Arguably, the most aromatic and popular Christmas cookies in Norway are Pepperkaker. They stand out among all the other traditional cookies with their fragrant presence, crispy and inviting texture, and ability to transform into whatever shape or design or role the beholder so wishes.
Pepperkaker is more than just another cookie on the table. It’s a transformative dough of make-believe where dreams of candy houses and whole cities are an annual tradition, stories of runaway gingerbread men come to life, and windows and trees become a canvas for warm greetings and decorations.
Pepperkaker are considered a traditional Christmas cookie in Norway, although the idea and practice of Christmas cookies are relatively new traditions beginning in the 1800s. Even still, pepperkaker is one of the oldest cookies, having been in Norway for around 400 years.
During 1650, a crate of 200 tons of pepperkaker made its way along the roaring sea to the wharf at Bergen.
Its companions were other exotic goods. Lemons, saffron, bitter oranges (pomerans). It’s presumed they came from Germany as so many other baked goods were imported from there. A cookbook from the 1700s refer to pepperkaker as Nørnberger Peberkager. This is possibly a reference to the German city of Nürnberg, which has played an important role in the history of pepperkaker. (Ganens Makt)
Pepperkaker was enjoyed not only in Bergen, but made its way to Oslo (known then as Christiania) in 1660. Despite a popularity spreading throughout the country, pepperkaker and Bergen always shared a special connection, perhaps from that initial meeting. Ever year, the city of Bergen produces the world’s largest pepperkaker city, with schools and kindergartens adding to the incredible display of imagery and imagination.
Before the 1800s, it was common for bakeries and large farms to produce pepperkaker, since they had access to large ovens. After the introduction of the household oven, pepperkaker became widespread as it could be baked in the home.
With the tradition of Christmas cookies entering Norway alongside the introduction of the household oven, pepperkaker took their rightful place as a favorite iconic treat, best served thin and crispy with burnished edges.
Old Fashioned Pepperkaker
- 400g (2 cups) sugar
- 200g (7/8 cup) butter
- ¾ dl (1/3 cup) light syrup (*see notes below)
- 1 ½ dl (3/5 cup) heavy cream
- 1 Tb cognac (optional)
- 4 tsp ginger
- 4 tsp cinnamon
- 2 tsp black pepper
- 4 tsp cloves, crushed *
- 1 Tb baking soda
- 750-850g (6 -7 cups) flour
In a large saucepan, add the sugar, butter and syrup. Stir together and heat until melted. Set aside to cool.
Once the mixture has cooled down a bit, stir in the heavy cream and cognac, if using. Add the spices, baking soda and a little flour at a time to the mixture. Check the dough just before you have added 750g/6 cups flour. You want a smooth and relatively firm dough, so you may not use all of the flour.
Take the dough out of the pan, cover with plastic and place in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Allow the dough to stand at room temperature for a little while before rolling out the dough.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/ 350°F.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out pieces of the dough to a thickness of about 0.5 cm (even slightly less) and cut into shapes as desired. Place on a prepared baking sheet.
Bake in the center of the oven for about 10-12 minutes. You want the edges to brown a little and crisp up. Cool on a wire rack.
You can decorate the pepperkaker with icing or powdered sugar or anything else your heart desires. Store in cookie tins and enjoy!
*Syrup in Norway is made from sugar beets, not corn. Therefore, I suggest substituting light syrup with a golden syrup (like Lyle’s Golden Syrup). It is possible to use corn syrup if you must, but light syrup in Norway is fairly thin and sweet with a taste of brown sugar. Alternatively, you can swap in molasses for a darker color and deeper taste.
*I prefer to crush whole cloves rather than use ground cloves. Crushed cloves are more course, which gives some texture and a more pronounced flavor. Adds to that rustic feel 🙂