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 Cookies: Berlinerkranser

Berlinerkranser

I grew up knowing the tradition by taste rather than by name. Syv slags kaker–or seven sorts of cookies. The way it goes, you wouldn’t be a proper Norwegian if you didn’t serve at least seven types of cookies at Christmastime. I only became aware of the tradition a handful of years ago, but there’s no doubt that my family’s propensity to load platters with multitudes of cookies stems from that particular part of our heritage.

My memories of Christmastime often take place in the kitchens and dining rooms of my mom and my grandmothers, the heart of the hospitality that pulses through my family. Grandma Adeline would drape clear plastic sheets over the china cabinet, shelving, carpet, and furniture come autumn, in preparation for baking potato lefse, the traditional flatbread that Norwegian-Americans love so much. As I wrote in an article about Christmas cookies for Edible Seattle magazine last year, once my maternal grandparents had frozen an adequate amount of lefse for the holidays and cleaned away any molecules of errant flour that had crept beyond the plastic sheets, they could relax (a bit at least) and begin baking cookies.

There were Norwegian favorites such as sandbakkels and krumkaker, plus a variety of other favorites. In my memories, Grandma Adeline is rarely siting still–rather, she’s on her feet rolling dough or drying dishes, always with a look of focus and joy in her expression. Sometimes I wonder where she got her energy.

Berlinerkranser

Berlinerkranser

In my research for the Edible Seattle article, I interviewed Dr. Kathleen Stokker, author of Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land. She helped me put in context the special nature of the family tradition.

Christmas has been extraordinarily special to Scandinavians, Stokker said, especially in Norway, which was the poorest of the Scandinavian countries and also had strong class divisions. For those who weren’t of an upper class, cookies infused liberally with butter would have been very special indeed. Farmers, among others, would have sold their butter and used lard instead for daily use–except at Christmastime, in which they’d use the butter to create cookies that reflected the celebratory time that it was. While I can now whip up a batch of cookie dough on a whim, my ancestors’ experience would have been much different. I now understand something of the context of the baking tradition that’s been passed down from generation to generation, one that’s as linked as much to hospitality and generosity as it is to the pleasure of eating something sweet.

You can read more about the tradition of the syv slags kaker in my first post of the series, which is about krumkaker. But in the meantime, let’s talk a bit about Berlinerkranser. Rich and buttery, these wreath-shaped treats were among the most popular in a survey of Norwegian Christmas cookies that Aftenposten—Norway’s largest daily paper–conducted in 1992.

Berlinerkranser

Berlinerkranser

These cookies are as Norwegian lutefisk and Jarlsberg cheese, writes Sunny Gandara, the voice behind the blog Arctic Grub and one of my contributors at The Norwegian American, where I’m the food editor. The name, Berlinerkranser, she says, could be related to a history of German immigrants bringing their baking skills into Norway, as well as Scandinavians going to Germany to study the trade.

The interesting, or perhaps peculiar, thing about these cookies is that the dough begins with a mix of both cooked and raw egg yolks.The eggs are the centerpiece of these rich, buttery cookies, and the result–if done right–is a cookie that’s substantial while remaining tender and delicate. The yolks give the cookies a subtle yellow glow, and they augment the buttery characteristic without tasting entirely of eggs.

Norwegian cookbook author Astrid Karlsen Scott granted me permission to adapt her recipe for Berlinerkranser in my Edible Seattle article last year. But this season I wanted to take my research a step farther. Berlinerkranser can be a bit finicky to make, especially as the dough has a tendency to break easily when shaping. I collected and analyzed recipes and compiled as many tips as I could find to ensure that anyone will have success when baking Berlinerkranser. Read on after the recipe for tips, and please be sure to leave a comment with yours as well.

When I took my first bite of Berlinerkranser still warm from the oven yesterday, I savored the warm, comforting experiencing of letting the cookie almost melt as it disintegrated in my mouth. The buttery richness took me back to my childhood, and I finally remembered a taste memory I had forgotten–my grandma Agny’s Berlinerkranser. Mom recently told me that Grandma used to make these cookies, but I had forgotten. The memories are vague–it’s been many years since those Christmases at her home. But–as I’m sure you know–we never forget the taste.

