Friday, December 30, 2011


I had no idea we had a secret recipe.

I enjoy baking very much, but it is one of the things that has fallen by the wayside over the past few years. Even Christmas baking has suffered, and this year was the worst. Holding tightly to my homeschooling/teaching violin/writing schedule until the week before Christmas and then immediately leaving town meant letting go of virtually all Christmas preparations.

Last week, though, while we stayed with my parents, I helped my dad make sandbakkels. He has made these cookies almost every year for as long as I can remember. Often he makes fudge, too—dense, sweet logs of it that have to be kept in the refrigerator wrapped in waxed paper. My mom makes jan hagels—Dutch Christmas cookies that we all love even though we aren’t Dutch. Other sweets have come and gone, but these three desserts are steady companions at my parents' table.

Sandbakkels are Norwegian cookies (many claim they are Swedish, but I have Wikipedia on my side.) The name translates as “sand tart,” the flavor and texture sort of a cross between a sugar cookie and shortbread. Scandinavians, I am convinced, know the secret to good cookies: you don’t need much more than flour, sugar, butter, and eggs. Also, you cannot skimp on butter, and you cannot use what Youngest calls “fake butter.” Of course, there’s also the presentation. Rosettes, krumkake, kringle—the Scandinavian cookies I grew up on were as much about their beauty as their flavor.

To make sandbakkels, the dough is pressed into special fluted tins and baked. After baking, each cookie must be carefully removed from its tin. This, to me, is the tricky part. According to my dad, we got the texture perfect this year—delicate and flaky—but only about half of them survived being removed from their tins. The survivors, though, are lovely, buttery cup-shaped cookies. The ones made in my dad’s tins remind me of paper cupcake liners, those made in my tins remind me of flowers. Although we do not fill ours, they are traditionally filled with fruit or preserves and whipped cream. The ultimate treat, according to my dad, is to use cloudberries, which are shaped like raspberries, but are yellowish-orange and slightly bitter. I think they sound like something out of a Scandinavian fairy tale.

My dad helped his mother make sandbakkels from a young age. She, too, taught music lessons in her living room, and made all the delicious Norwegian desserts my dad remembers from childhood Christmases only with help from her family. Her recipe for sandbakkels was special, different from the many other recipes my dad looked at over the years. Her grandmother taught her how to make them, and she had the recipe written down without any specific amount of flour indicated. Apparently flour changed so much from harvest to harvest at that time that cooks had to know by texture when they had the perfect amount. But she won a blue ribbon at the North Dakota State Fair for her sandbakkels when she was just ten years old, competing against grown women because there was no children’s division for that sort of thing.

Watching my dad work, I was struck by his slow, careful movements. Scraping butter off a spoon required the same attention as pressing dough into a mold, and all of it was an artistic undertaking. This is the man who taught me how to play violin, but that is by no means the only thing I received from him. There is a rhythm to this kind of work that we seem to share, and it is careful, loving. Our tempo for this kind of thing is decidedly andante.

When my dad was still a child, his mother figured out the exact measurement for the flour and sent her recipe in to Better Homes and Gardens. He does not remember what the contest was for, but she never heard back from them. The recipe became their property to do with as they wished.

My grandmother died when my dad was thirteen years old. Although I never knew her, I have always felt a deep connection to her. I have her name for my middle name. I discovered, during my senior year in high school when my favorite hour of the day was spent on a pottery wheel in ceramics class, that the beautiful handmade pots scattered throughout our house were her creations. When I took up knitting I learned that she, also, learned to knit as an adult, and gave all her friends mittens with elaborate colorwork for Christmas one year. Even my allergies, and the fact that all my life, every cold or flu-like illness I get wants to descend to my chest and linger there, connects me to her. She, however, suffered far more than I ever did, and died from a sudden, severe case of pneumonia during a flu outbreak.

My dad kept her recipe for sandbakkels, written on a slip of paper, for many years. Eventually it disappeared, he does not know when or how.

Years later, he found a recipe in a Better Homes and Gardens holiday cookbook that almost exactly matched his mother’s. Nestled among recipes for “Springerle” and “Berliner Kranser” is a recipe for “Sandbakelser” that may or may not be his mother’s, but is close enough to hers that we claim it as our own. There are things missing from it—small, secret details that my dad wants to keep within our family, anyway—but it is something tangible, an assurance. Sometimes the things which we think are lost are in fact, not.


  1. What a great story about the recipe! And the cookies are beautiful. Also, I'm continually amazed by Scandinavians' ability to come up with obscure berries. It wasn't until I married into a Swedish family that I realized how many berries I'd been missing!

  2. I love this post. It's just so much of what Christmas should be! And I want a cookie!


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