A specific variety of gingerbread. Sort of. The history of pepparkakor and the history of gingerbread are entwined, but they aren’t the same thing. We’ll leave a gingerbread discussion to a future post, though.
The history of pepparkakor starts sometime in the 13th century, when German immigrants brought to Sweden the type of gingerbread they enjoyed at the time. The name pepparkakor translates literally to “pepper cake,” and the earliest baked goods to carry that name were something like that.
They were sweetened with honey, softer, and intended to serve as a digestive aid. The spices used would change, but would usually include pepper, as well as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, mace, anise, and whatever else might have been available. By the 15th century, nuns in Vadstena would bake a firmer iteration of the product, pressing under wood blocks to make thin canvases for decoration that more closely resembled the modern cookies. By this time, the spices that might be used had expanded to include citrus, cedar oil, and pomegranate.
Over the next few centuries, the plain wood blocks became decorated wood blocks; refined sugar and molasses replaced honey; and ultimately, the decorated wood blocks became metal cookie cutters. Swedes traditionally serve them around Christmas, and particularly on December 13th, Saint Lucia’s day.
Although it doesn’t use the name, this recipe for “Swedish cookies” from the March 4, 1909 edition of The Hayti (Missouri) Herald is, indeed, a pepparkakor recipe:
Swedish Cookies — One large glass of maple sirup, one-half pound of granulated sugar, one teaspoon of cloves, one teaspoon of ginger, one teaspoon of cinnamon. Cook until they hold together when tried in water. Take off fire and beat in one-half pound of butter. When cold, beat in three eggs and enough flour for a soft dough. Add two teaspoons of bicarbonate of potash dissolved in water. Stand over night. In the morning, if necessary, add a little flour. Roll, cut thin, and bake.
There’s a tradition in Sweden that goes something like this: think of a secret wish. If you hold a pepparkakor in your hand and strike it with the opposing finger (or knuckle, depending on how you think the legend goes), and it breaks into three pieces, then your wish will will come true. (In some iterations, it only comes true if you eat the cookie before saying a word.) If not, well… that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
This legend seems to favor love. Five of the most traditional shapes are a man, a goat, a pig, a horse, and a heart. Guess which shape is most likely to break into three pieces if struck in the center.
Scandinavian Spicy Pepparkakor
Favorite holiday cookie
1 c. butter or margarine, softened
1-1/2 c. sugar
1 Tbsp. dark corn syrup or molasses
2-3 c. flour
2 t. baking soda
3/4 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. ground cloves
1/2 t. cardamom
Preheat oven 400 deg.
In large bowl, cream butter. Gradually add sugar, creaming until light and fluffy. Add corn syrup and egg; blend well.
Add remaining ingredients. Blend well at low speed. Chill dough for easier handling.
Roll out 1/4 at a time on floured surface to 1/8″ thickness. Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters. Place on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 4-6 minutes.
Makes 100 cookies.