When I was growing up in Buffalo, Christmas was a time to remember the old country, and many of our holiday traditions were more European than American. In my family, we always opened gifts on Christmas Eve and our holiday foods were Norwegian, Polish and Italian.
My Norwegian grandparents, Karl and Solveig, immigrated to America in the late 1940s, soon after my grandfather was freed from a Nazi prison camp. At their house, under a wall decorated year-round with deep blue Bing and Grondahl Christmas plates, we feasted every Christmas Eve at a table laden with Norwegian cheeses, cold cuts, bread, crackers, pickled herring, meatballs and homemade Norwegian Christmas cookies.
The holiday bread was “julekake,” a round yeast loaf studded with raisins and citron. Baked during the Christmas season by Norwegians, Swedes and Danes, the bread is similar to panettone, with one very important difference. While the Italian Christmas bread is gently flavored with vanilla and lemon, julekake is spiced with cardamom.
It’s been about 25 years since I tasted my grandmother’s julekake, so this year, for the first time, I decided to bake my own.
When I opened the tiny glass jar of cardamom pods, the smoky-citrus aroma, like incense in a church, unlatched heart-warming memories of my girlhood. As I crushed the pods in my Krups coffee grinder, the scent escaped like a genie into my house and drifted for hours.
To experience “cardamom aromatherapy” and for a fresher taste, I recommend that you buy the pods not the pre-ground spice and grind the pods yourself.
Solveig’s recipe is lost in time, but I found one that I liked in Meta Given’s “The Modern Family Cookbook,” circa 1961, and changed it a bit after researching other recipes online. The recipe called for citron and candied fruits. I substituted raisins and dried cherries.
1 package active dried yeast
1/3 cup lukewarm water
1 cup scalded milk, cooled
3 2/3 to 4 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 ½ tsp. freshly ground cardamom from whole pods
¾ tsp. salt
1/3 cup melted butter, cooled to lukewarm
½ cup raisins
½ cup dried cherries
Proof the yeast with the lukewarm water in a large bowl. (If you’ve never done this, watch this video.)
Add the lukewarm milk, one of the eggs and about half the flour to make a soft batter and beat well. Let rise in a warm place until double.
Add the sugar, salt, cardamom, melted butter, remaining flour, raisins and dried cherries.
Mix lightly, then turn out on a lightly floured board and knead for 10 minutes. Place dough in a clean, buttered bowl and let it rise again in a warm place until double.
Shape into one large round loaf. Brush top of the bread with beaten egg (the second egg). Place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper.
Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. Let bread cool completely.
To serve, slice thinly and spread with butter.
The bread freezes well. Leftover julekake also makes delicious French toast. Or make your own chai by mixing ground cardamom with warm milk, black tea, cinnamon, cloves and ginger.
From Norway with love
Before I made julekake, I connected on Facebook with family members in Norway.
Monique, who is married to my cousin Arild, sent me a picture of four plump, golden loaves baking in her kitchen near Oslo.
“There’s never a Christmas without julekake,” she said. “I baked it with my mother and now with my daughters.”
Monique uses a recipe from Ingrid Espelid, often called the “Julia Child of Norway,” who was host of a cooking show on Norwegian TV from 1970 to 1996.
Monique’s bread contains only raisins, never candied fruit, because “we don’t like it,” and she serves it for breakfast, lunch and on the Christmas “cold table,” a help-yourself buffet of many unheated dishes. When guests drop in, julekake is served with coffee, Christmas tea, glogg and cookies.
In my message to cousin Wenche, in the southern city of Sarpsborg, I told her about how the smell of cardamom brought back Christmas memories.
“That is a good smell of Jul (Christmas),” she said.
This year, Wenche will travel north of the Arctic Circle to bake julekake in Tromso, the town where her daughter lives.
During the holidays, Wenche enjoys a slice of julekake topped with Norwegian brunost, a sweet brown goat cheese.
What is cardamom?
- The plant has small spindle-shaped pods filled with tiny black seeds, and is native to India, Bhutan, Indonesia and Nepal. Today, it’s mostly grown in Guatemala and India.
- Legend has it that the Vikings encountered the spice in Constantinople (now Turkey) and brought it home to Scandinavia.
- With saffron and vanilla, it’s among the world’s three most expensive spices by weight. (I paid $9.99 for McCormick’s jar of whole pods)