“Work smarter, not harder,” the wise old saying goes. It’s difficult advice to remember when life gets rushed and harried around the busy holiday month of December. 

One of the tasks that sounds like fun is baking holiday cookies. We’re surrounded by images of smiling women overseeing similarly smiling children as they roll out sugar cookie dough and cut it into fancy shapes to decorate in intricate frosted designs. In reality, the process takes a lot of time, energy, short attention spans, and spilled flour, plus the inevitable clean-up …..

For over a century, the cooks in my family have faithfully followed my great-grandmother’s recipe for Bruna pepparkakor (literally, “brown pepper cake”), the traditional gingerbread cookies that appear all across Scandinavia each year during the holiday season. Buttery crisp and thin, with or without a glaze of frosting, pepparkakor are the very essence of the holidays. (Here is my great-grandmother’s traditional recipe.) It’s also a lot of work.

The recipe itself is centuries old. Historians say immigrants and/or traders from Germany brought it with them to the Scandinavian Peninsula, probably back in the 1300s. In those days, the cookies did contain pepper, and they were spicier than today’s version. Spices were expensive status symbols thought to have medicinal value. Eating the cookies was good for you, much like consuming a Green Smoothie, Kombucha or Avocado Toast is thought to be today. Use the freshest spices possible; traditionalists grind their own.

The basic dough takes less than 30 minutes to make but must mellow in the refrigerator for at least 2 to 3 days (and longer is fine) before being shaped into cookies. This part is ideal for a make-it-ahead approach. 

Rolling out the dough and cutting it into intricate shapes like stars, goats, and trees is the complex, fussy step. The minute it becomes warm, the dough becomes too flexible to handle. Only the smallest amounts should be rolled at a time, and even the trimmings need to be cooled back down before rolling them again. 

Could there be an easier way to shape them? And now that many of us have some gluten-intolerant family members – could we find a way to include them?

Take a cue from Refrigerator Cookies. Back in the 1950s when families were larger and more women were feeding their children by cooking from scratch at home, both Nestle and Pillsbury introduced commercially made cookie dough to local supermarkets.  It’s still widely available in a handful of rather bland flavors.

Almost any rolled cookie dough, including pepparkakor, can be treated this way. [Simply form the dough into a rope-like form on a sheet of waxed paper or plastic wrap, seal it up and place it on a sheet pan in the freezer until it becomes solid. When ready to make cookies, unwrap it onto a lightly floured surface. Use a sharp knife to cut off thin slices of the frozen log. Immediately place them on a cookie sheet and follow the rest of the recipe as usual. [Here is my Grandma Vicki’s variation.]

Leave plenty of room between the cookies. As you’ll see in the recipes that follow, these are butter-rich cookies! When pepparkakor are rolled out, a certain amount of flour gets incorporated and stiffens the cut-out shape so it doesn’t spread quite as much. Without that stiffening, they’ll spread further. This is not a bad thing– for fresh eating, you want them thin and crispy.

2. Don’t shape the cookies, spoon or ball them. The characteristic spread of pepparkakor dough can work to your advantage. Scoop half-teaspoons of refrigerated dough directly onto an ungreased cookie sheet or one lined with parchment paper. (Either works, but the paper speeds up the baking process because it will allow you to have another set of dough blobs ready to swap onto the cookie sheet immediately after pulling the paper full of baked cookies aside to cool.)

If you want perfectly round cookies, roll the little scoops of dough into balls in your palm before placing them to bake. Simple candy cane shapes can be formed from thin ropes of dough. However, it’s a waste of time to try more intricate shapes. Save the fancy touches for the icing step.


Even if you try to flatten the dough before baking, cookies formed by this method will be somewhat thicker than rolled cookies. However, round cookies are just as traditional as fancy ones, and they make lovely tree ornaments if you don’t have pets that would eat them. When the cookies come out of the oven and are still soft, use a chopstick to easily punch a hole. After they crisp up, you’ll be able to thread a ribbon through the hole.

