If you were to ask me what my most vivid memory of my Mother’s Mother is, it would be unrelated to any of the things she was known for. Not her garden, not her cooking, not her snoring and not her reading me books- it is a particular incident of her arrival for the holidays when I was 7.
I knew she was on her way to Washington from California, and I was waiting. When she joyously exploded through the front door, dropping her bags to catch me up in her arms and smother my face with kisses, I felt safe and loved and important.
She was tall and blonde and loud, perpetually dressed in white and cornflower blue. We called her Nony, because that was what she wanted- Gram was what we called her mother, and she didn’t want to be called Mormor. Her arrival for Christmas meant there would be great books to read and a tin or two of traditional Danish Christmas cookies, most notably Pebernødder and Sprutter. One Christmas, I made her give me all her recipes for pebbernødder, and recently I found my childish scrawling of her dictation folded up and tucked into a Scandinavian cookbook I inherited when she passed.
It’s odd what shapes us. Those with the most influence often don’t realize what an impact they create. My gramma was not really a “fun cooking together in the kitchen” kind of entity- that was more my mother. We never made pebbernødder together, in fact I never made them until after she passed. But the first Christmas that I really appreciated pebbernødder, and demanded she dictate all her recipes to me, I understood something. In that spicy, flavor packed bite, was tradition- something equally exotic and familiar. The only reason I was eating these weird little cookies was because my Grandmother made them, and the only reason she made them was because someone had made them for her, and the reason we knew as a family about these weird little cookies was because of where our family came from. They aren’t overly sweet and the huge pile of spices in them makes them unexpectedly complex. They weren’t the big white sugar cookies one usually associated with an American Christmas. They’re almost too small to count as a cookie at all. My friends had never heard of a pebbernødder.
A spark had been lit in me,and I wanted to know more about Danish food…why we ate that food, how to make that food…I wanted to know more about what else my family did that came from its history and what things we didn’t do anymore that other people of the same ethnicity still did.
As an adult, I read in college about the effects of colonization on Native American health due to government influence on dietary changes, and I began to wonder what effects globalization and industrialization were having on Western diet. I wanted to know what people who shared my genes had been eating for hundreds or thousands of years, and if a similar diet would treat me better than modern fad diets. I found that often, yes, they did.
Unfortunately, most of the Danish food traditions in my family had passed out of favor and memory. I heard whispers of something called an æbleskiver and had an(oddly tense) discussion with my Grandmother about whether or not the practice of putting apples into red cabbage was just a Swedish thing- or whether it was an acceptable augmentation to an otherwise very simple dish. But there was no real depth to plunge in my immediate family’s food traditions. Most of what I learned I learned from cookbooks, other bloggers, and encounters with other Scandinavian food enthusiasts.
The pebbernødder though, was a direct transmission, and thus became somewhat of a sacred thing. A symbol of that patron saint of childhood hygge, my Grandmother. A link tying my busy hands to hers through time, space and mortality.
What follows is a recipe I devised from a combination of her recipes. In my endeavors to ammend my family’s spirit through adjustment in myself, I include attentiveness to physical well being. My Grandmother struggled with diabetes, so None of my Christmas cookies will ever contain refined cane sugar. Honey and molasses sweeten these just fine, without the systemic irritation and radical blood sugar spike of a corn syrup or sugar sweetened cookie. They are also small, making them easy to ration out, and at about 20 kcal per 5 gram cookie (according to chronometer) they don’t kill you if you count calories.
The dough in this recipe cures for 3 days to a week, so if you want them in time for Christmas, now is the perfect time to get the dough ready.
1 lb butter (preferably grass fed)
1.25 teacup of local honey
1 tea cup of blackstrap molasses
2 tablespoon of half and half
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp each of:
1/4 tsp each of ground cloves and allspice
2 tsp baking powder
8 teacups of unbleached all purpose flour
Cream together butter, honey, egg, molasses, 1/2 and 1/2 and vanilla extract.
Stir in spices.
Mix baking powder in with one teacup full of flour, and incorporate into the butter mixture.
Continue slowly adding in ingredients until you have a stiff dough that is still moist.
Wrap the dough in seran wrap or place in a sealed tupperware and allow to rest in a cool dark place (original recipes suggest a cupboard, though no one would begrudge you the fridge…).
After 3 days to a week have passed, take out your dough and preheat the oven to 350f.
Obviously, do not eat fermented dough that contains raw egg without first cooking it. I know you know, but I have to say it.
Proceed to roll the dough into 5 gram balls (like an acorn size…or a hazelnut still in the shell…) and place them on a buttered cookie sheet.
Cook until lightly brown on top, with a darker brown on the bottom. It happens really fast. After ten minutes, definitely give them a check.
Eat them with satsumas! Glad Jul!