My Mother’s Gingerbread

A short story (including a traditional Scandinavian gingerbread cookie recipe) — Lit Up’s Christmas Event

Photo: Jéshoots/Pexels

It’s September, and I’m making gingerbread cookies in my kitchen.

The piece of lined paper floats from my cookbook as soon as I crack open the back cover. I unfold it and smooth it out, fingers tracing the creases. The edges of the paper have been worn soft and thin, and I handle them with care.

It would be easy to copy the recipe onto a fresh sheet of paper, but I never do. My handwriting is as rough as my cooking skills. Or I could type the recipe on a computer and print it out, neat and soulless, a whole stack of them. The instructions might be clear, but it wouldn’t be the same without my mother’s lovely, rounded longhand.

I study the letters, joined together and leaning like they’re caught in a wind. The loops and flourishes of a disappearing skill. It saddens me knowing they don’t teach cursive in schools anymore.

I’ve tried other recipes over the years, even carried frozen bricks of dough from the grocery store, but I always come back to this recipe. The why is simple — it makes the world’s best gingerbread. Even my husband, with a family recipe of his own, agrees.

ÄIDIN PIPARKAKUT

INGREDIENTS

1 1/2 dl dark syrup
200g sugar
250g salted butter
2 eggs
500g plain flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cloves
(smudged blue ink), a water-stain makes it impossible to read the last line.

INSTRUCTIONS

(1) In a small saucepan, bring the syrup, sugar, butter, and all spices to a boil. Let it cool.

The dark, sticky syrup spreads over my reflection at the bottom of the shiny saucepan as I pour it in.

I smell the spices before adding them. Cinnamon; sweet, warm, down-to-earth, much like my mother. Cloves; dark, mysterious, spell-like. The scent of secrets and forgotten things. Ginger; sharp but pleasant, with a hovering sweetness. So strong it wakes my nose and makes my eyes sting. I wipe them with the back of my hand.

When the sweet liquid bubbles, I take it off the hob.

I should move on to the next step, but I can’t stop thinking about the missing ingredient. I’ve scoured over countless recipes, waiting for it to hit me. Allspice, cardamom, bitter orange peel? So many possibilities but no way to know.

I wish I could call and ask.

(2) Whisk eggs into the mixture one at a time. Blend the baking soda and flour. Combine.

I dip my finger into the viscous liquid and lick it clean. Delicious and not too hot. I pour the mixture into a large bowl.

I tap an egg against the counter, once, twice, three times until it cracks.

One by one, the eggs disappear into the mixture while the electric hand-mixer does most of the work. The whirring appliance is shiny and cold in my hand as only plastic can be. My mother used a hand-whisk or fed ingredients into an ugly yellowed food processor, probably older than I am now.

That’s how I prefer to remember her, busy in the kitchen, hands soft and warm. The last time I held her hand it was like a bird, weighing nothing, ready to fly.

(3) Let the dough rest in the fridge overnight.

I’ll skip this step. It’s just to enhance the flavours already there.

I retire the dough hooks and work the dough by hand. Feeling like a child, I pop a ball of raw dough in my mouth. It tastes like Christmas.

I remember how the night before Christmas Eve, I would make several trips to the fridge, sneak my fingers into the giant, cling-film-covered bowl and carve out bits of dough. I tried to do it with no one seeing, but somehow my mother always knew.

Just like she always knew the right thing to do and say. Once she caught me with my hand in the bowl and said, “The dough’s so good, it’s almost a shame to bake them.”

At thirty-one, I barely know how to look after myself and my husband, let alone a family. There’s so much my mother could teach me. Small things, like how to knit a sock and its heel? Big things, like the secret to a fifty-year marriage and raising three children. She didn’t leave a recipe for those things.

The dough’s starting to melt in my hands, so I give it half an hour in the freezer.

While it cools, I watch out the window at the blushing, yellowing trees. The sky of migrating geese. Months to go until snow, until Christmas. I don’t know if I’ll have the heart to bake gingerbread when it comes, not this year.

I know for sure the secret ingredient isn’t tears.

(4) Roll out the dough into a thin sheet. Using gingerbread cutters, cut out shapes. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes at 200°C or until golden brown.

Bent over the counter, I sprinkle flour like falling snow. I own two rolling pins, a proper, long one and a wooden, stumpy children’s pin that has moved with me ever since leaving home. It’s the smaller pin I use to roll out the sweet brown dough.

Next to the old cutters, too rusty to use but too precious to let go, is a set of new ones, traditionally shaped. Flowers and hearts, pigs and stars. I cut out the shapes, peel them off the marble, and set them onto the papered tray. Into the oven they go.

The gingerbread cookies puff and brown while I keep a close watch, not wanting them to burn. The kitchen fills with the smells of my favourite time of year.

With my eyes closed, I imagine the trees outside covered in snow, a decorated spruce in the corner of the living room with a pile of presents underneath. Candles and christmas songs and the smell of salted ham that has been roasting in the oven all night. My mother and father and two brothers all under the same roof, around the same table.

My mother’s thick eyeglasses and round arms and straight black hair spilling down her back. Her thick eyeglasses and thin arms and hair that has turned white. The two images blur together. Healing, hurting, fading.

In between these two versions, lie years of subtle change. A mother who started forgetting things, calling me at odd hours.

Another memory blooms, nearly lost in the shadow of my own selfishness. I almost didn’t answer the phone that time.

One Christmas she called me for a recipe. I gave her the one she’d given me.

(5) Move to a wire rack to cool.

I jump when the timer beeps. Like a child, I have no patience to wait for the gingerbreads to cool. As soon as they come out of the oven, I ease one off the hot tray and bite. It may not be the gingerbread of my childhood, but for a good many years, it’s how my mother made them.

Soft and crumbly, the gingerbread burns my fingers and my mouth, and it doesn’t matter because it’s the best taste in the world.

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