When cooking and baking for a family member with a tree-nut allergy, the cook has three options. One, avoid recipes with nuts. Two, make recipes containing nuts but simply omit the nuts. And three, make recipes calling for nuts and substitute another ingredient. I use all three of these options at different times. First, if you have a family member with a nut allergy, you simply are going to avoid recipes where nuts are integral; in other words, I’m not going to be making anything with marzipan, leaving aside the fact that it’s vile. But for recipes where nuts are a flourish or add-on, the cook has to decide whether to simply leave out the nuts or to find a substitution. I do both depending on the recipe. The other day, I was making the really excellent Lemon CousCous Salad with Spinach recipe from The Earthbound Cookbook, which calls for 1/2 cup of walnuts, for a Hanukkah party with two other families. I substituted pomegranate seeds for the walnuts as a way of including the crunchy texture that the walnuts would have provided, while at the same time, adding sweetness and a pop of color. I have to say, that substitution was inspired and everyone loved the salad.
This year, I was very excited to finally be able to make my Swedish grandmother’s holiday gingersnaps for Zuzu, as this is her first December eating wheat. These gingersnaps, which are called Pepparkakor, are a family tradition. My mother bakes dozens and dozens of them for family and friends at this time of year, and some people get quite passionate about them. Although it is not traditional, my grandmother’s recipe calls for chopped slivered almonds in the cookie dough. Zuzu is still allergic to tree nuts, so that was not going to work. It would have been very easy to omit the almonds altogether — it certainly would not have affected the chemistry of the recipe any. And in fact, I may do that next time. But for my first batch of pepparkakor for this season, I thought I would try to find a replacement for the almonds because I like the idea of biting into a cookie and getting a taste of something else, like the chocolate chip in a chocolate chip cookie or the raisin in a oatmeal raisin cookie.
My first, and in fact only, idea for the almond-free pepparkakor was crystallized ginger. I thought it would add something unexpectedly sweet and chewy to the spicy, crisp gingersnap. In fact, it does just that. The only drawback is that the crystallized ginger is pretty much the same color as the cookie, which leaves them looking a bit drab, in my opinion. When you make the cookies with almonds, the white of the almond brightens the cookies up a bit and adds some visual interest. Which leads me to the conclusion that, if you are lucky enough not to have a nut allergy in your family, you should go ahead and make the cookies with the almonds. It really is better. That being said, these cookies are still spicy and delicious without nuts. The recipe also is egg-free, which makes it great for vegan baking or people with egg allergies.
Please note that this is a what my grandmother would have called an icebox cookie. You make the dough one day, refrigerate it and bake the cookies the next day. I recommend using newer, light-colored baking sheets. My mother spent several years burning her cookies until I suggested that she replace her cookie sheets and sure enough, the cookies stopped coming out too dark. Another baking tip: buy an oven thermometer. Seriously. Just do it. I had suspected that my oven ran cold for months until I went out and bought an oven thermometer after reading that tip in one of the Barefoot Contessa books. What a revelation! Not only was my oven running cold, but it took much longer to preheat than I had suspected. I now set my oven at 375 if I want it to get to 350, and I wait until the oven thermometer reads the temperature I want before I put anything in the oven to bake.
Pepparkakor (Swedish gingersnaps)
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup light molasses
3 1/3 cup flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 TB ground ginger
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup chopped slivered almonds (optional)
Cream butter and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer using the paddle attachment. Add molasses. Sift dry ingredients together in a bowl and gradually blend in to the butter-sugar mixture. Add chopped almonds.
Divide dough in half — it should be stiff. Roll each half into logs approximately 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap logs in waxed paper and refrigerate overnight.
Slice chilled dough into cookies approximately 1/4 inch thick, Bake 8-10 minutes at 350. Watch carefully for they will burn!
If you would like a gluten-free version of this recipe, please see the wonderful blog, Art of Gluten-Free Baking. The writer of that blog, Jeanne, has adapted the recipe for anyone who cannot tolerate gluten. Thanks, Jeanne!