The smell of Norwegian baking just reminds me of Christmas and home. At Christmas, my mother would bake for weeks filling the little railroad flat at 434-53rd Street with smells of cardamom, almond, and butter. In that small kitchen in an old gas oven she worked her magic. My mother had a well-worn stained Norwegian cookbook. She was an American girl from Waynesboro PA who was transformed into a Norwegian speaking, acting and cooking woman when she said "I do" to a former Norwegian sailor from Arendal.
By the second grade I was allowed to cross streets by myself. I would walk home from school with Barbara. Once in the vestibule I’d ring the bell. The buzzer would sound to unlock the inner door. Like going into the inner sanctuary of a holy place, an aroma better than the finest incense would greet my little nose. Sniffing as I walked the hall to the kitchen, I would try to guess what had been baked that day. If there was a yeasty cardamom smell, it meant Julekake. Sometimes she was in her second or third batch; the yeast was doing its magic. I was just in time to wash my hands and punch it down.
Other times, the krumkake iron was on the stove. These were the most coveted and delicious of all Christmas creations. They were strictly rationed. They were mostly for the company that would ring the bell announcing their arrival during Christmas. The coffee pot and a platter of Norwegian deliciousness was always ready for serving.
My mother hid the Christmas cookies from my little hands. I always found them. I would count the krumkake and judge if I could sneak one without being caught. If questioned, I would lie leading me to lay in bed worrying that Jesus would come and leave me behind since I lied. One year, she hid them so well she didn’t find them until spring cleaning. The ants had already found them, she took a brush and brushed them off. We ate them.
My favorite cookie was fattigmann. Fattigmann are a fried cookie. We all know everything is better when it is fried. Fattigmann, means poor man – translated these are “poor man’s cookies.” My mother would say the same thing every year – “I don’t know why they call them poor man’s cookies, they take nearly a dozen eggs and lots of butter.” I guess for a Norwegian farmer who had plenty of eggs and butter, these were cheap to make. But when you got your butter and eggs from the local A&P, they were no longer for the poor. She used the same pink pastry wheel to cut these diamonds as she used to make her doughy dumplings for Pennsylvania Dutch Slippery Pot Pie.
The reason why these were my favorite had nothing to do with their taste. They are good, very good. But they were my favorite because they were the only cookie that wasn’t rationed. We always had an abundance of fattigmann. I could eat as many as I wanted.
My mother used her cookbook to fill our house with Norwegian-ness. In addition to the Julekake, fattigmann and krumkake, she would make dreams, sandbakkles, waffles, spritz, berlinerkrantz, sirupsnitter, pepperkake, and even American sugar cookies. She made pretty good lefse too. But, the most curious of the Christmas delights was hjortetakk.
Looking like a small unfrosted and unadorned brown donut, the most curious thing was one of the ingredients. It calls for Harts horn. You know the stuff from the antlers on a deer. Where do you get that in Brooklyn? Somewhere my mother discovered that Harts horn was also known as ammonium carbonate. Evidently the druggist on 4th Avenue was what we now called a compounding pharmacist. She would go each Christmas for a little envelope of ammonium carbonate from him. This was one weird science project that tasted wonderful.
She’d saved her grocery money for months to buy the almonds, cardamom, eggs, butter, flour, sugar and Harts horn. She labored for weeks. My father would smile as his Norwegian friends would come into the little living room and sit on the couch that she had also slip covered herself. All our senses were alive with the taste and smell of a Norwegian Christmas, lovingly made by my “Norwegian” mother.