”On Christmas Eve father came home early from work. I think at noon. He was served ”mølje”, thin bread soaked in stock, fat, salt and pepper. Dinner at 6 o’clock was the highlight. Rice porridge with sugar and cinnamon. After dinner we had cakes, nuts and a whole orange each”.
Einar Gerhardsen, born in 1897 and the longest-serving prime minister in Norway
More than 100 years on rice porridge is still featuring on the Norwegian Christmas menu along with spiced Christmas cookies and citrus fruits. The orange though has been replaced by the clementine as the quintessential Christmas fruit. Not long ago fruit were rare in Norway. My mother also has fond memories of the orange. Born in 1940 at the outbreak of WW2 in Norway, she remembers how she every Christmas received a shoebox with chocolate and an orange. This was the only orange and chocolate she had for a year.
I on the other hand remembers my grandmother’s boxes filled with traditional Christmas cookies. A household should traditionally make at least 7 different Christmas cookies, but grandmother made even more. Entering the pantry with the adorned boxes was like stepping inside a candy shop from a Roald Dahl story. They were all there. Round serina cookies, jødekaker topped with bits of almond, long sprut cookies, frail sand cakes with almond flour, rectangular goro cookies with beautiful patterns, fattigmenn fried in lard (they were not sweet, hence I never liked them), hjortetakk (a type of Norwegian doughnut but much denser) and thin and crispy spiced gingerbread cookies.
The oldest Norwegian cookies were fried in waffle irons, but the stove revolutionized the household in the 19th century. Now it was feasible for a housewife to make an array of cookies herself. The cookies we eat today for Christmas started as all-round cookies and could well be served at weddings, Easter or other holidays, but sometimes during the 1800s they became strongly associated with Christmas and have retained that status ever since. There is no Christmas without these small and dry biscuits although today few bake more than gingerbread cookies and perhaps another cookie like serina or cinnamon cookies.
Many of the traditions we look upon as archetypical Norwegian originated in Europe, particularly Denmark. The tradition with seven types of Christmas cookies is also home to Finland and Sweden, and the Swedes gobbled porridge and lutefisk as early as 1740. Looking in a Danish Christmas cookbook you will find many of the same cookies as in Norway, not to mention the roast pork with crackling (ribbensteg) and the rice pudding (ris a la mande) we eat for Christmas Eve. In sum, Norwegian Christmas is a Danish affair.
Gingerbread nuts (peppernødder in Danish and pfeffernusse in German), go back to the 1500s or 1600s. They were rich in spices and sugar, luxury items well into the 19th century. In the Medieval Ages spice was a symbol of wealth and cookies were lavishly seasoned. 600 years on it is still the mix of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and cloves that represents the scent of Christmas. A new iPhone may be cool and handy, but it will never achieve the magic of a little gingerbread nut.
This is a fairly large recipe yielding about 6 baking plates.
100 g butter
200 g sugar
200 ml dark syrup
at least 450 g flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1,5 tsp freshly ground pepper
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp baking soda
1. Melt the butter. Beat the eggs and sugar with an electric mixer until pale. Stir the syrup and butter into the eggs.
2. Mix all the dry ingredients well and mix into the batter until you have a dough. Wrap in plastic and keep in the refrigerator overnight. It is important to keep it overnight because it makes the dough much easier to work with.
3. The next day: Preheat oven to 175C/350F/Gas 4. Roll the dough into thin sausages, then cut in 1 cm pieces. Roll into small balls and bake in the oven for about 8 minutes. Keep in a box, preferably old and adorned.