Norwegian Christmas Cookies: Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

I never tire of seeing the variety of cakes and cookies in the Scandinavian tradition. With little more than butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, and often a scattering of spices, we can create an extensive assortment of treats. Sometimes elegant and elaborate, often simple, the recipes of my heritage have helped me to understand more about where my family came from, as well as those who came before me.

I’ve been writing about the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies, in recent weeks, and today I’m sharing my family recipe for sandbakkelse, or sandkaker, those iconic tart-shaped cookies that many Scandinavians and Scandinavian-Americans love so much.

Flavored with almond, sandbakkelse (I’ll use this name throughout my post, as that’s what my family knows them as, although they’re just as commonly called sandkaker) can be served plain as a cookie, or they can be filled. They’re delicate and crisp, and honestly they’re so good that they don’t require a filling.

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

Sandbakkelse are formed by carefully pressing dough into little tins until they’re as thin as can be while still holding together when baked. It can be a tedious process, I suspect, if done alone. But when made in the company of loved ones, perhaps while sipping a glass of wine and nibbling on something savory, it’s a wonderful way to connect, to spend time together and create memories.

It’s hardly about the cookies, is it? For me, at least, the cookies have been the excuse for gatherings, a reason to get together in the kitchen and bake with those who are dear. Mom, Grandma, and I began our regular baking sessions quite a number of years ago. We’d get together throughout the year, as often as once a week in the months leading up to Christmas. Grandma wanted to teach us how to make the treats that our family had loved throughout the years, including lefse, krumkaker, and these sandbakkelse.

We haven’t been able to bake together in recent years, Grandma isn’t well enough. But last week, we all gathered around the table again. Though my grandmother–the woman who taught me to make sandbakkelse–couldn’t actually make the cookies, it meant so much to have her there with us, supervising and giving her approval on the ones that looked just right.

I’ve shared this recipe before, in an old, old blog post and in other publications, but it wouldn’t be a proper syv slags kaker series if I didn’t share it again. In a 1992 survey in Aftenposten of people’s favorite Norwegian Christmas cookies, sandbakkelse/sandkaker made it into the top seven, along with smultringer and hjortetakk (these two tied for first place), krumkaker, sirupsnipper, berlinerkranser, goro, and fattigman. For many people–myself included–these are one of the most delicious treats of the Christmas season.

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

My Grandma’s Sandbakkelse / Sandkaker
While it’s very typical to make these cookies with ground almonds, some families–mine included–use almond flavoring instead. It’s difficult to mimic the flavor of real almonds, and extract can be overpowering if overdone. However, the flavoring is used sparingly in this recipe and is accented with vanilla extract. The result is delicate and fragrant, a real treat. Sandbakkel tins are available in Scandinavian supply stores and you should be able to find them easily online. My favorites are the ones handed down from generation to generation in my family, but any should work just fine. 

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt

Cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and almond extracts and stir until combined. Add flour and salt and mix until incorporated and the dough comes together. Gather the dough together, flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least 15 minutes.

Now comes the fun part: shaping the cookies. To start, pinch off a little dough and roll into a ball about 3/4 of an inch in diameter. Place into the center of the mold, using your thumbs to flatten the dough into the mold. Rotating the mold as you go, work the dough out from the center of the mold and up the sides. You’ll want the dough on the bottom to be as thin as it can be while still holding up when baked. As you work, take special care at the ridge where the bottom connects to the side. Dough tends to collect here, and it’s easy to let this part be too thick. Delicately continue to work the dough from this ring up the sides. Using your hand, scrape off the excess dough from the top of the mold, and set aside while you form the rest of the cookies.

When it’s time to bake, arrange them on a cookie sheet (if you’re using different shapes of tins, try to keep the like tins together in a batch so they cook evenly) and place in an oven preheated to 375 degrees. Watch closely as the cookies bake, as they quickly go from done to overdone. When they’re just starting to take on a slightly golden hue, remove from the oven and take the molds off the cookie sheet to cool.

Allow the cookies to cool for a while, and then carefully remove from the tins. This is done by inverting the molds onto your work surface and giving a little tap. The cookies should pop right out.

Yield: About 5 dozen cookies, depending on size of tins.

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

Norwegian Christmas Baking: Krumkaker

Krumkaker

I still remember what it was like, cupping my hand under my mouth to catch the crumbs. Biting into a krumkake at my grandparents’ house at Christmastime, I knew that the cookie would inevitably shatter. I just had to be ready to contain the pieces to a moderate mess.

The cone-shaped cookies, as golden as my locks of wavy hair, were a staple on both sides of my family. Somehow, perhaps due to years of practice, both of my grandmothers managed to make countless krumkaker, each one consistent in color and shape, nestled safely in round tins ready for visitors.

Krumkaker

Krumkaker

Biting into the delicate cookies was always a delight, one that was as expected as the garland of Norwegian flags strung around my grandparents’ tree and the riskrem (rice cream) these dear people served after a traditional Norwegian celebration meal of roast pork, spiced medisterkaker meatballs, the sour cabbage known as surkål, and a variety of vegetables simply prepared.

I came upon my late grandmother Agny’s krumaker recipe by accident a while back. It was nestled among recipe clippings and cards that my other grandma had given to me when she downsized to a retirement community. I’m thankful that Grandma Agny shared her recipe with Grandma Adeline. Written in her elegant handwriting on a scrap of blue paper, with a personal note saying “good luck,” it’s a treasure of mine—one of only three recipes of hers that I have. Had she not been generous enough to share it, I never would have gotten it.

