Wednesday, December 21, 2011

December in the Auvergne - piparkūkas!

The Latvian Christmas cookie is without a doubt the piparkūka. The direct translation would be “peppercake” and they can be compared to gingerbread, but I’ve always thought that they taste more of the molasses and other spices and have a much different texture. The recipe I’ve used the past ten years that my mother gave me calls for cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, coriander as well as cream of tartar, baking powder and baking soda. Of biggest concern to me (as I had checked and double checked the spice rack to guarantee that I could find all the necessary ingredients I still needed) were the required dark molasses, dark brown sugar and lard. For those familiar with the French brown sugar, it is very light and very granular, and this would take away from the dark brown color of the finished product. The molasses is another tricky ingredient, some cooks swear by a certain brand of unsulphered variety I have only seen in the States, and although my mother promised me Crisco would suffice in place of the lard, I have yet to find anything of the sort in the stores here.

As luck would have it, I stumbled upon Lyle’s Black Treacle in the Irish store nearby, “made from cane molasses… add(ing) a distinctive rich, dark flavour to traditional recipes like... gingerbreads.” I’m not sure if it is unsulphered, but being the closest thing to dark molasses I would find, I decided to take the risk. Then a fellow mom arrived bearing the dark brown sugar and lard I had been searching the past three weeks for; she says she got them at her local supermarket! The lard I understand why I have not seen, I had been searching near the butter and cream, instead it is located in the charcuterie aisle. However, the dark brown sugar I still have not found – I don’t believe any of the stores I frequent carry the brand she brought. But thanks Sue; you saved my yearly cookie ritual!

 A labor of love, the dough takes me more than an hour to make, and then once it is allowed to rest for a few days the real work begins. The dough is not the easiest to work with, it takes a lot of muscle to roll it out as thin as I prefer it and this year I found my ginormous pregnant stomach was interfering with my leverage. But as the ratio of thinness is directly proportional to crispness, taste and cook’s reputation, I labored on. Another shortcut can be taken with size of the cookies, I have cookie cutters in a variety of shapes and sizes, but again, I prefer the bite-sized morsels which just happen to take three times as long to make. Once they are on the pan, they are glazed with egg yolk and then decorated. Traditional decorations include chopped or sliced almonds and rough sugar, and I added in a little chocolate since I had some on hand.

The final and most dangerous portion of the process is the oven. Being so thin they burn to a crisp in an instant, and no two pans take the same amount of time to cook. Being on unfamiliar territory with an oven that had yet to bake its first batch of piparkūkas added to the challenge. The end result was that they took anywhere between 4 to 15 minutes to cook, and often I removed the cookies from the outer edges that cooked faster before returning the rest of the pan to the oven. But I can proudly say, this year’s batch is finished and you are more than welcome to stop by and try one!

Ziemassvētku gaidās – Vilis Plūdonis

„Māsiņ, vai tu zini ko?
Nestāsti tik citiem to!
Eglīti jau rūķītis
Mums uz svētkiem atnesis.
Nejauši to ieraudzīju
Vakar es, kad laukā biju:
Malkas šķūnītis bij vaļā,
Skatos – eglīte stāv zaļa.
Nu vairs, māsiņ, šaubu nav:
Ziemassvētki klātu jau.”

„Nu tu tiešām redzēji?”

„Vai tad tu vēl netici...
Tad vēl citas jaunas ziņas:
Māte ceps ar’ zaķaustiņas!
Piparraušu necepšot:
Tie tik zobus maitājot.”

„Man gan piparrauši garšo...”
„Jā, un cik tie jauki smaršo!...”

„Brālīt! iesim palūgties
Māmiņai, lai cep ar’ tos!”

And here is a quick translation that in no way does this famous Latvian poet justice...

Waiting for Christmas – Vilis Plūdonis

“Sister, did you know?
Only don’t tell anyone else!
A Christmas elf has already brought
Our Christmas tree.
I accidentally saw it
Yesterday, when I was outside:
The woodshed door was open,
And I saw the green tree.
Now there is no doubt:
Christmas is very near.”

“You really saw it?”

“You still don’t believe…
Then more good news:
Mother is cooking zaķaustiņas!
She said she will not cook piparkūkas
Because they are bad for our teeth.”

“But I love piparkūkas…”
“Yes, and they smell so nice!...”

“Brother, let’s go ask
Mother to bake some of those as well!”

With all the cooking we still found time to take a ride on the Christmas train that is taking tours around downtown Clermont. Although not real trains, the little tourist trams are decorated with lovely Christmas lights, run every half an hour, have eight stops including Place de Jaude and the Christmas marché and run between 2pm and 7pm (8pm on Saturdays) every day from now until Christmas.


  1. I LOVE that you wrote about gingerbread. I mean, I'm addicted. I don't see why more people aren't obsessed like I am...I blame it on the belly though. I really do. :) And my mom used to make ours with treacle, but I haven't been able to find it in YEARS so we just started using molasses. Looks yummy! xoxo Erin

  2. Vai Jūs arī gatavojiet piparkūku 'vulkānus' vai 'kalniņus?' Zinu, ka ir vecs senlatviešu ticējums, ka tā ola tur saglabājās un netiek izcepta - bet tā nav! ar sveicienu - veca senlatviete

  3. Esmu arī dzirdējis stāstam, cik gardi ir tādi kalni/pakalniņi, no piparkūkmīklas darināti. Kaut man kāds tādu gatavotu! tad tik būtu Ziemassvētki!

  4. Mēs gatavojam piparkūku kalniņus te Rezgalē! - Olis, Bucis un Līziņa, Rezgalē --**priecīgus ziemassvētkus!**

  5. I keep saying that I want to ride the Christmas train but we've never gotten around to it!

  6. Mmmm. man ari garso piparkuku 'kalnini' un 'vulkaani'. - vecs senlatvietis


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