The Magic of Swedish Gingerbread Cookies

Swedish Advent coffee gatherings and the must-have baked good of the season.

The season of Advent is upon us. In Sweden, Advent is holy, not just because it represents a religious tradition, but more practically it celebrates and honors light. Every Sunday through Christmas a new candle is lit, until the four long candles in the Advent candlestick are burning in unison. Throughout the month of December, windows blaze with the traditional triangle shaped candelabra, bringing a hue of gold to the otherwise dark and long winter nights.

Just as candles are an integral part of celebrating Advent, so are pepparkakor. Gingerbread cookies are the staple of Swedish Advent coffee gatherings and celebrations and the must-have baked good of the season.

I grew up, every December, carefully rolling out gingerbread dough. In the early years, it was an awkward dance of pushing and pulling a rolling pin about half my size. Flour tended to go everywhere, and I would end up grinning with dough pieces stuck all over me. Yet my mother simply left me to it, and if I rolled too hard and the dough got stuck to the countertop, I was forced to find a solution myself.

Dust with flour, roll, pull up dough, flip over and repeat until just the right thickness to slice into with a Swedish cookie cutter. These cookie cutters were carefully kept in a large tin -- which had at one point in the early 80s held Danish butter cookies certainly purchased at duty-free on one of her connecting stops in Copenhagen. Hearts, pigs, Christmas gnomes, the classic gingerbread couple; I loved, and still love, sorting through and picking out my favorites. Feeling lazy? There were always the Franska Pepparkakor to make, a much simpler process of rolling out a log and slicing the cookies. In fact, if Swedish Jul for Dummies were a book, this recipe would be in it.

But pepparkakor are one thing, and a pepparkakshus (gingerbread house) is quite another; same dough, same concept and yet when you move from cookie to house, baking takes a completely different level of culinary creativity.

Enter, my father. Not known for his kitchen prowess -- to his credit he is well versed in the world of exotic black teas -- gingerbread house making was his turn to put his carpentry and mathematical brain to use in an area normally left to my mother and I.

In his mind, a pepparkakshus was a serious matter. This is why, two decades later, we still have the same designs, meticulously drawn onto graph paper and cut out with an X-Acto knife, kept in the same, yellowed folder, "Jul" marked in red pen on the outside.

He put the same energy into crafting our annual pepparkakshus as he put into building our own house. Case in point: the pepparkakshus was always constructed with melted sugar, a binding agent that no child under the age of 12 should ever play with. But once dad had constructed the house, I got to decorate it, and he would watch as I sloppily poured icing all over the top, at first attempting to make a design and later resorting to the excuse "I just wanted to make it look like it snowed on the roof." Fortunately, like any good father, he was never upset at his daughter's decorative destruction of his architectural masterpiece.

Of course every kid-friendly holiday treat has to have an adult alternative, and beyond the pepparkakshus, my father's other seasonal claim to fame is a mean batch of glögg, Sweden's mulled wine. Whereas expertly crafting gingerbread houses was probably more of a fatherly duty, glögg was a personal masterpiece, picked up at about the same time that he wandered into the Nordic lands and stumbled upon my enchanting mother.

Click here for the rest and gingerbread recipes.

Illustrations by Johanna Kindvall