A few days ago I heated my krumkaker iron—an electric model that makes two cookies at a time—and whipped up the batter, following Grandma Agny’s recipe for the most part, with a few tweaks. I added water, a little at a time, until the batter was just barely thicker than heavy cream. Pouring a teaspoonful into the center of each decorative circle, I closed the iron and hoped for the best.

The first couple of cookies, waffles, or pancakes are always sacrificial, as far as I’m concerned. It takes a few tries to get the temperature and the timing just right. Krumkaker pose an extra challenge because they are rolled around a cone while still hot—let them cool too much and they become too brittle to work with. But before I knew it, I had amassed two platefuls of beautiful krumkaker, much like the ones I had grown up eating.

Krumkaker

Krumkaker

Krumkaker are among the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of cookies, that are a must at Christmastime for Norwegians. And they’re certainly a favorite type. Back in 1992, Aftenposten—Norway’s largest daily paper—surveyed people and compiled a list of the most popular varieties.

Krumkaker were on the list, along with smultringer and hjortetakk (these two tied for first place), sandkaker, sirupsnipper, berlinerkranser, goro, and fattigman.

The syv slags kaker fall into three categories: baked, fried, or cooked on special irons or griddles. The krumkaker fall into the latter and are the oldest of these cookies, along with goro. They go back to at least the 1700s, writes Kathleen Stokker in Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land, and the blacksmiths who made them would integrate their initials into the pattern. In Norway, the design might differ depending on the area or the family. With ties to waffles, another treat made on an iron, the roots of these cookies go back at least a thousand years.

Krumkaker

Krumkaker

As a child, I incorrectly associated the word krumkake with “crumb cookie,” an appropriate name for my experience with them. I have since learned that krum actually means curvature and reflects the cookies’ signature cone shape. As with any number of traditional cookies, variations abound. Some people flavor them with vanilla, others with cardamom. Some shape them into cones, others into cigars or bowls. While I grew up eating krumkaker plain, as many people do, they’re also often served with fillings such as whipped cream and berries or perhaps multekrem (cloudberry cream) or trollkrem (whipped lingonberries with egg whites).

As I baked the season’s first batch of krumkaker with my kids the other day, I watched with anticipation as they tasted them. I, of course, knew the cookies would break apart. I wanted to catch their surprise and then reassure them quickly that it was okay—to let that know that this is among the pleasures of eating these very old, very beloved cookies.

KrumkakerKrumkaker
Today’s bakers have a choice: stovetop or electric irons. There are benefits to either type, with tradition and romance associated with the former and convenience, speed, and ease of cleanup with the latter. I personally use a dual-krumkaker electric iron that Grandma Adeline gave me years ago. Whichever model you choose, they’re available at many cookware and Scandinavian shops, as well as online. Don’t forget to pick up a couple of cone rollers, too. There are some beautiful, handcarved ones out there, which would make lovely Christmas gifts. As for technique, yours will vary a bit depending on your preferences and your iron. Please see a variety of tips following the recipe.

1 ¼ sticks of butter (10 tablespoons) (I use salted)
1 teaspoon freshly-ground cardamom seeds
3 eggs
¾ cup sugar
1 cup flour
Up to 1/2 cup cold water, or as needed to thin batter to the right consistency

In a small pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Remove from the heat, stir in the cardamom, and let cool a bit.

Beat eggs and sugar together until light and fluffy. Mix in the cooled butter, then stir in the flour until the batter is smooth. Mix in cold water, a little at a time as needed, to thin the batter almost to the consistency of thick, heavy cream—it should pour well but still coat the spoon.

Heat your krumkaker iron and lightly grease it. To bake the cookies, drop a teaspoonful of batter into the center of the iron. Bake until both sides are golden—this takes about a minute on my iron. To remove, slip a metal spatula—some people use the tip of a blunt knife—under the cookie and slide it off, then immediately roll onto a cone and set aside to cool.

Transfer to an airtight tin shortly after they’ve cooled, or serve immediately. They can also be frozen.

Tips:

While everyone’s technique, timing, and workflow will differ, I like to slide the cookies off the iron onto a piece of parchment paper and immediately put more batter on the iron; by this time my krumkaker have cooled just enough to be workable (though still hot), but not so much that they become brittle. By the time they’ve set enough to transfer off the cone rollers and retain their shape, the next batch are just about ready to remove and roll.

Be patient and give yourself plenty of grace. It takes a little while to get the hang of the timing and rolling. Some krumkaker won’t turn out just right, but that’s okay—part of the fun is sampling while you go, and the imperfect cookies provide a great excuse to do so.

Some years ago when I was first learning to make krumkaker, I asked my surviving grandmother, Adeline, how to roll the cookies onto the cones without burning my fingers. “You just have to do it,” she said. Not satisfied that making krumkaker should have to hurt, I posted a question on Facebook a year ago, asking readers for tips. While some people echoed my grandmother’s thoughts, that you just have to deal with it (“Asbestos hands that’s all,” wrote one person), readers posted a variety of tips that I want to share with you here:

Some people use rollers from Norway that have a clip attached, which allows you to slide the krumkaker off the iron and roll it in one step with minimal contact with the hot cookie. Others use gloves, even the cotton ones available at the drugstore—just make sure you’re using food-safe materials. Others use a dishcloth or parchment paper as a shield for the hands while rolling. Another great tip I learned from one reader is to keep a small glass of ice water nearby—that way you can cool your fingers immediately after rolling the krumkaker.

