Norwegian Christmas Cookies: Fattigmann

Fattigmann

Gathering the dough into a ball, I inhaled the scent of the cardamom and butter, warm in my hands. Like all those memories from my childhood, the feelings stirring in my heart filled me with a sense of love, a security in belonging.

My family’s roots burrow deep into Norwegian and Norwegian-American history. With a dad who immigrated as a preteen and a mother who’s also Norwegian, by way of North Dakota, the culture and heritage of my family’s past was as familiar to me as the sandwiches, salads, pizza and burgers that were part of my American childhood. Though I could identify many of the flavors and treats as Norwegian–probably because they came directly from my grandmothers–I knew them well. I loved the flavors, too, even though it would take many years to realize just how special they were. Today, I keep an empty spice jar in my office. Recently containing cardamom, it was too precious to discard it when I replaced the spent stash. A whiff of nostalgia awaits, with the unscrewing of the cap.

I write about Norwegian food (and if you’re new around here, that’s where I’ve directed my energy as a former news journalist turned food writer) because I believe with all my heart that one of the most profound ways we can show love and extend hospitality and acceptance with those around us is at the table. I never could have realized as a child at any of those family dinners that I was receiving a gift–one of unconditional love and of selfless hospitality, of my Norwegian-American heritage, and of my family itself. But I felt it in my heart. When I was mature–or perhaps wise–enough to realize it, I discovered a truth that I will always cherish.

Fattigmann

Fattigmann

So today I bring you a recipe for fattigmann, a cardamom-scented Norwegian cookie that somehow brings all those memories of childhood back with just its aroma. To many, fattigmann–which can be translated as “poor men”–are an essential part of Christmas, a requisite member of the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies. These represent an important element of the baking tradition in that they’re fried. Norwegian Christmas cookies fall into three camps: baked (like Berlinerkranser and pepperkaker), cooked on irons (like krumkaker and goro) and fried (like fattigmann, smultringer, and rosettes).

Though they’re known as fattigmann amongst Norwegians, people in other Nordic countries know cookie, or crullers, of this type as klenäter, klejner, kleina, and kleynur. I could go on about the history and cultural context–and I will someday–but for now, I’m hoping that the personal and familial significance resonates with and perhaps inspires you. Because it’s never just about the food. We need to eat for sustenance, sure. But I think that those of us with Scandinavian-American backgrounds (including those who appreciate the culture for other reasons) value the food of our heritage because it reminds us where our families have come from. It prompts memories of special times and people in our lives. No matter what those recipes or dishes are for you, I’m hoping that I’ll inspire you to make some of those and to reflect on the people you cherish.

Fattigmann

Fattigmann
Fattigmann
As with many of the Norwegian Christmas cookies, you’ll want to plan ahead for these: Mix up the dough on one day, fry the cookies the next. Ideally you’ll use a fattigman roller (available at Scandinavian supply stores and online), although you can use a pastry wheel as well. As for the Cognac, if you have it, then go ahead and use it. Bourbon will also work in a pinch.

5 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup whipping cream
1-2 Tb Cognac or brandy
1 3/4 cups flour
1/2-1 teaspoon freshly-ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup melted butter
Canola oil, for frying
Powdered sugar, for dusting

In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar thoroughly. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until stiff peaks form. Gently fold in cream and brandy. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, cardamom, salt and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients a bit at a time, alternating with the melted butter, adding a little more flour if needed to make a dough that will roll well, but work the dough just as little as needed. Refrigerate overnight.

When you’re ready to make the fattigmann, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8 inch thick. Cut using a fattigmann roller and separate the diamonds. Work one of the ends through the slit, repeating with each one. I find that it’s helpful to hold one end up and give it a slight shake to let gravity gently elongate the dough before placing it in the hot oil.

Heat about two inches of oil to 350-375 degrees in a heavy pan. Working in batches so they fit in a single layer, fry the fattigmann, flipping them with tongs when one side is golden, and removing as soon as the other side colors. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined surface to drain and cool slightly, then dust with powdered sugar. These are best the day they’re made.