Berlinerkranser

Berlinerkranser (Berlin Wreath Cookies)
This recipe is very good, if I do say so myself. The cookies, especially when warm out of the oven, are rich and eggy, warm and comforting. Be sure to enjoy one or two for yourself to enjoy–perhaps with a cup of coffee–before setting them out for guests.

2 hard-cooked egg yolks 
2 raw egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup butter (I use salted), at room temperature
2 1/2 cups flour
Egg whites, lightly beaten (reserved from the raw eggs above)
1/4 cup pearl sugar

In a mixing bowl, mash the hard-cooked egg yolks (you can do this with a fork, or you can do what Magnus Nilsson does in The Nordic Cookbook and press the yolks through a sieve). Mix in the two uncooked yolks. When smooth, add the sugar and whisk vigorously until smooth. Next you’ll add the flour and the softened butter, alternating, a little at a time, working as little as possible. It will still appear crumbly, but it will come together when you press it. Divide the dough into two thick logs, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight.

When you’re getting ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375, line two baking sheets with parchment paper, and remove dough from the fridge (you want it to warm up slightly before you start shaping them—about a half an hour).

Divide each piece of dough into 14 even pieces. Put half of the dough back in the fridge to stay cool while you work on the first half—the dough can be challenging to work with as it gets warm. Roll each piece into a log about 1/3-inch in diameter, and about 4-4.5-inches long. Form each into a wreath with edges overlapping, and press together. Place the cookies on the baking sheets, about two inches apart. Chill in the refrigerator for 15 minutes or to help them keep their shape—if your baking sheets won’t fit, you can transfer them very carefully on the parchment onto a surface that will. Dip the tops of the chilled cookies into the beaten egg whites and then into the pearl sugar. Bake in the middle rack of the oven for 8-10 minutes, or until the cookies are very lightly golden.

Cool a little on baking rack, then transfer with care to a baking rack—perhaps just sliding the whole sheet of parchment on. Store in an airtight container. Freeze if you’re making them well in advance.

Makes about two dozen.

Tips:

I discovered that recipes generally resemble each other, with virtually all of them beginning with two hard-cooked egg yolks and two uncooked egg yolks. Recipe vary slightly in the amount of sugar used, ranging from 1/2 to 1 cup (I’m using 2/3 cup, which is somewhere in the middle, and I wouldn’t recommend any more–but you can use a smaller quantity if you’d like them a little less sweet). The amount of flour also varies quite a bit, from 1 1/4 to 3 1/3 cups. You don’t want to use too much flour, I read, as that will impact the texture—you want them to be tender. Also, work the dough as minimally as possible.

As for rolling the dough, one recipe said that working as little as possible, while still incorporating the ingredients, should help.

Getting the temperature just right is also key, as I learned from Gandara, as you want it neither too warm nor too cool. She suggests removing the dough from the refrigerator about a half an hour before forming the cookies. I find that putting unused portions of dough back in the fridge while I work keeps them from warming up too much.

I’m grateful for discovering the tip of putting the shaped dough back in the fridge for a while–15 minutes perhaps–before proceeding. The chilled cookies are so much easier to dip into the egg white and sugar at this point, and this step might help them keep their shape as well.

Berlinerkranser

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

Celebrating the Kräftskiva: a Swedish Crayfish Party Tradition

Swedish Crayfish Party

A few weeks ago, before the season began its visible transition from summer to fall, I took part in one of the most charming of Scandinavian celebrations, the kräftskiva, or Swedish crayfish party. A tradition every August in Sweden, it’s one that I’ve tried to embrace here in Seattle over the past several years. This year, in addition to hosting my own, I had the opportunity to be a guest at a very special kräftskiva hosted by Old Ballard Liquor Company.

As the summer sun glowed golden over Ballard, a neighborhood rich with Scandinavian history, I crossed the old railroad tracks, past the main streets, and made my way into a shipyard where relics of the old neighborhood were displayed as if it were a museum. Lights and signs from shuttered Ballard bars and restaurants (including one of my favorites, the old Copper Gate) brought back memories of old times. An old newspaper vending box displaying a 2009 issue made me do a double take (the headline announced the demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer print edition, an event that as a journalist I remember vividly). The sun cast a radiant tint over everything, and if one had entered the scene after putting back a few shots of aquavit, one might wonder if they were really seeing things for what they were.

