That morning Pippi was busy making pepparkakor – a kind of Swedish cookie. She had made an enormous amount of dough and rolled it out on the kitchen floor.
'Because,' said Pippi to her little monkey, 'what earthly use is a baking board when one plans to make at least five hundred cookies?'
And there she lay on the floor, cutting out cookie hearts for dear life.
Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren
Eight Christmases ago, I experienced my first Swedish Christmas. We spent all day on Christmas Eve preparing the julbord, a smörgåsbord that we only ever have on December 24. That first year, so much of it was unfamiliar: the pickled herring, the crisp bread, the lingonberry jam that accompanied the meatballs, the bottles of fizzy julmust, the tins of sprats layered through the Janssons frestelse, the tiny glasses of akvavit that made me lightheaded, the song I didn't know the words to.
In subsequent years, it has come to rival Christmas dinner as my favourite meal of the season. It feels like part of the fabric of Christmas now, as much as It's a Wonderful Life or plum pudding. I've even had a small influence on the ritual - we now cook the ham the Nigella way (in Coca Cola) at my suggestion, before glazing it with the traditional mustard, sugar, egg, and breadcrumbs. I have my own favourite parts of the meal: the boiled eggs topped with Kalles Kaviar, the pickled herring with juniper, and the Janssons, a dish I now look forward to every year. I can even blag my way through the chorus of the song we sing, before we throw back our shot of akvavit.
All the recipes for this meal are taken from a cookbook that my Cotswolds-based surrogate mother has on her shelves. It is familiar, and worn, and filled with pictures of aggressively decorated seasonal tables laden with food. I irritate her every year as we cook from it, asking that she again translates smör (butter) and musket (nutmeg), and explains how to measure out flour and sugar in decilitres.
For so long, we have followed tradition, and stuck to the familiar pages in the book. But in the past couple of years, we have started to add new things - a beetroot, potato, apple, onion and gherkin salad this year, and a batch of homemade pepparkakor on Boxing Day. The biscuits themselves aren't new; there is always a tin of pepparkakor waiting, alongside the Christmas cake, to be eaten in the final days of December. The ones from IKEA have always served us well, but I have discovered, to my delight, that no biscuit is simpler to make. The dough is incredibly forgiving, happy to be rolled and re-rolled as you require. The making of the dough takes minutes only. I appreciate that, at this point, the last thing you need to fill your house with is a box of 60 biscuits. But they're just too good to keep to myself. Put some of the leftover Stilton on them, and settle in for the last of the Christmas telly.
Makes at least 60
2tbsp golden syrup
80g light brown sugar
20g dark brown sugar
1tsp ground ginger
1tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch ground cloves
75g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
220g plain flour
1. Bring the water, golden syrup, sugars and spices to the boil over a low heat. Pour them over the butter in the mixing bowl, and leave for a few minutes to cool. The butter should have completely melted by this stage.
2. Sieve the bicarbonate of soda and flour into the mixture. Stir to combine and bring together in a dough. Leave the bowl in the fridge for a couple of hours, preferably overnight.
3. Preheat the oven to 200C. Flour your work surface, and roll the dough out as thinly as you can - a couple of millimetres thick is about right. Line your baking trays. Cut shapes out of the dough, and arrange them on the tray, leaving a little space for them to spread slightly.
4. Transfer each batch to the oven and bake for five minutes, until slightly crisp around the edges. Leave to cool on the tray for five minutes, and then completely on the wire rack. The biscuits should be crisp. Serve plain or with cheese - they're lovely with Swedish cheese, or good cheddar.