The Christmas season in Sweden is a six-week-long extravaganza, beginning in late November with the first Sunday in Advent and ending Jan. 13, Knut's Day, when the Christmas tree is ceremoniously removed. But the culinary high point is Dec. 24, when family and friends gather around the Julbord, the Christmas smorgasbord, for the most lavish meal of the year.
Traveling across the Atlantic to spend the holiday in the Swedish countryside with my husband's brother, Thomas Rosenberg, and his wife, Kerstin, I imagined a modern version of the Christmas Eve scene in Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander": the house festively decorated and illuminated by candlelight, the groaning smorgasbord, and young and old dancing through the rooms, singing the traditional carol, "Now It's Christmas Again."
And indeed, from the moment we walked into Thomas and Kerstin's home, at dusk on the 23rd, I kept thinking of the Swedish word stamningsfull, "full of feeling, atmospheric." The air was redolent with the scent of cloves, ginger, and cinnamon from the gingerbread house their teenage daughter, Elin, was making.
Every room had a subtle touch of Christmas, from the ceramic figurines of mischievous gnomes in the upstairs hallway to the twin gingerbread hearts, inscribed with the words God Jul, Merry Christmas, hanging by ribbons from the kitchen window.
The most anticipated day of the year, Dec. 24, began with a breakfast of risgrynsgrot, a thick, creamy rice pudding.
My artistic sister-in-law had embellished the pudding's surface with ground cinnamon sprinkled in a cross-hatch pattern. Alongside stood a pitcher of blueberry soup, a sauce to cut the richness of the pudding.
In keeping with tradition, Kerstin had hidden a single almond in the rice pudding; according to folklore, the finder will be wed during the coming year. My 11-year-old daughter, Tina, poked and prodded her portion with the tip of her spoon, searching, then burst out with "I found it. I found the almond!" Her teenage cousin Carl teasingly asked "Who are you going to marry, Tina?" Feigning annoyance, she shot back, "Oh, be quiet!"
The remainder of the morning was spent putting the final touches on the Julbord, Christmas smorgasbord, the most lavish meal of the year. In the past, Kerstin might have spent days preparing everything from scratch. But this year, she had taught school until the 23rd and therefore included several ready-made dishes in our dinner. By 1 in the afternoon,14 of us were gathered in the candlelit kitchen with another 10 relatives arriving later for dessert.
Like all smorgasbords, this one began with fish. Kerstin had two kinds of pickled herring, one in mustard sauce and the other in a cream sauce, along with a whole smoked salmon fillet.
However, in the rush to prepare everything, she had forgotten all about the lutefisk stored in the freezer. No one seemed to miss the bland, gelatinous, much-maligned, cured salt cod, customarily hidden under a blanket of white sauce.
The centerpiece of this Julbord - and almost every other around the country - was the Julskinka, Christmas ham. While some Swedish families today choose turkey or goose instead, pork still remains the most popular holiday entree.
Kerstin had cooked the ham in the traditional way, first curing it with salt, then boiling it for several hours with Julkorv, Christmas potato sausage, then leaving the ham in the broth overnight to cool. The next day, she dried off the ham, covered the outside with a coating of egg and mustard, sprinkled it with bread crumbs, then baked the meat at a high temperature for 15 minutes before serving. The ham emerged from the oven with a golden-brown crust, a complex, aromatic flavor, and a firm, mild, meaty texture; in short, the best ham I'd ever tasted.
The smorgasbord included at least a dozen other de rigueur holiday dishes. There were meats such as leverpastej, chopped chicken liver pate, garnished with cornichons and Cumberland sauce; revbensspjall, ginger-flavored, oven-roasted pork ribs; Julkorv, the Christmas potato sausage; and tiny smoked prinskorv sausages; as well as Kerstin's delicious homemade Swedish meatballs.
Root vegetables appeared in several guises: braised red cabbage and apples; rodbetssallad, a tart salad of chopped red beets blended with sour cream and horseradish; and Jansson's Frestelse, Jansson's Temptation, a casserole of potatoes, onions, anchovies, and cream. The Swedish staple, kokt potatis, boiled white potatoes - peeled but otherwise unadorned - acted as a foil for these complex dishes.
Rounding out the meal was a yellow cheese, 6 inches tall and nearly as wide, studded with caraway seeds and decorated with a red and white band embroidered with the words God Jul. The selection of accompanying breads included Kerstin's homemade French-style loaves, hardtack, and a holiday rye bread flavored with orange zest.
In the middle of the afternoon, the rest of Kerstin's family arrived for dessert and coffee. With two dozen people, the house was too crowded for dancing around the Christmas tree, which was safely tucked into a corner.
In the past, Swedish housewives were expected to present their guests with at least seven kinds of baked goods. I was amazed that Kerstin and Elin managed to turn out six different desserts. Elin had baked two cakes - an orange pound cake and a mjuk pepparkakor, spice cake - while Kerstin had made four types of cookies. These included chewy, moist macaroons; slytbollar, soft butter cookies with strawberry jam centers; kringlor, butter cookies shaped like pretzels; and, of course, pepparkakor, gingersnaps, topped with slivered almonds.
