Pepparkakor are delicious sweet, crisp and spiced Swedish gingerbread cookies, sometimes called ginger thins. They're easy to make, though you can take a little more time decorating them with icing, if you like. They're delicious any time, but are especially popular as a Christmas cookie. Once you take a bite, you'll soon see why.
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Over the years, while we aren't a family that go all out with multiple batches of Christmas cookies or have cookie exchanges, I do love making at least the odd seasonal cookie. Some are cookies I enjoyed as a child or learned from places I lived (like the German cookies I have shared). These I've enjoyed at various points and so it's about time I got round to sharing.
I've always been a fan of warm spices, and these Swedish ginger cookies have the perfect combination of flavors. They have warm cinnamon, aromatic cardamon and spicy ginger. And the most perfect sweet crispness, too.
What does pepparkakor mean?
"Pepparkakor" or pepparkaka means "pepper cookie". Apparently originally they were spiced with pepper, which is likely part of why they got the name. Also "peppers" was sometimes used to mean exotic spices in general, so it could more be a way of saying spiced cookies. Either way, modern pepparkakor are no longer peppery as they once were.
They are often called ginger thins or ginger snaps in English, though they shouldn't be confused with American ginger snap cookies. Those are typically drop cookies that spread and form a cracked surface on top. These, on the other hand, you make by rolling the dough really thin and cutting out shapes.
Origins of pepparkakor
The exact origins of the cookies are unknown, as they have been around for many centuries. It's likely they are at least influenced by gingerbread spicing that was brought to Sweden by German immigrants in the 13th century. There are recipes from as far back as the 15th century, if not earlier. You'll find similar cookies in other Scandinavian countries as well.
It was particularly in the 18th century that the cookies became associated with Christmas. While they may be simple rounds at other times of year, for Christmas, you're more likely to find them in festive shapes including trees and reindeer. Some of the shapes are symbolic, such as pigs which symbolize wealth, coming from the old Pagan midwinter festivities. Gingerbread hearts are likely because eating them was believed to make you sweeter/kinder.
While you can buy them (Anna's Pepparkakor are one of the best known brands), they are like so many cookies often best when homemade. And many like to make them with kids during December as a tasty, festive treat. You might also make a pepparkakshus (gingerbread house) which uses the same dough but made thicker to build with.
These cookies are mainly made with common ingredients - flour, butter, sugar, spices and baking soda (bicarbonate of soda). The one exception is a more distinctly Swedish ingredient, sirap. "Sirap" is a syrup that comes in both light and dark varieties - the closest equivalents are golden syrup and treacle.
Some people use only one kind of syrup, while others use a mixture of light and dark. It depends on the end color and, to a point, flavor you are looking for. Here I have gone with just golden syrup which gives a slightly lighter cookie.
Golden syrup is widely available in the UK and Australia but less so in the US. You may think maple syrup or corn syrup would work instead, but really neither are quite right. Golden syrup has a much bolder flavor that is definitley it's own thing. I have always managed to find it in larger supermarkets or online. Once you have some, it keeps well and is great for some other treats like ginger crunch, Anzac biscuits and more.
Tips for making Swedish ginger thins
These cookies are pretty easy to make, but a couple things to keep in mind:
- Warm the sugar, golden syrup and water gently so that the sugar dissolves. You want it mixed and smooth, but not so hot it caramelizes or burns as this will impact the flavor.
- Add the butter off the heat - there will be enough residual heat in the sugar mixture to melt the butter. As you mix, the temperature of the mixture will gradually come down, which is what you want.
- The dough will be soft after mixing in the flour and spices. Don't worry! It will firm up when it chills.
- Only roll part at a time - the dough becomes sticky if it's out of the fridge too long and harder to work with.
- Roll the dough really thin - that's part of what characterizes these cookies and gives them their crispness. Roll to about ⅛ inch thick (3mm), or even slightly thinner.
- Bake on parchment paper to help avoid them sticking. It can be good to cook a couple as a test batch to check they don't spread too much - if they do, work a little more flour into the dough.
Top tip: don't be in a rush!
One of the key things when you make these cookies is to not be in a rush. You want to make the dough the day before and chill it overnight. The main reason is to let the dough chill well, but it also lets the flavors mingle together more.
