(HOST) This week VPR commentators are serving up some “Very Vermont Food”. Commentator Nils Daulaire still bakes Norwegian Christmas cake every Christmas morning.
(DAULAIRE) Cardamom. Now that’s the smell of Christmas.
My mother left Norway as a young woman, and she and my father settled first in a cold-water walk-up in Brooklyn. Times were tough, although life in the city was new and exciting. But she had grown up in the forests and mountains, and her heart remained in Norway. Fortunately for us, so did her palate, especially at Christmastime.
Her ancient Norwegian cookbook propped up on the kitchen counter, she would start a week before Christmas creating piles of cookies made with powdered deer antler – an ancient Norwegian ingredient – rich batters, endless quantities of butter and a range of spices that made my head spin.
The cookies were wonderful, but the real payoff came on Christmas morning. She told me how she remembered coming downstairs as a little girl just in time to watch her mother take the Christmas cake, the Julekake, from the oven. She would breathe in the fresh-baked aroma of cardamom and candied fruit and sit on a stool, watching the Julekake cool as, through the window, the dim light of a late morning midwinter sunrise frosted the pines and birches down the hill from my grandfather’s subarctic farm.
It wasn’t Christmas for her without Julekake to warm the morning, served steaming with generous portions of sweet butter. But it wasn’t really Christmas without the full stage of nature as well. My mother missed her childhood’s scenery, and so, years after they had come to America, my parents began to search for someplace that felt more like home.
At last, they found it – an old tumble-down hill farm in Royalton, Vermont, abandoned for a decade and close to ruin. But the old timbers were solid, and the view…well, it looked out across a wooded valley, over seven ridges to the spine of the Green Mountains. Down the hill below the house were birches, then behind them a stand of pines. It felt…familiar.
I was a boy that first year we celebrated Christmas in Vermont. The house was only partly rebuilt and heated mostly by an old wood-burning kitchen stove. The mornings were bitter cold, and sometimes there was a skin of ice in the kitchen sink. But not that morning. I don’t know if my mother had been to bed at all, but the kitchen stove had clearly been blazing for hours when that special aroma of roasting cardamom crept under my covers. I ran downstairs and warmed myself impatiently at the crackling stove for the last few minutes of baking.
At last she opened the oven door, and a puff of wood smoke mingled with the sweet and exotic smells of the nicely browned Julekake. My mother set the cake to cool on a rack by the window, and pulled up a stool so I could sit and watch it, breathing in Christmas. I looked out past the steaming cake, down the hill and across the pines and birches of our Vermont farm.
And my mother put her hand gently on my shoulder and said, “Welcome home.”
This is Nils Daulaire, wishing you a “Gledelig Jul” from my kitchen in Royalton.
Doctor Nils Daulaire is President of the Global Health Council, headquartered in White River Junction. He spoke from our studio in Norwich. Monday morning we’ll sample more Very Vermont Food when Rosemary Fifield describes how to make Cuccia – a holiday tradition familiar to many in Vermont’s Italian community.
Nils’s Norwegian Julekake (Christmas brunch cake)
This takes about 3-1/2 hours, start to finish, about 10 minutes of active work, the rest rising and baking.
1/2 C butter
1/2 C milk
1 pkg active dry yeast
1/2 C warm water
1/4 C granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 tsp powdered cardamom
1 C raisins (light, dark, cranberry, mixed, whatever – the more the merrier)
3/4 C diced candied fruit (a mix, by your own choice of colors, of orange peel, lemon peel, pineapple, cherries)
3-1/2 to 4 C sifted flour (King Arthur, of course)
1 egg white, beaten
Powdered sugar (optional)
Heat butter with milk until melted. Cool to lukewarm. In a 3 qt mixing bowl, sprinkle yeast onto warm water, stir until dissolved. Stir in sugar, salt, egg, cardamom, raisins, candied fruit and milk mixture. Gradually stir in flour, beating well after each addition, until you have a fairly still dough. Knead gently with your fingertips for about 3 minutes on a floured surface. Grease (or butter) a 3-5 qt bowl, but dough in and cover with a damp towel. Put in a warm place and let rise for 1-1/2 to 2 hours until about double in bulk. Turn onto a lightly floured kneading board, knead lightly until no longer sticky. Cut into 2 equal portions, form into balls and put on a baking sheet (far enough apart, or on 2 baking sheets) that has been coated with butter and lightly floured. Cover with towel, let rise again about 1 to 1-1/2 hours, until doubled in bulk. Preheat oven to 350. Brush dough top with beaten egg white.
Bake 30-40 minutes (check for doneness by tapping lightly with your finger nail – should sound hollow; or stick a baking pin into the cake and see if dough is no longer sticky inside). Cool on a wire rack; sprinkle (if desired) with powdered sugar.
Real Norwegians believe that the Julekake is best if it has been allowed to set up for a day or more. Personally, I prefer it still warm, sliced and served with generous quantities of sweet butter. Will keep in the freezer for months.