3. Roll the dough into a sheet and cut it into rectangles. It’s up to you. The walls and roofs of traditional Swedish gingerbread houses are made this way. It’s the same dough – bakers just roll it more thickly, then glue the slabs together with melted sugar.

About the gluten-free version – and other variations.  As would be expected for such an old recipe that has been handed down through the generations, several slightly different versions coexist even today.

The spices vary, though very few add actual black pepper anymore. The sugar source may be treacle or maple syrup rather than corn syrup. Some recipes have no eggs. Probably the early versions didn’t have eggs either; until modern breeding and housing methods, chickens laid few eggs (or none) during the cold, dark winter months.


So, don’t feel guilty about a simple change that will not alter the taste… newer gluten-free flours can replace the traditional wheat flour on a one-to-one basis without requiring any changes to the traditional recipes I’m sharing here. We’ve successfully used King Arthur brand and couldn’t find any differences in appearance, taste, or keeping quality. In the best scientific tradition, we blindfolded a test subject (my father) before having him taste-test both regular and GF cookies. He couldn’t tell the difference between them, either.

Bruna Pepparkakor (Traditional Swedish Gingerbread Cookies)

[The original version just my great-grandmother typed out for my mother in 1958; Great-grandma Esther needed no written recipe, of course, because she had baked them all her life and knew it by heart. The comments in square brackets are mine.]

Melt together until it bubbles, then let cool:
1# pkg brown sugar
2 c. dark Karo syrup
1# butter
2 beaten eggs & 3/8 c. cream or condensed [evaporated] milk
Sift together then add:
7 c. flour + 1 Tab [tablespoon] ginger + 1 Tab cloves + 4 tsp. cinnamon + 1 ½ tsp. salt + 2 tsp. baking soda
Put in covered container and store at least overnight [refrigerated]. Storing 3 to 4 days improves the flavor and makes it easier to roll. Roll out a small amount keeping rest of dough in frig. and roll no more than ¼“ thick. Cut with cookie cutter.
Bake 10 minutes at 400 degrees. Touchy in this respect—don’t let cookies brown on edges.
May be frosted or not as desired.

[My additional hints: Roll the cookie dough out, one small batch at a time, on a heavily floured pastry cloth. After using the cookie cutter, place the “leftover” scraps into a bowl in the refrigerator while you cut out additional batches. At the end, consolidate and re-roll all the chilled cut-offs.

We find 400 degrees to be hotter than necessary, since modern ovens are better insulated than older ones. Baking for a longer time at a lower temperature, such as 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes, makes the baking process less “touchy.” Baking time varies with the size of the cookies. Our half-teaspoon rounds take about 8 minutes. The cookies are done when a finger touch leaves just a slight indent. They will be very soft initially; let them sit for a couple of minutes before trying to move them from the cookie sheet onto a rack to cool.]

Grandma Vicki’s Icebox Ginger Cookies

[More Americanized, more like ginger snaps, and much less work]1 c. butter or margarine
1 ½ c. white sugar
1 egg, beaten
2 T. dark Karo syrup or molasses
2 tsp. baking soda dissolved in 1 T. warm water
3 c. all-purpose flour sifted together with:
2 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. cloves
1 tsp. ginger
½ tsp. saltCream together the butter and sugar. Add egg, syrup, and soda. Stir in the flour mixture until smooth, then cover the bowl and chill for 4-5 hours or overnight. Make into 2 rolls. At this point you can freeze the rolls or immediately cut like icebox cookies and bake at 375 degrees for 5-7 minutes.  


The Easiest-Ever Christmas Cookie Icing

Stir together ½ c. sifted confectioners’ sugar + 1 T. whole milk or half-and-half + ½ capful vanilla or almond extract. Place a spoonful of icing in center of each cookie and spread it with the back of the spoon. Sprinkle with colored sugar if desired. Dries firm; ships well.

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