Flatten the dough into a disk shape before chilling to give you a slight head start on rolling as it will be really firm.
You can use whichever cookie cutters you have to make these into shapes. As mentioned, typically you might go for festive shapes in the run up to Christmas, but simpler at other times of year.
You don't have to add icing but if you do, the traditional Swedish style is just a white royal icing (that is, made with egg white), drawn on in thin lines/dots. If you like, you can use ready-made icing instead of making your own.
As you can see I am far from an expert icer, but it's fun to decorate anyway! One of the nice things about royal icing is pointed dots as you add them settle into nicely rounded mounds as they harden.
If left plain, it has become popular to pair pepparkakor with blue cheese as a sweet-savory appetizer. Though bear in mind the cheese will soften the cookies a bit so don't add the cheese too far in advance. You might also serve them with a glass of warm glögg (mulled wine) for the adults.
Can you make these ahead?
These cookies store well when you keep them at room temperature in a sealed container. You can keep them for up to four weeks, though they will gradually lose a bit of crispness. You can also store the dough for up to a week in the fridge before rolling out and making the cookies, too.
These traditional Swedish pepparkakor have a wonderful spice flavor, just the right amount of sweetness and the perfect crisp crunch. Ginger thins are easy to make and make a wonderful addition to a Christmas cookie plate, or just because. Go fancy, or keep them simple. Either way, you'll be sure to enjoy.
Try these other cookies perfect for festive occasion:
- Danish brunkager (also crisp and spiced, with nuts in them too)
- German Zimtsterne (cinnamon stars, with a lovely meringue-like glaze)
- Italian cucidati (or cuccidati, Sicilian buttery cookies around a fig-based filling - so tasty!)
- Plus get more Nordic recipes and Christmas recipes in the archives.
Pepparkakor Swedish ginger thins
- ¾ cup sugar
- 2 tablespoon golden syrup
- 2 tablespoon water
- 7 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 ¾ cups all purpose flour plain flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda bicarbonate of soda
- Place the sugar, golden syrup and water in a pot/pan and warm over a medium low heat until the sugar has dissolved and everything has mixed. Remove form the heat.
- Add the butter, cut in small chunks, to the warm sugar mixture and stir so that the butter melts and mixes in. Leave to cool slightly, if needed, so the mixture is warm but not hot.
- Mix in the spices, flour and baking soda and stir well so that everything is combined and well distributed.
- Bring the dough into a ball and wrap in cling wrap/film. The mixture will still be very soft - don't worry, it firms up in the fridge. If it spreads a bit, that's actually good - it's helpful to be relatively flat for when you roll it out once firmed up. Just make sure it stays in the wrapping (you could also put in a bag) rather than leaking. Place in the fridge overnight to firm up and for the flavors to mingle. You can leave it up to a week in the fridge at this stage.
- When ready to use, take part of the dough at a time to roll out (about ⅓ is good). I'd recommend rolling out the dough on a silicone mat (or parchment paper) as this will make it easier if it sticks at all. Lightly four your surface and roll out the dough very thin, adding a little flour to the dough and/or rolling pin as needed so it doesn't stick. It will probably be hard to get it started but it does quickly soften.
- Roll the dough to around ⅛in/3mm thick, or a little thinner. Cut shapes out and place the cookies on a baking sheet/tray lined with a silicone mat or parchment. Leave some space between cookies. While they do spread a bit, it's not as much as some cookies.
- Repeat with the rest of the dough, adding any leftover scraps in with the next amount you roll out. If the leftovers are too soft, then instead form into a disk, wrap and put in the fridge a few minutes to firm up again to make easier to work with. Place the baking sheets with the rolled out cookies in the fridge, if at all possible, to keep them cool.
- As you are part way through rolling and cutting, pre-heat the oven to 400F/200C. Once at temperature, bake the cookies in batches for 5 - 6 minutes. You may want to turn part way so they bake evenly. The cookies should go a medium brown and be relatively firm on the edges - the middle will still be soft when they come out the oven but will form up as they cool.
- If you want to add decoration, wait until the cookies are completely cool - royal icing is the most traditional choice.
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