Nothing strikes more dread in the hearts of my family than these two words: Pepparkakor cookies. Pepparkakor cookies are a traditional Swedish Christmas cookie, and years ago my father’s Aunt Mildred, a bustling dynamo of kitchen domination, handed down her recipe to any takers. We now all realize that her generosity was just a ruse to keep us from forgetting her. As if we could.
Stories of Aunt Mildred were legend. The most telling, perhaps, was about the speed with which she cleared the table—if she had eaten her last bite, you had eaten your last bite, and she whisked your plate away even if your fork was halfway to your mouth and your plate half full. Of course, she was also famous for her Pepparkakor.
Made correctly these cookies are paper-thin, zesty morsels of deliciousness, and herein lies the rub: No one could make them like Mildred. Under Mildred’s deft hands the dough was pliable and easily rolled. It yielded to the cookie cutters and dropped onto the baking sheet in perfect shapes. The finished cookies were crisp and flakey and flavorful. But for anyone else? Not so much.
Once, one of her nieces even stood over her as she made the cookies, convinced Mildred had “forgotten” to reveal an important ingredient or technique, only to report with consternation that she had been faithful to the recipe. And so the gauntlet was thrown, and every year my mother, my sister, and I tried to recreate Mildred’s magic.
Now, TV commercials and magazines present a holiday kitchen where a mother and her adorable children, all smiling ear to ear, pour chocolate chips into some unseen batter (while nibbling a few through nose-crinkling giggles), slice perfect rounds off a log of pre-made and pre-decorated dough, or press a Hershey kiss into the middle of an enchanting mound.
My cookie-baking experience?—a dystopian nightmare. There is a reason why CW’s Supernatural resonates with me. Ghosts (of cookies past)? Check. A struggle for my very soul? You betcha. Unabating obsession? Undoubtedly.
Ask my mother about Pepparkakor cookies and her eyes roll, her lips become a thin, grim line, and her head shakes in defeat. I, on the other hand, begin laughing a little too hysterically. And my sister? She doesn’t want to talk about it. As readers of this blog know, I grew up in South Florida where the average temperature in December is 75 and the humidity 70%. The recipe for Pepparkakor calls for the dough to be refrigerated overnight. It also includes a half cup of molasses, and it is to this consistency that the dough returned 5 minutes after hitting the Florida air.
Yet, we persevered. Flour was liberally “sprinkled” on the rolling cloth. Flour was liberally applied to the rolling pin. Flour rimmed the assembled cookie cutters. And so it began. Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a frustration-fueled fuming fest:
Ugh! It’s so sticky! I can’t roll it.
Well, put more flour on the board.
That’s not helping.
Thinner, they’re supposed to be thin. Thin!
This is as thin as I can get them!
Here, let me do it. Give me the rolling pin.
But the dough’s all stuck on the cloth!
Well, put more flour on it.
They’re going to taste terrible!
Just do it!
All right. Scrape it off. We’ll do it again.
Just let me do it! Well, I guess this is the best we can do. But look how thick it is!
Just cut them!
The cookies’re sticking to the board! I can’t get them off!
Use this knife!
They’re getting ruined! Why do we even make these stupid things?
This is a stupid looking reindeer. It looks like a fish.
And what’s that? Santa’s supposed to be fat not the angel!
I’m never doing this again!
Here, let me help.
No, I can do it! I can do it!
Finally, we got the first batch into the oven. While they baked we gathered the scraps and rolled out more. Adding to the lunacy was my mother’s insistence that we waste not even the tiniest bit of dough. If there was a cookie cutter to fit, we had to use it.
This process took all day. At the end we were exhausted, dripping with sweat, and covered in flour. We gazed at the finished products feeling the collective taint of disappointment, regret, and the disapproving eyes of Aunt Mildred. But we had two jars of cookies, and if they were a bit thick, still white with flour, and oddly misshapen, they still tasted good to us. And we needn’t have worried about Mildred. She was probably ordering the angels around the heavenly kitchen or chuckling over our plight. Either way she would have been happy.
Plus, there was always next year. Somehow, we always forgot the pain and suffering that went into making them the way women forget the trauma of childbirth so they can have more children.
Over the years the tradition of baking cookies gave way to busier schedules. But it seems my daughter Jenny has inherited Mildred’s baking genes (but not her steamroller personality, thank goodness), and so the other night the subject of the Pepperkakor cookies came up again. I realized as I laughingly related my tales of woe that the lure of the perfect Pepperkakor had not faded, but was only hibernating until a more able baker prevailed.
Jenny was game, so she whipped up the batter and put it in the refrigerator. No dithering over the ingredients. No burden of history. I, and my bad vibes, stayed out of the way. The next day we rolled them out. The dough spread easily, with just a true sprinkling of flour, to the required 1/8th inch and even thinner. No screaming. No panic. She and I took turns with the cookie cutters—the same ones I used as a child. No morphed angels, no fish-reindeer. These Pepparkakor baked up glossy brown, crispy, and flavorful. The whole thing took less than 2 hours.
Silicone rolling mats and rolling pins help as do cooler temperatures and alligator-skin humidity levels. But the real difference, I believe, is that Jenny has the magic. For myself? The no-fuss, efficient success this year felt triumphant and fun. But, as I also relish the absurd, the debacles of the past continue to assert a certain humorous charm. The best news, though, is that Pepparkakor are back on the traditional cookie list for another generation. I hope Aunt Mildred is pleased to pass her rolling pin to a kindred spirit.