Fattigmann

Norwegian Rømmegrøt (Sour Cream Porridge)

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My bookshelves sag with stories—literature in the form of recipes, memories formed between batter-spattered handwritten lines. I’ve said for a long time that I care so much about Scandinavian food because of the people. My grandparents loved me with medisterkaker med surkål and fresh berries dressed in the fine silk of cream. They shared the family’s heritage with bowls full of riskrem drizzled with vibrant raspberry sauces and paper-thin potato lefse spread with butter and a dusting of sugar.

I started exploring Norwegian recipes as a way to grieve after my grandmother Agny died. Throughout the years, as I baked my way through Scandinavian cookbooks and coordinated frequent baking sessions with my mom and Grandma Adeline, I understood more deeply that food is so much more than sustenance and pleasure. It is about love. Reading about rømmegrøt recently, I realized that this old-fashioned Norwegian sour cream porridge is the perfect food to illustrate this idea.

Rømmegrøt Diptych

Rømmegrøt is the type of food that in old times you might bring to a new mother, to nourish her body after she gave birth. Ingrid Espelid Hovig writes in The Best of Norwegian Traditional Cuisine that you also might serve it to celebrate the harvest or to feed your neighbors who helped out at busy times. You might eat it at weddings and funerals, those events that would bring you and your community together to either celebrate or to grieve. The composition itself, a thick, rich cream porridge, would be the sort to nourish the body and nurture the soul—especially when served with its traditional accompaniments of cured meats and salted fish. These days the thought of something so rich often makes people worry about calories and fat, an enemy of the waistline, but I think that’s missing the point. This is celebration food, food with history, food that would bring people together and provide a way to show love.

Rømmegrøt (rømme translates to sour cream, and grøt to porridge) is pretty simple, really—it’s mostly sour cream, milk, and flour. But I found myself overwhelmed and honestly a bit intimidated as I set out to make it. Being so tied to tradition–it’s said to be one of Norway’s oldest dishes–I wanted to represent it well. But I quickly discovered that true rømmegrøt is difficult to make in the United States as our sour cream is much different than that in Norway, containing much less fat than needed, and also containing stabilizers that prevent the fat from leaching out, which is an important part of the dishAs I made an initial batch, experimenting with conventional sour cream and pouring over additional melted butter at the end to serve, and then trying it again with homemade sour cream, I began to wonder if this might be something best left to hands-on instruction, a recipe passed down by one generation teaching the next.

Though my relatives made rømmegrøt back in the day and my mom remembers eating her grandmothers’ as a little girl in North Dakota, the porridge had disappeared from the family’s repertoire by the time I was born. It wasn’t passed down by my dad or paternal grandparents–who were all born in Norway–either. I was an adult the first time I tasted it, so it should make sense, then, that I was a bit intimidated to try making it. But I did. Food has been my way of learning about my heritage, about the people who came before me and the place where we have our roots. Rømmegrøt is a big part of that. The taste of the porridge, warm from the pot, is of nurturing cream, thick with comfort. I can almost imagine the nursing mothers feeling its nourishment spread through their bodies, almost hear the guests who’ve come to celebrate a wedding. Yes, my bookshelves sag with stories. Even if rømmegrøt has not been part of my own story until now, it has a history I’m so glad to have learned.

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Norwegian Rømmegrøt (Sour Cream Porridge)
The recipe I’m sharing with you today comes from the Sons of Norway online recipe collection. After reading many versions, I figured that if I’m going to traditional, that’s as good of a source as any. I’m sticking to the recipe pretty closely here, sharing what I experienced in the process. Considering how rich it is, this recipe can serve a lot of people. Cookbook author Signe Johansen writes in Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking: Scandilicious that rømmegrøt freezes well; if you have extra and wish to do this, just reheat using a little extra milk or water after defrosting, she instructs. Also, be prepared to stir relentlessly to minimize lumps. I’d love to hear how you make rømmegrøt too!

1 cup heavy whipping cream (at least 35%)
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 ¼ cups flour
5 cups whole milk
¾ teaspoon salt
Sugar, for serving
Cinnamon, for serving
Melted butter, for serving (optional)

To make the sour cream, in a medium saucepan, warm cream until it’s about body temperature. Pour in the buttermilk, give it a quick stir, and let it sit in the pot until it thickens, which should take at least 8 hours. I probably let mine sit 10 hours or so.