Rolled very thin, the pepparkakor dough had been cut in the shape of tiny boys and girls, hearts, and pigs (reminder of the Christmas ham), and baked at a high temperature for a few minutes, giving them their characteristic "snap."
Darkness comes early this time of year. By 3:30 in the afternoon, the light was so thin that the scene outside the kitchen window - the neighbor's light- gray house with white trim, the dark bare trees, the cloud-covered sky - looked like a black-and-white photograph tinted with the palest blue wash.
But inside, the kitchen glowed with warmth and color.
Sitting in the cozy kitchen, I contemplated the wall hanging my sister-in-law had embroidered, its simple message illustrating the season's gustatory pleasures which Kerstin and her family had so generously shared with us.
Three gnomes stitched in red each carried something for the Christmas feast - a three-pronged candle, steaming porridge, baked ham - while the fourth, smaller gnome sat with a basket of apples. Stitched above the figures were the words, "Porridge [rice pudding] and ham, the little apple bit, Think how good it tastes, little elf."
And, indeed, it did.
Ginger Cookies (Pepparkakor)
Start cookies a day ahead as the dough should be chilled overnight.
4-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons cinnamon
1-1/2 tablespoons ginger
1/2 teaspoon powdered cloves
2/3 cup water
13 tablespoons butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces
Mix flour and baking soda in a bowl; set aside. In a heavy-bottomed, medium pot, combine molasses, sugars, spices, and water; bring to a boil, stirring. Add chunks of butter. Remove from heat, continue stirring until butter is melted. Pour this mixture into a large bowl and add the flour and baking soda mixture, stirring until a dough is formed. When cooled, shape dough into a loaf, wrap in plastic wrap and then foil, and chill overnight.
If you don't intend to bake all of the dough at once, cut off only as much as you need, then return the wrapped loaf to the refrigerator. Let the dough sit at room temperature for 30 minutes or until it warms up enough to roll.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Lightly grease sheet pan. Roll dough out on a lightly floured board with a lightly floured rolling pin. The thinner you roll the dough, the crisper the cookies will be. Cut into shapes and place on the baking sheet. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until cookies are browned. Remove from oven and transfer cookies to a wire cooling rack. Cookies can be stored in airtight plastic bags or metal tins for several weeks. Makes about 100 cookies.
Spice Cake (Mjuk Pepparkaka)
For a more exotic taste, substitute an equal amount of cardamom in place of the ground ginger.
6 tablespoons butter
2 egg yolks
1 cup light brown sugar
3/4 cup cake flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoons ground ginger or cardamom
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 cup sour cream or buttermilk (not skim)
1/4 cup orange marmalade
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Cut a circle of parchment or waxed paper the same size as the inside of a 9-inch round cake pan and press into the bottom of the pan. Grease and lightly flour cake pan (over paper).
Melt butter over low heat and cool. Whisk egg, yolks, and brown sugar together. In another bowl, whisk flours, baking soda, and spices until blended.
Add sour cream, marmalade, and melted butter into the egg and sugar mixture; stir until thoroughly blended. Add flour mixture and stir to combine the ingredients.
Pour the batter into the pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes.
Cool on a wire rack. Remove from pan and peel away paper.
Swedish Christmas Ham (Julskinka)
A fresh ham may be ordered from your butcher. A fully cooked ham, available in American markets, can be given a Swedish flavor by studding it with cloves, coating it with a mustard and bread-crumb mixture, and roasting it for 15 to 20 minutes. Swedes often use the ham drippings for 'Dopp i Grytan' - literally 'dip in the pot' - for lunch on Christmas Eve.
1 fresh (uncooked) ham, approximately 6 pounds
About 20 whole cloves
3 to 4 tablespoons coarse Dijon mustard
2 to 3 tablespoons dried bread crumbs (whole wheat, preferred but not necessary)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Rinse ham and pat dry. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the ham, but not touching the bone. Wrap the entire ham in heavy aluminum foil, with the thermometer sticking out so it can be read without unwrapping the meat.
Place in a roasting pan and bake on the lowest rack until the temperature reaches 175 degrees - about 25 minutes per pound. Remove ham from oven and drain off pan drippings; remove foil.
Increase oven to 400 degrees.
Insert about 20 cloves into the top of the ham in a criss-cross pattern. In a small bowl, beat the egg and mustard together, then spread the mixture over the outside of the ham. Sprinkle bread crumbs over the mustard mixture. Place ham back into the oven, (without the foil) and roast until ham is golden brown and the inside reaches a temperature of 180 degrees F. - about 15 minutes. Slice and serve.
Serves about 8.
Braised Red Cabbage and Apples (Rodkal med Applen)
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound red cabbage (about 6 cups), shredded
2 apples, cored, peeled, sliced thinly
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
Dash of ground cumin
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1-1/2 cups apple cider
In a large shallow pan, melt butter; add cabbage. Saute uncovered over low-to-medium heat for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring frequently, until cabbage is wilted.
Add apples. spices, raisins, vinegar, and 1-1/4 cups of cider to the cabbage; stir. Bring to a boil, turn heat to simmer. Cover, for 45 minutes to 1 hour, adding more cider as needed, until cabbage and apples are soft and tender.
Serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society