Christmas Eve will find Sylvia Wedul Pecsenye wearing the authentic dress of the Norwegian town from where her father's parents emigrated in the early 1900s. The Christmas Eve porridge will be in the slow cooker, and tins of treasured Scandinavian cookies will be ready. These are only a few of the ways the Toledoan preserves her Norwegian heritage at the holidays.
As an exchange student at the Teachers College of Oslo, she lived with a family in the Norwegian capital for a year in the 1960s. “I made a promise to the Norwegian lady I stayed with as an exchange student that I would always wear [the national costume],” said Mrs. Pecsenye. The wool jumper has a black skirt trimmed in a band of embroidery at the bottom and a red bodice with silver lace worn over a white blouse. A special brooch at the neck accents the dress and a matching purse attaches to the belt.
Meanwhile, the traditional Christmas Rice is in the slow cooker, started early in the evening. Mrs. Pecsenye, her husband, Steven, and their family will enjoy it later that night.
“It is an adaptation of my Norwegian grandma's recipe for the Christmas Eve porridge,” said Mrs. Pecsenye. “It is served to the family for supper, sometimes with a peeled almond slipped in. The lucky one to find the almond gets to make a wish, or maybe there is a present for the almond-finder.” It may also be served as a midnight snack after church services.
In Norway, a bowl of Christmas porridge - rather than the American custom of Christmas cookies - is left by the fireside when everyone goes to bed, so the Christmas elf, Julenissen, can have a snack as he makes his rounds.
When the porridge is finished cooking, sugar is added and it is served in bowls. “It's a warm comfort food on a cold winter night,” she said.
“When my Hungarian father-in-law ate this at our house, he said it was just like what his mother made! Norwegian, Hungarian ... at least it's surely ethnic!”
Indeed, many American families engage in traditions unique to their heritage around the holidays. Many of these celebrations typically include authentic foods.
In the Pecsenye kitchen, colorful tins of Scandinavian cookies are prepared for the holidays. According to Mrs. Pecsenye's mother, who lives in Minnesota, “at least nine things are served with coffee,” said the former elementary schoolteacher who now works with Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Toledo.
Among the cookies are Danish Oat Cookies, Thumbprint Cookies dotted with a spoonful of jelly on each, deep-fried rosettes using a special iron, and Krumkake made on a flat waffle-type iron and then rolled with a cone.
Almost every cookie recipe has a story to go with it.
“My sister says to fill [Krumkake] with whipped cream and jam - cloudberry jam,” said Mrs. Pecsenye, whose sister lives in Madison, Wis. (The cloudberry is found in northern climes such as New England, Canada, and Scandinavia. This amber-colored version of the raspberry is too tart for out-of-hand eating, but makes excellent jam.)
“I use my grandma's recipe made with cream and eggs instead of butter and eggs; and it uses vanilla and not cardamom,” she said of the spice that is used widely in Scandinavian cooking. “There are so many different recipes.”
Krumkake is similar to an Italian pizzelle, except the batter is thinner. Using a preheated 7-inch iron with hinged sides on the burner of the stove, Mrs. Pecsenye has perfected the technique.
“You place about 1 tablespoon in the Krumkake iron,” she said. “Then you close it immediately and count to 15 and then you turn the iron over and count to 15.” Quickly open the iron, insert the clip on the cone, and twirl the baked cookie for a rolled tuile-type cookie.
Making one cookie at a time is labor intensive. Mrs. Pecsenye hopes to find an electric Krumkake iron, which makes cookies two at a time, under the Christmas tree this year.
The Danish Oat Cookie recipe is from the cooks at the school where she taught in Iowa. “They had such a quantity of government dairy products to make use of that this recipe was perfect,” she said, recalling the surplus items of those years. “If you are not going to use real butter, don't even mess with this recipe. Some things cannot be replaced, and one of those is real butter in cookie recipes.”
Other sweets include yeast breads, quick breads, and a “wet cake,” a sponge cake made with fruit and juice that soak into the cake. It is topped with whipped cream and may sit overnight.
“You would never serve this immediately because the wet ingredients need to soak into the baked and cooled cake,” she said.
The table will be set with Christmas dishes - Porsgrund china from southern Norway. “You can buy this china with Christmas hearts and pines,” she said. “I finished my set at Hudson's here 10 years ago. It is still open stock.”
The delicate coffee cup is smaller than the standard American cup, and a beautiful silver demitasse spoon nestles on the rim of the saucer. “Norwegian coffee is not espresso but it looks blacker, but doesn't have the caffeine,” said Mrs. Pecsenye. The coffee service is set on a royal blue Norwegian tablecloth that has a map of the country; the cloth is laid diagonally across a lighter blue cloth. Hand-carved wooden figurines from Norway decorate the table laden with Scandinavian cookies.
“I think all of these recipes are so easy,” she said.
For more information about the Krumkake iron, consult kitchenware stores such as Kitchen Tools & Skills in Perrysburg and Gourmet Curiosities in Sylvania.