Christmas is a time for fun, festivities and traditions. One particularly popular tradition, especially in the Nordics, revolves around gingerbread making, eating and building.
A brief history
Originally, the term gingerbread referred to preserved ginger. It later referred to a confection made with honey and spices. Nowadays, gingerbread refers to a wider variety of baked goods, ranging from a soft, moist loaf cake to a particularly crunchy ginger biscuit.
Gingerbread was first brought to Europe in 992 CE by the Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis when he taught French Christians the art of gingerbread baking.
Later, during the 13th century, gingerbread was brought to Sweden by German immigrants. And references from the Vadstena Abbey in the 15th century show how the Swedish nuns baked gingerbread to ease indigestion.
A couple of centuries on, the first documented trade of gingerbread biscuits dates to the 17th century, where they were sold in monasteries, pharmacies and town square farmers’ markets.
While these biscuits can be traced back through the years, the first gingerbread men were credited to Queen Elizabeth I, who would delight visiting dignitaries with gingerbread figurines made in their own likenesses.
The baking and decorating of flat biscuit-shaped gingerbread is a classic scene in many Scandinavian homes, but the art of turning these 2D pieces into a 3D structure is just as popular.
Building a gingerbread house is a quintessential tradition
In Sweden, designing and building gingerbread houses is considered a ‘quintessential’ tradition in the run-up to Christmas. The same could be said for Norway – every year since 1991, thousands of Norwegians from kindergarteners to local businesspeople come together to participate in the construction of Bergen’s Pepperkakebyen.
Where did the gingerbread house come from?
Gingerbread houses originated in Germany during the 16th century, and over the years these tasty constructions have become a rather popular and Christmassy tradition.
These edible creations grew in popularity when the Grimm Brothers wrote the story of Hansel and Gretel, in which the main characters stumble upon a house made entirely of sweet treats deep in the forest. Whether the story influenced the success of the gingerbread houses, or the gingerbread houses inspired the story, remains unclear.
Tried and tasted
As great as a successful and structurally sound gingerbread house is, it is often the mishaps and personalised methods that make for the best stories. Our Norwegian translator, Guro-Sigurd, gives us a real feel of just how unconventional gingerbread house making can be:
We designed a gingerbread house from scratch and it was beautiful
Although gingerbread isn’t an exclusively Norwegian or even Scandinavian tradition, it still meant a lot to me growing up. For most of my childhood, we bought one of those ready-made gingerbread houses that you simply assemble and decorate. But one year, and the year following, we decided to take a page out of a friend’s book and design one from scratch. We took out the pencils, rulers and protractors and cut out the shapes needed in paper before tracing them onto gingerbread dough to make sure the pieces were just right. It was a very simple house, but it was beautiful and it was ours.
It’s also traditional to assemble a gingerbread house using melted sugar. Some people just use icing, but melted sugar makes for a much more durable and stable construction. I was pretty young when we decided that, while melted sugar yielded good results, it was a pain to work with. So, we switched to using a glue gun instead!
We had our own tradition of taking down the Christmas decorations on the 20th day after Christmas, and this included dismantling the gingerbread house. And we always made a big show out of it! Instead of just throwing it out, we would smash it with a hammer. Traditionally you’re meant to eat the hammer-smashed pieces afterwards, but seeing as we had used a glue gun, we preferred not to eat the house after Christmas. If we were feeling particularly brave, though, we would nibble on the pieces we were fairly sure didn’t contain any glue.
Try your hand at some Nordic gingerbread
Below we have compiled simplified gingerbread recipes from each of the Nordic countries, with a link to a more detailed version.
Have a go and see which recipe you like best!
Our managing director, Anu Carnegie-Brown, often makes a batch or two of gingerbread biscuits around this time of year and shares her tried and tested Finnish Piparkakut recipe below (here you can find a similar online recipe).
