Seeking happiness and joy for the holidays

Locket my Mormor (maternal grandmother in Swedish) gave me when I turned 16.

Locket my Mormor (maternal grandmother in Swedish) gave me when I turned 16.

Happiness should be the one thing always present during the holiday season — after all how times do you hear the word ‘joy’ uttered in December?

Unfortunately, it’s not always effortless to be happy this time of year — there’s so much to do, so much stress and so many expectations that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. My job is particularly crazy in the winter. If people seem neurotic about their Thanksgiving dinner, imagine being responsible for the meat for hundreds of Christmas Eve and New Years Eve dinners. Some of the chefs I know could out-diva Mariah Carey and her requests for rooms full of white kittens.

So this year my co-workers and I came up with a brilliant idea — a happiness advent calendar. Each day one participant brings a small gift to the other 14 participants. It’s been awesome. I’ve come into work every morning to find treats on my desk, amongst them a peppermint Rice Krispie treat, a seasonal beer and a camel turd. There was a platter of apple slices with a jar of caramel sauce, a homemade lollipop and even a taco bar.

Peppermint Krispie Treat & Hot Cocoa

Peppermint Krispie Treat & Hot Cocoa

Let me tell you — it’s a mood lifter that I desperately needed this year, as my grandmother, one of the people I was closest to my whole life, passed away on Dec. 3rd, just nine days before her 96th birthday.

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Nothing says “home for the holidays” like headcheese…

A traditional Smörgåsbord favorite, Swedish Headcheese

A traditional Smörgåsbord favorite — homemade headcheese served with red wine vinegar and pickles

My mother’s side of the family has many of traditions that seem to crop up around the holidays. There are the usual ones that almost every family has in common — baking cookies, picking up the freshly cut tree and sticking an orange at the toe of each stocking.

We also have a few slightly more unique ones, such as presents that aren’t as they appear. At our house, if you get a package that feels strangely light, the chances are high that you’ll be sent on a treasure hunt of some kind before you can claim your gift. We take pride in coming up with new ways to out-clever each other, but my grandmother is the reining champ.

She has made me decipher full letters written in Swedish, with only a dictionary to help guide me through the clues. She has folded up money into tiny pieces and stuffed it into dried pasta noodles. I once had to pop a dozen balloons to get a gift certificate out. She’s a devious mastermind when it comes to giving gifts.

She is also the main provider of our more…well, unconventional traditions, which are of the edible variety and stem from my grandparents being full-blooded Swedes. There’s the (recently posted about) homemade pickled herring, the hand-stuffed potato sausage and the headcheese that I avoided like the plague until I was in my twenties and discovered how it good it actually is.

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It isn’t really Christmas without the pickled herring

Homemade Swedish Pickled Herring

Homemade Swedish Pickled Herring

People often take me for being either French or Italian, which I am, but they often don’t realize that I’m actually half Swedish as well. So Swedish that my maternal grandmother (Mormor to me) was born in Sweden and didn’t come to America until she was almost 8.

Having Scandinavian blood means that (if you’re lucky) you’ll spend Christmas Eve opening presents and enjoying a serious smorgasbord of goodies — from homemade headcheese and potato sausage to spritz butter cookies and rice pudding. If you’re not so lucky, there will also be lutefisk and pickled herring present.

I’m (kind of, sort of) kidding on the last one. Half of my family seems to love the pickled pieces of fish while the other half — myself included — glad pass over it for another slice of ham instead. The lutefisk seems to have an even smaller following — I think the taste for that ended with my grandparents. I certainly have never seen my mother try a piece.

But just like most edible family traditions, the older you get, the more curious you become at the process of making them. This is the first year that I was able to spend the weekend before Christmas with my grandparents, and I asked if my grandma would wait until I arrived to make the herring.

She happily agreed. Maybe she thought that if I helped to make it, I’d be more willing to eat it. (Just between us, that will never happen. Ever. Sorry Mormor!)

Regardless of whether I enjoy eating it, I did enjoy watching her prepare it.

The first thing to do is secure your herring. My grandma used to buy whole fish and would have to gut them and clean them herself. These days, around late November she makes calls to fishmongers looking for Icelandic herring fillets. This year she found a small fish shop that promised to have some for her the week before Christmas.

When I arrived, the fish had been soaking in cold water overnight — unrefrigerated, though in a cool place.

Herring Fillets

Herring Fillets

pickled herring goodness

Made with älska: Mormor’s Swedish Hotcakes

Saturdays are for Hotcakes

Every Saturday that I wake up at my grandma’s house, I can depend on one thing: there will be hotcakes. When my brother and I were kids spending summer vacation with my grandparents, she would even deliver them to us by spatula (one at a time, hot from the pan) as we sat watching cartoons in the TV room.

As a teenager, I would wake up at noon and the cast-iron pan would still be waiting on the stove, with a pitcher of batter beside it. And as a college student, I could roll out of bed around 1 pm and yet, I could always count on hotcakes.

Even now, as a married 33-year-old woman, not much has changed. Well, I get up much earlier and actually sit at the table instead of the couch, but the idea is still the same.

The pitcher of batter is still waiting by the stove and my grandmother will be standing beside it, waiting for the oil to get hot. Then she’ll drizzle in the batter and slowly move the pan so that it spreads out flat. I usually hover beside her while she makes the first one — just like I used to as a kid when we would find shapes and animals in almost every hotcake.

Then she’ll wave me over to the table, where she’ll serve me one hotcake at a time, right from the pan, each one balanced precariously on the spatula.

If you’re curious about the idea of the hotcake, thinking it looks very different from the pancakes you might know and love, you’re right. They are very different. Swedish hotcakes are like a cross between a crepe and a pancake. They are fairly thin, which is why they seem to taste best rolled up with syrup or jam inside, but they are not at all delicate.

Jam-filled goodness

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Teriyaki Chicken Wings and Asian-Style Succotash

I had big plans last Friday. I had a hankering for grilled steak with fresh corn, green beans and some perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes. In fact, I even bought all of my ingredients while I was at work (yay for being a meat distributor — a good steak is easy to find!) and biked them all the way home. The bike ride was not fun, and might be why you do not see a picture of a fat grilled steak at the top of this post.

See, when you bike a backpack brimming with goodies uphill 8 miles on a sunny Friday afternoon it does something to your motivation level — like kill it completely.

As I was unpacking all the groceries, I spied a bag of chicken wings in the fridge and suddenly the thought of starting up a grill seemed like too much effort. And the thought of chicken wings sounded like the most brilliant idea ever.

I have talked before about my serious love for my grandmother’s chicken wings. They are Heaven on Earth. They are the reason I keep five-pound bags of frozen wings on hand at all times — because it just doesn’t make sense to make any less than that. I can eat about a third of a batch in a single sitting. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.

So…my grilled steak turned into this:

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Things That Make Me Happy — Smelling the Roses

It’s funny the things you don’t really appreciate as a kid. For me, gardening was one of them. My  grandma has, for as long as I can remember, had a rose garden. In the winter, it is a barren landscape, but come spring and summer it’s alive with roses of all various colors, each one smelling sweeter than the last.

Until I bought my own house which came with a spacious backyard and two climbing rose bushes, it never occurred to me how much work goes into maintaining a rose garden. I struggle with two bushes — I can’t imagine how she tends to the dozen that she has growing. After a quick weekend visit to see her, there is nothing better than getting to clip a few blooms to take with me back to Portland, their sweet perfume wafting through the car.

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