Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)

Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)

This morning I woke up to the sight of freshly-fallen snow. I snapped a quick photo through the window in the blue-tinted light just to capture the moment for myself. As I excitedly looked from one window to the next, I took in the images of the smooth white surfaces covering my neighbors’ roofs as perfectly as the icing on a gingerbread house and of the snow on the driveway untouched except for a row of dainty little paw prints.

As is usual in Seattle, the snow didn’t last and by mid-afternoon, when the setting sun had turned the gauzy sky a light dusty rose, the snow was gone. But it was enough to call for a snow day. Appointments canceled, my son and I cuddled fireside to read books while warming up from a brief time outside. As he continued to play I savored the still, quiet morning hours–such a rarity–and settled in, knowing we had absolutely nowhere to go.

Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)

That reminds me of a recent cozy day when I baked this julekake, cardamom-scented Norwegian Christmas bread studded with raisins and candied citron. There’s something about the process of baking bread that creates a steady, still rhythm to the day. Mixing the dough in the morning, I let it undergo multiple rises throughout the day, monitoring the temperature as I went along.

The scent of woody cardamom and yeasty bread is one of the quintessential marks of Christmas time in my memories. Mom would butter slices of julekake and top them with slices of geitost for snacks during this time of year and I loved the sweet-savory elements of both the bread and the brown goat cheese.

Our julekake tended to be dotted with an assortment of candied fruits in black, green, yellow, and red. This year however I decided to bake a batch of my own and follow a Norwegian tradition of including only raisins and citron, candying the latter myself.

Candied Citron

Citron

The bread, though shaped differently than the julekake of my youth, was just as I remembered it: warming, aromatic, festive, and just right for eating with thinly sliced geitost. 

The sky has darkened and night is almost here. The tree is lit and a fire flickering in the fireplace. The snow may be gone–just like the julekake–but that little bit of snow this morning was the perfect way to usher in the last weekend before Christmas, full of holiday parties and just the tiniest bit of last-minute shopping. However you are spending the days leading up to Christmas, I wish you the coziest, merriest, and blessed time possible. God Jul!

Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)

Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)
Adapted from Ekte Norsk Jul Vol. 2 and Ekte Norsk Mat, both by Astrid Karlsen Scott. Be sure to use freshly-ground cardamom. Next time I’ll increase the amount of candied citron.

3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup salted butter, cut into dice
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
5 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (75-80 degrees F)
3 eggs, divided
5 cups flour, sifted, divided
1-2 teaspoons freshly-ground cardamom
1 1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup candied citron (see David Lebovitz’s recipe, or use store-bought)

Warm milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. When bubbles begin to form around the edge, remove from heat and stir in sugar, butter, and salt, stirring to melt the butter. Set aside to cool to lukewarm.

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the water and stir until dissolved. Add the lukewarm milk, then stir in two beaten eggs. Add 2 cups of the flour and the cardamom and beat with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth. Stir in raisins and citron. At this point you’ll want to stir in just enough of the remaining flour to form a soft dough–I used about 2 1/2 cups. Let rest, covered with a towel, about ten minutes.

For the first rise: Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes, then transfer to a large, lightly-greased bowl. Turn it so that the oil coats the entire ball of dough. Cover with a towel and set in a warm place, about 85 degrees F, to rise until it’s doubled in bulk. (In the conditions in my home, this took about 90 minutes.)

For the second rise: Punch down the dough and divide in half, forming the dough into two balls. Cover them for ten minutes, and prepare baking sheets by lightly greasing them. Place a round loaf onto the baking sheets and let rise again in a warm spot, covered with towels, until they’ve doubled in bulk, another 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Toward the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. When ready to bake, beat the remaining egg in a small bowl then gently brush it over each loaf, taking care not to press down on the dough too much. Bake for 20 minutes, then cover with foil and bake until done; the original recipes suggest the second period should take about 25 minutes, until the bread is deep golden brown. Mine–which I baked in 2 ovens–took about 17 or 18 minutes for the second part. Immediately transfer to wire racks and cool.

Makes 2 round loaves.

A Lutefisk Feast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lutefisk Feast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies with a Scandinavian Touch

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies

They’d all be here in 15 minutes, my mom alerted me in a text message. My mom and dad, grandma, uncle, and contingent of cousins were on their way, the first arrivals of a 21-person Thanksgiving feast. I reflected on the progress, what still needed to be done, and felt a sense of calm.

The tables were set, the turkeys in the oven and rotisserie, the soup simmering on the stove. Despite a short period of feeling pressured to get everything done a half an hour prior, my husband and I were ready to welcome the first of our first guests.

