn syrup.