Ask most people what the biggest day on the Norwegian calendar is and they would probably say the first day of the ice fishing season. If you’re in that group (come on, be honest) you may be shocked and surprised to find out you’re WRONG…close…but WRONG! If you live in Dane, Rock, or Green Counties, you should be run out of town on a rail.
The correct answer is Syttende Mai. (Pronounced Setten de my). Syttende Mai holds the same significance in Norway as the 4th of July holds in the United States. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Norway, which had been under the control of Denmark since the mid-1300s, was given by Denmark to Sweden. The Norwegians were miffed at this turn of events since they always considered themselves an independent country and on May 17 (or Syttende Mai), 1814, they signed a constitution declaring themselves so. Sweden was unimpressed and continued to rule Norway for another hundred years, finally granting independence in 1905.
But I digress. Syttende Mai is celebrated with children’s parades, big parades, dances, and food, lots and lots of food. And what do Norwegians eat, you may ask? According to Howard Mohr, in his bible of Scandinavian lifestyle in the Upper Midwest How to Talk Minnesotan, Norwegians like white food. If it’s not naturally white, they’ll make it white. While this is mostly true, it’s not completely true. A little color does creep in, here and there.
Like most cuisines, Norwegian cooking includes things both wonderful and to the uninitiated…frightening. Here then is a quick overview of Norwegian cooking. The most famous Norwegian foods are the ever-popular lutefisk and lefse. Lutefisk literally means lye fish. Lutefisk is air-dried cod, called stockfish, that is sawn (literally) into manageable pieces, soaked in fresh water for eight days, a lye (you read it right, lye) solution for two days, and then fresh water again for an additional two days. After all that, lutefisk is simmered until it is firm and translucent. Lutefisk is NOT an acquired taste. You either like it or you don’t.
While lutefisk is available here and there in grocery stores, especially around Christmas, it’s not the easiest thing to find. The Olsen Fish Company on the north side of Minneapolis is the world’s largest producer. They make over 650,000 pounds a year. They sell stockfish for the do-it-yourselfers and processed and ready to cook lutefisk for the rest of us. The lutefisk is packaged under Olsen, Viking, Kemps, and Mike’s labels but you can’t buy directly from Olsens for they are strictly a wholesale company.
Lefse is made from potatoes. It’s thin and flexible, and it looks and feels much like a flour tortilla. It has been likened to a dish rag but that is an unfair judgment by people who have tried poor quality, store bought, or old product. Fresh lefse is a delicate, flavorful delight, especially when buttered and rolled up with brown sugar.
The absolute best place to get lefse is to find a church with a crew of little Norwegian ladies who set up in the church kitchen and crank out lefse to sell as a fund-raiser. Stoughton, Mount Horeb, or Westby are good places to start. Failing that, the general consensus among lefse connoisseurs is that Countryside Lefse in Blair, Wisconsin, is by far the best commercially made lefse around. The reason is that they make lefse the same way you would at home (or at church). They use real potatoes and they roll and flip the lefse by hand. Countryside Lefse is distributed to local grocery stores but you can also order directly from them on their website lefse.com.
Lutefisk isn’t the only fish dish around. Almost as ubiquitous is pickled herring. Norwegians eat tons of the stuff every year. Herring are pickled in the traditional manner with vinegar and spices and then things get interesting. There are 15 species of herring and at least that many ways to pack them. The two most popular variations are in a sour cream or wine sauce, but recent years have brought about new varieties including Cajun and fresh dill.
Fiskeballer (fish balls) and fish soup can contain almost anything. The main trick with fish balls is to run the meat through a grinder at least five times. Oddest sounding of all is fiskepudding or fish pudding. It’s exactly what it sounds like. To get the light, spongy consistency required, you need really fresh fish. The fish is pureed with cream and some other stuff and then baked. It’s usually served hot and drenched in butter.
Now that those are out of the way, we can move on to the important stuff — cookies and baked goods. The most recognizable Norwegian cookies are krumkake. These cone shaped delights are sometimes filled, but often are served plain (as God intended) and are light and crispy with just a hint of cardamom. Sandbakkel come in a variety of shapes. The dough is pressed into forms that are essentially tiny tart tins. They have a thicker, more substantial texture and a definite almond taste. Fattigman (poor man’s cookies) are similar to sandbakkels in texture but without the almond flavor. Fattigman cookies are different in that they are deep fried. A little powdered sugar on top and you have a very tasty cookie.
By far the prettiest and most delicate cookies are the rosetter, or rosettes. The cookie starts with a thin batter, then flower- or star-shaped irons with long handles are dipped into the batter and then lowered into hot oil. The cookies fry until they are a beautiful golden brown. Once they are sprinkled with powdered sugar, they are as much a work of art as they are a paper thin, yummy treat.
Cakes of all kinds are part of the Norwegian diet. Two in particular are worth noting. One is the kransekake. This is an almond cake that is baked in 18 thin concentric rings that are then stacked to form a cone 12 to 18 inches tall, all glued together with frosting. Kransekake is usually served on special occasions, especially weddings. steamwalletcodesgenerator They are decorated for the occasion with real flowers, party poppers, flags, or whatever. They’re about as putzy as a cake can get and seem deceptively simple to create once you have the special baking rings. When things go wrong, kransekake are next to inedible. However, when Ole and Lena smile and it turns out as it should, kransekake’s pleasing texture and almond flavor make all the work worthwhile.