- 150ml of syrup
- 2 tsp of ground cinnamon
- 2 tsp of ground ginger
- 2 tsp of ground cardamom
- 1 tsp of ground cloves
- 1 tsp of allspice
- 200g butter or margarine
- 170g of caster sugar
- 100ml of cream
- 2 tsp of baking soda
- 415g of plain flour
Heat the syrup and spices in a saucepan. Allow to cool down. Whip the sugar and butter, add the syrup/spice mix and the cream. Carefully sieve in the combined flour and baking soda. Blend until smooth and put in the fridge until the next day.
Roll out the dough and cut the shapes of your gingerbread. Bake the gingerbread for 6–10 minutes at 200ºC.
Sandberg IT Manager, Adam Dahlström, has a personal preference for gingerbread biscuits that have a citrusy tang to them and recommends the Swedish recipe below for Kungens Pepparkakor.
- 1kg wheat flour
- 1 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
- 500g butter
- 3 dl heavy cream (40%)
- 500g caster sugar
- 1/3 litre syrup
- 1 egg
- 1 ½ – 2 ½ tbsp cinnamon
- 2 tbsp ginger
- ½ tbsp ground cloves
- 8-10 drops lemon flavour (or a little lemon zest)
Mix the flour and bicarbonate of soda then combine with the butter. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until stiff and add the sugar, syrup, spices, eggs and citrus flavouring of choice. Work everything together until smooth and supple. Leave to cool for at least 24 hours.
Roll out the dough and cut into your desired shapes. Place the shapes onto a lined baking tray and bake at 200ºC until golden brown.
The Danish term Brunkager literally means ‘brown cakes’ and, despite the recipe for these biscuits not containing ginger, this classic Christmas treat is considered part of the gingerbread family.
- 100g unsalted butter
- 100g brown sugar
- 100g molasses
- 230g all-purpose flour
- ½ tbsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp ginger
- ½ tsp cloves
- ½ tsp baking soda
- Pinch of salt
Melt the butter, sugar, and molasses over a low heat until the sugar dissolves and everything combines. Let this cool for 5–10 minutes. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, baking soda and salt. Mix everything together until no dry spots remain.
Wrap the final dough in cling film and place in the fridge overnight. Roll out your dough and use cookie cutters to cut out whatever shapes you want. Bake cookies for 6–8 minutes at 175ºC.
As the name suggests, the recipe for Norwegian Pepperkaker often includes a pinch of black pepper. The original Danish recipe calls for an ingredient called potaske which gives the biscuits a crisper snap and crunchy texture.
- 150g unsalted butter
- 150g caster sugar
- 70ml treacle
- 50ml golden syrup
- 75ml whole milk
- 1 medium egg yolk
- 450g plain flour
- 2 tsp ground ginger
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp cardamom, ground to a fine powder
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (or 1 tsp potaske, if you have it!)
- 1 tsp ground cloves
- ¼ tsp finely ground black pepper
- ½ tsp fine sea salt
Melt the butter, sugar, treacle, syrup, milk and egg yolk in a pan. Add the dry ingredients and stir well. Wrap the dough in cling film and put it in the fridge overnight.
Roll out the dough and cut out the shapes that tickle your fancy. Put the shapes on a lined baking tray and bake the cookies on the top shelf for about 10 minutes at 160ºC.
Similar to the Norwegian gingerbread recipe, the Icelandic Piparkokur also packs a slight peppery punch and is a festive favourite around this time of year.
- 250g butter at room temperature
- 200g granulated sugar
- 250g light corn syrup (or golden syrup)
- 2 eggs
- 475g all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 2 tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- ¼ tsp ground black pepper
Cream together the butter and sugar. Mix in the syrup and eggs and beat everything well. Sift in the flour, baking powder, baking soda and spices and mix until combined. Wrap the dough and refrigerate overnight.
Roll out the dough and cut the gingerbread using cookie cutters. Put the gingerbread shapes onto a lined baking tray and bake for 7 minutes at 180ºC.