Norwegian Christmas Cookies
A tradition of butter, time, and love
STORY BY DAYTONA STRONG
PHOTOS BY ANNE LIVINGSTON
Once a year, clear plastic sheets were draped over the china cabinet, shelving, carpet, and furniture in my grandparents’ home. It might have looked like a crime scene, but it was just protection against the clouds of flour that would inevitably dust every surface within sight when it came time to bake potato lefse—the traditional Norwegian flatbread served with butter, sugar, and often a dusting of cinnamon. It was a sign that the Christmas baking season was around the corner.
My maternal grandparents started the season in the fall. Once the lefse were made, frozen, and the house cleaned of all the molecules of errant flour that may have migrated under and behind the tarps, they could relax and start thinking about cookies. And by relax, it’s all relative. The cookies, even, were serious business.
Norwegians have a tradition known as the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of cookies. Put simply: you wouldn’t be a proper Norwegian if you didn’t have seven types of cookies to serve at Christmastime. I grew up knowing the tradition by taste rather than by name. I remember tins upon tins, and all the cookies set out on trays when someone came by for a holiday visit. As an adult, I’ve become fascinated by this tradition, and learning more about it has helped me understand my family’s habit of obsessive cookie baking a little better.
Norwegian Christmas cookies fall into three categories: some are fried, others are made on a special iron (such as the delicate krumkaker, reminiscent of a fancy ice cream cone), and the third type are baked. The baked cookies are the newer ones, according to Dr. Kathleen Stokker, author of Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land. Irons go back to the 18th century and were important because most people lacked the fine flour needed to make cookies rise.
In 1992, Norway’s largest daily paper, Aftenposten, conducted a survey on Christmas cookies. Based on the results they compiled a list of the most popular cookie varieties.
Though preferences vary from family to family, the cookies most likely to be on the syv slags lineup were sirupssnipper (syrup diamonds), Berlinerkranser (Berlin wreaths), sandkaker (tart-shaped cookies), krumkaker (delicate cone-shaped cookies), smultringer (little donuts), goro (a rectangular biscuit made on a decorative iron), and fattigmann (“poor men” dough cut with a slit and woven into itself before being deep-fried). Serinakaker, buttery almond cookies often decorated with almonds and pearl sugar, are another favorite.
Why seven? It hasn’t always been that way. “In former times as many as nine or eleven kinds were made,” explains Stokker. The number (always uneven) was a status symbol that indicated the family’s wealth.
Most of the cookies on the list are included in a 19th century cookbook by Hanna Winsnes, Lærebog i de forskjellige Grene af Husholdningen (roughly translated: a manual of household tasks), considered a pioneering Norwegian cookbook and an oracle for housewives when it was first published.
Many of the Norwegian baked goods involve the same set of ingredients, with little variation: butter, flour, sugar, eggs, and flavoring like almond or vanilla. Chocolate is rarely used. Yet Norwegians transform the ingredients into an almost infinite range of treats.
“Each pastry has its own unique form,” writes Stokker, “something that adds to the challenge of making them.”
I’ve been lucky to have a guide through the challenges of Norwegian Christmas cookies. Over the past eight years I’ve gathered with my mother and grandmother in the months leading up to Christmas—often weekly—to bake our way through my grandma’s classic recipes: the cone-shaped krumkake baked on irons with ornate designs, those tart-shaped sandbakkels, and more.
Ostensibly, our gatherings were baking lessons. Grandma Adeline, who had baked professionally, was passing down her techniques and helping to hone my skills. My primary objective, however, was to hear the stories that came as she shaped cookie after cookie, the muscle memory triggering moments and experiences long filed away in her mind. Raised in North Dakota, she spoke Norwegian at home as a little girl, even though she never traveled to Norway. I doubt she knew the syv slags tradition by name, but she knew the cookies.
“Christmas cookie baking is so much more than creaming butter and sugar and whipping eggs until fluffy,” wrote Astrid Karlsen Scott in her book Ekte Norsk Jul, Vol. 2: Traditional Norwegian Christmas Foods. “It means togetherness and sharing love and tradition. Amazing how such a simple act could bring security, and a feeling of belonging.”
Norwegians celebrate well with food. They historically knew the cold of winter and the difficulty of inhospitable land. They knew how to survive with little, how to store up food for the winter, and to feast well when the occasion called for it. Celebration foods are infused liberally with butter, an ingredient hinting at the richness of Norwegian hospitality.
According to Stokker, Christmas has been extraordinarily special to Scandinavians, especially in Norway since it was the poorest of the Scandinavian countries. There were also strong class divisions.
The traditions we know of today were reflective of a certain class—pastors, doctors, administrative officials, and the like. Those were the ones who had butter, cream, good flour, and other ingredients necessary to make the cookies, explains Stokker.
Farmers and others who were less well off sold the butter they made and relied on lard for daily use. Butter for Christmas cookies would have been special, something to savor. Things always change with time. Butter is more affordable for more of the population now, thanks to modernizing conditions. But time is a commodity.
“Double career marriages have curtailed the once elaborate preparations [of Christmas cookies] in many families,” Stokker told me, but the ideal is still very much alive.
“Most Norwegian housewives still immerse themselves in the flurry of producing the traditional sju slags [syv and sju are used interchangeably in Norwegian],” she explains in her book, but these days it’s a little different.
“My Christmas cards from friends over there almost invariably include a mention of how they are measuring up to “sju slags” this year,” she told me. Those cards say things like, “‘Though I may not have made the entire sju slags, I did make….’”
Each year I find myself in that same position: trying to stock my pantry with as many of the seven as possible. I never quite make it, but each time I bake a batch of Norwegian Christmas cookies I think of the times I gathered in the kitchen with my mom and my grandmother to bake. I think about the way my grandma’s hands molded and manipulated the dough, working like an artist to shape countless cookies into little pieces of edible beauty. I think about the memories we created and the love we shared.
The older generation is passing on now. Due to a series of strokes nearly two years ago, my grandmother is no longer able to bake. I’m the one responsible now for sharing our heritage with the next generation. I try hard to weave traditional Scandinavian food into the meals I serve, particularly at Christmastime. I want to pass on to family and friends the hospitality extended so generously to me as I was growing up.
This is how the women who’ve preceded me showed love. I knew it with every embrace and every crumbly krumkake and buttery cookie.
(Berlin Wreath Cookies)
Daytona Strong is a Seattle-based food writer and recipe developer. She contributes to a number of regional and print magazines and writes about food, family, and her Scandinavian heritage on her blog, outside-oslo.com.