Krumkaker

Great-Grandma Josephine’s Norwegian Waffles (Vaffler)

Norwegian Waffles

As I sat next to her yesterday on the aubergine leather sofa, the water of Puget Sound placid outside the window behind her, I studied how the afternoon light fell across her profile and how the shadows formed where age has carved deep crevices in her skin. At 95 years old, Grandma Adeline’s face reveals almost a century of experience. And she is beautiful.

I longed to take a photo, to capture that moment and the light and the wrinkles and everything I was feeling that I couldn’t fully comprehend. Now, a day later, I think I understand. I wanted to grasp something that is fading, to preserve her as she is. I want her with us forever, to know that those wisps of white hair—as delicate as the spun glass “angel’s hair” that she would use to decorate her house at Christmastime—will always be there to tickle my wrist when I sit with my arm around her. Each time I give her a hug goodbye, I pause to absorb the way her hunched back and shoulders feel in my arms. Just in case this time might be the last.

Things look a lot different these days in my relationship with Grandma. We’ve moved from the kitchen counter to the sofa. The hands that once kneaded dense potatoes into lefse dough now almost quiver as she tickles my delighted baby. But now, a year after the strokes, her signature spark is finding its way out of its tangled brain and frail bones. She can still charm a baby, after all.

I brought the kids up to visit Grandma Adeline yesterday, just a quick visit between naps. Grandma doesn’t eat much these days, but I brought her Norwegian waffles. Her mother’s waffles.

Norwegian Waffles

Norwegian Waffles

We used to bake them together, the recipe being handed down from generation to generation. My memories of Grandma are filled with platters of these little heart-shaped waffles decorated with jam or geitost (brown goat cheese). They were one of her signature dishes, along with lefse, sandbakkels, potato dumplings, peanut bars, and any number of Norwegian Christmas cookies. In my memories, I can’t separate Grandma from the food that she served.

That was how she loved us. With butter and cream. Bowls of ruby raspberries, fresh from the garden, dusted with sugar and drenched in cream like white satin. Dense balls of potato dumplings served with ham and root vegetables and a bottle of light corn syrup for good measure. Strawberry malted milks blitzed together in the blender with ice cream.  And of course, waffles.

Norwegian Waffles

We don’t talk much anymore, don’t have much we can really say these days—not since the strokes. But I listen with my whole heart when she says, holding my hand, “I love you. I really, really love you.” Mom listens when Grandma tells her, “love you, love you, love you.” When Grandma says those words, we hear the ache of a heart that’s pleading with us to understand something deeper than she is now able to articulate. Though I am a writer, I now realize that words are sometimes just words, placeholders for something bigger, something deeper. We don’t have to talk much. We just have to be there, sitting beside her, reminiscing and remembering, and communicating with our own hearts too.

A photo would have broken the moment. But I captured one in my memory, and I’ve been replaying it today. I think about how our culture celebrates smooth skin and talks about wrinkles as something to be treated. I shake my head as I even write that, because I love every one of those creases in my grandmother’s face. They tell a story. They’ve deepened, I think, in the year since the strokes. But they’re real, she’s real. She’s here with us. I wouldn’t change a thing. She is beautiful.

Norwegian Waffles

Great-Grandma Josephine’s Norwegian Waffles with Cardamom (Vaffler)
I’ve written about these before. And I probably will again. The difference this time is the cardamom. If you like the spice, this is probably the ideal amount. If you don’t, just leave it out.

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup milk
2 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Beat eggs in a separate bowl, then add to the butter and beat until smooth. Mix in buttermilk and milk. Sift together flour, cardamom, baking powder, and baking soda and mix into the batter to combine.

Bake using a heart-shaped waffle maker and serve with geitost or lingonberry preserves.

 

Norwegian Coffee Treats: A Class at Nordic Heritage Museum

Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_143116

When we bake with love, that’s when beauty comes into our creations, I told a sold-out crowd of students at the Nordic Heritage Museum on a recent Saturday. They were there to learn how to make a variety of Norwegian coffee treats, each one of the recipes beautiful or intricate in its own right. My objective in teaching is for students to leave a class with the confidence and ability to recreate the dishes at home. Teaching the steps of a recipe is only part of the equation. One of the most important parts, I believe, is the heart.

But until that Saturday in January, I hadn’t been able to fully articulate what makes a recipe work. Butter, sugar, flour, eggs–I had been playing around with that mix of ingredients in the weeks leading up to the class, making heart-shaped waffles (vaffler), prince cake (fyrstekake), and sandbakkels. I had studied how a handful of simple ingredients could yield such dramatically different results with just a few variations of ingredients.

In class I kept encouraging the students to just give it a try. Just put the batter in the waffle iron and practice–you’ll soon get a feel for how much to spoon in and how long to cook the waffle. Just make sandbakkel after sandbakkel, getting used to the feeling of pressing the dough into the crevices of the little tins until it’s as thin as you think it can be. Then when it was time to talk about the fyrstekake–an almond cake with a shortbread crust baked in a tart pan–I assured everyone that it really is easy.