When you’re ready to make the rømmegrøt, bring the sour cream to a simmer, covered, in the same pan. Meanwhile, in another pot heat the milk so it will be ready to bring to a boil when you need it. After 15 minutes of simmering the sour cream, sift about a third of the flour over the cream, stirring constantly as you add the flour. Simmer for a few more minutes, until the fat has separated and you can skim or pour it off. Reserve the fat. Bring the milk to a boil in its pot. Sift the remaining flour over the porridge, stirring constantly as you go. (At this point, the original recipe said to bring it to a boil, but neither time I’ve made it—according to this recipe or another—was the porridge liquid enough to do so.) With the pot over heat, add milk a little at a time, stirring constantly, until you have the consistency you want. I used all the milk, knowing that the porridge thickens as it cools. Transfer the porridge to the larger milk pot if you need for space. Whisk vigorously until the lumps are gone, and continue to simmer for another ten minutes. Stir in the salt. To serve, divide the rømmegrøt between bowls. Add the reserved fat to each (I didn’t end up with much, so would probably add a bit of melted butter as needed), then dust with sugar and cinnamon.

Old-School Norwegian Prune Porridge (Sviskegrøt)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Porridge:
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

Vanilla sauce:
1 cup milk
1 egg
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.

Serves 4.

* 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).

Cardamom-scented Fastelavnsboller and other recently-published recipes

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A few weeks ago I pounded so much cardamom in the mortar and pestle that I must have sneezed about ten times in the half hour that followed, whispers of the spice hovering around me and clinging to my hair. I briefly worried that I might develop an allergy to this favorite Nordic flavor. (I’ve since bought myself a spice grinder.) In the weeks that have followed, I’ve managed to maintain a sense of hygge or koselig in my home with little more than the aroma of freshly-baked boller, sweet cardamom buns. I’m still working on recreating my grandma’s boller recipe, which many of you have been waiting for with anticipation, but I trust that these Fastelavnsboller will tide you over in the meantime.

Sweet cardamom-scented buns bursting with rich almond paste and a cloud of whipped cream, Fastelavnsboller are the Norwegian symbol that Lent is approaching–and spring along with it. (Those of you with Swedish backgrounds will know them as semlor.) Head on over to the Norwegian American Weekly for the story and the recipe.

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While I’m at it, let me point you to some of the other recipes I’ve featured in the NAW in recent months: Scandinavian pickled beets with star anise, my signature recipe for gløgg/glögg, lingonberry swirl brownies, author J. Ryan Stradal’s family recipe for potato patties, Viking Soul Food’s pickled eggs with black pepper mayonnaise and caviar, Bergen fish soup, and grilled salmon with lemon-horseradish cream. You’ll find many more great Scandinavian recipes over there, too, from the talented writers I’m so happy to have as part of my team.

To wrap up a bit of housekeeping, I’d also love to share with you my recent cover story for Edible Seattle, “Norwegian Christmas Cookies: a tradition of butter, time, and love.” The recipe was only in print until a few weeks ago, but now that it’s available online too, I hope you’ll file the article–and its accompanying recipes for serinakaker, sirupsnipper, and Berlinerkranser–away for next Christmas.

Thanks to all of you who share this passion for using food to connect with our heritage–no matter where we’re from, Norway or otherwise–and those we love. I always enjoy hearing from you, whether it’s to share your experience with one of my recipes or a story about one of your own favorite recipes and how it’s touched your life in some way. You can keep in touch here, and on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. I especially hope you’ll sign up for my new Scandinavian food newsletter.

Until next time,

Daytona

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Cardamom-Almond Custard with Blueberries

Cardamom Almond Custard with Blueberries

They were just photos of landscapes. Muscular earth covered in green. A pair of cantilever bridges rising and falling, meandering through a snowy fishing village. Placid fjords reflecting their surroundings as they swallowed the light into their depths. Yet the photos almost brought tears to my eyes as I scrolled through an online acquaintance’s Facebook page the other day. Sunsets filled the skies with an otherworldly glow and as I looked at an image of the amber light bending around the mountains–the last light of day for the homes tucked along the shore–I felt a longing I’m still trying to process. It’s as though part of my heart resides in Norway, the country that my family left nearly 60 years ago.

