I can’t help but feel like a detective or a historian when I go digging into traditional Scandinavian recipes, trying to find clues to help me understand my heritage and family history better. The way my story goes, my grandma–the one who left Norway 60 years ago this spring–died one summer day in 2009, just as I was going to ask her to start telling me her stories. I had had a lifetime to ask her questions–about life in Norway, what it was like to be a young woman during the occupation and resistance, about so many things. And just as I was getting ready to leave my house to visit her and ask if we could start talking, I got the phone call. I lost it all in an instant.
As I grieved, I poured myself into all things Norwegian, trying to track down a floral Norwegian perfume I had smelled as a preteen, scanning bookstore shelves for Scandinavian cookbooks, drinking aquavit at a storied old bar (longtime Seattleites may remember Ballard’s Copper Gate), and blinking back the tears while walking through an exhibit about Scandinavian immigration at the Nordic Heritage Museum. I knew I couldn’t bring her back, but I still couldn’t help trying to draw her close.
As time went on and the grief no longer seared my heart, I kept tracking down all the Scandinavian cookbooks that I could. Nordic home cooking hadn’t caught on in a mainstream sense yet, so most of what I could find were old, yellowing books at the library. But I grew my collection, book by book, and began the process of making my kitchen a Scandinavian one, like that of the dear woman I had lost. That is how I came to love Scandinavian food, and Norwegian food most of all.
I vowed to make sure I wouldn’t lose out on a chance to hear my other grandmother’s stories, and so Grandma Adeline, Mom, and I began to bake with growing frequency, sometimes even weekly during the months leading up to Christmas each year. While I lost almost all of Grandma Agny’s recipes along with her stories, quite the opposite is true with Grandma Adeline’s, and I’m so thankful that I managed to learn some of the family classics–including lefse, vaffler, krumkaker, sandbakkels, and many others–before the strokes tangled her brain one night two years ago this month.
I’ve been writing a lot about my story and the stories of those people who have shaped my life throughout my 30-some years, but I haven’t shared much of that here, just in snippets and vignettes. One day I’ll hopefully share it in a bigger sense, the way that writers like to do. It is my dream to write books–ones infused with my own stories of Scandinavian hospitality, heritage, and food–to add to the shelves of books that have inspired me throughout the years.
Each time I buy a new Scandinavian cookbook (these days they’re being released with impressive speed), try a new recipe, or attempt to recreate one of the old dishes that Grandma Agny used to make, I learn a little more about where both sides of my family came from. When I walked out of the Oslo airport and breathed in the Norwegian air for the first time back in 2008, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of home, that though I had never actually been to Norway until then, the country was part of me, that in a way it was mine.
I’m never going to get my grandmother back. She is but a memory. But as my boss told me in those early days of grief, my grandmother is still here in a way, in my heart in my genes, and in a legacy of dreams that informs my life to this very day.
About today’s recipe:
Mom told me a while back about a dessert that Grandma Agny made long ago. It involved stewed prunes and cream, I remembered her saying. I went down my typical line of research, digging through as many Scandinavian resources as I could. One day I thought I had it! Sviskegrøt, Norwegian prune porridge with vanilla cream! I later learned from my mom that I had the elements reversed: The dessert my mom was talking about was riskrem, Norwegian rice cream, which my grandmother had topped with stewed plums. I still need to try serving riskrem with plums in this manner (I’ve always used vibrant raspberry sauce, since that was Grandma’s typical accompaniment for riskrem), but in the meantime I am thankful to have discovered this wonderfully old-school Norwegian dessert.
After much research that pointed me to prune porridge in many variations, some with nuts, some accented with citrus, I decided to try it in its simplest form, prunes simmered with sweetened water and thickened with a bit of potato starch, adapting a recipe by the beloved Norwegian food writer and chef Ingrid Espelid Hovig. I couldn’t help adding a bit of cinnamon, as that’s the way I like my prunes, but aside from that, what you’ll find here is very traditional. The vanilla sauce is adapted from the Everyday Vanilla Sauce (vaniljesaus) in Astrid Karlsen Scott’s Authentic Norwegian Cooking.
Apparently prune porridge is becoming a thing of the past, “a dying dish in Norwegian cuisine,” writes Sunny Gandara of the blog Arctic Grub. But it’s deliciously retro, I think, and the porridge alone–even without the vanilla sauce–is worth keeping in your weekday repertoire, as it would be equally good for breakfast, perhaps spooned over yogurt (feel free to reduce the sugar if that’s how you plan on serving it).
Old-School Norwegian Prune Porridge with Vanilla Sauce (Sviskegrøt med Vaniljesaus)
Ingrid Espelid Hovig—from whom my recipe has its roots—recommends sprinkling sugar over the porridge to prevent it from forming a skin. I haven’t found that mine needs it, but you may want to keep that tip in mind.
6 ounces pitted prunes (look for unsweetened and unsulphured)
3 cups water
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1.5 Tablespoons potato starch*
½ cup cold water
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon potato starch flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt (optional)
1 teaspoon Scandinavian vanilla sugar (vaniljesukker)** or vanilla extract
Start by making the vanilla sauce, as it will require time to chill. In a small saucepan, whisk together the milk, egg, potato starch flour, sugar, and salt over medium heat, almost to the point of boiling (you don’t want to actually let it boil, though). Stir in vanilla sugar or extract. Remove from heat and allow to cool, stirring occasionally. Chill for several hours.
To make the porridge, in a large pot, bring prunes, water, sugar, and cinnamon to a boil. Reduce heat and cook at a brisk simmer until the prunes are tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
In a small bowl, whisk potato starch with the cold water. Pour it into the prunes in a steady stream while stirring. Return to heat and boil for a minute, then set aside to cool slightly. Serve in bowls with the chilled vanilla sauce.
* If you like your porridge a little thicker, go ahead and use 2.5 tablespoons potato starch. Keep it mind that the porridge continues to thicken as it cools.
** Scandinavian vanilla sugar (vaniljesukker) is commonly used instead of vanilla extract in classic baking. Different from the vanilla sugar you might make by storing a spent vanilla bean in a jar of granulated sugar, it has the texture of powdered sugar and is flavored with synthetic vanillin. Stores like Seattle’s Scandinavian Specialties stock it, but if you’d like to try making your own version with real vanilla, my friend Christy recently shared a recipe in the Norwegian American Weekly. Scroll past the recipe for butter almond cake (which is delicious, by the way) to find instructions for making your own hjemmelaget vaniljesukker (homemade vanilla sugar).