Don’t stress out, I told students time and time again as they oohed and ahhed over the cake. Baking isn’t fun if you do. When it comes to crafting the crisscross or lattice topping that gives the fyrstekake a hint of elegance, you can get frustrated when the soft dough warms up too much and sticks to your work surface as you cut it into strips. Or you can roll with it, doing the best you can, and putting your heart into what you’re doing. Nothing about Norwegian cooking is fussy, as far as I’m concerned. Even the beautiful fyrstekake allows for grace, the filling puffing up into the top layer and rounding out the rough edges.

When you bake with love, that impacts the way you approach the food. It works its way into each cup of flour measured, the care taken in beating sugar into eggs, the way the dough is manipulated into something of beauty. I’m as much of a perfectionist as the next person–it was my downfall as a child trying to strike a balance between booksmart and just being a kid–but when it comes to baking, I do it because I love it, because I love people. I do it because I love watching how a few simple ingredients can be transformed into something that feeds and nourishes others–their stomaches and their souls. Sure, care and precision are important. But love is essential.

Thanks to each of you who attended the class last month–it was a joy to teach you to make some of my favorite Norwegian treats. I enjoyed meeting each and every one of you, and I hope I inspired you to work some of these recipes into your own homes.

If you’re in the Seattle area and interested in learning more about Nordic baking, be sure to check out the rest of the Nordic Heritage Museum’s coffee treats series. I kicked it off last month with Norwegian coffee treats, and the museum continues with recipes from the other Nordic countries in the months to come.

Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_155350 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_154300 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_144811 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_143906 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_142931

 Photos courtesy of Jeremy Ehrlich / Nordic Heritage Museum

Norwegian Baking Class in Seattle, January 24

Norwegian Heart Waffles Horizontal

In a few hours the clock will strike midnight and Christmas Eve will be upon us. There are a few more gifts to wrap–plus my husband and I just decided a few hours ago to host Christmas dinner at our house–but all is calm, all is bright. Before setting into planning mode, I wanted to take a little time to share an announcement with you.

On January 24, I’m teaching another baking class at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, and this time the menu features heart-shaped waffles (vaffler), prince cake (fyrstekake), and sandbakkels. If you’re in the Seattle area, I hope you’ll consider joining me as we kick off the museum’s 5-part series on coffee treats from each of the Nordic countries!

Vaffler, fyrstekake, and sandbakkels are three of my all-time favorite Norwegian treats, and I have special connections to and memories of each. My grandmother taught me to make the sandbakkels and vaffler, and I grew up eating fyrstekake frequently. It will be a delicious day.

You can learn more about the series on the Nordic Heritage Museum’s website, and you can register for any or all of the classes online here. This might be just the last-minute Christmas gift for someone in the Seattle area who loves Nordic food!

Sandbakkels

Fyrstekake Slice on Plate with Crumbs

Lemon-Scented Riskrem (Rice Cream) with Raspberry Sauce

Riskrem

The blog has been sleeping, in a state of early winter hibernation these past few weeks. But on the other side of the screen things have been brewing, dreams being wrung out and filled back up, taking wing. A new year symbolizes a blank canvas, and while ultimately it is nothing but a new set of dated pages in the same life, it offers a chance to reflect on the past 12 months—their blessings, trials, successes, and struggles—and then to give oneself the freedom to boldly move forward without judgment into a new season, believing that the days to come are filled with potential.

I began my own process of reflection and planning sometime back in early or mid December—it feels like so long ago now—and have given my heart the time and space it’s needed to make sense of the thoughts and ideas about the writing life that have been bubbling to the surface and challenging me to take notice: ideas bold and brave and utterly surprising; a challenge to turn all my creative and professional pursuits on their heads and shake them out to see what happens; an urge to stop the inward battle between the typical shoulds and expectations of today’s professional writing life and the musts of my own.

I have rarely picked up the pen to write and have neglected the camera over the past few weeks. The timing has not been right. It’s as if the words and visual compositions inside of me have urged me to wait, to let the creativity rest and ponder. Christmas meals with family and New Year’s celebrations with friends have punctuated the stillness, along with deep heart searching to uncover my ultimate priorities and goals for this moment in life and check my past progresses against them. Rather than planning and documenting recipes and meals for the blog I have cooked solely for the purpose of feeding my loved ones well. I have savored time spent alongside them in the kitchen and at the dining room, the camera serving only to take a few snapshots for the sake of memories.

Riskrem

And now a week into the new year I have come out ready to begin again, pursuing the same ultimate goals but with clarity and purpose, without the periphery work that I now realize is serving as a distraction. The words feel rusty but ready. The eyes are refreshed and prepared to look through the camera lens with a new vision. The heart? Well, that heart is almost overflowing with excitement for what is to come, grateful for the freedom to shake everything up and rediscover and declare its motivation and focus.

Rather than make resolutions, I set goals, dream dreams. They’re flexible, open to modification along the way, but they provide a vision for the year to come and direction for the days that make up that time. They give me a framework to work with, a sense of how I should use my time. Far too often this past year I found myself frustrated with the industry expectation of social media success and bogged down by the ever-growing email inboxes filled with too much clutter amidst the messages of true meaning. This year I’m committing to using social media as a necessary tool but never letting it steal from time better spent elsewhere in my writing life. As for email? I’m taming it, slowly but surely, and hope that in good time I will have freed up that space to be used for enriching communication—and that includes my own responsiveness, as I can’t tell you how many emails I have left unanswered, despite my best efforts, throughout the years. As I’ve learned from Emily Ley and Lara Casey—a couple of entrepreneurs and moms with hearts for encouraging others to live rich, meaning-filled lives, and whose planners and goal-setting tools I love—a little structure, evaluation, and planning can go a long way in freeing up time and space so that we can focus on what matters most. For me, that’s my family, friends, faith, and writing dreams. I’m looking forward to what 2014 holds and am trying to savor each and every day as it unfolds.

