Mor Monsen’s Kaker-Norwegian Christmas Cookies

plate of mor monsen’s kaker (my mother’s cake)

 

I took the winter off from college in 1973, to work at Big Mountain Ski Resort in Whitefish, Montana.  There in my small studio apartment’s kitchen, I first made these incredible bars, which are known for gracing Norwegian Christmases.

Scandinavian baking is in a class all its own.  These people are known to be masters of pastry as well as open-face sandwiches-often incorporating cardamom, rye, and saffron in their creations.   Presently, their culinary genius has reached new heights: numerous times in this past decade, Noma of Copenhagen has been the title winner of The World’s Best Restaurant; it promotes the popular New Nordic cuisine, which is a style of food that has gone beyond the boundaries of Scandinavia.

New Nordic is best known by the terms local and healthy.  In Norway, with a growing season that might last from June until August, it creatively uses the ocean, wild game, root vegetables, and cold-climate berries, such as the native cloudberry, which is highly valued in this country, as it can only be foraged, not cultivated commercially.

My simple, rich recipe exemplifies the culinary excellence of Norway; these lavish bars only call for currants and almonds, amidst the flour, eggs, sugar, and typical pound of butter.

Currants have an interesting history.  Today, these small dried seedless grapes, known as Zante currants, essentially come from the grape cultivar Black Corinth (Vitis vinifera), which is from the genus Ribes.  Related varieties, such as the White and Red Corinth (and other cultivars from the Black Corinth), are used rarely.

There are a total of about 150 categories in Ribes, including the above, as well as golden currants, gooseberries, and ornamental currants.  These various kinds are native to the northern latitudes of Europe, Asia, and North America, and within each individual species there are many cultivars-horticulturally derived plants, as distinguished from natural varieties-which have been developed over time.

Currants, which are most commonly dried, are generally referred to as Champagne grapes, when sold fresh, by U.S. specialty grocers.

The study of the origin of the word currant helps identify the history of our tiny fruit.  Written records of it initially date back to Pliny the Elder in 75 A.D.  A millennium later, we see the Middle English term raysons of couraunte, also known as raisins of Corinth (a region in ancient Greece which produced and exported these Ribes).

The word couraunte stands for (raisins of) Corinth, taken from the name Courauntz, which is of the Norman French dialect-a variety of speech used in Normandy and England in the Middle Ages-for this Greek region; this in turn comes from the medieval Old French Corinthe; thus, the dialectal name reysons de corauntz was first used for these grapes, when they were brought to the English market in the 14th century, from which the word currants eventually evolved.

In the 1600’s trade patterns shifted from Corinth to the Ionian Islands, particularly Zakynthos (Zante); thus, this small grape became known as Zante currant.

In 1854, the Zante currant the Black Corinth cultivar came via a trade ship to the United States, which eventually resulted in its commercial production in California; the related varieties the White and Red Corinth were established there in 1861.  (Presently, this state is one of the four major world producers of currants, with Greece covering about 80% of this total generation.)

Actually, trade ships were bringing varieties of Ribes to our soil as early as the 16th and 17th century; natural Corinth raisins, however, were indigenous here as well; the Native Americans had been harvesting them from the wild, long before any Europeans arrived, using them for medicines and dyes.

These Zante currants,  which were initially reported at the time of Christ, are presently hard to find.  In earlier days, I could find boxes of dried currants in many local supermarkets, but recently I can only find them in bulk at such upscale grocers as the national chain New Seasons, which also carries the seasonal, fresh Champagne grapes.

Try adding this dried delight to your next Waldorf salad, a batch of scones (see Scottish Oat Scones, 2016/06/20), or these superb Norwegian Christmas cookies.  Expect wonders!

