I remember childhood Christmas Eves at my grandmother and grandfather’s house. We always celebrated on the Eve before Christmas, a tradition in Scandinavian countries. My grandmother was born in the United States, but her parents immigrated here and so her Swedish roots and the traditions that came with them were strong. In Sweden, Santa (Tomte) arrives on Christmas Eve and that is when all the children open their gifts.
My grandmother always prepared a huge Swedish smorgasbord of baked ham, creamy scalloped potatoes, brown sugar coated baked beans, Swedish meatballs smothered in gravy, pickled herring (not my favorite), hard tack, and mouth watering biscuits made mostly of butter.
Lots of cookies.
As a child, it was always hard to wait until after dinner to dive into the cookie platter. Sometimes if I looked longingly enough at it, my grandmother would slip a cookie into my hand before dinner as a special treat.
My grandmother’s skill at baking was revealed in the volume and diversity of the cookies she baked: chewy brown drop cookies stuffed with raisins; sweet rich butterscotch bars; gingersnaps that snapped like firecrackers when I took a bite; buttery Swedish Spritz cookies; wobbly topped gelatin puffs; sticky church windows made with tiny white marshmallows and chocolate chips; and finally the pepparkakors, my favorites and the ones I bake each year no matter how stretched for time I am. When done right they are delicate, crunchy cookies that fill your mouth with the taste of molasses and ginger. They are excellent with a good cup of herbal tea, although I have been known to eat half a dozen in one sitting, all by themselves. Each year I contemplate not making them, and then I banish the thought.
As the days grow longer and the mornings greet me with a film of frost on the ground, I know it is time to roll up my sleeves and dig out the smeared three by five recipe card with my grandmother’s beautiful script on it. The pepparkakors require a day’s preparation, a night of letting the dough rest and then a morning of rolling, cutting and baking. I use my ancient metal cookie cutters. I make sure to roll the dough as thin as I can for the best possible result. And when the first batch comes out of the oven, I imagine that my grandmother is smiling.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Combine (in a 3 quart saucepan):
1 cup sugar
½ cup butter (cut into small pieces so it will melt faster)
½ cup molasses
1/3 cup water
Heat ingredients to luke warm, stirring constantly.
Remove from heat and continue to stir until all the butter is melted and incorporated.
3 cups flour
1 tsp. Baking soda
1 tsp. Cinnamon
1 tsp. Ginger
¼ tsp. Ground cloves
Add the dry ingredients gradually to the cooled sugar mixture, blend well.
Cover and chill overnight (or up to 1 week).
The next day:
Divide dough into quarters. Work one quarter of the dough at a time, keeping the remainder refrigerated until ready to work (**if you neglect to do this, you will find the dough that is waiting to be worked becomes sticky and impossible to roll out).
Place dough on a well floured surface and knead 10 strokes.
Coat dough with flour and roll out to 1/16th thickness (**the thinner you roll the dough, the crispier the cookies will be).
Cut out cookies using various shaped cookie cutters (**you can re-roll the scraps of dough several times before it becomes too sticky to work with).
Place cookies on a lightly greased baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 5 to 8 minutes.
Cookies are done when they are lightly browned. They will puff up a little. Place them on a rake to cool.
Repeat all steps with remaining ¾ of dough (a quarter at a time).