Riskrem

Lemon-Scented Riskrem (Rice Cream) with Raspberry Sauce
While Norwegian riskrem is very much a Christmas tradition in my family and for many others, I’m going to be bold and say I see no reason why it shouldn’t be brought to the table on other occasions as well. As I have worked to recreate some of my late Grandma Agny’s recipes over the years, riskrem is the first that I succeeded at. Now that I’m comfortable with the recipe, I feel free to tweak it, adding various amounts of sugar and cream and even modifying the flavors. This one–with the zest of a lemon–is fresh and not too sweet, while maintaining the delicate nature that I love so much about the dessert. Enjoy!

1 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup Arborio rice
2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup sugar plus 3-4 tablespoons
Seeds from a vanilla bean
Zest from one lemon
1 1/4 cups cream
12-ounce bag frozen raspberries, defrosted

Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan and stir in the salt. Add rice and simmer, covered, about 20 minutes until the rice absorbs the water.

Add the milk, 1/4 cup sugar, vanilla seeds, and about half of the lemon zest and stir to combine. Bring almost, but not quite, to a boil, stirring occasionally, and cover, simmering until the rice has plumped with the milk and the pudding has thickened. Taste at some point and add more lemon zest if you wish–it should taste a little stronger here than you’d like in the finished dessert, since you’ll be folding in whipped cream at the end. Remove from the heat and let chill thoroughly.

When ready to serve, whip the cream with one to three tablespoons of the remaining sugar, depending on how sweet you like your riskrem–the pudding that’s a base is only moderately sweet. Starting with 3/4 of a cup, begin to fold the cream into the pudding, adjusting the amount until you have a consistency you like.

Make the sauce by pureeing the raspberries with a tablespoon of sugar. Pour raspberry sauce over each portion of riskrem and serve.

A Lutefisk Feast

Lutefisk Feast“My mom would have been proud of you,” Dad told me from the place where he rested, post-meal, in my kitchen.

As I sealed plastic wrap over bowls of medisterkaker, potatoes, red cabbage, and riskrem to refrigerate and Mom filled my dishwasher with the plates, utensils, and serving dishes from the night’s lutefisk feast, I reflected on what my dad was saying. Words so necessary–both comforting and bittersweet. My paternal grandmother never got to see this side of me–the grown-up Daytona who had settled so fully into life as an adult with a husband and son and who was now trying to keep our family’s Norwegian heritage alive through its food. She had lived to see me get happily married and work to establish a career as a journalist–a dream she had had for me many years before–but this, this part of life with a little family of my own and with a passion for Norwegian food, is where I think we would have connected best.

There was a day in the summer of 2009 that was going to change everything. Standing in the little white-and-beige bathroom in my first house–a mid-century brick home not far from where my grandparents once lived–I looked in the mirror and guided the black pearl studs into my ears. Almost ready to leave, all I had to do was make a stop to buy an almond- and raisin-studded kringle to bring to Grandma’s home for a lunchtime birthday celebration. I was going to propose something to Grandma that day, ask her if we could start talking–truly talking–and if she would tell me about her life and about Norway. I stepped out into the sun-drenched wood hallway to answer my phone and heard my mom’s still-shocked voice: “She’s gone.”

In an instant, everything changed. There would be no kringle, no birthday greetings, no feeling the softness of Grandma’s warm hug as she welcomed me into her home. Grief, mixed with regret, would come flooding in and filling the crevices that I had dreamed of filling with stories and more memories with my grandmother.

What I had wanted was time, time with someone dear to me yet generations apart, someone with whom I was ready to deepen a relationship. I’ve thought about that often throughout the years: Am I spending enough time–quality time–with my other, still-living grandma? With my loved ones? With my friends? Am I hearing the stories of farm life in North Dakota during the war, when my maternal grandparents were falling in love? Am I savoring the feeling of my Grandma Adeline’s shrinking shoulders when I hug her, realizing that each day with her is a gift?

What I’ve long wanted is time–more time with loved ones, more time to get things done. Reading through a  chapter in One Thousand Gifts before bed the other night, I discovered that maybe it’s not more time that I need and necessarily wantbut enough time–enough time to use it well and to the fullest. Though I hadn’t thought about that distinction in the way author Ann Voskamp put it, I’m realizing that that’s how I’ve been trying to live my life this year. Time and time again over the past few seasons I’ve thought to myself, this is when you’ll stop waiting, stop just dreaming and planning, and start doing. That might look as small as ordering a book about food photography for professional development or as meaningful as planning something like the lutefisk dinner my husband and I hosted for a few family members the other night.

The idea of a lutefisk dinner came up a couple of weeks ago and I remembered how much Grandma Adeline loves the preserved, gelatinous fish. While I grew up eating it with the family on occasion, I had never felt compelled to incorporate the dish into my own repertoire. But I realized that I’m blessed enough to have my 94-year-old grandma in my life right now, and while she’s here I want to treat her to a lutefisk dinner.

