My glorious Citizens – the steaming dumpster fire that is 2020 is nearly behind us and the Holiday season is in full swing as Hanukkah is more than ½ way over and Christmas is but a mere 9 days away!
I have been struggling to find a ‘bridge’ recipe as a way to unite the two holidays of the Judeo-Christian Winter season and then, a thunderbolt from above illuminated my synapses and my eyes were opened – why not post a recipe for the famed Danish ‘Jewish Cookies for Christmas’?! With perfection and harmony restored to my troubled psyche, I am now honored to share a delicious and simple recipe for Jødekager that anyone of ANY faith can enjoy this holiday season!
Most people who are not Scandinavian or students of history don’t know that Denmark once had a mighty empire and possesses a profound history – allow me to share some of it with you now before we dive into today’s recipe!
Denmark is one of the oldest states in Europe and the oldest kingdom in the world. The current monarch, Queen Margrethe II – who became regnant in April 1972 – can also point to the oldest lineage in Europe, dating back to early 900 AD and Viking King Gorm. The Queen is very popular among Danes and visitors alike. During major royal festivals thousands of people gather in the square in front of Amalienborg Castle to wave flags and cheer for the Queen and her family.
The Danish language belongs to the northern branch of the Germanic language group, and bears a strong resemblance to other Scandinavian tongues. Famed Danish writers include Hans Christian Andersen, whose fairy tales have been translated into more languages than any other book except the Bible; the theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, a forerunner of modern existentialism; and Karen Blixen, who penned “Out of Africa” and “Babette’s Feast”.
Denmark’s place in European history essentially began with the Viking Age, around 800 AD, when the Danes became notorious for plundering churches and monasteries. By 878 the Danes had conquered northern and eastern England, and by the 11th century King Canute (1014-35) ruled over a vast kingdom that included present-day Denmark, England, Norway, southern Sweden, and parts of Finland. Christianity was introduced to Denmark in 826 and became widespread during Canute’s reign. After his death, Canute’s empire disintegrated.
During the 13th century, Waldemar II (1202-41) conquered present-day Schleswig-Holstein, Pomerania, Mecklenburg, and Estonia and re-established the nation as a great power in Northern Europe. A civil war, however, later broke out between the nobles and the king as each vied for control of the country. Christopher II (1320-32) was forced to make major concessions to the nobles and clergy at the expense of royal power, which was also eroded by the influence of the German merchants of the Hanseatic Leauge.
Waldemar IV (1340-75) succeeded in restoring royal authority, however, and his daughter Margaret I (1387-1412) created the Kalmar Union, which included Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and part of Finland. In 1520 Sweden and Finland revolted, seceding in 1523, but the union continued until 1814.
In 1448 the House of Oldenburg was established on the throne in the person of Christian I. During the reign of Christian III (1534-59), the Reformation swept through the country, leaving burnt churches and civil warfare in its wake. Fighting ended in 1536 with the ousting of the hitherto powerful Catholic Church and the establishment of a national Lutheran Church headed by the monarch.
King Christian IV ruled for the first half of the 17th century, and squandered fabulous wealth by leading his subjects into the disastrous Thirty Years War with Sweden. In the process, Denmark lost both territory and money, and the king an eye. Even more disastrous were the losses to Sweden incurred some decades later by Christian’s successor, King Frederick III. The series of wars with Sweden resulted in territorial losses, but the Great Northern War (1700-21) brought some restoration of Danish power in the Baltic. The 18th century was otherwise a period of internal reform, which included the abolition of serfdom and land reforms.
In 1814, Denmark, which had sided with Napoleonic France after British attacks on Copenhagen in 1801 and 1807, was forced to cede Norway to Sweden and Helgoland to England.
In 1848, a Prussian-inspired revolt in Schleswig-Holstein ended without a victor, but in 1864, Schleswig-Holstein and Lauenburg were lost in a new war with Prussia. Despite these major territorial losses, Denmark prospered economically in the 19th century and underwent further reforms. In 1849, King Frederick VII (1848-63) authorized a new constitution instituting a representative form of government, as well as wide-ranging social and education reforms.
