Tag Archives: Swedish cookies

Christmas cards & cookies

17 Dec

17 December 2022.

Childhood memories have a powerful influence that seems even stronger as we age. Christmas memories can be particularly profound after decades of revisiting traditions from our youth. Reflecting on those memories from a distance of 60+ years offers a far different view than when you are 25.

My mother was a force at Christmas. I did not always recognize that. Where she got the energy in the 1950s and 1960s after working hard all day, on her feet as a nurse (in white uniform, cap, and sensible shoes, of course) I do not know. She came home and night-after-night wrote cards to dozens of people. This was not simply a matter of pulling out the address book and working through it, and she certainly did not have at her disposal the time-saver of a printer to merge addresses with address labels. Out came the cardboard table to reside in a corner of the living room until Christmas Eve day. Out came the boxes of cards, address book, holiday stamps, and the Christmas Card Ledger. We’d call it a “tracker” these days, I suppose. This ledger was a list of everyone she had sent cards to the prior years. Alongside their names, there were several columns encompassing years with a check box each for “sent” and “received.” Mom could record each person she graced with a card by year and also record if we had received one from them. I recall her having a guideline that if you did not receive a card from someone for two-or-three years, you dropped them from the outbound list.

A Christmas card from the Nortons was not simply signed or imprinted “Ruby & Eric,” (later by her name alone) but every single one included a personal note of some sort. It might be “It was great to see you in July,” or “We enjoyed the pictures of your family.” Mom did not think it appropriate to send a card if you weren’t going to personalize it. Some notes were longer and although I do not recall any Christmas Letters, there may have been one. Each card was hand addressed, return addressed, and stamped. Dozens of these went out each year and dozens were received, each sender dutifully recorded in her ledger. There was one photo card that I was clever enough to hang onto.

Circa 1959, brother Rick, our dachshund Pete, and me. Photo by our dad, no doubt.

Once the cards were done, the card table was put to use making at least five kinds of traditional Swedish Christmas cookies. Our favorite was probably the sandbakkels, a delicate buttery sugar cookie made in a special tin. We liked to put ice cream in them. Others included krumkaka, pepparkakor, snowballs (aka Russian tea cakes), and spritz. Other than the snowballs these delicate confections were futzy to make, requiring care in handling, control of humidity (not a problem in a Minnesota winter), and storage where your children could not access them until Christmas Eve. I recall there being peanut blossoms some years and sugar cookies my sister and I could decorate. Grandma made rosettes, but that is another story.

Mom made DOZENS of each cookie. Some went to neighbors in the popular cookie-exchanges of the era, but most were saved for the festive dinners whether at our house or one of the grandparents’.

Intermittently Mom would use said card table for wrapping gifts. This was often done after our bedtime, of course, and Santa gifts were always wrapped in a paper we had not seen in the household supply so the myth was perpetuated visually in the wrapping. I think only once, well past my years of innocent belief, did I discover a hiding place.

Of course all of those gifts were purchased in person. Mail order was rare in our house and there were downtown trips with Grandma and Mom during which I am certain some gifts were procured as we waited to see Santa.

I was just shy of two-years-old in this picture. Brother Rick was four years older. He still is.

We always got at least one thing we desperately wanted (Barbie Dream House, anyone?) and I know now that was not easy for our parents financially. There were full stockings although I always thought an orange and an apple in the toe made unfortunate filler. Raised in the Depression, Mom thought it practical.

Eventually little Nancy came along, 7 years after me. This is about 1964.

The truly crazy thing my parents did for several years was to invite in the neighbors, close friends, and sometimes teachers (I was honored and mortified when my 5th grade teacher showed up) to come ON CHRISTMAS DAY for brunch! They arrived over a period of a couple of hours, probably 3 dozen people all told, to eat Swedish sausage and Swedish pancakes. My mother labored over the Plett pan all morning, making 7 tiny, delicate, delicious pancakes at a time to refill the serving platter on the table until everyone was satisfied. No wonder we always were at the grandparents for Christmas dinner. Making all those pancakes is no small feat. I can barely make the darn things at all (it requires patience I do not have), but my brother has mastered the craft and we look forward to his Christmas breakfasts every year.

A Swedish Plett pan in which one makes plättar which are served with lingonberries. Yum!

Also at the brunch on Christmas Day, our dad poured eggnogs with rum and God-knows-what other cocktails while Mom sweated over the electric range and manned the electric skillet frying the sausage. Her cookies were also consumed in mass quantities that day. I remember her being dressed up, hair and make-up done, wearing a pretty Christmas apron.

I did not follow my mother into nursing nor did I ever master her cookies. My papparkakor always broke and since IKEA makes a very good ginger thin in a pretty Christmas tin, why go to the nightmare of making those from scratch? My sandbakkels either came out of the tins too thick and tough, or if as thin as they should be, crumbled upon release from the tins. I did not have my mother’s touch.

This is what sandbakkels should look like.

This year, after more than a decade, I managed to make krumkaka although taking 60-90 seconds per cookie to make them one-at-a-time taxed my patience. My first batch was lovely but humidity softened them up by the next day. I consulted my co-blogger Krumkaker for her Norwegian version. I am delighted to report that the batch I made yesterday is delightfully crisp today and they taste even better. They are incredibly delicate and with apologies to my brother, they are not going to make the trip to Durango. Next year I will send you a krumkaka iron and figure out how make them at a high elevation. I am bringing some not-fancy-but-tasty treats, calories be damned.

My first batch of krumkaka, tasty but failed in Oregon humidity. And my “new” krumkaka iron looking like one already any years old thanks to all the butter in the batter.

Similarly I do not send Christmas cards; at least not very many. I love receiving the cards and photos and letters from our friends but making a list and writing out cards is just not one of my habits at the holidays. For a few years I followed the trend of doing an e-card, cobbling together pictures from our travels. Now when we take our annual trips we talk about getting a really good picture of us together and maybe doing a card. We got exactly one picture together (below) on our 2022 trip which I classify as “not bad,” but certainly not worthy of designing a card around.

So apologies to my dear friends who take the time to write cards and letters and perhaps to send photos of children, grandchildren, and travels. We relish reading them and feeling like we have a little more connection as a result. Please do not take us off your lists!

This blog is my way of connecting to you and if you follow along, you have an idea of what we’ve been doing over the course of the year. Thank you for coming along on our adventures.

A Merry Christmas, (or Buon Natale or God Jul), Happy Hannukah, and Happy New Year to you all! May your holidays include some of the magic of youthful memories.

Hiking in the Alpe di Siusi, September 2022.

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