Soon the date was set. I had developed a menu and found a source for lutefisk (in Seattle, a city with a rich Scandinavian history, you don’t have to look far). As I sat next to Grandma at the candlelit dinner table on Wednesday night I watched as she chose an assortment of dishes, focusing mainly on filling her white plate with lutefisk and the potatoes. “That’s all I need,” she said. She’s a true, old-school Norwegian-American, and a representation of what I’ve read: that a traditional lutefisk feast needs nothing other than white food, simply lutefisk, potatoes, and perhaps lefse. Grandma, with her shrinking appetite, ate steadily and enthusiastically, agreeing to a second portion of lutefisk and leaving nothing on her plate. “I’m never coming to your house again for dinner–you make me feel miserable,” she joked as she commented on how her stomach ached with too much good food.

I’ve worried too often over the years about having enough time with Grandma–I suppose some of that fear comes from unexpectedly losing my other grandma before I was ready to say goodbye–but there’s a difference between an anxious, reactionary life and one that’s sensitive to the uncertainties of life and seeks to treat each day as a gift, living it to the fullest. The latter is what I’m striving for, and it’s with that in mind that I organized the lutefisk feast.

As the evening wound to a close I saw my family members so happy and content and I experienced what some of you mentioned in the Facebook discussion about lutefisk last week–that you love it for the warmth and love and memories that surround these meals. Prior to this week I assumed that it would be a tradition I’d carry on for Grandma as long as she’s alive and then probably cease it (I’ve never been one to seek out lutefisk), but now I understand why so many people hold fast to the tradition. Almost everyone at the table–including my husband and me–had seconds of the lutefisk, which was some of the best I’ve ever had with a pleasant, consistent texture and a delicate flavor accented by melted butter and cream sauce. Who knows, we may just keep up the tradition.

Lutefisk Feast

Our Lutefisk Feast
Though this post is about so much more than just lutefisk, I wouldn’t be able to sign off without including some details about our dinner. Though the food was entirely authentic in its inspiration, purists will note that our feast incorporated both Norwegian and Swedish traditions to honor my family’s Norwegian heritage and to remind my husband of the lutefisk (or lutfisk in Swedish) that my husband ate while visiting relatives in Sweden for Christmas when he was young. Looking back at it, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Lutefisk with Melted Butter and White Sauce: There’s a reason lutefisk is such a polarizing food amongst Scandinavians: With its preparation (it’s basically dried or cured cod that’s been soaked in lye and then rinsed for several days before baking) and the gelatinous texture, it sounds strange and can be an acquired taste, but those who love it are passionate about it. If prepared well, lutefisk can be enjoyable. My husband sprinkled ours with salt and pepper and baked it at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. We served it with melted butter–the Norwegian way–and Swedish-style with a white sauce. To make the white sauce, melt 3 tablespoons of salted butter in a saucepan over medium heat and then add 3 tablespoons flour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon and adding a little more flour if necessary to form a roux. As soon as the mixture thickens and forms a light roux, slowly begin to 1 1/2 cups of whole milk: Start with 1/4 cup and stir until the roux seizes up and all the ingredients are well-mixed and smooth. Keep adding the milk in small quantities, stirring until incorporated and smooth each time (as you get close to the end of the milk you can start adding it in more quickly). Stir in 1 cup of whipping cream and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt and continue to heat until the sauce thickens and reduces to the desired consistency. Keep in mind that it will continue to thicken as it cools, and you don’t want it so thick that you can’t pour it from a little pitcher or gravy boat. (As a guide, I used proportions from a little book called Scandinavian Christmas that Penfield Books sent me last year and created the sauce from that.) 

Mashed Potatoes with Butter and Parsley: My mom’s simply-boiled new Yukon Gold potatoes roughly mashed and strewn with melted butter and chopped parsley were a perfect accompaniment for the lutefisk.

Green Peas Sautéed with Onions: Peas were a distinct part of the lutefisk meals my husband remembers eating in Sweden. This quick version from Simply Recipes gives an ordinary bag of frozen peas a special touch by starting with sautéd onions and seasoning the dish with chicken broth, salt, and a pinch of sugar.

Medisterkaker and Lingonberry Preserves: One of the many things I love about Norwegians is their hospitality, and in a similar fashion I served plenty of medisterkaker–spiced, fatty pork meatballs–to round out the meal for those who weren’t interested in eating much lutefisk. Grandma Agny always used to serve these for holiday meals, and I grew up loving them. Lingonberry preserves pair well with medisterkaker, accenting the rich, savory morsels with their tart bite.

Two Red Cabbage Salads: Sweet-and-sour red cabbage, slowly simmered, is a common Scandinavian side dish during the holidays, and while I love the delicate and comforting quality of traditional rødkål, I also enjoy a combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures in meals. I decided to balance this particular feast by making a couple of cold, raw red cabbage salads: one creamy salad inspired by Ekte Norsk Jul Vol. 2 and another with a lingonberry-based dressing. I’ll be sharing both recipes on the blog soon.

Riskrem with Raspberry Sauce: I don’t remember there ever being a time when Grandma Agny didn’t serve riskrem–rice cream–with raspberry sauce for Christmas dessert. I always loved the combination of the delicate, barely-there flavor of sweetened rice and the bold, sweet-tart raspberry sauce. I added a twist to the classic this year by scenting the rice cream with lemon zest. (Recipe coming soon.)

