Christmas Peking Duck: When no traditions lead to new traditions…

Peking duck, steamed buns and accompaniments

Peking duck, steamed buns and accompaniments

Usually there are many traditions that I look forward to at Christmas. There’s the smorgasbord my family puts out on Christmas Eve where I double up on the potato sausage and avoid the pickled herring. There’s deciphering my grandma’s occasionally evil gifts (sometimes she makes us translate Swedish or sends us on treasure hunts) and seeing who found the almond in the rice pudding, earning themselves a year of good luck.

This year, with the way the calendar worked out, it made more sense for me to visit my family the weekend before Christmas. On Sunday afternoon we set up the smorgasbord — loaded up with all of my favorites — and opened our gifts to each other. There were Christmas cookies, card games, my mom’s cranberry bread and plenty of wine. It was lovely.

And when it was over, it felt like Christmas was over — even though it was only Dec. 22.

With family and traditions over with, my husband and I spent our first Christmas ever home alone. Deciding to make the best of it, we thought we’d take a less traditional route to our Christmas dinner: honey glazed Peking duck, steamed buns and roasted pork belly.

After all no matter where you are and who you’re with, good food is a must for any holiday.

We started the process by air-drying our pekin duck for two days. (note: Pekin duck is a breed, Peking duck is a dish.) Basically this means we left it unwrapped on a rack in our fridge for a few days. This dries out the moisture in the skin allowing for more crispy goodness — the best part of any duck.

Air-dried pekin duck

Air-dried pekin duck

Next we brushed the inside and outside of the duck with a glaze of honey, soy, ginger, five-spice and Mandarin orange juice.

Brushing on the glaze

Brushing on the glaze

We let the duck come to room temperature for a few hours before putting it in the oven. It roasted for an hour or so, getting a fresh coat of glaze every fifteen minutes until it looked like this:

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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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