Monday, December 26, 2011

Nana Would Be Proud

One of my latest passions (stick around long enough, and you'll find I flit from one thing to another) has been to reclaim my Norsk heritage and help my mom with a search for her ancestry.  Two years ago, she treated me and the college-aged bitter child (daughter) to a trip back to our homeland, where we met our two long distance distant cousins, Rebekke and Marthe, with whom I still correspond on Facebook today.  My mom took my middle sister and her eldest daughter this past summer.

Someday soon, I'd like to take my husband and my sons there to show them all the splendors that is Norway, the fjords, the fishing, the outdoors, the slim diet (except for the bread and muesli), the rustic nature of it all, but I hope my husband does not notice the economical clean part of Scandinavia that I did not inherit at all.  I mean, I like a nice sparse wood floor and all, but my definite clutter habits make me a very poor Norwegian housewife.

I joined the ranks of organizations such as the Norwegian Society of St. Louis and Daughters of Norway, even though St. Louis is certainly not the hub-bub of Scandinavian activity.   I mean, heck, we don't even have an IKEA here (not for lack of wanting, though).

When I went to Norway, I remember feeling completely at home with mannerisms of the people there - often times flooding me with memories of speech patterns and habits of my mother's mother, Nana.  From the little breaths in as they say, "Ja," acknowledging your comments and participation in conversation to the Oy yoy yoy's or Huff Da's as they remark on something unremarkable to the diet they follow to the traditions they celebrate to their consummate love of the out of doors, I knew that I was amongst these people from the moment I arrived.

When we ate a home cooked meal from our new found relatives, we saw in our own traditions similarities and knew now where these might have been passed down from.

No one was better at these little traditional idiosyncracies than my mom's mother, Nana.  All the kids in her family had a first name and a middle name, and they were called by their middle names, a Norwegian tradition.  My mother's mother was Agnes Florence, but everyone called her Flo.  So for years, she was Nana Flo.  She had a sister named Alma (a popular Norwegian name) and a sister named Gladys (but for the life of me, I can't remember their real "first" names).  She also had brothers, Sig (short for Sigurd) and Rass (Clarence - but our family name was Rasmussen, so he was called that after his father), and Lloyd.

My nana told me how she used to be embarrassed by her mom, who spoke Nisse Engelsk (Norsk and English - or broken English), so she would never tell her when school events (and my nana was the first in her family to graduate high school) were so her parents did not have to attend.  Whenever I asked Nana why we ate herring on New Year's Eve or what Glaedig Jule meant or why we say Huff Da or other expressions and mannerisms she did, she never could tell me the Norwegian part of it, just that it was how her parents did it, and that's how we were going to do it.

And so began the tradition of eating dense sweet spice-like bread called Yulakaga - or that's how I thought it was spelled and SAID all throughout my years growing up an Norwegian.  I never asked about lutefisk or ligonberries or anything else.  I just ate them and figured everyone else was eating them, too.

And that's also how I felt about Christmas Eve, with no Santa Claus, and singing Glaedig Jul and singing the Norwegian Table Prayer and growing up with toe-headed fair-skinned blue-eyed cousins and a stoic matriarchal Aunt Annette who made awesome Fatigmann cookies and almond cake, and uncles who said "yoost" for just and "Wikings" for "Vikings."

So now as I rekindle and learn about my heritage, I've tried to bring back those memories by cooking things I never got recipes before Nana died.  I never got Nana's stories about anything - that's just kind of the Norwegian way.  It's not that we're a cold people - it's just that it's just life, and move on - at least that's what Nana Flo taught me.

I had every intention of making Julekake or more like Julebrød the day before Christmas Eve so I could let it proof in time and then bake it early Christmas Eve so I could give a loaf away to my husband's family and have some warmed in time for Christmas morning with butter and Gjetost (another weird thing that Norwegians like - brown cheese.

It really tastes like caramelized sugar spread, if you ask me.  My mother loves it), but I didn't quite make it there, since Christmas Eve is always reserved for my PITA husband (like father, like son) to run around and get last minute gifts since he feels guilty about not buying anyone anything before then.

So I woke up pretty early Christmas morning, considering I went to bed at 2 am having just put up the tree then, to start my Julekake.  This is the saga of that Julekake.

I thought I was doing myself a favor by buying unbleached bread flour by King Arthur because earlier, for the Norwegian Society Julefest, I had made an almond cake (mandelkake) with their cake flour and baker's sugar, and it turned out very moist and fine.

Perhaps though, it wasn't really what I should have purchased.  I also bought Hodgson's Mill's yeast for multi grain bread dough (although it said it would work with any flour), and perhaps that's why this Julekake was unsuccessful in my own terms.

It wasn't that it wasn't moist - because it was.  And it was dense; but it did bake all the way - it just never rose to the height I thought it should.

I remember Julekake being not really fruitcake-like texture, and in a flatter round shape, which mine was, just a little more saffron-y in color and a little lighter.  Mine was more like rockakake, as one of my fellow Nords from Daughters of Norway said happened to her mother one year.

There are many variations of this recipe, but I took mine from a pretty authentic Norwegian girl's website, whose recipes have been successful before. However, perhaps I didn't scald the milk enough or too long. Perhaps it was the yeast, or the flour, or both.

Or perhaps I kneaded it just a little too long. It did creep like a vine up my trusty steed of a stand mixer while I was using the bread dough hook in hopes of having to work out my tris and bis a little less. After all, when this was proofing, I was going to get in that 6 mile run with PITA.

When I came back from the run, I peeked inside my oven which I kept on warm, and maybe that was the problem, too. I had the husband turn off the oven after 20 minutes, and so the dough was rising in a heated oven but not hotter than 150 degrees. It still had not doubled in size.

But we were running short on time, and I was going to put one in a stoneware ring mold and bake it and bring it to my husband's mother's house, so I had to get it going.

Although I was supposed to divide the dough into three loaves, I was not able to do so without getting enough that would rise.  I settled for two instead.  And still, they did not rise double in size, so I had to start the baking process.

They baked pretty quickly, and despite the instructions to grease the pan, I did not grease stoneware, and they stuck to the pan.  Upon taking them out, I knew this Julekake was going to be pretty chewy, so I made some quick Confectioner's Sugar glaze to drizzle over the loaves.

My mother-in-law, as usual, forgot that I had brought the Julekake, so we didn't even eat it overthere, even though I had mentioned it three times. (My family hates raisins, so no one was looking forward to eating it.) But I still had my trusty round loaf at home.

Of course, I tested a piece before I brought it over there last night, and it really wasn't all that chewy as I thought it was going to be. And so this morning, with my coffee and cream, I had my Julekake, not half bad at all, and all my memories returned. Even the husband said he'd eat a piece (and then proceeded to eat two or more), although he did say it would stick with him for quite a while.

God Jul, everyone!