A Cake from Gourmet, May 1956

Gourmet 1956 Cake

The ship carrying my dad and his parents from Norway to their new home in the United States docked in New York 57 years ago this month. From that moment on, the family of three would strive to settle into a new life in a new country, in a place where everything was foreign and at times incomprehensible. When May rolls around each year, I think about that anniversary and how life permanently changed course with that solitary decision. I think about the future that unfolded because they immigrated, and I wonder at their experience in those first moments and in the weeks and months that followed.

Arriving in a new country, my dad and his parents were eager to adjust and acclimate, to learn the language and make new friends. What would have caught their eyes as they perused book covers, newspapers, and magazines, as they familiarized themselves with a new language and practiced reading and speaking every chance they could?

With her love for hospitality, I can picture my grandma buying a cooking magazine in New York to read on the journey west to Seattle. Would she have opened the cover and started on the first page, mouthing the words that popped out on advertisements and studiously reading the articles and recipes? That’s what I would have done. All I can do is speculate, but with that in mind I dug into the online archives of Gourmet magazine to see if I could find anything from the month my family arrived in America.

Cake from Gourmet 1956

With just a little searching I found an article called “Classes in Classic Cuisine: Pâte à Biscuit and Pâte à Génoise,” by Louis Diat, originally published in May 1956. “When I was a young man,” he begins, “I liked to devote my free Sunday mornings to a busman’s holiday.” He goes on to describe the pleasure he would take in baking at home with his daughter after a strenuous week supervising kitchens at the RItz-Carlton. Diat speaks as though talking with a friend, and candidly admits to his feelings of self-doubt when it comes time to teach his readers in Gourmet how to make classic pastries, as it had been years since he had worked as a pastry chef. With a refreshing amount of transparency, he brings his readers into the kitchen with him as he studies up on the craft. And then he begins his lessons.

This is the type of article my grandmother would have appreciated. Honest and instructive, with practical takeaways designed to ensure success in the kitchen of a home cook. As I read the article for the first time, I scanned the recipes–pâte à biscuit au beurre, pâte a génoise, gateau aux matrons, gateau à l’orange. Steeped in the French tradition, the collection of cake recipes would equip anyone with a solid repertoire of cakes from which to experiment and build upon. One in particular caught my eye: pain de gênes, an almond cake.

Cake, May 1956

It doesn’t take much more than the word “almond” to convince me to give a recipe a try. Despite its distinctly French origins, the cake seemed like it would appeal to a woman who had left her heart back in Norway so I soon set out the ingredients and started baking.

Beating a half pound of almond flour in my stand mixer with fine sugar and eggs, I watched as the batter formed, slowly taking on a light and fluffy consistency. Adding more sugar and another egg, as well as butter, I continued on with the recipe, then mixed in the flour and salt and a little bit of Cointreau as a flavoring (the original recipe called for kirsch). The results the first time around were spectacular, with a cake tasting almost as rich and nutty as pure marzipan. Remembering reading something about temperatures in the body of the article, however, and noting that the cake was rather short, I revisited the text and noticed that the author stressed the importance of beating the batter in a bowl kept warm with a towel wrapped in hot water. The key here is in the temperature, as the cake contains no leveners such as baking powder. Trying it again, I baked the cake in a smaller pan and flavored it with aquavit. Delicious again. Still a little short. Perhaps that’s how it’s supposed to be.

In any case, I offered the cake to my parents on a recent visit. I was off to an event and they had come to babysit. Normally I pay them in wine, but this time there was cake. The evening came and went, and at the end we said our goodbyes. Later, though, came the news.

We’ve had that cake, they excitedly announced. You’ve had that cake, they said, trying to trigger my taste memory back to the days at my grandparents’ cardamom-scented Ballard home. Could it be that I was on to something when digging into the Gourmet archives? I don’t know. It seems like such a longshot. Pain de gênes is, after all, a traditional cake. A traditional French cake, however, not a Norwegian one. And therein lies the key. My grandmother clung to the Norwegian cooking traditions when she immigrated; I remember no French items in the meals she prepared while I was growing up. Somehow, from somewhere, this one slipped into her culinary repertoire.

Could this recipe, published 57 years ago, been the one she used? All I can do is speculate. However, since so few of my late grandmother’s recipes remain to this day, I like to think it’s possible.

Cake from Gourmet May 1956

If you’re interested, the article is worth a read. I’ll leave it to the master to teach you how to prepare the recipe, which is available on page four of the article.

Family Classics: Norwegian Waffles

Norwegian Vaffler

I believe that food is a connector. Both to the people we love and to our heritage. I began writing about Scandinavian food in 2009 a couple of months after Grandma Agny passed away; the grief had struck me in ways deeper than I could have expected, and I found myself seeking out elements of our shared Norwegian heritage as a way to feel closer to her memory. Food was the winner.

As I read Beatrice Ojakangas’ The Great Scandinavian Baking Book and Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit–the two titles that began my collection of Scandinavian cookbooks–I began to understand my grandmother and our Norwegian heritage in new, illuminating ways. Outside Oslo became a place where I could share what was on my mind and what I was discovering as I cooked and baked my way through Scandinavian recipes.

Earlier this week I had the privilege of speaking at a Daughters of Norway meeting in Seattle about how we can use food to share our heritage with people we care about–both in the present and as we think about ways to preserve it for the future. Whey they invited me to come and speak at their May meeting, I was both honored and nervous. I would be speaking to women who knew just as much–perhaps more–about the cuisine than I do, and I wanted to both inform and inspire them. What it came down to was speaking from the heart.