When I visited Norway for the first time in 2008, something happened that I didn’t expect. Immediately I was struck with a sense of home, like I belonged there. I mentioned this to a friend at lunch recently, my story filled with apologies in case it sounded trite. She understood. And as time goes on I think I’m beginning to understand it more too. Norway is, in a way, home. It was home to my father for the first 11 years of his life. It was home to my grandparents, great grandparents, and countless other generations from both sides of my family tree. I’ve felt for so long that maybe I don’t deserve to claim the heritage. I’ve questioned whether I am “Norwegian enough,” despite being Norwegian 100 percent. I never traveled to Norway as a child, and only finally visited at the age of 26. I don’t speak the language (though I’m trying to learn). I don’t know any of my relatives in Norway, the few still remaining. My family is trying to connect with them but we’ve gotten news of one death and then another, making it feel like they’re drifting farther and farther out of reach.

But then a few photos stir up something deep inside me and I push all those doubts aside. When Grandma Agny died without warning almost six years ago, I dove into our shared heritage as a way to cope, to try to feel closer to her, even though I knew I couldn’t bring her back. Month after month, year after year, recipe after recipe, I’ve been working to understand more, to discover for myself this country that she knew so well. When my grandparents and father packed up their belongings and sailed to the United States in 1956, they were making a move that would shift the course of the family. We would, from that point, be Americans. But when I look back at my childhood, I see how my grandmother worked to keep the heritage and the traditions alive–through her hospitality and her food, the way she decorated her house, and even settling in Ballard, a neighborhood in Seattle with deep Scandinavian ties. She was giving me a gift, a starting place. I wouldn’t understand it until I became older and decided to take an interest in all of it myself. But when I was ready, there it was, infused in my memories, embedded in my heart.

Cardamom Almond Custard with Blueberries

Cardamom Almond Custard with Blueberries

Cardamom-Almond Custard with Blueberries

Grandma Agny had a flair for simple elegance. She spread her table with creamy fine linens and china when my parents and I came to eat, the napkins folded into fans. The food she served was steeped in the traditions of her native Norway, from the spiced medisterkaker meatballs and tart surkål that I loved so much to the rice pudding folded into a mound of fluffy whipped cream and drizzled with a deep magenta raspberry sauce. Norwegians have a number of rich, creamy desserts, and I’ve been noticing a theme of them in some of the Norwegian recipes I’ve been baking this spring. When I made the fillings for bløkake and Kvæfjordkake (also known as verdensbestekake, or world’s best cake), I found myself stopping at the fridge with a spoon repeatedly to sample the sweet, rich smooth creams and custards. This recipe takes the idea of those fillings and makes it into a dessert all its own. It’s inspired by the eggekrem in Ekte Norsk Mat by Astrid Karlsen Scott with cues from the no-bake custard in Bakeless Sweets by Faith Durand to make it more of a dessert and less of a filling. I’ve added almond and cardamom–two of my favorite Norwegian flavors–and finally topped it with luscious blueberries.

For the custard:
2 cups whipping cream
1/3 cup sugar
¾ teaspoon ground cardamom
6 egg yolks
1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon almond extract

Blueberries:
3 cups frozen blueberries
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon potato starch flour
1 tablespoon water
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Start by preparing a shallow pool of ice water in a container large enough to hold a heatproof bowl. You’ll use this to cool the custard at the end.

To make the custard, combine milk, sugar, and ground cardamom in a saucepan over medium heat, whisking to combine. Continuing to whisk, bring the milk almost to a simmer, then remove from heat.

In a mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks, cornstarch, and salt, and mix until smooth. You can use a stand mixer here, or simply a bowl and whisk. Pour the milk into the eggs while mixing on low speed. Once smooth, pour back into the saucepan. Whisking constantly, bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil two minutes, continuing to whisk, until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in almond extract.

Strain the custard into a heatproof bowl set in the pool of ice water. Give the custard a good stir until it reaches a smooth, uniform consistency. Divide between four individual serving dishes and chill for several hours.

Shortly before you’re ready to serve the custard, give the frozen berries a quick rinse and drain. Place them in a medium saucepan with the sugar over medium heat. Stir occasionally and gently until the liquid from the berries comes to a boil, about three minutes. While the blueberries are heating, dissolve potato starch flour in a tablespoon of water. Add to the blueberries in a steady stream, stirring constantly. The liquid will immediately start to thicken and a sauce will form. After about a minute, when the liquid has thickened slightly, remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Keep warm.

