Norwegian Christmas Cookies
A tradition of butter, time, and love
Originally published in Edible Seattle Magazine, 2015
Once a year, vinyl painting tarps were draped over the china cabinet, shelving, carpet, and furniture in my grandparent’s home. It might have looked like a crime scene, butit was just protection against the clouds of flour that would inevitably dust every surface within sight when it came time to bake potato lefse—the traditional Norwegian flatbread served with butter, sugar, and often a dusting of cinnamon. It was a sign that the Christmas baking season was around the corner.
My maternal grandparents started the season in the fall. Once the lefse were made, frozen, and the house cleaned of all the molecules of errant flour that may have migrated under and behind the tarps, they could relax and start thinking about cookies. And by relax, it’s all relative. The cookies, even, were serious business.
Norwegians have a tradition known as the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of cookies. Put simply: you wouldn’t be a proper Norwegian if you didn’t have seven types of cookies to serve at Christmastime. I grew up knowing the tradition by taste rather than by name. I remember tins upon tins, and all the cookies set out on trays whensomeone came by for a holiday visit. As an adult, I’ve become fascinated by this tradition, and learning more about it has helped me understand my family’s habit of obsessive cookie baking a little better.
Norwegian Christmas cookies fall into three categories: some are fried, others are made on a special iron—such as the delicate krumkaker, reminiscent of a fancy ice cream cone—and the third type are baked. According to Dr. Kathleen Stokker, author of Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land, the baked cookies are the newer ones. Irons go back to the 18th century and were important because most people lacked the fine flour needed to make cookies rise.
In 1992, Norway’s largest daily paper, Aftenposten, conducted a survey on Christmas cookies and were flooded with responses. Based on the results they compiled a list of the 100 most popular cookie varieties. Though preferences vary from family, the cookies most likely to be on the svy slags lineup were sirupsnipper (syrup diamonds), Berlinerkranser (Berlin wreaths), sandkaker (tart-shaped cookies), krumkaker (delicate cone-shaped cookies),smultringer (little donuts), goro (a rectangular biscuit made on a decorative iron), and fattigmann (“poor men”; dough cut with a slit and woven into itself before being deep-fried). Serinakaker, buttery almond cookies often decorated with almonds and pearl sugar, are another favorite.
Why seven? It hasn’t always been that way. “In former times as many as nine or eleven kinds were made,” explains Stokker. The number (always uneven) was a status symbol that indicated the family’s wealth.
Most of the cookies on the list are included in a 19th century cookbook by Hanna Winsnes, Lærebog i de forskjellige Grene af Husholdningen (which translates roughly to a manual of household tasks), formerly considered a pioneering Norwegian cookbook and an oracle for housewives.
Many of the Norwegian baked goods involve the same set of ingredients, with little variation: butter, flour, sugar, eggs, and flavoring like almond or vanilla. Chocolate is rarely used. Yet Norwegians transform the ingredients into an almost infinite range of treats. “Each pastry has its own unique form,” writes Stokker, “something that adds to the challenge of making them.”
I’ve been lucky to have a guide through the challenges of Norwegian Christmas cookies. Over the years I’ve gathered with my mother and grandmother in the months leading up to Christmas—often weekly—to bake our way through my grandma’s classic recipes: the cone-shaped krumkake baked on irons with ornate designs, those tart-shaped sandbakkels, and more.
Ostensibly, our gatherings were baking lessons. Grandma, who had baked professionally, was passing down her techniques and helping to hone my skills. My primary objective, however, was to hear the stories that came as she shaped cookie after cookie, the muscle memory triggering moments and experiences long filed away in her mind. Raised in North Dakota, she spoke Norwegian at home as a little girl, even though she never traveled to Norway. I doubt she knew the syv slags tradition by name, but she sure knew the cookies.
“Christmas cookie baking is so much more than creaming butter and sugar and whipping eggs until fluffy,” wrote Astrid Karlsen Scott in her book Ekte Norsk Jul, Vol. 2: Traditional Norwegian Christmas Foods. “It means togetherness and sharing love and tradition. Amazing how such a simple act could bring security, and a feeling of belonging.”
Norwegians celebrate well with food. They historically knew the cold of winter and the difficulty of inhospitable land. They knew how to survive with little, how to store up food for the winter, and to feast well when the occasion called for it. Celebration foods are infused liberally with butter, an ingredient hinting at the richness of Norwegian hospitality.
According to Stokker, Christmas has been extraordinarily special to Scandinavians, especial in Norway since it was the poorest of the Scandinavian countries. There were also strong class divisions.
