Today we’ve got something that is, quite simply, just delightful. These are Norwegian cookies called kakemenn or “cake men”, but they also go by other more tongue-twisting names: julemanna, gøttekælla or kakekæller. Of course in these more inclusive times, it’s all about cake people rather than just men. And here are mine!
They are made from a very simple dough of flour, sugar, milk and a little butter. It can be left plain, or if you’re feeling daring you can pop in a little dash of vanilla or sprinkle in some cardamom. The white dough is then rolled out thinly, cut, and then baked in a low oven so that the cookies stay pale.
The leavening agent here is – surprise surprise – that Nordic favourite, baker’s ammonia. This gives cookies great lift and crispness, and a stinking waft of ammonia when you open the oven door. It’s easy to get online, but if you don’t have any, use a 50:50 mixture of baking soda and baking powder. And when I say lift, I mean lift. I rolled out my dough to 4mm, but they puffed up to about three times that during baking. This also means that you have a nice smooth surface for subsequent decoration.
Now, the catch. The dough is very simple, and as a result I found the flavour and texture of these cookies to be…underwhelming. I found lots of Norwegian bakers raving about them being the classic flavour of Christmas, but to me they were only slightly sweet, rather bland and nothing to really write home about. The texture was also not that amazing – kind of soft, kind of crisp around the edges, but again nothing being knocked out of the park compared to other festive cookies.
At first, I thought I had a duff recipe. I hunted for other recipes, and had several attempts at making them. I adjusting the relative quantities of sugar, butter, milk and raising agent to see if I was missing something. When I upped the sugar and butter and reduced the milk, I got a nicer cookie texture (albeit still pretty bland), but the surface was like a crater which did not lend itself to being decorated. So I decided that the connection Norwegians feel to them is emotional and linked to childhood memories rather than being based on flavour, and these really are just made for decorative effect. Or so I thought…
This year is the first Christmas that my son, who is five, has been really excited about. He found my tray of unadorned kakemenn and asked if he could have one. I expected he would take one bite and leave it, but instead he declared they were the best cookies and his “favourite” (which just means something he likes, since he’d never had them before). This was unexpected. I had imagined tempting him with marzipan or things dipped in chocolate. But no. When you’re small, it seems you like something that is simple and sweet. In fact, it’s become one of the preferred snacks since school wrapped up for the holidays. I felt this was success snatched from the jaws of defeat, and also a lesson for me not to judge a popular recipe so harshly! So I decided to post this recipe after all.
Beyond being popular with kids, the other reason I’ve included kakemenn is what you do once they are baked. You decorate them! You get to feel like a child and enjoy the whimsy of drawing on cookies.
This decoration is done with edible food colouring, so you can either paint them, or get hold of some edible pens and start colouring in. I’ll let you image the scene of the two of us sat there on Saturday morning, filling the time that would normally be football practice with a cookie colouring contest. It was fun, and they look really jolly when piled up on a plate. I am also reliably informed that the “cookie people” can also be easily included as part of playtime when you’re building complex railways with your wooden train set. Truly a cookie for all occasions. Their robust nature also makes me think they would be good if you want edible cookies on your tree – these things will defiantly withstand a lot.
For the decoration, I tried a few different approaches. By far and away the easiest is to use pens with edible ink. By which I mean the specialist ones you buy in the baking section. Don’t use normal pens that are marked non-toxic and hope for the best! What also worked well was painting on the colour. Either use liquid food colours, or use gel colours diluted with neutral spirit like vodka. The alcohol evaporates quickly, so the texture of the cookies is not affected, and you get strong, vibrant colours.
If you want a more natural option, you can actually have quite a bit of fun by experimenting – beetroot juice makes for a good pinkish-red colour; crush a saffron strand and add some hot water for a dazzling golden colour; matcha powder with hot water will give you a green. Of course they will still be more muted than food colourings, and I cannot promise that beetroot juice stains are any easier to remove from worktops and clothing!
I was particularly pleased with my little kakemenn families. We’ve got the snazzy family where dad is ready to party in a tuxedo and the lady of the house is wearing her jolly Christmas jumper. The children are dressed immaculately but who knows for how long? And the second family has a bit of a Nordic twist. Mr Kakemenn has something that looks a bit like traditional Norwegian national costume, while Mrs Kakemenn is in a floral print dress from Finnish design house Marimekko. And if you’re reading this thinking that I have put too much thought into all this, then you’d be right. I am getting desprate stuck at home!
One very practical thing to keep in mind – if you’re cutting out different sizes of cookies, try to bake the same sized cookies together, so that they bake evenly. I found the bigger figures needed a couple of minutes more in the oven than the smaller ones. Also, I tried rolling out the dough between sheets of parchment, but it doesn’t work. This is a dough you need to roll out on flour
And now the final-final thing. Here are the cookies that my son decorated, which I think are cute. He said they were the best, and ate those ones first!
To make Kakemenn (makes around 25-30 depending on size)
For the dough
• 50g unsalted butter
• 240g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
• 100g white caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon baker’s ammonia
• 80ml milk
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• pinch of salt
• edible food colouring
1. Melt the butter in a saucepan over a gentle heat. Remove, and leave to cool.
2. Put the flour, sugar, baker’s ammonia and salt in a bowl. Mix well.
3. Pour the milk and vanilla into the butter. Stir, then pour into the flour mixture. Combine until you have a soft dough – it should pull away from the sides, but might be slightly sticky. If necessary add a bit more flour. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill – at least one hour, or overnight.
4. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.
5. Lightly sprinkle the worktop with flour. Roll out the dough to 3-4mm thickness. The easiest way to do this is to find something of the right thickness (e.g. some magazines) and lay them either side of the dough to act as rolling guides. Cut out shapes, and transfer to the baking sheet. Gather the scraps and keep re-rolling and cutting until it is all used up.
6. Bake the cookies for 6-10 minutes. They should be puffed up and pale, and only just starting to colour at the very edges. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
7. Decorate the cookies, and store in an airtight container.