When ready to serve, spoon the blueberries over each custard.

Serves 4.

Cardamom Almond Custard with Blueberries

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.

 

New Potatoes and Chanterelles with Lemon and Dill

Chanterelles and Potatoes - IMG_9893

As a Seattle-born Norwegian-American, a woman once removed from the country of her father, my way back to my heritage has been through its food. I’ve always loved being Norwegian. Dressing up in a child-sized bunad for Syttende Mai parades in the Scandinavian-rich neighborhood of Ballard, eating the traditional feasts my grandparents would serve us on holidays, listening to the heavy and melodic accent that wove its way through my relatives’ speech–this was my upbringing and I loved it. But there’s a difference between the cultures in which we’re raised as children and the ones that we embrace as adults. I grew out of the black and red bunad. My paternal grandparents aged and passed on. The adults who kept their heritage alive so vibrantly and shared it with me faded into memory. The culture was no longer handed to me and it started to become peripheral.

Grandma Agny’s death five years ago was a big turning point for me. I think I’ve mentioned before that I was going to ask her to start telling me her stories the day I got the phone call saying she had died. Grandma had been a young woman during the German occupation. She had a baby during the war, and she later uprooted her family and moved them to the United States. During my first trip to Norway in 2008, I became intrigued about her life–and the corresponding Norwegian history–and I wanted to know more. But I waited too long. Grandma’s death left me feeling a profound sense of loss, and in response I found myself seeking out elements of my heritage.

And that’s where the food comes in.

Chanterelles and Potatoes - IMG_9887

I still remember scanning the spines of books at Barnes and Noble shortly after Grandma’s death. I had come up with the idea of looking for Scandinavian cookbooks, as though the food between their pages might provide some comfort or solace. I found just a couple: Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine by Marcus Samuelsson and The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas. My journalistic tendency to research things in detail came into play and I started seeking out as many Scandinavian cookbooks as I could find. Nordic cooking wasn’t as much of a trend in the U.S. then as it is now, and it took a little digging. But I wanted to know more, to understand more. And it was becoming clear to me that the way in was going to be through the food.

As I explored my Norwegian heritage, I started Outside Oslo as a way to document what I was discovering. Although Scandinavian food had always been in my family’s repertoire while I was growing up, I was discovering it for myself. I was finally starting to get a sense of its origins, a sense of place. In the process, I was also beginning to understand my late grandmother more deeply.

Things look a lot different now, five years later. My grandparents’ generation is fading fast, but the opportunity I lost when Grandma Agny died is not entirely gone. I will never get her back, but I’m learning more about my family and its history as my father helps me fill in the gaps. I’ve heard stories of my other grandmother’s life and created countless sweet memories with her as she’s taught me how to make sandbakkels, lefse, krumkaker, and other Scandinavian treats. And now it’s my turn to share the heritage that my grandparents so graciously shared with me. As I’ve studied Nordic food and worked it into what I cook at home, I know that the culture that my family brought with them to America will continue to live on. I have two kids of my own now, and they will grow up knowing the pleasure of eating pannekaker for an occasional dinner, the taste of sweet heart-shaped vaffler served with gjetost (Norwegian brown goat cheese), and all the warmth and love that surround meals shared together at the table.

I never expected five years ago, in the darkest days of grief, that such richness was in store. But Grandma Agny had given me a gift by keeping her heritage alive and sharing it with me through all those Syttende Mai parades, traditional Norwegian meals, and with her generous heart.

Chanterelles and Potatoes - IMG_9897

Today I’m still cooking my way through various Nordic recipes, sometimes returning to family classics, other times trying something new. Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking with Andreas Viestad was one of the early books I discovered, and to this day it is one of my favorites. (I wrote a review a couple of years ago; despite receiving a copy from the publisher, I can say genuinely that this is an excellent book.) I had found it at the library while researching Scandinavian food, and this dish–chanterelles and potatoes with lemon and dill–was one of the first recipes I featured on the blog. I made it this week for my parents and was reminded of how just a few simple ingredients can be so satisfying: just new potatoes and chanterelles, flavored intensely with lemon, garlic, and dill. The season for chanterelles is fleeting, but if you can still find some, I hope you’ll give this recipe a try.

