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.
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.
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.