December 12, 2009

A Scandinavian feast: NaCoBakMo, Day 13.

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:43 pm by the Green-Eyed Siren

This past Wednesday, Day 13 of my NaCoBakMo odyssey, was the day of our church’s annual St. Lucia dinner. For more years than any of the long-time members can remember, our congregation has been gathering in the church basement on a December night to celebrate the Scandinavian holiday of Santa Lucia Day (officially December 13).

The party starts with the drinking of glögg (see Bonus Recipe #1 below), a comfortingly warm and alcoholic beverage to help offset the truly frigid conditions that seem always to be present on the night of the party (this year was no exception). After some pleasant glögg-enhanced chitchat (for my crowd, the subject is often “how are we going to manage to pull off the Sunday School Christmas pageant this year?”) and the saying of grace, it’s time for some eats. Here’s the view from my seat:

The hands of many volunteers put together the main courses: ham, meatballs, and Swedish potato sausage (which sounds peculiar, but is delicious), as well as a few key sides like the special cheeses and appropriate crackers and whatnot. Attendees pay a small amount for a ticket (this year it was only $10) and bring a potluck dish to share. By the time all is said and done, let’s just say there is no reason for anyone to walk away hungry. I am always worried that there won’t be enough potatoes at any given food-focused event (potatoes are unreasonably important to me), so I brought the world’s best potato gratin (see Bonus Recipe #2 below). It vanished pretty quickly.

After the eating is over it’s time for telling the story of Lucia, the young Italian girl who carried food to the hungry in the night, wearing candles on her head to light the way so that her hands would be free to carry her offerings. No one is quite clear on how Lucy’s legend migrated to Scandinavia, but it seems that this story of a light-bearing maiden struck the fancy of a part of the world that deals with extended darkness around this time of year.

The story is followed by the Lucia procession, wherein a young woman of the congregation dressed in a white gown, head bedecked with a crown of candles (electric, fortunately), enters the room carrying a tray of coffee and Lucia buns (some kind of caraway roll that has never really grown on me). Behind her are the other young women of the congregation, also dressed in white but without the crown distinction, carrying candles. Next come the Star Boys, boys dressed in red choir robes, clutching stars; the Star Girls take up the rear, wearing the Sunday School’s collection of angel costumes and also carrying stars. All of this takes place under dim lighting to the sound of the old Neapolitan tune “Santa Lucia.”

They make their way to the basement stage and assemble there in a little tableau (see blurry photo above). All the kids are introduced to the crowd, and then they make their way back through the basement to the narthex where they will lose both costumes and angelic demeanors, transformed back into their normal, energetic selves. Here’s my little Starboy and Stargirl holding still for a quick picture before becoming regular kids again:

I’d like to be all sophisticated here and say that the whole thing is kind of hokey, but I can’t. I’m plenty cynical, and plenty argumentative when it comes to religion, but, still, this is just nice. It’s quite special to the kids, and it’s hard not to get a little lump in your throat when you see them all enter in their sweet procession. Plus the food is good, and there’s glögg. How could I not respond to such a formidable combination?

For today’s cookie, I turned to Bev, one of the older women in our congregation. I admire her tremendously. I first met her when I was a last-minute soloist substitute at her husband’s funeral. Her husband had been the much-loved choir director there for a lengthy tenure, so many people came to pay their respects; in that cruel twist of all funerals, she was called upon to bring comfort to all those in attendance while simultaneously coping with her own staggering loss. She impressed me then with her strength.

I came to know her better as I started helping out more often as a ringer in the choir, an opportunity for which I am truly grateful.

In her younger days she raised a large family while also teaching gifted students. She is sharp as a tack, funny and irreverent, able to look at the world with both eyes wide open and accept the negatives of life while fully embracing the positives. She isn’t hidebound by an “it’s always been this way, why should we change, that’s not going to work” attitude. She’s open to new ideas and experiences, and when she commits to something she really gives it all she has. In short, Bev is a fabulous dame. I want to be her when I grow up. Between Bev and my mother, who is very much a woman cut of the same cloth, I have plenty of guidance to get me there.

Bev is one of the chief orchestrators of the Lucia ritual, and she is known for the pepperkakor she contributes to the sweet table. Pepperkakor, a cookie of Scandinavian heritage, is a lot like gingerbread, but I’d describe it as a little lighter and a little thinner. It seemed like the perfect choice of cookie for a day of Lucia celebrations.

Enough explaining. Time for the recipes.

Bonus recipe #1: Glögg
This is mostly derived from a book in my mother’s cookbook library which I’m guessing was published sometime in the 1960s, possibly titled The Art of Swedish Cookery, but also with adjustments from my mother and me. The cookbook’s recipe calls for flaming it in a chafing dish and serving with a long-handled ladle, but I’m omitting that because who can wait for such a thing? Plus, you lose so much alcoholic goodness as the wine burns. I am SO not cool with that.

1 part port to 2 parts burgundy (I use Cabernet Sauvignon instead, and I go with the 1.5 liter bottles of supermarket wine. No need to go all fancy pants here. Spices quantities below based on using 1.5 liter bottles; reduce if using .75 liter bottles.)
3/4 to 1 1/2 c raisins
2 T cardamom seeds
6 cinnamon sticks
1/2 to 1 c sugar, to taste
1 t whole cloves
2 small pieces lemon peel
1/2 to 1 c almonds, optional

Pour 1/2 of port and all burgundy into large pot. Add raisins and sugar. Tie spices in cheesecloth and drop into the mixture. Cover pan and bring very slowly to the boiling point. Let simmer 30 minutes. Add remaining port a few cups at a time, tasting for the balance that is most pleasing to you. If it seems like a good idea (it generally does to me) add a little vodka. Maybe you need a bit more sugar? I’m just asking…no, really, if you don’t think you need it that’s fine—it’s delicious. Whatever seems right to you. Now’s a good time to add the almonds if you plan to. Serve hot hot hot! I have a glögg-dedicated coffee carafe I use for parties—wonder where that got to? Also, Bodum glass teacups (mine are from Crate & Barrel) are perfect for serving.

