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Choreographing a Swedish Christmas
by Betty Sayers
The rhythm of life steps to a faster beat after Thanksgiving in my small Nebraska town. Our population descended from Swedish and German immigrants and we celebrate the Christmas holiday with fervor. Christmas Eve and Christmas day celebrations cap the year for us rather like the star on the top of the Christmas tree. We hang boughs of pine on our doors, string sparkling lights across our eaves and porches, shop for gifts, wrap them in colorful papers and tie them with a bow, but the true machinations of the season take place in the kitchen.
In my family, our mother was the CEO and Director of Christmas Present, and she acquired her status from her delight in the season and her interest in and ability to replicate the Swedish traditions that the season inspired. Her amazing culinary skills were acquired from her grandmother Anna Johnson and Grandmother Johnson’s sister, Aunt Augusta, both of whom emigrated from Sweden in the 1870s. As immigrants do today and always will, they brought recipes and memories of their family celebrations with them to America. Both Anna and Augusta were employed as housekeepers for the John Deere family in Moline, Illinois when they first arrived in the United States, and this is where they first learned to adapt the Swedish recipes to foods and customs they found in America.
Beginning in December, when I was growing up, my mother and her family members marched to the tune of Christmas Past in the Swedish tradition of Grandmother Anna Johnson. They prepared for our traditional holiday feast, a Swedish smorgasbord as near to the one Anna and Augusta remembered as was possible to replicate far from the seaside of Sweden and in a small town on the Nebraska prairie.
Lutefisk & Baked Potatoes
Swedish Sausage & Cinnamon Apples
Ham (for the more than one person in the family who detested Lutefisk)
Swedish Rye Bread & Butter Balls
Cheeses: Ost, Cheddar, Edam
Pickled Herring (prepared by my mother’s cousin who gave it as a gift)
Boiled Shrimp & Cocktail Sauce
Ostkaka & Lingonberries
(Ostkaka, a clotted milk pudding served with lingonberries required fresh, creamy unpasteurized milk. I believe we purchased the ostkaka from a Swedish cook in Bertrand , and we bought the lingonberries from a grocer who imported them from Sweden.) Cookie Plate
Boiled Swedish Coffee
As a child and later as a helper in the kitchen, the scheduling of the many tasks to stage a Christmas Eve Smorgasbord impressed me. We prepared nearly every item in our kitchen or Great Grandmother Johnson’s kitchen, and as with all things in the realm of cooking, timing is everything.
Four weeks before Christmas
Schedule the cookie baking with the women in the family, Aunt Jane, Aunt Gladys, Grandmother Titus, Grandmother Johnson, Aunt Augusta, and any grandchildren that showed an interest. (Most of us were interested in tasting sweet cookie dough, although we were threatened with scary diseases that children who ate the dough might contract, and the opportunities to taste were few.) The matriarchs and family gathered weekly in great grandmother’s kitchen to make and bake mandelkrans, filled sugar cookies, rolled ginger cookies decorated with powdered sugar icing, powdered sugar cookies, lemon bars, and many others I can’t recall.
The queen of Swedish cookies and the one most challenging to make perfectly was the mandelkrans, a delicate, tender wreath made of ground almonds, butter, sugar and flour. The challenge was stirring in enough flour for the dough to spurt from the cookie press with ridges on the wreath yet not so much flour that the cookie would be tough and taste more of flour than almonds. The second challenge involved snipping delicate chips of red and green from candied cherries to form two holly-like leaves and a berry. The pieces needed to be so delicate they were nearly transparent and only a few in the family acquired such a skill. A cookie sheet of mandelkrans needed nearly full concentration from the baker from start to finish because they were baked to done yet never brown. The perfect mandelkrans was always butter yellow from the top through to the bottom.
Much easier to make and bake than the mandelkras were filled crescent cookies. The women gathered in Great Grandmother Johnson’s kitchen would roll out a sugar cookie made of butter, sour cream, sugar, flour and almond flavoring, cut it with a cookie cutter into a perfect circle, fill it with a teaspoon of a raisin and date filling that someone prepared ahead, fold it, form a crescent shape, sprinkle with sugar and bake until done but again not brown. The cookie was crisp and flaky with a spicy, moist center.
Three Weeks before Christmas
To prepare Swedish sausage we needed sausage stuffing equipment and natural hog casings. Anna Johnson’s recipe called for barley instead of the commonly-used potato in addition to pork and beef, finely ground, mixed together by hand, and seasoned with salt and pepper. The hog casings needed to be soaked in cold water and cleaned. Natural casings are silky, slippery tubes, and a skillful adult hand was required to gently scrape each casing free of fatty deposits.