We’ve hosted feasts in the past–large groups of so many people that we’ve made big batches of chili or ribs and let our guests serve themselves with paper plates and plastic cups. But being our first sit-down meal with more than about 15 people, this event required quite a bit of extra preparation. So off I headed to Ikea for a ridiculous amount of plates, utensils, water glasses, and wine glasses (and a necessary serving of Swedish meatballs in their cafe), and I braved the pre-Thanksgiving holiday rush at the mall to find linens. And then there was the food. Last Sunday I realized that I could minimize my time at the grocery store–guaranteed to be crowded any time in the following days–by ordering most of my groceries online. By the time Tuesday rolled around, I told the women in my Bible study that I was feeling strangely relaxed about hosting such a feast–perhaps that was cause for concern?

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies

But before I knew it my house was full of relatives from both sides of my husband’s and my family, who were happily mingling and sampling from bottles of bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau, Côtes du Rhône, Grenache, and Tempranillo. Soon the dining room was full of relatives hungrily eating a first course of butternut squash and chipotle soup garnished with cocoa-toasted pumpkin seeds and served with aged-cheddar biscuits. While the bowls were emptying, my husband carved the turkeys and the side dishes were passed: Mom’s sweet potatoes in orange cups and her classic sausage dressing, my mother-in-law’s creamy mashed potato casserole, a perfectly sweet-tart cranberry sauce from my sister-in-law, and a squash and radicchio salad from my brother-in-law.

The calm I had felt in the days leading up to the event had not been the calm before the proverbial storm, but rather a sense of peace and confidence that everything was under control, that the day would turn out to be what it should be: a time to spend with loved ones and to reflect on all the things we have to be thankful for.

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies

A few days ago I even managed to bake a batch of cookies–not for Thanksgiving, but just for fun. I had seen a recipe for cardamom thumbprint cookies in Food & Wine and wanted to give it a try, adding lingonberry preserves to the mix for an extra-Scandinavian touch. We certainly didn’t need any more sweets–we had more pies, cakes, and cookies than we could eat–but baking these amidst all of the holiday preparations gave me a chance to do a little something for myself and it also resulted in being able to send home a box of treats with some family members last night.

With Thanksgiving in the past and the countdown to Christmas now here, I’d like to share with you the first in a series of cookie recipes I’ll be featuring on Outside Oslo in the coming weeks. Whether your Christmas preparations include making the traditional syv slags kaker–seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies–or perhaps making just a few batches of favorite family cookies, I hope you’ll find ideas and inspiration here on the blog. I’m aiming to share seven cookie recipes in the weeks to come, but even though I’ve read that it wouldn’t be a proper Norwegian Christmas without at least seven types, I’m modifying the tradition for my family and choosing to do as many–and only as many–as we can make while still maximizing a sense of togetherness, fun, and holiday cheer. Whether that ends up being three, four, seven, or ten types, I’ll be happy with the results.

I hope that you all had a good Thanksgiving and that you have a blessed holiday season.

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies

 Almond-Cardamom Thumbprints with Lingonberry Preserves
Adapted from Food & Wine, December 2013

1 cup fine almond flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Approximately 1 cup lingonberry preserves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and prepare two baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper or using a Silpat baking mat (I did the latter and baked the cookies in rounds batches).

Whisk almond flour, all-purpose flour, cardamom, and salt together in a medium bowl to combine. In a medium-to-large bowl, beat the butter and sugar using an electric mixer for about three minutes, until it becomes light and fluffy; scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary to fully incorporate the ingredients. Beat in the egg and vanilla extracts, then turn down the speed to low and mix in the dry ingredients, just until incorporated. Turn out the dough onto your work surface and knead it a few times, forming it into a ball.

Shape the dough into little balls using a tablespoon measure and arrange them on the baking sheets about an inch apart. Make an indentation in the center of each–Food & Wine suggests using a teaspoon for this–and bake until slightly firm, about 10 minutes. Reinforce the indentation in each cookie one more time and return the cookies to the oven until they start to turn lightly golden and feel dry to the touch. This should take about seven more minutes.

Immediately transfer the cookies to a rack. When completely cool, stir the lingonberry preserves in a small bowl to create a smoother jam (it’s okay to leave the berries intact), then carefully spoon a little into the center of each cookie.

Makes about two dozen cookies.

