A Short Guide to Holiday Cookies from Around the World

Pepparkakor cookies/Photo © Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

Elisabet der Nederlanden is a passionate professional baker and a graduate of the California Culinary Academy. She has worked as a food stylist and professional recipe developer/tester for commercial, advertising, and packaging projects. In addition, she has managed recipe testing and food styling for more than thirty cookbooks. Here, she shares iconic cookies from around the world.

This cookie guide from Northern Europe to South America will get you inspired to try cookies from around the globe! Cookies connect people, and are a wonderful way to explore another culture, or remember your own. I get nostalgic around Christmastime when I think of my childhood cookies of Scandinavia, which leads me to my first cookie.

Pepparkakor: This thin and crispy cookie is made in the shape of a Christmas goat, a pig, a heart, and sometimes in the shape of people. “Pepparkaksgubbe” kicks off the official holiday season for me because, back home in Sweden, as soon as the month of December sets in, pepparkakor are baked in most homes. They are a little peppery – as their name implies – from all the spices, and many recipes, including mine, use actual black pepper.

Dutch Speculass: Traditionally, these cookies are shaped in wooden molds and intricately carved with holiday symbols, like Saint Nicholas. The cookie dough is made with brown sugar and flavored with ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, and cloves to create a warm spicy cookie. They are popular in several neighboring countries, though they may have some name and ingredient variation.

Hungarian Kiffles: This flaky and buttery cookie follows the Eastern European baking tradition of filling cookies and small pastries with fruit. I first had these many years ago when one of my closest friends, Heidi, and I got together to bake holiday cookies. A family friend of hers always made these for the holidays when she was growing up in Chicago, and Heidi’s mother sent the recipe for us to bake. One of our favorite fillings was the slightly tart apricot filling because it made the cookies not too sweet and irresistibly delicious.

Alfajores: In South America, there are different varieties of this cookie. I’m very fond of this shortbread-like sandwich cookie filled with dulce de leche and dusted with powdered sugar. The cookie is often made with some cornstarch, which makes the dough very soft, smooth, and easy to work with. Make your own dulce de leche filling by slowly cooking down condensed milk until it’s caramel brown and creamy spreadable. Some alfajores are fully dipped in chocolate and others have their edges rolled in toasted coconut. They look beautiful and are hard to resist.

Linzer cookies: This Austrian cookie is said to be derived from a traditional dessert – the Linzer torte. It’s a buttery sandwich cookie with ground nuts (often almonds) in the dough. When they are slightly toasted, it brings out the warm nutty flavor that pairs beautifully with the filling of raspberry jam. Dusted with a coat of powdered sugar, they look so pretty and perfect for the holiday.

Italian pignoli cookies: These pine nut studded cookies are rich in flavor and texture because of the high percentage of almond paste. With a slightly chewy interior beneath the golden pine nuts, these cookies make for a special treat. Before spending time in Italy, I had little knowledge of pine nuts being used in sweet baking; I only had it in savory dishes. But here, I was introduced to desserts such as tarts, cakes, and tortes all made with the golden ingredient of pine nuts.

Decorated sugar cookies: In America, the iced sugar cookie is a big favorite, and it’s easy to see why. The sugar cookie dough base can be enhanced with a variety of flavors, such as citrus zest, cinnamon, vanilla, and more. They are molded into a number of holiday shapes and decorated, which is the most fun part for many. The possibilities are endless with the different colors of icing and the decorating sprinkles available. For sturdy icing, otherwise known as royal icing, it is best to use pasteurized egg whites mixed with powdered sugar.

I wish you fun and delicious holiday baking!