Tumble Swede Swedish Crayfish Party

Swedish Crayfish Party

With live music, lanterns, and plenty of aquavit flowing at Pacific Fishermen Shipyard, we made fast friends with our fellow diners and dug into the meal. With crustacean juice and the wild-fennel-and-beer poaching liquid dripping from our lips, we shared tips for how to break into the crayfish and extract as much of the meat and goodness as possible.

My neighbor, nostalgic for a time when she had lived in Sweden, focused on the crayfish, savoring the eat-with-your-hands meal and her own personal aquavit carafe frozen in a thick sleeve of ice. Less sure of the crayfish, the woman across from me made a meal primarily out of the mini onion and mushroom cheese pies (it’s typical to serve Västerbotten cheese pie at such dinners, as crayfish themselves are hardly enough to fill one up and soak up all the aquavit consumed). Rounded out with new potatoes tossed with butter and dill, rye crispbread to slather with butter, and an elderberry ice cream topped with stone fruit compote, the meal was distinctly Nordic—with a Pacific Northwest touch.

Tumble Swede Swedish Crayfish Party

As the sun set, I couldn’t help but think about the Friday-night revelers that would be gathering along the strips of bars and restaurants in the heart of Ballard. They would be oblivious to this quirky, cultural tradition taking place on just the other side of the old railroad tracks. With a full stomach and happy with the warm glow of celebration and community, I knew just where I would rather be.

Swedish Crayfish Party

Norwegian Rømmegrøt (Sour Cream Porridge)

Rømmegrøt - DSC_3138

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.

Rømmegrøt - DSC_3160

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.

Cardamom-scented Fastelavnsboller and other recently-published recipes

Fastelavnsboller - DSC_2615

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.

Fastelavnsboller - DSC_2619

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

Fastelavnsboller - DSC_2641

St. Lucia Saffron Buns (Lussekatter)

Lussekatter

“Who made these?” she asked, sitting across from me at the dinner table the other night, a golden swirled saffron bun in her hand.

“I did.”

“They’re good,” she replied, her face in a slight grimace of satisfaction. It’s been nearly two years since the strokes tangled the words and ideas in my grandmother’s mind. I didn’t expect to necessarily receive such a compliment from her again. But there we were, sharing a meal in the company of extended family, still connecting over baked goods, the things that have brought us together time and time again each Christmas season.

Each fall and winter my grandma, mom, and I would get together, often weekly, to bake lefse, Norwegian waffles, and a variety of cookies. It was our pre-Christmas tradition, one that marked the season with a time of festivity and love. We don’t do it anymore, not since the strokes. For the past week I’ve been thinking about how it doesn’t feel like Christmastime yet–I think the loss of a tradition has a lot to do with that.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be like that, maybe it’s not necessarily gone. Maybe we’re just doing it differently. I’m still trying to bake as much as I can this month, still trying to infuse my home with the Scandinavian aromas of hot butter, sugar, and spice. And even if Grandma is not here baking alongside me, I can still share with her the products, perhaps sparking sweet reminiscences with each familiar flavor and bite.

Lussekatter

Lucia Buns Diptych with Saffron

Grandma used to make airy round buns scented with cardamom. They were golden on top and slick, and they really didn’t need to be spread with any butter, probably thanks to all the butter in the dough. Those buns were on the list of things I had wanted to learn to make in my baking sessions with Grandma. Over the years, as she downsized homes and eventually moved into a retirement home–and as she stopped cooking much independently–I think she forgot which recipe she used. I have a thing about lost recipes; I regret their loss and want to recreate them, but then the task itself becomes daunting.

When I baked a batch of St. Lucia saffron buns the other day, however, I bit into the yeasty, buttery dough and savored a taste and texture reminiscent of so many of the breads of Grandma’s that I grew up eating. Don’t get me wrong, these saffron buns are distinct and quite different from cardamom buns. But if you’ve tasted either, Scandinavian style, then you might understand what I mean when I say that these contained enough of the essence of Grandma’s old baking to bring me back to a place where a taste conjured up a wealth of memories. I hope that for Grandma they did too. At least, these saffron buns have inspired me to try recreating Grandma’s cardamom buns. Maybe the task won’t be as challenging as it might seem.

