Silvia’s Gingersnaps

Powdery flakes complete the whiteness of a blanketed landscape, festooning the firs and stringing garlands of sky on the paper birches. Hoary rooftops puff rounds of smoke, as icicles drip a shimmer of muted sunlight, in the swiftly passing days that belong to the darkest month of the year. It’s the Christmas season in Vermont.

With Silvia’s recipe in hand, I walk down the street to my friend’s house. Her oven is hot and ready. We are making Silvia’s gingersnap recipe to share with neighbors on Christmas eve when the village green will be lit with fireworks.

All month, I’ve been researching Silvia’s life, having received a packet of papers from a German archive documenting her life after World War II in displaced persons camps, as well as a newspaper article about her father, Juhan that had been returned to me from a translator on the West coast. Making Silvia’s cookie recipe, is a welcome respite from the research, grim and horrible, which even sleep does not forget.

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Morning sunlight streams through my neighbor’s windows, as I prop a photo of Silvia on the kitchen table. My friend is an expert baker, making dozens of beautiful Christmas cookies each year from an assortment of traditional recipes. As we measure and blend, the complexity of fragrance fills the air, and stories of Silvia circle our work.

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In Silvia’s kitchen, two pounds of butter are blended and nine cups of flour are measured. The assault of molasses grabs at the back of her nose and throat, competing with the intensity of ginger and cloves. Black pepper takes a stab at the air, but is softened by the sweet forest of cardamom and the stark freshness of lemon. Silvia licks a finger, as she drops batter on her baking sheets. The oven is hot, warming the kitchen of a cold house, as an evocative scent wafts from her wide bowl.

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”  – excerpt from Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust

Memories of piparkoogid and Jõulud materialize, as sheet after sheet of gingersnaps come out of the oven and cool on the countertop. The kitchen becomes crowded with faces unforgotten. The wisp of a carol is hummed, as a cherished gift is re-exchanged, perhaps a little clay whistle named pardi-pardi (duck-duck), or a richly illustrated book. The great length of a table is laden with an abundant feast, and the fortunes told on Christmas eve, vaguely recalled. Untrue all, because who could have imagined the fates.

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Tonight, Silvia walks through the brisk whiteness of Vermont’s wintery landscape to visit with her neighbors. The children unwrap gifts and Silvia shares her peppery gingersnaps, far from Estonia. With fond memories, Silvia celebrates the holiday with the new faces she has come to hold dear, not knowing that a quarter of a century later, other women will make her gingersnap recipe, and other women will share her cookies with neighbors, in remembrance of her at Christmas. Together we keep one small tradition from Silvia alive at the holidays. Häid jõule!

Notes:

*The final photograph is of Silvia, with Delia Robinson and her child at a Christmas party ca. 1989

To learn more about Christmas traditions in Estonia

Silvia’s recipe is a gingersnap recipe for drop cookies, but similiar in scent and flavor to Estonian piparkoogid, which are rolled and iced much like sugar cookies.

We suggest you halve the recipe, as we did. Blend butter and sugars. Add dry ingredients. Bake at 350 degrees.

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