You must understand that a glögg recipe is less a specific chemistry formula than a broad guideline. Just keep tasting to see what works for you. By the time you pronounce it done you’ll be three sheets to the wind, but that will only enhance your glögg’s perfection. And, remember, even though there are as many glögg variations as there are cooks who make it, I’ve never tasted a cup I didn’t like.

Bonus recipe #2 (No photos, though—I was racing against time to get to the dinner. Yes, it is technically French, not Scandinavian, but considering its ingredients are potatoes, cheese, and cream I think it certainly counts as Lutheran.)

Madame Cartet’s Potato Gratin
from Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking, one of my top two cookbooks of all time, the other being Julia Child’s The Way to Cook

1 garlic clove
2 lbs (1 kg) baking potatoes
1 c (about 3 ounces; 80 g) freshly grated French or Swiss Gruyère cheese
1 c (25 cl) crème fraîche or heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350º. Thoroughly rub a shallow, 6-cup (1.5 l) porcelain gratin dish with the garlic. Layer half the potatoes in the dish. Sprinkle with half of the cheese and then half of the crème fraîche. Sprinkle with the salt. Add another layer, using the rest of the ingredients. Bake, uncovered, until the gratin is crisp and golden on top, from 50 to 60 minutes. Serve immediately. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Note: I quadrupled this recipe for the Lucia dinner, but I really should have quadrupled it twice and had two giant dishes of it—it would easily have been polished off. When increasing the quantity, it is really, really important to leave additional baking time, as I learned one memorable Christmas eve when the gratin failed (to my horror, I might add; there was a chef in attendance that night). I had the dish in the oven for at least an hour and a half, and it might have even been an hour and forty five minutes. Turned out perfectly, I’m happy to report. When I went to claim my pan at the end of the evening, the kitchen ladies said, “That was you? It was the best one!” Yup.

Back to our regularly scheduled cookie.

A word about baking. When you’re getting ready to bake, and especially before you decide to double a recipe, read through the whole thing. Don’t make any assumptions about quantity just from the amount of butter it calls for. That is a rookie mistake, or at least a mistake born of a combination of way too much to do and extreme sleep deprivation. Please note that you will never, ever have a good reason to try to double this pepperkakor recipe. It makes a ton, and while a KitchenAid mixer is a wonderful tool it simply cannot handle 8 cups of flour. And when you are midway through making the recipe and discover your error, you will be in such a fix as will cost you an hour you didn’t have in the first place to deal with it, easy. Plus you will embarrass yourself. “How’s that pepperkakor going?” “Oh, um…it’s fine! It’s going fine!” Yeah, that’s right. A lie of omission to a lady you respect. Nicely done, Siren.

Bev’s Pepperkakor

1 c butter
1 1/2 c sugar
1 egg
2 T light corn syrup
2 T baking soda mixed in 1 T liquid coffee
1 T each ground cloves, ginger, and cinnamon
4 c sifted flour

Preheat oven to 325º. Prepare cookie sheets with parchment, or use nonstick cookie sheets. Mine are nonstick and I had run out of parchment, so I went without; they came off the sheet with no trouble.

Allow to set for an hour or two; DO NOT CHILL. Roll out the dough thinly. It is very crumbly and fussy, so have patience; it helps to be well-rested. Cut shapes from dough using cookie cutters. (Bev recommends hearts because they use the dough efficiently and produce the least scraps, a helpful suggestion given the fussiness of the dough.) Bake on cookie sheets for 8-10 minutes. Allow to cool on sheets for two minutes, then transfer to rack to cool completely. Cookies will darken as they cool.

Yield: I don’t know, because so many things went wrong as a result of stupidly doubling the recipe. Also, it depends on the size of your cutters. But, really, I’d say the recipe makes quite a lot. I got 48 good sized, very tasty cookies out of my efforts, with a lot of dough left over before I had to give up and go to bed. If I had had time I would have baked up the rest the next day, but I never stopped running and just couldn’t pull it off. Lessons were definitely learned on this one.

LATER TODAY I’ll catch up with my post for Day 15: a simple but spectacular cookie from my grandma.



  1. harri3tspy said,

    I love that picture of the kids. I was a Santa Lucia girl when I was in either preschool or kindergarten. I had real birthday candles on my head, though. I can’t believe they did that. But that’s not why I’m commenting. The glögg recipe made me remember some kind of Swedish cake (?) that your mom had at your engagement party, lo, these many years ago. And it’s testimony to its superior taste that I still remember it. It was made of a series of stacked rings, getting smaller toward the top, so the whole thing was shaped like a Christmas tree. I don’t think there was any icing on it, but there may have been powdered sugar. I remember it as being one of the most delicious baked goods I’ve ever eaten. I’d love to know what it is.

  2. Ah, that would be kransekake. I should make one for this project. They are indeed beautiful and delicious. Only problem in my house is they are very much a nut product. Maybe I can violate my no-nuts rule just one time; it’s a tree nut, not a peanut, so it’s much less of a threat. And Junior would never eat it anyway!

  3. […] few days ago, I told you about my church’s annual Santa Lucia Dinner, a heartwarming event built around the Scandinavian celebration of Santa Lucia Day. Each December […]

  4. harri3tspy said,

    I just saw a picture. That’s it! I would love to see a recipe, even if you decide it’s not a safe one to do around Junior.

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