Lucia Buns Diptych

In the meantime, I’ve been eating saffron buns for days and have a large bag of them in my freezer waiting to serve with the morning coffee on St. Lucia Day, December 13. The day is marked, in Scandinavia, with light and the image of children wearing long, flowing white robes tied with red sashes and carrying candles. One wears a crown of candles. (Read more about the tradition here and here.)

As most celebrations are accompanied by good food, saffron buns are traditionally enjoyed on December 13. Saffron, a very special and expensive spice, is used in a variety of Scandinavian baked goods, especially during Christmastime. It’s the single showcased flavor of these traditional buns, which are soft and buttery and perfect with a cup of coffee, gløgg/glögg, or hot chocolate.

Lucia buns, commonly known as lussekatter, can be formed in a variety of shapes (there’s a great illustration of some of them here). One of the most common and simplest is the S shape, which–as Magnus Nilsson points out in the new The Nordic Cookbookis really called the julgalt, or Christmas boar. The real lussekatt shape has four curls, which I suppose could be interpreted as paws, each curling outward.

The recipe I’m sharing with you today is quite traditional, flavored simply with saffron and decorated with only a couple of raisins or currants each. If you don’t mind playing around with tradition, you might want to try tossing a handful of currants into the dough, as does Anna Brones, coauthor of Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. I tasted her lussekatter recently at an event, and it’s definitely worth a try. Signe Johansen adds cardamom and replaces the currants with sour cherries in her book Scandilicious Baking. No matter how you choose to make them, do be sure to wrap up a package of them to share with a Scandinavian (or anyone, for that matter) in your life. Fresh or toasted, with butter or plain, they’re sure to bring a smile to their face.

Lussekatter

St. Lucia Saffron Buns (Lussekatter)
There’s no shortage of ways to shape these buns. I’ve included instructions for the simplest version, the S shape, also known as julgalt. But feel free to get as creative as you’d like. Lucia buns are best served on the day that they’re made, as they have a reputation for drying out quickly. If you’re not going to eat them that day, freeze them immediately, recommends Anna Brones. Then when you’re ready to serve them, just defrost them for 10-15 minutes, wrap them in foil, and pop them back in the oven to reheat. If you happen to have extra buns that have begun to dry out, toast them for breakfast the next day or make them into French toast, she suggests.

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon whiskey
1 cup unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups milk
3 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
About 8 cups flour
64 currants or raisins

The night before baking, crush saffron with a tablespoon of the sugar in a small bowl. Pour in whiskey, give it a quick stir, cover with plastic wrap, and let the whiskey draw out the saffron’s color and flavor.

The next day, melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Pour in the milk and bring to lukewarm over medium heat. Scoop out a half cup or so and place in a bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over, cover, and let sit until bubbles form, 10 to 15 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, beat one egg. Stir in the rest of the sugar, salt, the milk and yeast mixture, and the saffron. Take note of the brilliant color the saffron has added, almost like a dye. Pour in the rest of the milk mixture and mix well with a wooden spoon. Gradually add flour, thoroughly mixing as you go; it should still be sticky and moist. Turn dough out onto a lightly-covered surface and knead for about five minutes until light and elastic. Take care to not add too much flour, either when mixing the dough or flouring the work surface, otherwise you’ll end up with dry buns; this is a very sticky dough, and a bench scraper can help pull it from the surface while you work. Return the dough to the mixing bowl. Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Line baking sheets with parchment. Cut the dough into 32 equal sized pieces. Roll each into a log, working from the center out, until they’re about the thickness of a finger. Form into simple S shapes by simultaneously rolling each end in opposite directions. Place the buns on the baking sheets, then cover with a damp tea towel and let rise again for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Beat the remaining egg and brush it onto the tops of buns. Press raisins or currants into the crevices, two per bun if you’re making the s shape. Bake until golden yellow on top and cooked through, taking care not to overbake them or they’ll be too dry. Time will depend on size, but it should take 8 to 12 minutes. Transfer to the counter and place another damp tea towel over them while they cool to keep them from drying out.

Makes 32 buns.

Lussekatter

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

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!

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