The secular, consumerist frenzy version of Christmas may start in November or even earlier these days but in the traditional, ie Christianity based, calendar we’re only half-way through Advent. This was the lead-up to the Christmas, from the Latin adventus, meaning arrival, approach, coming – as in the coming of Christ. It was a period of fasting, but some cultures had traditional milestones during Advent – the festival of Saint Nicholas (yes, him) on 5/6 December, and the festival of Saint Lucia, or Lucy, on 13 December – when they could have a blow-out.
St Lucy’s name comes from the Latin lux, meaning light and her feast day is a festival of light in some cultures, but it’s also a festival of treats, breaking the fast – notably in Scandinavia and Hungary. The former, Sweden specifically, gives us saffron buns, the Saint Lucia crown (maybe*) I made a few years ago, and those classic feast day treats ginger biscuits, gingerbread, or a variation thereon. This recipe is for Luciapepparkaka, “Lucia pepper cookies” and is from European Festival Food by Elisabeth Luard (published 1990).
I get all these books, but not knowing the country, I can never, in all honesty, be entirely sure about their authenticity. But frankly, gingerbreads like this exist throughout northern Europe. And, well, authenticity is elusive and a concept I think it’s pointless getting hung up on. From my experiences in Italy, people will make slightly different recipes not only from town to town and village to village but also family to family and all argue theirs are the real deal.
Luard’s recipe – origins unknown – includes whipped double cream and “treacle”. I assume she means black treacle, but you could use golden syrup if you prefer a lighter result. Similarly vaguely, she also says, “brown sugar” – I used light soft brown, but similarly you could go dark or even muscovado if you prefer a less processed sugar. The recipe also called for a teaspoon – a few grams – of ground ginger. This seemed a bit meagre given you’re using half a kilo of flour so I’ve upped it to 5g, a couple of teaspoons.
Luard writes, “This delicately spiced cream-rich mixtures gives a fine-textured crisp biscuit”. I’d say it was a biscuit that’s all about the great snap and crunch.
Note, the dough needs a long rest – overnight, or for at least four hours.
The recipe makes a lot – depending on your cookie cutters. I made about 80 snowflake cookies.
150g black treacle
150g double cream, whipped to stiff peaks
225g light brown soft sugar
500g plain flour
5g ground ginger
Zest of one lemon
Icing sugar, for rolling and dusting
1. Weigh the black treacle into a pan, then put on the hob on a low heat to soften until runny.
2. Sieve together the flour and ginger into a bowl with the whipped cream, sugar, zest and the treacle.
3. Combine, then add “enough lemon juice to form a soft dough”. I used the juice of one and a bit small-ish lemons.
4. Squidge together into two discs (it makes it easier to roll subsequently), wrap in a plastic bag and rest in the fridge for at least five hours or overnight.
5. Take out the dough discs. They’ll be pretty firm now from their time in the fridge. She recommends another knead, but I found it too firm so went straight to the rolling.
6. Dusting the work surface and rolling pin with icing sugar, roll out the dough – “as thin as a coin”. What coin? What was the optimal coin thickness in the UK in 1990? I’m guessing go for about 3mm.
7. Heat the oven to 180C and prepare baking sheets with parchment or silicon sheets (which I highly recommend as they’re washable and reusable).
8. Stamp out cookies in decorative, seasonal shapes. My mum’s just given Fran some snowflake cookie cutters so they seemed perfect** albeit fiddly.
9. Put the cut out cookies on the sheets and bake for about 12-15 minutes until nicely browned.
10. Transfer to a rack to cool.
11. Serve dusted with icing sugar and accompanied by coffee, hot chocolate or mulled wine. Good for St Lucy’s Day, Christmas itself or any time in the season (that is, until Epiphany, 6 January – the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas).
* I’m not suggesting these authors make stuff up, but that tradition, like authenticity, is an elusive idea. Tradition is mutable. Changes to society markedly change tradition. The move from an agrarian to an industrial society in Britain, for example, changed our folk culture as people didn’t live with the seasons of farming any more, didn’t get together to celebrate and sing in the same way any more. Cecil Sharp, let’s not forget, was driving the folk-song revival in his lifetime – and he died in 1924. The intensification of agriculture after the Second World War further changed things, and the ensuing rise of the supermarkets. Our culture became more generic. So these days, for example, our festivals and feast days, especially Halloween and Christmas are taking on the more US-influenced form, or are forgotten entirely.
* I live in Sussex, grew up in Hampshire, and for a decade or so lived in London, all in the south of England. It rarely, if ever, snows in December or at Christmas in this part of the world, at least not in my nearly-half-century lifetime. We occasionally get a bit of snow in March when we’re all desperate for Spring. A south of England white Christmas is even less likely as the world heats up. Yet, we still give Christmas cards with snow scenes, and are determined to perpetuate the myth of a crisp Christmas. Heck, any movie set at Christmas sprays the fake snow around even if the scene is set in the south of England – think Paddington, Love Actually, Bridget Jones etc. And I dread to think of the carbon footprint of all the ice rinks in the south of England at this time of year, their refrigeration systems fighting the generally mild weather.