I took the winter off from college in 1973, to work at Big Mountain Ski Resort in Whitefish, Montana. In my small studio apartment’s kitchen there, I first made these incredible bars, which are known for gracing Norwegian Christmases.
The Culinary Excellence of Scandinavia
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 Cuisine
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.
The Origin of Currants
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.
Historical Background of Currants
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.
Currants in America
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), or these superb Norwegian Christmas cookies. Expect wonders!
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.)
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.)
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Grease pan-see optional sizes listed above-with 2 tbsp butter; set aside.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- Bake for 20-35 minutes, or until golden brown, time varies with pan-size.
- 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
- These freeze really well, to have on hand throughout the holidays. They are a treat!