References:

https://ag.umass.edu/sites/ag.umass.edu/files/fact-sheets/pdf/currants.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zante_currant

https://1historyofgreekfood.wordpress.com/2007/10/02/raisins-currants-sultanas/

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/best-scandinavian-cookbooks_us_5756c7e2e4b07823f951302c

http://www.cookingbythebook.com/cookbook-reviews/cookbook-review-scandinavian-baking-by-trine-hahnemann/

cutting bars in triangles

Mor Monsen’s Kaker-Norwegian Christmas Cookies  Yields: 4 dozen bars.  Total prep time: 60 min/  active prep time: 30 min/  baking time: 30 min.   Note: these freeze extra well, to have on hand throughout the holidays.

1 lb plus 2 tbsp unsalted butter, softened

2 c sugar  (Organic is best; available at Costco and Trader Joe’s.)

4 lg eggs

1 tsp vanilla

2 c flour  (Bob’s Red Mill organic unbleached white flour is ideal; may also grind 1-1/3 c organic soft winter white wheat berries to make 2 c fresh-ground flour.)

distributing currants on dough

1 tsp salt  (Real Salt is important for optimum health; available in nutrition center at local supermarket.)

3/4 c almonds, chopped small (May purchase almond slivers for easy chopping.)

1 c dried currants

A large 11” x 16” cake pan*, or a 12” x 16” jelly roll pan  (May use a 9” x 11” pan, in addition to a 9” x 9” square pan.)

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Grease pan-see optional sizes listed above-with 2 tbsp butter; set aside.
  3. Cream pound of butter with sugar, until light and fluffy, using an electric mixer.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well with each addition; mix in vanilla.
  4. distributing almonds on top of currants

    Blend flour and salt easily, by shaking vigorously in a sealed gallon-size storage bag; then, add this to butter mixture, beating only until all is incorporated, to keep cookies from toughening; set aside.

  5. Chop almonds fine with a sharp knife, or use a food processor, by repeatedly pressing down on the pulse button, cutting any big chunks in half with a sharp knife.  Set aside.
  6. Spread batter evenly on greased pan; sprinkle surface FIRST with currants; see photo in list of ingredients; then, distribute almond pieces over the top of these; see photo above.  Press nuts and currants down into batter slightly with fingers, so they are embedded; see photo below.  (This keeps them from falling off the baked bars in crumbles.)
  7. Bake for 20-35 minutes, or until golden brown, time varies with pan-size.
  8. While bars are still hot-using an 11” x 16” pan-cut 4 rows across the width and 6 rows across the length; then, cut these squares in half; see photo of cutting technique at top of recipe.  (Amount of rows may vary with differing pan

    pressing almonds and currants into dough, to embed them before baking

    sizes.)

  9. These freeze really well, to have on hand throughout the holidays.  They are a treat!

Rosee, a Medieval Dish Flavored with Rose Petals

Rosee-a medieval dish flavored with rose petals

rosee, a dish flavored with rose petals

As I was envisioning this series on foods of the Middle Ages, I was told of a renaissance happening here in our city: we have been chosen as one of eight finalists in a national competition called America’s Best Communities.  Its goal is community revival in America.  This makes me aspire towards Tualatin leading the United States in the regeneration of its local people.

The best is always saved for last-dessert!  This medieval recipe, rosee, reproduces more of the excellent flavors of King Richard II’s court.  However there is a greater value in this post; here I share my vision for revival along with this delicious dish.

Some historians say the Renaissance, or birth of humanism, had its heritage in the beliefs and customs of the Middle Ages.  I discovered this truth in The Encyclopedia of the Renaissance.  This movement’s inheritance is defined there: its patrons were often the medieval church and the papacy, the lives of the saints, along with the Bible, its artistic themes.  The questions of the Christian faith and morals were its issues, while the prayers and canons of the Mass constituted the texts for its music. Indeed the burgeoning of the Renaissance is founded in the spiritual and intellectual traditions of the medieval church. 1

A number of historians made this connection.  Likewise my series on 14th century, medieval foods gave me impetus for a proclamation: I see an awakening happening here in Tualatin (which began with prayer in my Abundant Life Family Church).  We will lead our country with renewal, a renaissance.