Swedish food is lightly seasoned with only salt, pepper and maybe dill or caraway seed. Until my dad elected to make the sausage, it too was seasoned only with salt and pepper. One year he declared it bland and jacked up the flavor with garlic. The traditionalists were shocked and registered their disapproval, but the second and third generation liked it, and garlic in the Swedish sausage became a tradition.
Two Weeks before Christmas
- Buy dried slabs of a cod called lutefisk from a Swedish grocer and if you can, buy the dried codfish already partially soaked so that instead of one month of hydrating the fish and soaking out the lye, and changing the water daily, the process may be handled in two weeks.
- Soak the fish in cold water for 14 days changing the water daily to drain off the lye. Keep the Lutefisk cold, at a temperature slightly above freezing.
I believe my mother added bread sticks to the Swedish smorgasbord. Everyone likes them because they are salty, buttery, brown, and crunchy.
- Mix dough for breadsticks, let rise, roll into sticks, brush with butter and sprinkle salt or poppy seeds on the sticks, let rise, and bake in a hot oven until brown and crisp and crunchy.
- Hide away in a dry, cool cupboard because these will disappear one by one until none are left for the Christmas Eve smorgasbord.
Grandmother Johnson’s recipe for Swedish rye bread called for sorghum, not molasses, lard, not butter and brown sugar. The bread is a light, delicately textured, rye. The dough is sweet and sticky. Only an expert baker can handle and knead the dough without a huge sticky, gooey mess and a failure. Once again it seemed that the proportion of flour to liquid is critical since too much flour and the bread tasted of flour instead of sweet, tender rye and too little flour, and it can’t be handled. I never mastered the recipe although Mother still makes it with ease.
One Week before Christmas
Peel and core firm, tart apples. Slice into ½ inch rounds. Mix equal amounts of sugar and water and heat to a simmer. Add hard, red cinnamon candies. Poach the apple slices until they are tender, basting often with the syrup. Drain and cool. Cover and refrigerate.
Butter balls are small balls of butter rolled between two butter paddles. The paddles are carved to produce delicate ridges in the butter. My father‘s friend brought us butter and cream from her small dairy herd every Christmas. A melon baller formed the ball from the lump of butter, and mother’s expert hands twirled the paddles to make the decorative butter balls.
One day before Christmas Eve
Set the table
Set the smorgasbord table. Red and green table cloths, silverware, glasses, candles, the Swedish crown of straw arranged with bright globes of oranges and apples were all arranged the day before Christmas Eve.
Boil the eggs
Boil the eggs for the deviled eggs and cool overnight in the refrigerator.
Christmas Eve Day
Whew! We helped mother in the kitchen from early morning until the guests arrived at 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve. We stuffed the celery, cut the carrots into long, thin strips. Made the deviled eggs and decorated them with paprika and a slice of a stuffed green olive. Arranged the cheeses and crackers on a tray, boiled the shrimp, peeled the shrimp, and made the shrimp cocktail sauce always remembering that a taste of horseradish adds zip.
Mother simmered the lutefisk in a cheese cloth until it flaked. She removed the bones and started a medium white sauce. We washed, oiled and salted the brown baking potatoes. They were baked an hour before serving time so they were hot from the oven, and the skins were crisp and salty. Mother, the Chef, wound coils of sausage into two large skillets.
The sausages were simmered until cooked through, and then browned gently and maintained at a warm temperature in the busy oven until serving time. We sliced the rye bread at the last minute, lit the candles and invited the family to the smorgasbord. Exclamations of admiration and delight for the glittering table and array of food greeted mother as she carried the final chafing dish with the lutefisk to the table. She slipped off her apron looking relaxed and lovely in a slim cranberry wool dress and high-heeled patent-leather shoes.
Always some part of the dinner seemed to require an apology from her. She would say, “The fish doesn’t seem as white or mild as last year or the rye bread didn’t rise as high.” We all denied her claims since every food on the table was exceptional in its quality, flavor, arrangement on the plate, and met the over-the-top standards of Swedish tradition.
The food was wonderful, the company pleasant yet the powerful memory of Christmas Past is my mother. As the tap of the conductor’s baton elicits music from the orchestra, my mother choreographed Christmas Eve featuring the traditional Swedish smorgasbord. Every step was practiced and planned. Her movements were precise, spare and graceful. The preparations were sequenced so that each built on the other and culminated in a bountiful and beautiful table. The memory of her beauty and talent and generous spirit is Christmas to me.
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