Julkakor (or Christmas Cookies)

by Katherine Wolff

            Ginger. Nutmeg. Cloves. Cinnamon, allspice, and cardamom. Lyle’s Golden Syrup—found at Penzey’s Spices and Amazon—flour, and butter. The golden-brown batter whisks into a hard, cold ball of dough, cooling in the fridge overnight. It rolls out paper-thin. Too thick, and it won't cook right. I learned all this fifteen years ago. We make many cookies: spritz, oggleögon, rosenmunnar, but the pepparkakor is the most difficult of them all. My mother and I both know this.

            My mother often doesn’t understand me. I’m sensitive, her little orchid, as she says. I feel too intensely and I overthink things. It makes her frustrated, trying to connect with her delicate girl, her only child. She was raised tough, sunbaked, firm and confident like her father. She weathered medical school without a worry, reading Anna Karenina and going on long runs in her spare time “just to wind down”. Never have I seen tears lace her eyelashes. It makes me sad to see her frustrated, but I don’t know how to change, how to mirror not only her face but her soul.

            “Let me help you,'' she says.

             Christmastime is when she understands me most. We stand in the kitchen together, aprons dusted with flour like the snowflakes falling outside, our Classic Christmas Pandora radio station playing in the background. She rolls the dough so thin, and I cut the shapes, making use of every inch of spiced dough. We handle the thin bells, Christmas trees, holly leaves, and stars with care. If we aren’t careful, the tops of the bells will snap off. They are all so delicate, so fragile. We watch them carefully in the oven; they get burned easily. Three minutes exactly, not a second more, or the cookie has to be discarded, a burnt scrap for my father to chew on later. Christmas is the only time we make them—the recipe is sacred that way. These cookies make our family different, make us special, bring us together. They’re a connection to a homeland I’ve never visited, one that our family has been away from for three generations now. But still, we make the cookies, we have them on every Christmas Eve, paired with glogg, strong and spiced mulled wine. When I work the dough I feel like her, that perfect mirror image, and I am glad; I feel right. My mother knows these cookies inside and out. Her grandmother taught her, just as she taught me, just as I hope to teach someone special one day. I’ve been learning to roll the dough for years, but only recently have I been able to get it thin enough, to achieve the snap that is lauded at Christmas Eve dinner. Sometimes, I still get it wrong.

             “Let me help you,'' she says.

            We all love the pepparkakor, the way it crunches around the edges and melts like liquid sunlight in your mouth, golden sweet and spiced on your tongue. Sometimes I wonder that if I were that way, if I smelled like Christmas and home and heritage, my mother would understand me better. That my sensitivity would be beautiful, a necessary part of me, not a weakness to overcome. She knows how important the delicacy of the pepparkakor is, she knows that the fragility can never be removed, how it would never be the same if the dough is rolled thicker, baked for longer. I hope she can see the same in me, that I cannot be molded into a harder person, that my recipe cannot be changed. 

            My mother is more like the rosenmunnar, made of strong and sturdy butter dough, with a perfect dollop of sweetness in the center, a raspberry jam heart. She can be pressed hard in the middle by an unyielding thumb and remain resilient. It is hard to burn her. She is efficient, easy to work with, requires very little special treatment in the oven or on the shaping table. She knows the tart stubbornness in your mouth that you can’t help but love, that makes the cookie special amongst its fragile, crumbly peers. I want the raspberry jam in me to be protected by the firm exterior, I want my heart in a pocket deep inside that only I can touch, just like her. Every year I press a thumb into the dough, add a measured teaspoon of jam and pray that next year I will know what it feels like to be unyielding. To be strong.

            I understand the rosenmunnar––everyone does. It’s a simple concept, delightful to those who love the little pocket of jam, nestled in the cookie like a candy cane in a stocking. I never call it rosenmunnar, though, because “thumb cookie” makes more sense to people who ask about the treat. Often these people recognize the taste, the English name, and ask for a few before they’ve even tried one. Once I met a girl who made her own version of rosenmunnar, a recipe from a different heritage but a cookie that tastes almost the same. Her mother reminded me of mine. These people are right to love the rosenmunnar, of course, who wouldn’t?  The pepparkakor is more complex, confusing. Some laugh at the name (“A cock cookie? Sounds pretty gross!”), butchered by my non-native tongue, the pronunciation of consonants hard to spit out of my mouth. There is no true English equivalent. Maybe if I pronounced it the way my mother does, it would sound better, more appealing. Even though the language is foreign to her too, it still seems right in her mouth. Everything seems right when she says it, with unyielding confidence, never a waver in her voice. When I can convince people to try it, some fall in love. They see the magic of these tiny masterpieces, so easily snapped in their unfamiliar fingers. They become more gentle on their next, nibbling at the edges, tasting the kaleidoscopic medley of flavors. Some don’t like it. They think the name is too ridiculous, the structure too breakable. They are more comfortable with the heavier spice of gingerbread, the sturdy cookie, one to build a house of candy lights and icing snow with.

            I am not gingerbread. My mother knows this, she tries hard to remember. She works tirelessly to handle me with care, to be mindful of the ease at which I can break. It is not her fault that her rosenmunnar hands are strong and steady, that she loves me so much it can hurt us both. It is not my fault that I am sensitive, that I feel too intensely, that some people prefer gingerbread. My heart is not raspberry jam held deep inside me, my heart is spices and golden syrup, running through my whole body, worn on the outside like an extra layer of skin. My mother loves me anyway, loves me the best way she knows how, loves me with her protected raspberry heart. She watches the oven carefully. She attempts to heal my singed edges if I burn. And in turn, I hug her tightly, so tightly that I worry she might break. But she is rosenmunnar, strong and sweet and lovely, so she never even cracks.

About the Author

Katherine Wolff is a first-year Communication and English double major at Santa Clara University. She is 18 years old, and is originally from Westport, Connecticut. She enjoys writing fiction as well as poetry.