It’s no secret that Advent is my favorite liturgical season. I love the quiet, the coziness, the anticipation, the soul-preparation, the poignant imagery of light in the midst of cold darkness. So, it will probably be no surprise that my favorite celebration throughout Advent falls on December 13th, St. Lucia’s Day.
Both my husband and I have Swedish ancestry, so it felt very natural for us to celebrate this feast day in the vibrant manner of the Swedes. (There are other customs associated with St. Lucia, or Lucy, that stem from Italian heritage, but I won’t cover those here.)
For those who, like me, grew up reading the original American Girl series, you will remember Kirsten dressed in a white gown with a red sash and glimmering wreath of lingonberry leaves and candles on her head. I actually played Kirsten in a benefit fashion show once, but I didn’t get to model the St. Lucia outfit. I knew that if I ever had a little girl, I would definitely be getting her a white flannel nightgown and a red sash–and a crown of candles if I could find one.
I didn’t grow up with a recipe for saffron buns or pepparkakor, the traditional Swedish Christmas cookie. But I did have a grandfather who remembered the taste of “the real thing.” So in college, I started experimenting with gingerbread cookie recipes until I found one that he proclaimed authentically Swedish! (Thanks, Grandpa!) Now every year, my kids and I make pepparkakor and lussekatter just like our relatives in Sweden.
Peppar means “spice” in Swedish and kakor means “cookie.” Spice + cookie. It’s pretty much the quintessential Christmas food. I use the same recipe to make our St. Nicholas cookies. If you want, you could double the recipe, make one batch of St. Nicholas cutouts and save the rest for a few days in the fridge to roll out for your pepparkakor. I enjoy baking these with my kids on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which falls on December 8th, since delicious smells are often associated with Mary. (It’s one of the activities that turns up yearly in our Advent calendar.) The cookies keep well in a closed container, so making them ahead is no problem, and making them a bit early actually intensifies the flavor of the spices!
Put them on your Lucia tray. (Cookies for breakfast, you say? Yes, please.) Share them with your loved ones, curled up on in bed by candlelight with a mug of hot coffee and some cocoa for the kids. Swedes are known for their love of coziness, and I’m pretty sure these cookies taste better with a good snuggle.
The Humble Baker | bakinghumblepie.com
Yields approximately 2½ dozen cookies, depending on size of cutters
These are not your average gingerbread cookie. Big on taste, with a distinctive crunch. You can’t have just one. (Try it and see.) The trick to making amazing pepparkakor is to roll the dough very thin. I’m not joking: 1/16 inch and no more! This is the only way to get that addictively crispy texture. You can use any shape cutters, but I like to use ones that relate to St. Lucia Day (candles, crosses) or are quintessentially Swedish (hearts, Dala horses, and—for some reason—pigs).
½ cup salted butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoons molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¾ cup flour
2 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon cloves
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the egg and beat until incorporated. Add the molasses and vanilla and mix until incorporated.
In a separate bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Add this mixture to the butter mixture and, starting with a low speed and gradually increasing, mix until thoroughly combined. Gather dough into a ball and chill for one hour. (You can chill up to overnight, but then you will want to leave the dough out at room temperature for a bit until it’s more workable as it can get very dense and crumbly when cold.)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. On a floured surface and with a floured rolling pin, roll out a portion of the dough to 1/16” thickness. Cut cookies into desired shapes and transfer to ungreased baking sheets. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes until cookies are set and nicely browned. Remove from trays, and allow to cool on wire racks. Repeat with remaining dough.