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A Scandi Christmas

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Katharine Reeve Katharine Reeve | 14:45 UK time, Tuesday, 6 December 2011

We look to the Mediterranean for summer recipes, so it makes sense, surely, to take a look at the snowy lands of Scandinavia for inspiration this Christmas. The Nordic countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland all share culinary traditions, but also offer their own variations on common themes. My Swedish experiments have involved the unfamiliar flavours of caraway, cardamom, and dill; a rather unsuccessful first attempt at pickling herrings; and my dog developing a very Scandinavian obsession with cardamom after witnessing me hard at it with the pestle and mortar. I have designated 2012 my year of cooking Scandi-style, and this month sees me limbering up with a Swedish Christmas Eve meal.

Swedish Lucia rolls

Saffron-scented, sweet yeasted rolls are great for tea or breakfast.

The start of the Scandinavian Christmas season is marked by St Lucia’s Day on 13th December – a warning to winter demons of the imminent return of the sun after long winters of arctic darkness. This traditional festival features a  ‘queen of lights’ – a young girl in a white dress and a crown of lingonberry twigs and fairy lights – leading local street processions where children hand out saffron buns from baskets. These Lussekatter or St Lucia buns are typical of the Scandinavian penchant for sweet, yeasted buns flavoured with cinnamon and ever-popular, cardamom.

In Scandinavia, the main celebration meal takes place on Christmas Eve, and the day before will have been spent decorating the tree and preparing delicacies for the days ahead. Homes will be decorated with evergreens and flickering white candlelight, accompanied by the scent of spices, pine needles, and, no doubt, a warm vat of Gløgg spiced wine.

A traditional buffet-style feast – the famous Swedish smörgåsbord  – is laid out for old and new visitors throughout the day and into the evening. Included are: homemade breads sprinkled with caraway or fennel seeds; pickled herrings; the heavenly potato gratin, Jansson’s Temptation (try white pickled anchovies, not the salted pink ones, for a more delicate flavour); mustard-crumbed Christmas ham; pickled cucumber; gravadlax salmon and mustard sauce; celeriac remoulade; and various cheeses.



Smoked or pickled fish and sour cream are classic Scandi tastes.

A Scandinavian theme makes for relaxed entertaining (and revitalized tastebuds) as most items can be made beforehand and can accommodate unexpected guests easily. Make up some soda bread toasts, offering a number of toppings: smoked salmon and dill cream (equal quantities of crème fraiche and mayonnaise with chopped chives, plenty of dill, a squeeze of lemon, salt and black pepper); combine the dill cream with cooked prawns to make Swedish skagenröra. Try cream cheese, horseradish, chives and sliced radish. Or go with Ulrika’s Lojrom – sliced onions and caviar with sour cream.

After the feast, comes the present-opening, and then coffee with an assortment of cakes and biscuits. Most festive and most popular are the St Lucia buns and the surprisingly addictive Pepparkakor (‘peppar’ meaning spice) ginger biscuits. The light sponge cake, Toscakaka, with its caramelized almond topping, makes a great centerpiece. This is a favourite with my children. It is simple to make and utterly delicious

Julpepparkakor (Christmas Ginger Biscuits)
110g/4oz softened butter
150g/5½oz caster sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tbsp golden syrup
2 tsp cold water
1 orange, zest only, grated
225g/8oz plain flour (I use ‘00’)
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp crushed cardamom seeds (about 8 pods)

  1. Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/Gas 3
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together in a mixer until pale and fluffy.
  3. Add the egg and beat for a few minutes.
  4. Mix in the water, golden syrup, and orange peel
  5. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda, spices together, and fold into the batter until it forms a soft dough.
  6. Wrap in a plastic freezer or sandwich bag and leave to chill in fridge for at least two hours (or overnight).
  7. Taking a small amount of dough at a time, roll it out onto a floured surface quite thinly (about 3 mm).
  8. Cut out shapes (hearts, stars, snowflakes, angels) and place onto a lightly-greased baking parchment-lined baking tray.
  9. Bake at the top of oven for 7-8 minutes or until golden brown at the edges.
  10. Leave to cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Arrange in airtight glass jars ready for visitors or gifts.

More Scandi Nordic Christmas love:


  • Comment number 1.

    I like the article (and it's made me hungry!) but Finland isn't in Scandinavia. Nordic countries is a better term as Finland is actually fairly different from Scandinavia.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hear hear Aaron. Why do people also confuse Finland as a part of Scandinavia? Finland is very different in terms of language, history, politics and should not be bundled together with the Scandis.

  • Comment number 3.

    Glad I did ok with my 'Nordic Countries' description. There are lots of amazing variations and differences - and some similarities in food terms. I'm interested in (what is quite a slow but sure) shift in interest towards Northern European food - in the UK. I've only just starting researching and making - and think it is truly a revelation in taste terms: really different flavours.

  • Comment number 4.

    Erm... St Lucia's Day... "a young girl in a white dress and a crown of lingonberry twigs and fairy lights – leading local street processions where children hand out saffron buns from baskets."
    Not so much. I can imagine that you've read that somewhere, but that would have been a long time ago, I think.
    It is a young girl in a white dress with a crown of lingonberry twigs and CANDLES(or electric candles if it's younger children) leading a train of children and/or adolescents(also dressed in white) usually in a church or school, lining up on a stage to sing various Christmas and St Lucia songs. :)


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