At the other end of the spectrum, Norwegian apple cake is a study in rustic elegance that satisfies without pretension. Sugar, flour, salt, baking powder, apples, nuts, and an egg combine to create a sturdy cake share here loaded with bits of nuts and apples. It’s simple, but this is a clear case of the sum being greater than its parts. Serve it with a little fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream on top. Best of all it’s even better the second day.
Odd and assorted other Norwegian specialties include rommegrot, fruktsuppe, and sweet soup. Rommegrot is sour cream soup that is usually generously drizzled in butter and sprinkled with sugar and ground cinnamon (Norwegians seem to do this a lot). Rommegrot is thick and sweet and needs something to wash it down. Red current juice is popular, but you might be better served by beer or Aquavit.
Fruktsuppe, or fruit soup, is pretty much what it says it is, a soup made with tapioca, prunes, raisins, apples, oranges, and just about any other fresh, frozen, canned, or dried fruit you happen to have around. The difference is that while Americans like their fruit soup cold, Norwegians serve it hot, garnished with lemon and orange slices.
Sot suppe (sweet soup) is pretty self-explanatory. It is also a fruit soup made with dried fruits, especially raisins, currants, prunes, and tapioca, but this one is served cold. Accompaniments include Christmas bread, Christmas cookies, open-faced sandwiches, and a variety of sliced cheeses.
This is far from a complete list of Norwegian foods. Norwegian is as wide and varied a cuisine as that from other countries and it waits for you to go exploring. Many of the foods I’ve mentioned are available prepackaged or as mixes. The web offers recipes galore for those who want to get hands-on. Either way, you can enter into the spirit of the holiday because, like on St. Patrick’s Day, on Syttende Mai everybody is Norwegian.
Buying Norwegian in Wisconsin
Many Norwegian food items are things you cannot get at the local Pick ‘n Save or Piggly Wiggly. These are specialty items that are only available at certain shops. Some require special appliances. Lefse and krumkake griddles and sandbakkel tins are usually available at the same stores. Here is a partial list of places to check out.
Open House Imports, 306 E. Main St., Mt. Horeb, WI 53572, (608) 437-5468 openhouseimports.com
Open House carries a nice selection of products including Freia Chocolates, sandbakkel, lefse, and rommergrot mixes, fish soup, fish balls, salmon and caviar spread, lingonberries, and Hartshorn Salt (a hard-to find ingredient of some Norwegian dishes). They also carry Norwegian equipment.
Dick’s Quality Meats, 201 Main Street, Mt. Horeb, WI 53572. A good source for herring, lefse, and, at holiday times, lutefisk.
Norske Nook Restaurant and Coffee House and Gift Shop — Osseo, 13804-13807 7th Street, Osseo, WI 54758, (715) 597-3765 norskenook.com
Norske Nook — Rice Lake, 2900 Pioneer Avenue, Rice Lake, WI 54868, 715-234-1733
Norske Nook — Hayward, Hwy. 27 South, Hayward, WI 54843, (715) 634-4928
The Norske Nook is a legend in Wisconsin, offering “from scratch” cooking and fabulous baked goods. The restaurants offer a limited selection of products but the selection at the Osseo gift shop is more read more extensive with imported cookies, lingonberries, lefse, potato dumpling and Norwegian pancake mixes, and more. They also carry lefse and krumkake griddles, sandbakkel tins, and other needed equipment.
Dregnes Scandinavian Gifts, 100 S. Main St., Westby, WI 54667, Phone: (608) 634-4414 Toll Free: (877) 634-4414 DregnesScandinavianGifts.com. Dregnes had the best selection of goods of all the places we checked. They offer Norwegian cheeses, fish soup, two different kinds of fish balls, vanilla and pearl sugars, Ljus syrup, glug, and numerous mixes. Their kitchen shop carries any cookware necessary to turn out a delicious Norwegian meal.
Nordic Nook, 176 W. Main St., Stoughton, WI 53589, Phone: (608) 877-0848 Toll Free: (866) 912-6665 nordic-nook.com. The Nordic Nook has a nice selection of Norwegian cooking gear and all the standard food offerings. A couple of unusual and yummy additions are pepparkakor (gingersnap) caramels and Ole and Lena fortune cookies.
Cheesers, LLC 186 E. Main St., Stoughton, WI 53589, Phone: (608) 873-1777 Fax: (608) 877-0362 cheesers.com. Stoughton has the biggest Syttende Mai celebration outside of Norway so you know Stoughton is serious about Norwegian food. Cheesers doesn’t offer the cooking equipment like the others but they do offer a nice selection of products including a broad selection of flatbreads and crisps, fresh lefse, coffee, Jarlsberg cheese, and two kinds of Gjetost. This is a great place for all your cheese needs. Their selection is comprehensive.