Daytona Strong Speaker

On that special evening, I shared how I became interested in Norwegian cuisine, and the important roles it has played in my life from childhood and into the present. I discussed the value of creating memories with loved ones, sharing stories and family history, and handing down recipes and the associations that go along with them. Speaking from my own experience, I shared ways to preserve family history and recipes through tools such as blogging and making a family cookbook.

Norwegian Heart Waffles HorizontalAs I bake regularly with Grandma Adeline and my mom, we create memories as we spend time together in the kitchen, sampling bites of whatever we’re making and often enjoying a meal. In these baking sessions, something often triggers memories for Grandma, and she’ll share stories from her youth in North Dakota, her experiences cooking for and managing restaurants, and bits of family history. These baking days bring forth parts of my family history and my heritage that I might otherwise never have learned.

As I did with the women of Daughters of Norway, I would like to encourage you to find ways to share such experiences with your relatives, whether they’re older generations or younger. Food has an amazing way of connecting people, and so much of a time and place can be wrapped up in one single recipe.

Norwegian Waffles Vertical

If you do decide to write a family cookbook, let me share with you one of the recommendations a source gave me when I interviewed her for an article on the topic for Costco Connection magazine: Don’t worry about including the most impressive recipes. The goal, rather, should be including the ones with meaning, the ones that have fond memories and stories written between the lines.

For me, one of those recipes is for Norwegian waffles. I suspect every Norwegian family has its own version of this traditional dish; some use sour cream, others use buttermilk. Some people eat them with lingonberry preserves, others with geitost (brown goat cheese) or some sort of nut spread. But they’re typically made with a waffle iron that creates little heart-shaped waffles that look pretty on a platter and speak to the love that invariably goes into making them. This particular recipe goes back generations, at least to my great-grandmother Josephine. Making them with Grandma Adeline a week and a half ago, we carried on a family tradition, imbuing generations of past memories with our own and connecting the past with the present. And that, my friends, is a very special gift.

Norwegian Heart Waffles VerticalGreat-Grandma Josephine’s Norwegian Waffles (Vaffler)

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup milk
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Beat eggs in a separate bowl, then add to the butter and beat until smooth. Mix in buttermilk and milk. Sift together flour, baking powder, and baking soda and mix into the batter to combine.

Baking using a heart-shaped waffle maker.

Family Classics: Grandma Adeline’s Pizzelles

Pizzelles on Spring PlateFor some unknown reason, actually probably for no reason at all, I haven’t written often enough here at Outside Oslo about a rather important part of my life. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to distill a recipe than an integral part of life down to a blog post, but I haven’t told you enough at all about my regular baking sessions with Grandma Adeline. It’s about time I change that.

Stacks of Pizzelles

For years, Grandma has been passing down culinary and baking traditions to my mom and me. We meet regularly throughout the year–weekly during Christmastime, a little less at other times of the year depending on the season–and we bake our way through family classics. We make lefser, potato dumplings, krumkaker, and sandbakkelser. We talk, we drink wine and eat appetizers, and we bake.

Ostensibly, the goals are to learn and to have an abundance of cookies and other baked goods on hand. But the motive for me is more in the experience. I have the privilege of baking with my 94-year-old grandmother, learning the recipes and techniques that she gleaned from a lifetime as a Norwegian-American who worked in restaurants both in North Dakota and in Seattle.

Cup of Coffee with Pizzelles

Stacks of Pizzelles

Last week we made a batch of pizzelles. Though far from the Norwegian and American recipes that comprise most of Grandma’s cooking repertoire, these anise-flavored Italian cookies have been part of our family’s cookie trays for decades. Grandma tells me that this particular recipe comes from the 1940s when she worked at a restaurant in North Dakota. Grandma’s old spiral notebook with browning pages includes her handwritten list of ingredients and instructions for this recipe. I’ve adapted it here only so much as to elaborate on the somewhat sparse instructions–written for someone who instinctively knew what to do–and add specific notes on quantities for the flavorings, which Grandma left somewhat vague in her original notes.

Pizzelles and CoffeeTins full of these cookies are sitting in my house right now, and they are a welcomed accompaniment to coffee. With a delicate anise flavor and a light, crisp crunch, I can’t imagine anyone saying no to these, even after the heartiest and most substantial of dinners. In my family, they were a staple at Christmastime, but I don’t see why they can’t be enjoyed year-round.

Scattered PizzellesGrandma Adeline’s Pizzelles

6 eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup margarine, at room temperature
3 1/2 cups flour*
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons pure anise extract**
2 1/4 teaspoons anise seed**

Beat eggs until fluffy. Add sugar gradually, beating until smooth. Add margarine and stir. Combine flour and baking powder, then add to the egg mixture and beat until fully incorporated. Add anise extract and anise seed and stir to mix. Dough will be sticky enough to drop by spoonful on the iron.

Heat pizzelle iron. When ready to bake, drop dough by teaspoonfuls onto the iron, close and cook until golden. Transfer immediately to your work surface and repeat with the remaining dough. Store in airtight containers.

*Grandma measures the flour, sifts it, then measures it again with the scoop method, filling the cup lightly and shaking it to ensure the proper amount. She reserves the remaining flour in case the dough needs a little more.

**These are the quantities we used, and they give a delicate, pleasant anise flavor. Next time we’re going to try adding a little more–perhaps 2 1/2 tablespoons extract and 3 teaspoons anise seed. If you like the taste of anise you might want to add a little more too, or just try it as it’s written, which is certainly delicious.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...