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When you wish upon a cookie

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 28, 2002

On May 2, I ate a cookie.

Not just an ordinary cookie. It was a pepparkakor from the last batch of cookies my mother made before she died in 1990. After her death, I froze a small tin of those Swedish cookies, and every year on her birthday, May 2, I eat one of them with a toast to her wonderful life, which made the world a little better.

Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of helping my mother bake cookies. I don't know how much help I was, but I loved to be in the kitchen when she strapped on her apron, hauled out her mixing bowls and began creaming the butter and sugar and sifting the flour. The pace was particularly hectic at Christmas time, when the quantity and variety of cookies increased a hundredfold.

Pepparkakor, spritz and other Scandinavian cookies were her specialties.

My favorite was the pepparkakor, or the "wish" cookie. According to Swedish custom, you place the pepparkakor in the palm of your hand and make a wish. Using the index finger of your other hand, you tap the cookie in the middle. If the pepparkakor breaks into three pieces, your wish comes true. If it doesn't, you just have to savor the cookie in smaller pieces.

My brother and I, of course, didn't limit ourselves to eating our mother's cookies. We especially loved to go to buy cookies at a general store in Twin Lakes, Wis., where we had a vacation cottage. The store was lined with wooden barrels. The smaller ones were filled with pickles in brine, the larger ones with sugar, flour and nuts. A spool cabinet where you could buy different colored threads sat on the counter next to the cash register.

In the spring, when the weather was still chilly, men from the surrounding farms would gather around a pot-belly stove to chew the fat and warm their hands. The cookies sold at the store, made by the wife of the store owner, were filled with peanuts. She always gave out samples, so we couldn't resist buying more. Peanut cookies still make my mouth water.

Later, when I started making my own cookies, I specialized in chocolate chip, the favorite of my children. At Christmas time, however, I still make some of the old Swedish cookies, including the pepparkakor and the spritz. With the advantage of a freezer, I can begin in November and finish the more delicate ones closer to the holiday. I collect tins throughout the year and carefully pack my cookies in layers and separate the soft from the crisp.

These have become my holiday presents to family, friends and neighbors. Each year, I think I will give it up -- especially during the last hectic weeks of baking -- but then when the holiday rolls around, I roll up my sleeves and begin again. After all, what's the alternative? I hate malls.

Also, it's nice to think that my family, friends and neighbors appreciate and look forward to receiving my traditional gifts of homemade cookies. It is also heartening to think that we may be fondly remembered in a big way by something as small as a cookie by those who live after us.

My mother's pepparkakor, by the way, tasted as if she had just baked it. After all these years, it was still crisp. I can't tell you my wish, of course, but I have hopes that it will come true.

But, anyway, if it doesn't, I'll have a few more chances: There are three pepparkakors left.

LaVerne Hammond, who divides her time between Wisconsin and Florida, is an octogenarian at work on her memoirs. Write her in care of Seniority, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg FL 33731.

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