Our town has already received $100,000, as a finalist in the above competition, to establish this vision.  Mobile Makerspaces, a well-equipped trailer, presently reaches certain schools.  It establishes a powerful birthright in our children, who are our future.  This happens with a bounty of traveling technical equipment, such as creative electronics and 3-D pens.  These ingenious tools give tomorrow’s citizens hands-on experience with big concepts in STEAM (an acronym for science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics).  Mobile Makerspaces is igniting our youth with passion for these disciplines.

Our city’s Mayor Lou Ogden, the Tualatin Chamber of Commerce, Mirror & Mask Community Theatre, Tualatin Public Library, and Tigard-Tualatin Public School District are all partnered together to implement our winning project.  Tualatin will grow as a result of this promotion of ‘on-fire learning’.  These powerful activities draw our excited youth into careers in these areas.  Much will be accomplished as a result of this.  Our own underemployed and unemployed will get jobs, while our local industries’ deep need for skilled workers will be met.

I clearly see us as winners.  We will lead the nation in community revival.  Tualatin’s future is rosy, so is America’s!

  1.  Paul F. Grendler, ed., Encyclopedia of the Renaissance, 6 volumes (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1999), Vol. 1, p.431-436.

Rosee, a Dish Flavored with Rose Petals is adapted from a historical recipe in Lorna Sass’ To the King’s Taste (New York: Metropolitan Art Museum, 1975).  Yields: 4 servings.

5/8 cup whole raw almonds

1 1/4 cups boiling water

1 1/2  tbsp honey

dash salt, plus more for garnishing  (Real salt is best, available in health section of local supermarket.)

1/4 cup dried, crushed rose petals  (You may use the 1/2 cup fresh petals that haven’t been sprayed; tear these into small pieces.)

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1/8 tsp dried ginger

1 tsp rice flour  (Rice flour is available in bulk at certain supermarkets, such as New Seasons.)

1/2 cup dates, chopped fine

1 1/2 tbsp pine nuts

1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

Fresh rose petals for garnish  (These are optional.)

  1. Chill a medium/large bowl and beaters for an electric mixer in the freezer. This facilitates the whipping of the cream.
  2. Prepare almond milk.  (May be done up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated.) Place almonds in a food processor and repeatedly press the pulse button, until nuts are finely ground.  May also use a Vitamix or blender.  You will need to add 3 tbsp ice water, during the grinding process, if using either of these last two appliances.
  3. Boil water in a medium saucepan.  Dissolve honey and dash of salt in boiling water.  Stir in ground nuts.  Take off heat, let sit for 10 minutes, stir several times.
  4. Add rose petals to almond milk and let soak for 10 minutes more.
  5. Add cinnamon and ginger.  Cook for 5 minutes over low heat; stir occasionally.
  6. Sprinkle flour over milk mixture; continue cooking, while beating with a wire whisk until thickened.
  7. Add dates and pine nuts.  Mix well with a spoon.  Remove from heat, set aside, and cool to room temperature.  Do not cool in refrigerator.
  8. After custard is cool, beat the cream in the frozen bowl, until it forms soft peaks.
  9. Fold whipped cream into cooled custard.  Chill.
  10. Place in individual serving dishes.  Lightly salt each serving and garnish with 2 fresh rose petals, if desired.

 

Medieval White-Dish

White-dish

white-dish

Here is a bird’s eye view of a 14th century nobleman’s kitchen, as was common during the reign of King Richard II.  It consisted of a large, separate structure with many fireplaces built along the walls, each with its own cooking area.  At least one fireplace was large enough to roast a whole ox.  A raised open hearth was situated in the center of the kitchen.

Bake metes (baked foods) were concocted in an oven, prepared first with a blazing fire, getting its brick walls red hot.  Cooks placed the pies, custards, and pastries in the hot oven, after they swept out the ashes.  These items baked, behind a closed door, until the oven was cool.