New Potatoes and Chanterelles with Lemon and Dill
Adapted from Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking with Andreas Viestad

2 pounds new potatoes
½ pound (or more) chanterelle mushrooms
3 tablespoons butter
3 garlic cloves, pressed
Salt
Small handful of fresh dill, coarsely chopped, plus a few sprigs for garnish
Small handful of flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Lemon

Cook the potatoes in a pot of salted boiling water until tender, then drain. While the potatoes are cooking, trim the mushrooms and cut them lengthwise into halves or quarters, depending on their size. I like to keep them as large as possible, so I halve most of them, only quartering the really thick ones to make their size even with the rest. Melt the butter in a large skillet and add the mushrooms, stirring from time to time, until tender. Add garlic and a dash of salt, then cook for another moment just to take the edge of the garlic’s flavor. Add the mushrooms to the potatoes, making sure to spoon up all the flavorful butter from the pan. Add the dill and parsley, along with the juice of one lemon, and stir to combine. Add a little more salt if necessary, then transfer to a dish, garnish with dill sprigs, and serve.

Serves 4-6

Norwegian Bacalao Stew with Potatoes, Tomatoes, and Onion

Norwegian Bacalao Stew

The end of June, beginning of July. The calendar marks the month but also the moment. It was just about this time, when one month rolled into the next, when I stepped foot in Norway for the first time.

“We’ll go to Norway together some day,” my grandfather said when I was growing up. It was an ideal, a good intention and a comforting one I think, to look ahead to some time in the future when he would return to his homeland decades after leaving–he along with my grandma, my parents, and me. But he never did go back.

I grew up steeped in the traditions of my Norwegian heritage but it would be years before I would visit Norway. When I finally did, exploring the city where my father was born and passing by his hometown on the train on the way from the airport into the city, I felt at home, right where I wanted to be.

The country calls to me. It might sound strange, but there’s a part of my heart that’s there. I see photos of the fjords and the craggy green hills, the weathered red barns and slowly-setting summer sun and I yearn to go back. I know the country, but at the same time I don’t. I know its essence even though I’d need a map to navigate its streets.

Norwegian Bacalao Stew

During that visit in the summer of 2008, I met my husband’s Norwegian relatives. A couple of them had flown to Seattle for our wedding a few years before, but I still had yet to meet the others. After eating meals and drinking aquavit with them in their part of the world, I had the chance to return the hospitality for one of the cousins last week. As far as dinners go, these were pretty spontaneous and we served what we had, echoes of the Scandinavian-inspired Midsummer dinner just days before. So as we sat around my kitchen table that first night, eating grilled steak accompanied by dill-speckled potatoes and sliced cucumbers bathed in a creamy dressing–and we happened to have a bar of Scandinavian chocolate in its distinct yellow wrapping on the counter–my husband noted how we were unintentionally giving this Norwegian cousin a little taste of home, far away from home.

Norwegian Bacalao StewBut back to Norway, Bergen to be specific. It was uncharacteristically hot those days we were there. Temperatures in the 80s, 90s perhaps. It being the peak of summer, the sun hovered above the horizon well into the night, casting a golden glow on the multicolored Hanseatic wharf and illuminating the waters spilling in from the North Sea.

On one of those days we ate bacalao stew, the salt cod bathed in rich tomato broth and nestled amongst the broken tomatoes and chunks of potatoes. Food often serves as a link to memories, so when I recreated that stew recently I thought back on those sun-drenched days, remembering the afternoons spent exploring Bergen. I loved that city, loved walking along the cobbled ground and peering down windy narrow streets. There I savored eating a traditional, rustic dish of red deer in a tiny restaurant, washing it down with bracing dill aquavit as clear as the purest water in the fjords. I got to know another cousin a little as we shared beers and tapas, and I sampled smoked whale from the outdoor fish market at his suggestion.

During those days, my husband and I walked and ate, talked and visited. It felt relaxed but it was brief; in an instant it was time to return home and let the memories settle deep into my heart.