Celebrating a Family Tradition in Nordic Design’s Christmas Magazine

Nordic Design Christmas Magazine 2013 Cover

One of my favorite holiday traditions is baking with my grandma and mom. Each November we start a months’ long routine of gathering in the kitchen to bake through our family’s traditional recipes. There’s lefse, krumkaker, sandbakkelse, and much, much more. I had the opportunity to share a little about the tradition–along with my grandma’s recipe for sandbakkelse–in Nordic Design’s Christmas magazine this year (find my story on pages 73-76). In addition to my story and some other great recipes, editor Catherine Lazure-Guinard has put together a great compilation of gift suggestions, ideas for decorating, and more. I hope you’ll check it out as you prepare for your Scandinavian Christmas this year!

My Article in Nordic Design Christmas Magazine 2013

Recipe in Nordic Design Christmas Magazine 2013

Images are screenshots from the magazine. Read the story–and check out the whole issue–here.

Mor Monsen Kake – A Classic Norwegian Cake for Christmastime

Mor Monsen Cake

I’ve sat down twice to write this post—actually, I’ve sat down to write it more times than I can count, but twice I’ve drafted something and decided to start over. I’m in a dry spot creatively and I’ve struggled to find the right words to communicate the things I’d like to tell you. I’ve been sitting on this post for far too long, though—and the cake you’re looking like is already long gone—so it’s about time I stop worrying about telling the perfect story and just touch base here on the blog, even if just for a moment.

The cake I’m sharing with you today is called Mor Monsen Kake, or Mother Monsen’s Cake. It’s a classic Norwegian cake flavored richly with lemon zest and garnished with almonds, currants or raisons, and pearl sugar. Have you ever tasted it? It’s been a beloved cake since the 19th century since a Norwegian author wrote what is believed by some to be the first Norwegian cookbook. Hanna Winsnes, in her 1845 book, Lærebog i de forskjellige Grene af Huusholdningen (which Norwegian-born Sunny over at Arctic Grub loosely translates to A manual On The Different Household Chores), included a recipe for this cake, attributing it to Mor Monsen. That woman’s legacy lives on to this day in this popular cake, though we don’t know much else about her.

Mor Monsen Cake

I’m intrigued by the history of recipes—how they originated, what inspired them, who developed them. The mystery surrounding Mor Monsen is part of what draws me to this cake. Was she a friend of the author’s, or perhaps a relative? Did she attend the author’s church (Hanna was the wife of a priest)? What other recipes did she develop that may have been lost (or attributed elsewhere)? We’ll probably never know the answers, but I love that we have her name and that her recipe has stood the test of time: Her cake is still popular in Norway today.

I also wonder about the inclusion of lemon. Citrus is not native to Norway, so it must have been an expensive ingredient for housewives in the 19th century. Perhaps this is why Mor Monsen Kake is enjoyed during holidays such as Christmas, times in which families would work extra hard to provide a special, warm environment for their loved ones.

With the all the questions I have about this cake, I do know one thing: You should make it part of your Scandinavian Christmas this year. The simplest cake batter, all it takes is creaming butter and sugar together and adding the lemon zest and other requite cake ingredients, then pouring it all into a pan. Sprinkle with almonds, currants or raisins, and pearl sugar, then bake. When it’s cooled, cut it into its distinctive diamond-shaped pieces, and you’ll have a cake that’s simple yet elegant, already cut into serving pieces making it great for transport, and that keeps well. I’ve heard that you can even freeze it—though you may not need to.

While we’re on the subject of Scandinavian Christmas, I have a number of recipes lined up for you this season, so I hope you’ll subscribe to the blog and follow along on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. You can also access some of my past Scandinavian Christmas posts here. And now for the cake…

Mor Monsen Cake

Mor Monsen Kake (Norwegian Mother Monsen Cake)
Adapted from Authentic Norwegian Cooking by Astrid Karlsen Scott

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon (salted) butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
6 eggs
Grated zest of one lemon (use an organic one if possible, or scrub thoroughly)
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cups slivered almonds
1/2 cup dried currants or raisins
3 tablespoons pearl sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a 9- by 13-inch pan with parchment paper and grease it.

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, blending thoroughly into the batter before adding the next. Mix in lemon zest. In a small bowl, combine flour and baking powder, then tip into the batter and stir just until combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan, scraping all the last bits from the bowl, then smooth it into an even layer with a spatula. Sprinkle the almonds, currants, and pearl sugar evenly over the top and press the garnishes gently into the top of the batter. You want to do this ever so slightly–Scott says to do this so the garnishes stick to the cake once baked.

Bake until lightly golden and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, 20-25 minutes. Cool on a rack until cool enough to handle, then remove the cake from the pan and let finish cooling (Scott suggests doing this by inverting the pan with a baking sheet). When cool, cut the cake into the signature diamond shapes, or into parallelograms if preferred.

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