23 December 2011

Making Christmas

Years ago, when my parents married, my mother asked my father what he would like her to make for Christmas. He asked for Julekake, a Scandinavian Christmas bread. It was common in the bakeries in my father's childhood Chicago, but it was more difficult to find in the small Army towns where my father was posted, so my mother found a recipe, and baked her own.

We ate it with eggs or bacon or sausage every Christmas breakfast of my childhood. My mother baked simple round loaves studded with raisins and candied cherries.

Julekake, 2011

When I grew up I swapped out dried cherries for the candied ones. I baked it in the oven of my boyfriend's apartment before I went to share Christmas with his family, inhaled the scent of them to make it Christmas when the traditions around me were not my own.

I've discovered that the fruit is not mandatory, though I'd never leave it out. A braid is traditional, and I'll make a braided loaf when I have time, though for gift giving I make several simple round loaves, small cousins to the bread of my childhood. Whatever the shape the cardamon scented loaves are Christmas to me.

I bake Julekake on Christmas Eve while I listen to A Christmas Carol on Public Radio. My children are asleep upstairs and my husband is at church singing with the choir. It is quiet in my house, and whatever strain of trying to Make The Holidays is worked away in the kneading of the bread, the sweetness of the fruit, the scent of the cardamom. In the morning, after we've opened presents and put the train back on its tracks underneath the tree (again) we break bread, and my boys are connected to the traditions of my childhood, and the grandfather they never knew.

Christmas Breakfast

A note about scalding the milk. The dairy protein whey contains a protein which has negative effects on the volume and texture of baked goods. Scalding, or bringing the milk to just less than a boil, partially denatures the protein and reduces these effects. You can scald in a small saucepan on the stove top. I use a glass measuring cup in the microwave. I heat the milk one minute at a time until it is steaming.


2 teaspoons active dry yeast (or one packet)
½ cup warm (not hot) water
1 cup milk
¼ cup butter
½ cup cold water
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 cups dried fruit, mix of raisins, golden raisins and chopped dried cherries
5 ½ cups all-purpose flour

Sprinkle the yeast into the warm water in a small bowl and set aside.
Cut butter into chunks and place in a large mixing bowl. Scald the milk and pour over the butter. Stir to melt the butter, then add the cold water. When the milk is lukewarm, stir in the yeast, sugar, salt, cardamom, egg and fruit.

Stir in the flour, one cup at a time until the dough is too stiff to stir. Pour it out onto a floured counter and knead in the remaining flour. Continue kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic. About 20 minutes. Return the dough to the mixing bowl and cover. Allow to rise until doubled, 1-2 hours.

Deflate the dough and remove to a lightly floured counter. Divide in two and shape into loaves. Let rise until doubled, 1-2 hours.

Bake at 350 Fahrenheit for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown. Allow to cool at least 10 minutes before slicing.


  1. This was so, so delicious ... we were the lucky recipients of one of these gifts, and we ate it while marveling at the stars on a drive home with two sleeping children in the back (after we gave some of the bread to the older child so he couldn't complain that we'd eaten it all). :)

  2. Beautiful. I love traditions; am struggling to find our own on this rare freestyle Christmas.

  3. Ian also says: "Wesley's mom is the best bread-baker." So there you have it. He tells it like it is.

  4. A beautiful post. I'm not a foodie type person and neither are my parents or my husband, but I totally see the value of using food as a way to remember traditions and connect to one's past.

  5. Sounds delicious and I love the idea of bringing that piece of your own roots with you to a holiday among new people. Which country is your dad from?

    1. My dad was born in Chicago, a third or fourth generation Swedish immigrant, but there are so many Scandinavian families in the mid-west that the culture is strong there, like Italians in New Jersey.

  6. I stumbled upon you looking for the bread, salt, wine reference. I always forget the exact words but it's my standard house warming gift (with other yummies thrown in) and the statements on a card with the gift basket. Oh happy day!!! When I was a little girl we lived in upstate NY. My grandmothers would come from NYC (West 70th St and Long Island) and they would bring this bread. Several loaves from some bakery they both liked in the city. We'd eat it for dessert every night, warm and coated with butter. When we moved to New Orleans only one of my grandma's was willing to leave NY to come visit and she brought this bread. They're both gone now and I haven't had this bread since 1990. I'm a horrible baker but for this I may have to make an exception, just to taste a memory once again. Delightful.

    1. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. I hope you do try the recipe. It's very forgiving. My first try at making it all by myself was riddled with errors, but the bread was still good.

      I hope you clicked on the "Why Bread, Wine, Salt" link at the top. Everything, including the exact wording, is there.



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