Denmark’s relations with its southern neighbors, particularly Prussia, have played a decisive role in constitutional developments. In 1866 a new Constitution was adopted for the dramatically reduced area of Denmark after its defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1864. The 1866 Constitution included strict limits on the almost universal male suffrage that had been recognized by the 1849 Constitution.
Now – as to the recipe-at-hand and its highly-unusual name – the following is noted on adamantkitchen.com:
In the 18th century, Jewish bakers in Denmark made baked goods with exotic spices, which Danes weren’t used to. The name jødekager was originally used as a broad category term for all the cakes made by these bakers. A commonly mentioned example of jew cakes is a spiced raisin bun.
Today, jødekager describes a single type of crisp cookie. This cookie was invented in 1856. In recipes from the latter half of the 19th century, the cakes were strewn with cardamom on top. Now they typically feature cinnamon, sugar, and almonds on top.
As with many other Danish Christmas cookies, jødekager became common in Danish homes with the advent of the cast iron stove and haven’t left since. The name has been a topic of debate between the politically correct for at least 15 years but to this day, Danish Jews don’t mind the name at all.
These cookies are not just enjoyed by Danes, but also former Danish colonies such as Iceland – there, the cookies are known as ‘Gyðingakökur’ and are basically the same as their Danish ancestors – even the name is the same, as Gyðingakökur in Icelandic is ‘Jewish Cookie’. Unlike Denmark which has 6,000 Jews who are multi-generational Danish citizens, all of the 250 Jews in Iceland today are recent immigrants who are served by the Chabad of Iceland for their religious needs.
I was intrigued how Jews suddenly became the baking saviors of Denmark – a bit of research turned up the answer on a Danish bakery website based out of Solvang, CA – aka Little Denmark!
Danish pastries were greatly influenced by none other than Germany’s cousins, the Austrians. The story goes that when the Confectioners, Bakers and Chocolate Makers Association of Denmark went on strike back in 1850, the Danes maintained a stiff Scandinavian lip and imported Viennese bakers to do the baking. And with the Viennese, came Austria’s rich culinary history, which, in turn, was borrowed from previous cultures.
Austria, of course, has an incredibly rich (#punintended) history of pastry and baking and many of these imported bakers were indeed Jewish and you suddenly have a strong circumstantial link back to the origins of Jødekager that appeared at almost exactly the same time!
Further research indicates that the original jødekager in the 19th century were quite different from today’s version – they included cardamom instead of cinnamon and a different flavor profile – one that IMHO is superior to today’s version. As such, I am calling back to the original recipe – in this case, from 1890 found in a book titled ‘Madam Mangor’s Kogebog’.
I have made a few allowances for modern tastes and safety in my version of jødekager – first, the original recipe calls for bitter almonds, which are extremely toxic if eaten in quantity. However, the almond flavor they add is incomparable, I just prefer to avoid cyanide whenever possible (for obvious reasons). Using bitter almond extract in the egg yolk wash eliminates any chance of toxicity while giving the same massive hit of almond flavor – I’ve increased the amount of standard sweet almonds to make up for the weight difference of not using the bitter kernels.
One variant of this recipe – also from the 19th century – uses a bit of rosewater, an exotic touch I heartily endorse and you can buy my preferred brand here. Continuing with the Indian influence in these cookies, I’ve also added a tiny bit of freshly-ground fennel to the cookies (as modern-day Danes are fond of the flavor) but this is a strictly optional touch. I prefer using the subtlety of Ceylon cinnamon in this (and in point of fact, ALL recipes) instead of the more pedestrian and overly-aggressive standard spice – you can buy it here.
Citizens, these Jødekager cookies are easy-to-make, delicious and with a most unusual pedigree – I hope you enjoy them, regardless of what holiday you are celebrating now or later in the month! You could serve Jødekager as a treat after a holiday meal of Danish open-faced sandwiches for a wonderful and festive Scandinavian lunch or dinner that has all the joy, authenticity and variety one might expect of a TFD-inspired dining event.
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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