Norwegian Bacalao Stew

Norwegian Bacalao Stew with Potatoes, Tomatoes, and Onion
Andreas Viestad says his recipe from Kitchen of Light–which I’ve adapted here–is the classic Western Norwegian interpretation of bacalao. Aside from a little advance planning to soak the salt cod, this recipe comes together easily enough to make on a weeknight. Be sure to have plenty of crusty bread on hand for sopping up the flavorful juices. It’s even better the next day.

1-1 1/2 pounds salt cod
2 medium russet potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 large yellow onions, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 (14 1/2-ounce) cans chopped tomatoes, with juices
1 pound roasted red bell peppers, cut into 1/2-inch slices
4-6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 dried hot red chiles, chopped and seeded
10 black peppercorns
1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil

Thoroughly rinse the salt cod and place in a large container of water to soak for 24 to 36 hours, changing the water at least twice. Drain and cut the fish into 2-inch pieces and set aside.

Place a large pot on the stove and arrange the potatoes on the bottom, followed by the onions and then the cod. Next scatter the tomatoes on top, followed by the roasted peppers. Add the garlic, bay leaves, two thirds of the parsley, chiles, and peppercorns, gently working these down into the other ingredients by about an inch, taking care not to disrupt the layering. Pour the olive oil all over the top and turn on the heat.

Simmer gently for 30 minutes, shaking the pot every once in a while. Adjust the heat down if necessary and continue to cook for another 45 minutes, still shaking it every once in a while (avoid stirring the stew at any point).

Divide the stew between six bowls, arranging each of the ingredients in every bowl. Garnish with the remaining parsley. Serve with a bowl of sea salt on the side so everyone can adjust the seasoning to their tastes.

Syttende Mai: Seattle, 1980s

Syttende Mai with Grandparents 1980s

Old Ballard was about as Scandinavian as you could get. Though far from the Nordic countries, the little neighborhood north of downtown Seattle had drawn immigrants by the thousands over the years. It used to be as easy to find lefse as it was a burger. And if you needed gjetost, pølse, or any other type of Scandinavian food–not to mention housewares or souveniers with Norwegian flags or “Uffda” printed on them, you didn’t have to look far.

The neighborhood has changed a lot over the years, but I still distinctly remember what it used to be like before the massive changes of the past decade. With Syttende Mai coming up tomorrow, I’ve been digging up old photos and memorabilia and thought I’d share some here today.

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

From a handful of family photos taken during the celebrations in the 1980s to old Syttende Mai issues of the Ballard News-Tribune, this box is filled with nostalgia for me. The photo up at the top of the post is my favorite. On the left are Grandpa Lauritz and Grandma Agny, who had arrived in Seattle from Norway right around Syttende Mai in 1956. Next to them are Grandma Adeline–my only surviving grandparent–and Grandpa Lowell. That little girl in front is me. If you’ve spent time in Ballard throughout the years, you’ll recognize the old Bergen Place behind us, prior to its redesign a decade ago.

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

Syttende Mai 1980s MementosBoth sets of my grandparents lived in Ballard when I was growing up, and driving down to meet them at the parade was an annual event. I’m so glad my parents saved these old issues of the Ballard News-Tribune; at some point along the line, a photographer had captured photos of me and they were published for a couple of years (on the chair in the lower left of the May 15, 1985 cover, and holding a flag in the May 14, 1986 issue).

Today’s Ballard might be known more for its condos, restaurants, and nightlife than its Scandinavian roots, but Syttende Mai is still one of its biggest events of the year with events at the Nordic Heritage Museum and Leif Erikson Lodge during the day, leading up to a parade through the streets of Ballard in the evening (the 17th of May Committee says more than 20,000 people came out for the parade last year). I’ll be there tomorrow, hopefully adding more photos to the collection–photos that I’ll someday look back upon with the same sort of nostalgia as I do with these.

What are some of your Syttende Mai memories–in Ballard, Norway, or elsewhere? I’d love to hear about them!

Gluten-Free Scandinavian Almond Cake with Rhubarb Compote

Gluten Free Scandinavian Almond Cake

I sometimes wonder what it was like to be her. Two feet on Norwegian soil, then one. And with the second step onto the gangway, a release, a launch into a new life.

My grandmother was about 40 years old when she packed up her life to immigrate to the United States with her husband and son in the spring of 1956.