Bakers, however, made breads in separate buildings in larger kitchens, such as that of King Richard II.  The stoves in these bake houses were often 14 feet wide.

Our king was extravagant; he daily entertained over a thousand guests.  There is record of a very large shopping list for a banquet he gave on September 23, 1387. His overseer included 14 salted oxen, 2 fresh oxen, 120 sheep, 140 pigs, 120 gallons of milk, and 11,000 eggs, among taxing quantities of other items.

These feasts were held in the castle’s great hall.  Here the king and special guests sat on a raised platform, or high borde.  The lesser guests assembled at tables that paralleled the side walls.  The backless benches, on which they sat, were called banquettes; thus we got the name banquet for such affairs.

Cooks in many of these kitchens prepared white-dish, or blank-mang.  It was a popular dish in England, as well as on the Continent, during the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s chef made this receipt.  Our poet wrote in his “Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales (c.1386):  “For blancmange, that made he with the best.”

I am indebted to Lorna Sass for her documentation of this information in To the King’s Taste (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975).  Below is my version for her delicious, historical recipe.  Its preparation is easy with my introduction of 21st century appliances  Can’t encourage you enough to try this.  It’s a palate pleaser!

Next week I will be making the connection between these medieval foods and our “renaissance” happening right here in Tualatin, Oregon.

White-Dish is adapted from a recipe in Lorna Sass’ To the King’s Taste (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975).  Yields: 4-6 servings.

2 large chicken breasts

2 1/2 cups water

1 1/4 tsp salt  (Real Salt is best, available in health section of local supermarket.)

1/2 cup raw whole almonds

1 cup brown rice  (I like basmati rice, available at Trader Joe’s.)

3 tbsp butter

4 tsp brown sugar, packed down  (Sucanat  evaporated cane juice, may be substituted; this is close to what they used in the Middle Ages.)

3 tbsp anise seed

1/4 cup sliced almonds

  1. In a tightly covered medium-size saucepan, over medium heat, boil chicken in water, to which 1/4 tsp salt is added.   Boil for about 10-15 minutes.  Be careful to not overcook.  Check meat by cutting with a sharp knife; center should be slightly pink.  (Meat will be cooked more later on.) Remove chicken from broth; set aside both broth and meat.
  2. To make the almond milk, grind 1/2 cup whole raw almonds in a 11-cup, or larger, food processor. Pulse repeatedly until almonds are a fine powder.  (A blender or Vitamix will also work; add 2 tbsp of ice water to nuts, before grinding, if using either of these.)
  3. With food processor running, slowly add two cups of broth through the feeder tube on top of the processor.  (You may have to add water to make 2 cups of liquid; if perhaps you have extra broth, be sure to save this.)  Let sit for 10 minutes.  This makes almond milk.
  4. Put almond milk in the saucepan.  Add remaining 1 tsp salt, 1 tbsp butter, and sugar.  Bring to a boil over medium heat.  Add rice, cover,  and reduce heat to medium low.  Simmer gently for about 40 minutes, or until rice is soft.  Watch carefully so rice doesn’t cook dry; gently check bottom of pan with a fork, being careful to not stir rice.  Add more broth, or water, as needed.
  5. Meanwhile dice chicken into 1-inch cubes.  Set aside.
  6. In a small sauté pan, cook almond slices in remaining 2 tbsp of hot butter.  Watch carefully, sautéing only until light brown.  Salt them lightly and set aside.
  7. Crush anise seed using a mortar and pestle.  May also grind in a DRY food processor by pulsing lightly.  Set aside.
  8. Add chicken when rice is soft; stir, and cook about 5 more minutes, or until meat is hot.  Watch moisture in bottom of pan, so rice doesn’t burn, add water or broth as needed.
  9. Serve garnished with buttered almond slices and crushed anise seed.  SO GOOD!