The traditions we know of today were reflective of a certain class—pastors, doctors, administrative officials, and the like. Those were the ones who had butter, cream, good flour, and other ingredients necessary to make the cookies, explains Stokker. Others sold their butter and relied on lard for daily use. Butter for Christmas cookies would have been special, something to savor.
Things always change with time. Butter is more affordable for more of the population now, thanks to modernizing conditions. But time is a commodity.
“Double career marriages have curtailed the once elaborate preparations [of Christmas cookies] in many families,” Stokker told me, but added that the ideal is still very much alive .
“Most Norwegian housewives still immerse themselves in the flurry of producing the traditional sju slags (seven kinds [of cookies]),” she explains in her book, but these days it’s a little different.
“My Christmas cards from friends over there almost invariably include a mention of how they are measuring up to “sju slags” this year,” she told me. Those cards say things like, “’Though I may not have made the entire sju slags, I did make….’”
Each year I find myself in that same position: trying to stock my pantry with as many of the seven as possible. I never quite make it, but each time I bake a batch of Norwegian Christmas cookies I think of the times I gathered in the kitchen with my mom and my grandmother to bake. I think about the way my grandma’s hands molded and manipulated the dough, working like an artist to shape countless cookies into little pieces of edible beauty. I think about the memories we created and the love that we shared.
The older generation is passing on now. Due to a series of strokes, my grandmother is no longer able to bake. I’m the one responsible now for sharing our heritage with the next generation. I try hard to weave traditional Scandinavian food into the meals I serve, particularly at Christmastime. I want to pass on to family and friends the hospitality extended so generously to me as I was growing up.
This is how the women who’ve preceded me showed love—I knew it with every embrace and every crumbly krumkake and buttery cookie.
These doughs should chill, so whip up a few batches at night then let the shaping and baking begin the next day!
Berlinerkranser (Berlin Wreath Cookies)
Adapted by permission from Ekte Norsk Jul, Vol. 2: Traditional Norwegian Christmas Foods by Astrid Karlsen Scott
2 hard-boiled egg yolks
2 raw egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature (I use salted)
2 lightly-beaten egg whites
In a mixing bowl, or the work bowl of a stand mixer, mash the cooked and raw egg yolks together with a fork. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the flour and butter alternatively, mixing it fully but handling the dough as little as possible; it will be somewhat crumbly but will come together easily when you press it. Cover and chill the dough at least a few hours, ideally overnight.
Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Roll the dough into logs 1/3 inch in diameter and cut into 4- to 4 1/2-inch lengths. Fold the logs into wreaths, allowing the ends to overlap, and place about an inch apart on the cookie sheets. Chill them in the refrigerator for a little while before baking to help them keep their shape.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Brush the top of the cookies with the egg whites, then dip in pearl sugar.
Bake until lightly golden, 8-10 minutes.
Store in an airtight container.
Adapted with permission from Thanks for the Food: The Culinary Adventures of an American in Norway by Whitney Love
3 1/2 ounces golden syrup
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup butter, cut into dice (I use salted)
1/2 teaspoon finely-ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground aniseed
1 egg, separated
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 1/2 ounces sliced blanched almonds
In a medium pot, combine the syrup, sugar, cream, and butter together over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted and the ingredients combined. Stir in the spices, then set aside and cool to lukewarm. Add the egg yolk and stir. Add the flour and baking soda and stir, thoroughly incorporating the flour into the dough. Refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Lightly beat the remaining egg white in a small bowl and set aside.
Lightly dust your work surface with flour and roll out the dough very thin (2-3mm thick), a portion at a time, reserving the rest in the refrigerator as you work. Use a pastry wheel to cut the dough into diamond shapes about 1 ½ inches long, using a ruler, if you wish, for even shaping. Place on baking sheet and press an almond slice in the middle of each. Brush the egg white over the cookies and bake until light brown, 8-10 minutes.
Cool on wire rack. Store in airtight container.
NOTE: Though a pastry wheel helps give these cookies their distinctive shape, if you don’t have one, you can just use a knife.
Adapted by permission from Ekte Norsk Jul, Vol. 2: Traditional Norwegian Christmas Foods by Astrid Karlsen Scott
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups flour, divided
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 stick plus 5 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg white
1/4 cup finely chopped almonds
1/8 cup pearl sugar
Beat the eggs and sugar until foamy. Whisk 1 cup of the flour with the baking powder in a separate bowl, then add to the eggs, stirring to form a dough. Mix in the butter, remaining flour, and the vanilla extract. Chill until firm, at least two hours.
Preheat the oven to 350°F and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll the dough into small balls, then flatten slightly with a fork. Brush with the egg white and then sprinkle with chopped almonds and pearl sugar. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until slightly golden. Cool slightly on the cookie sheet until crisp enough to transfer to a plate or wire rack.
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