Butter and the Family Tree

img_1187What’s in a name? For me, my heritage. Erin Christense Lorenz. Erin, Irish; Christense, Norwegian; Lorenz, German. Not represented? Scotch, Danish, English.

My paternal grandfather, Paul Lorenz’s parents were first generation German, Gustav Heinrich Lorenz and Emilie Hermina Triesch. Great Grandma Lorenz was a very tiny woman in her old age, with a heavy German accent and beautiful blue eyes. Her accent was heavy enough that I can remember not understanding much of what she said. Evidence of her accent can be found on my grandfather’s birth certificate. Given name: Powell. My great grandparents named him Paul, but when asked the nurse couldn’t understand my great grandmother. When asked to repeat his name she pronounced it again, more slowly… Powell was what the nurse understood.

My paternal grandmother, Lillian Christense Anderson’s parents were first generation Norwegian. Jens Kornelius Bernhardt (K.B. for short) Anderson and Magnihild Kristofie Olsen.

My maternal grandmother, Dorothy Anna Rassmussen’s parents, Axel Edwin Rasmussen and Isabella Reed, were Danish and English. My maternal grandfather, John Lincoln McCaig’s parents, Samuel Edward McCaig and Edith Mathilda Yanken, were Scotch and Irish and German.

Given my penchant and predilection for Scandanavian baking and baked goods I am occasionally asked if I am 100% Norwegian. It’s not that I intentionally favor one heritage over another it is merely that my grandma Lorenz was the grandparent that continued the traditions that she was brought up with. This included baking–lefse, krum kaga (kake), fatiggman, rosettes, sandbakkels, heirloom cookies (almond crescents), kransekake, almond cake…

Grandma made regular visits to Ballard where her cousin Anna lived. Ballard, a neighborhood in northwestern Seattle, has a historically large Scandanavian population who were drawn to the area for salmon fishing. Ballard was the only area in the Seattle area where Grandma was able to find supplies for her Hardanger embroidery, a traditional style of Norwegian needlework most often using white thread on white fabric or cream on cream. She often referred to Hardanger embroidery as heart-anger, as often as not one miscounted stitch resulted in tearing out hours of intricately stitched work. But even this was preferable to finding an error after cutwork had begun.

Lineage and traditions aside, there are a few other indications from my childhood that lend credence toward my later Norwegian leanings. Based on what I have been told, the first of these occurred when I was about a year and a half old. My grandma Lorenz, my mom and I made the trip less than a half mile down James Street to visit my great grandpa Anderson. Engaged in conversation, the adults at some point noticed that I wasn’t in the room with them. Upon investigating my grandma and mom found me in the kitchen. Eating. Eating a stick of butter, rather like one eats a ice cream bar. One bite at time, until, at the time when they found me, the stick of butter clutched in my small hands was almost entirely gone. My great grandfather, who had remained in the living room while my grandma and mom had gone in search of me and upon hearing of my buttery indulgence, pronounced, “She must be Norwegian!” According to my mom this was far from my last foray with butter.

One of my most favorite cookies to make with my grandma was krum kaga (kake), a wonderfully crisp, cardamom flavored, cone shaped cookie. Making krum kaga is a fairly labor intensive endeavor, and this was even more true then. The work started even before the batter was mixed by extracting the seeds from the cardamom pods. Cardamom pods are a bit larger than a raisin, tan or green in color, black or green cardamom respectively, with a tough somewhat leathery brittle husk. If the husk was already somewhat split it was easier to pry open and extract the cardamom seeds, if not split this required squeezing them between your finger to crack the pod open.

Shelling the cardamom was a time Grandma and I would sit and talk, the conversation extending in accordance with the amount of krum kaga Grandma was making. Once we had enough cardamom seeds my job was to grind them. At that time Grandma had a small blonde-colored wooden spice grinder used specifically for cardamom. It had a little trap door at the top into which I would patiently feed cardamom seeds. In later years Grandma used a small electric coffee grinder dedicated to the use of cardamom.

Grandma’s traditional krum kaga iron was made of cast iron, using it on the stove top. Krum kaga irons are now electric, with a place for making two krum kaga at once. The texture is slightly more firm using the electric iron. Both cast iron and the electric krum kaga irons have inlaid designs which lend an air of sophistication and beauty to this cookie. Grandma’s cast iron krum kaga iron sat in a ring which fit over the small burner of the stove. Once heated to the desired temperature a half tablespoon of dough is placed on the bottom half of the krum kaga iron, closing the iron and holding the two long handles until the steam subsided, at which point the iron is rotated to the opposite side.