Medieval Perrey of Peson Soup

Perrey of peson soup

perrey of peson soup

This heavenly soup is from the late 14th century manuscript collection titled the Forme of Cury (Manner of Cookery).  King Richard II, who reigned in England from 1377-99, requested the compilation of the methods of food preparation from his grand court. This record of 196 recipes resulted.  He was an extravagant king who daily dined with over 10,000 guests.  It took 300 cooks to prepare his extraordinary meals.  These manuscript receipts providentially allow us to replicate, in part, the flavor of his feasts.

Lorna Sass discovered two volumes published by the Early English Text Society, while she was researching at the Columbia University library in the early 1970’s. They were filled with Medieval manuscript recipes; among them was the Forme of Cury. She published a number of these in To the King’s Taste in 1975.  Here she includes both the original version in Middle English and her translation of that. This is followed by her developed cooking instructions based on a 70’s kitchen.  Her goal was to plainly duplicate these exceptional tastes as closely as possible.

I have simplified several of her recipes even further; my versions utilize our modernized conveniences nearly fifty years hence.  Perrey of Peson, puree of pea soup, is my first inspiration.  The flavor here is much the same that our illustrious king experienced.  However I substituted dried peas for the shelling of fresh ones; thus, this distinctive soup is available year round.  Poetic license had me choose yellow peas instead of green.  Either will do.

The basic techniques for preparation in medieval times were much the same as today. There was paraboyling, bakying, stewying, scaldying, broyliying, tostying, fryeing, boilleing, and roosting.  However these manuscript recipes only document vague preparatory steps with the needed ingredients.  There were no quantities and not many details.  Below is an example: here you’ll find this soup’s receipt given in its entirety as taken from Sass’ book:

“Take peson and seeth hemsaft and cover hem til thei berst.  Thenne take up hem, and cole hem thorgh a cloth; take oynons, and mynce hem, and seeth hem in the same sew and oile therewith,; cast thereto sugar, salt, and saffron, and seeth hem wel thereafter, and serve hem forth.”

Indeed let us serve this forth!

A pot of perrey of peson soup

a pot of perrey of peson soup

Perry of Peson  Yields: 8 servings.  Total prep time: 1 hr & 20 min/  active prep time: 20 min/  cooking time: 1 hr.  This puree of pea soup is adapted from a manuscript recipe from Lorna Sass’  To the King’s Taste (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975).

2 tbsp oil  (Coconut or avocado oil is best; olive oil at high temperatures produces carcinogens.)

1 large yellow onion, chopped

2 cups dried yellow peas  (Available in bulk at Winco; may substitute dried green peas; I choose these yellow peas, though the manuscript recipe calls for fresh peas.)

2 quarts bone broth or 2 liter-boxes chicken broth (See recipe under Tortellini Soup, 2016/10/10, for easy, inexpensive bone broth.)

2 cups water

scant 1/4 tsp saffron threads  (Spanish saffron available inexpensively at Trader Joe’s.)

2 tbsp brown sugar, packed down in spoon  (May also use sucanat, evaporated cane juice, which is close to what they used in the 14th century.)

Season with Better Than Bouillon, a healthy chicken base  (Most grocery stores carry this.)

White pepper and salt, to taste  (Real Salt is best, available in health section at local supermarket.)

  1. Heat oil in a medium sauce pan, add onions, and sweat (cook until translucent).
  2. Add peas; stir to coat with oil.
  3. Add broth, water, and saffron; bring to a boil over medium temperature; reduce heat and simmer at a low boil for 1 hour, or until peas are very soft.  DO NOT ADD SALT WHILE COOKING, AS PEAS WON’T SOFTEN.
  4. Add brown sugar when peas are soft.
  5. Next season with a small amount of Better Than Bouillon; taste and add more slowly.  Add white pepper and, finally, salt to taste.  Add these last three items slowly, adjusting as you go, until desired taste is achieved.
  6. Take off heat and puree with a stick blender, also known as an immersion blender, available at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
  7. Check seasonings again, serve hot.  Freezes really well also.  Explodes with flavor!