Standing on the ship, she would have seen the verdant seven hills of Bergen rising high above the glistening waters as clean and pure as tears. The gentle sway of the ship at dock would have been subtle but perhaps just present enough to be a scapegoat for the tightening chest and quaking belly. Soon the ship would depart, sailing inch by inch, then mile by mile, memory by memory, from a country that had, until that day, always been home.

I think about that journey each spring as the anniversary rolls around. And yet, I can only imagine what that experience would have been like, only speculate at the emotions swirling in my grandmother’s heart as the ship sailed out of the fjord, the town and the hills disappearing from view as gradually yet surely as the sun setting below the horizon.

I got the phone call announcing Grandma’s death in 2009 as I was getting dressed to visit her to celebrate her birthday. That was the day I was going to ask her if we could start talking–really talking–about her life. I know there were stories there–firsthand accounts of living in Nazi-occupied Norway, heartbreaking memories of losing an infant son, the decision between a husband and wife settled well into their adult years to leave home and start fresh in a new country. I wish there were unknown journals and letters somewhere out there that I would happen upon someday, words scrolled in a handwriting I’ve since discovered that my own eerily resembles. The chances of that happening are slim. A generation is dying; one of her closest living relatives in Norway recently passed away. Memories exist in the minds of the few she left behind and in the photos bound in old-fashioned albums stored away.

Still, I think about that monumental move each spring. And as I do, I always reflect upon my grandmother, a woman I understood only so much during her lifetime but who fascinates, intrigues, and inspires me more and more all the time.

Rhubarb and Almond Cake Diptych

Gluten Free Scandinavian Almond Cake

One of the qualities that stands out most when I think about Grandma Agny was her hospitality, something I strive to emulate. That takes many forms for me, from hosting dinners to taking dietary restrictions into consideration when baking for an event. So many people avoid gluten that I’ve found it helpful to have a go-to cake recipe that I can bring just about anywhere.

This cake–adapted from the blackberry, almond, and cardamom cake in Signe Johansen’s Scandilicious: Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking–incorporates the distinctly Nordic flavors of almond and cardamom into its rich, moist, and pleasantly toothsome texture. I shared a version of it on the blog a while back, but have simplified it and adapted the ingredients for standard measurements rather than metric. The cake pairs wonderfully with a Scandinavian rhubarb compote loosely adapted from The Scandinavian Kitchen by Camilla Plum. Plum recommends cooking the compote in the oven rather than on the stovetop, a process that helps protect the appearance of the rhubarb’s structure, even as it melts into shreds; the stirring in stovetop cooking breaks apart and mixes the rhubarb, yielding a much different result.

Almond Cake with Rhubarb Compote Diptych

Scandinavian Rhubarb Compote

Gluten-Free Scandinavian Almond Cake with Rhubarb Compote

For the compote:
5 medium stalks rhubarb
1/3 cup sugar

For the cake:
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 medium eggs
2 1/2 cups almond meal*
2 teaspoons gluten-free baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt
Gluten-free powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut rhubarb stalks into 2-inch lengths and arrange in a baking dish that can roughly hold them in one layer. Sprinkle sugar over the top. Cover dish with a sheet of foil and bake for 10 minutes. Peel back the foil and carefully turn over the rhubarb pieces. Bake for an additional 5 to 10 minutes until the rhubarb is cooked through. Carefully lift the cooked rhubarb with a wide spatula or spoon and transfer to a serving dish. Cool. The compote can be made up to a couple of days in advance if you’d like.

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a round 9-inch springform cake pan. Cream butter, sugar, and vanilla, then add eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly between each addition.

Whisk the almond meal, baking powder, cardamom, and salt in a medium bowl, then fold into the batter.

Pour into the pan, spreading the top evenly with a spatula. Bake for 30-40 minutes; you’ll know it’s done when the top has turned golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Set the pan on a wire rack and cool.

Remove the cooled cake from the pan and sift powdered sugar over the top. Serve with the compote.

Makes 1 9-inch cake.

*The original recipe calls for 250 grams ground almonds. I like the precision of metric measurements but understand that not everyone uses a kitchen scale. Since the weight of the almond meal with vary depending on how much you pack it, pour it into the measuring cup and let it settle, but do not pack it in.

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