Once reaching a golden brown the krum kaga is lifted from the iron with a butter knife and promptly rolled on a small wooden handled cone until cool enough to hold its shape. Correct placement of the cone on the round, flat krum kaga is critical to ensure the cone has a closed tip and is uniform in diameter at the top of the cookie. If the tip of the wooden cone is placed too far toward the bottom of the cookie, the top will be too big and far too difficult to eat. The sweet spot is to place the tip of the cone slightly below the center edge closest to you, and roll away from you until the cookie is wrapped around the wooden cone, making sure to rest the open seam of the cookie against the counter so the krum kaga does not unfurl itself. All of this must be done quickly, while the krum kaga is still hot. If the krum kaga cools too much it will not roll and will instead break.

When I was quite young, due to the temperature of the krum kaga coming off of the iron, I was not allowed to do more than place a dollop krum kaga batter on the iron, turn at the requisite time, and check for doneness. When I was about eight my grandma finally acquiesced to my repeated appeals to roll the krum kaga. Grandma had placed a cold wet washcloth, an ice cube tucked strategically inside, on the counter, just in case my fingertips got too hot. I thought this was somewhat strange as I had never seen Grandma use a cold washcloth when making krum kaga. When I asked why she replied, “After all these years my fingers are used to the heat.”

Grandma proceeded to roll a krum kaga, carefully talking through the process of rolling the hot krum kaga onto the wooden cone, placement of the wooden cone, placement of fingers, up through how long to leave the wooden cone in the cookie. It was finally my turn! Finally. My first attempt was not a success. Wanting to get the correct placement of the wooden cone on the krum kaga took me too long, which meant the cookie lost its malleability and didn’t roll well. After a half dozen cookies I finally hit my groove. Grandma encouraged me to place my fingers on the cold washcloth after rolling each cookie. Although following Grandma’s instructions, I didn’t understand how this was helping, as my fingertips weren’t feeling hot. Midway through the batch my speed was picking up and I decided to skip the cold washcloth, seeing this step as quite unnecessary. Sure enough, my fingertips felt fine without the cold washcloth. It was a short time later that Grandma, who was no longer monitoring me as closely, noted that I was not using the cold washcloth, “Don’t forget to use the cold washcloth. Your mom will be unhappy with me if you come home with blisters on your fingertips!” “I haven’t been using the washcloth, my fingertips aren’t hot,” I replied. Grabbing my hand and inspecting my fingertips for redness or blisters, Grandma asked, “They’re not hot?!” “Nope!” I answered. To which she replied, “You must be Norwegian!”

Eating the krum kaga after dinner that day, Grandma eagerly shared with Grandpa that I helped make the krum kaga and didn’t even need the cold washcloth. She repeated the story of my first time rolling krum kaga many times over the next year. Coming from Grandma I took this as high praise. It was about this time that I felt indoctrinated. In my mind there was no question, I was Norwegian.

Many years later when my own children were small I decided to make Hardanger lefse. This was something my grandma and her sisters Anna and Betsy did together each year before Christmas. The timing had never been such that I could join them, to learn. I had purchased the requisite rolling pins, griddle, and lefse turner and called my grandma for her recipe. Grandma walked me through the recipe, carefully describing the steps and consistency of the dough along the way. Wrapping up the conversation Grandma added, “You know, making lefse can be difficult, which is why Anna, Betsy, and I make it together. If you want to wait we can do it together the next time you come over.”

Patience has a time and place. I decided the time was now. I followed Grandma’s recipe to the letter, hearing her voice as I mixed and shaped the dough, rolled out and grilled the lefse. The test was to wait for it to cool thoroughly and re-hydrate it. Hardanger lefse, unlike potato lefse, can be kept indefinitely if stored in a cool location. To eat Hardanger lefse requires re-hydration, running both sides under cool tap water and placing it between cool, damp tea towels until it is pliable. Once pliable it’s ready to eat. Lefse can be eaten with dinner, rolled and used to push and scoop, or as a dessert, soft butter spread over one half and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar or, my grandpa’s favorite, brown sugar, folded in half and using kitchen shears cut into strips and then at an angle so they form diamond shapes.

Talking with my grandma on the phone the next weekend she shared that Anna, Betsy, and she had made lefse that week. I told her I made lefse, too. “You did?” her tone incredulous, “How did it turn out? Did you have any trouble?” “Great, no trouble at all. I followed your recipe exactly,” I said. To which Grandma replied, “You must be Norwegian.”

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