ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Two weeks before Christmas Eve, Ann Olson and her family get cooking.
Every year since 1956, Olson has made an elaborate Swedish smorgasbord for Christmas Eve, complete with Swedish meatballs and potato sausage, fresh bread, pickled herring, smoked salmon, deviled eggs, cheese and crackers, fruit salad, cookies and date bars.
Last year, Olson, who turns 84 on Dec. 24, thought she might lay her apron down. Maybe, she reasoned, it was too much to pull off.
“We keep saying this is going to be the last year,” she says.
Lucky for her family, she decided she wasn’t ready to quit just yet.
“I’m bucking for 85,” she says, laughing.
Although Olson is now a consummate Swedish cook, it is her husband, Harry Olson, who is Scandinavian.
The tradition began with Harry Olson’s grandmother, Anna Olson, who moved to Michigan from Sweden. Her daughter-in-law, Hildur Oas, Harry’s mother, who was Norwegian, then took on the meal.
Ann Olson, who met her husband when she rented a room from his grandmother, happily took on the dinner after the couple married in 1947 and moved to Albuquerque in 1953.
“I love this food,” says Ann Olson, whose family is French. “I just jumped right in.”
At first, she wrote to Harry’s mother for recipes or re-created dishes she learned from his grandmother. She also has a worn book of Swedish recipes from 1961, complete with diagrams of the ideal smörgåsbord layout.
After the Olsons moved to Albuquerque, it took a few years to get the tradition going. At first they invited friends and neighbors. Then Harry’s nephew moved to town. As the family grew, so did the smörgåsbord. The Olsons have had as many as 32 people.
“We just got caught up in it,” she says.
In the Swedish tradition, the family gathers for the big meal on Christmas Eve and attends Lutheran church on Christmas, Olson says.
A trip to Sweden
While they have always kept family traditions alive through food, Harry and Ann Olson visited Sweden and other Scandinavian countries for the first time in 1997 to celebrate 50 years of marriage.
Smorgasbord, a buffet of cold and warm appetizers, started as the first half of the meal, Ann Olson says. When Swedish families came to the U.S., they often dropped the main dish, commonly lamb or ham.
It wasn’t always easy to find Swedish ingredients in the land of chile and tamales. The perfect sausage casings took years to find, Ann Olson says.
She has streamlined some traditions. While her husband’s grandmother made her own pickled herring, Ann Olson buys it from Keller’s Farm Stores and buys smoked salmon from Costco. Her daughter, Barbara Alcala, bought a sausage stuffer a few years ago, which makes combining 10 pounds of potatoes, seven pounds of beef and three pounds of pork much easier.
Specialties and staples
Try as she might, Olson has never perfected lutefisk, a traditional Scandinavian staple. Lutefisk is cod soaked in lye, washed and baked to a gelatinous consistency.
Back in Michigan, Harry’s grandmother would buy a huge piece of cod and “they’d just take it and stick it in the snowbank by the back door,” Ann Olson says.
There are also Swedish staples like jellied pork and curd pudding that she has never tried to cook.
The Olsons finish their Christmas Eve dinner with shots of Akvavit, a strong spirit Harry Olson jokingly calls “awful stuff.”
Will the smörgåsbord continue even if Ann Olson steps back? As a little girl, Alcala remembers sneaking back into the kitchen for more of her mother’s sausage. She has helped make dishes for years, along with her husband, his children, her daughter and anyone else handy with a peeler.
Alcala says she “absolutely” plans to keep cooking the smorgasbord. Her daughter, Carrie Ellis, who studied in Sweden for one college semester, loves the tradition, Alcala adds. “She’ll make me do it.”
SWEDISH POTATO SAUSAGE
Casings are available at Keller’s Farm Stores.
Kitchen string, at least six inches
Pork casings to make 20 pounds of sausage
7 pounds lean ground beef
3 pounds lean ground pork
10 pounds potatoes, peeled and ground
5 medium onions, peeled and ground
5 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons pepper
3 tablespoons sage
Rinse pork casings inside and out and set aside in a bowl of water.
Mix all ingredients together in large roaster. Stuff casing with meat and potato mixture using a manual or electric sausage stuffer.
Tie each end of sausage with string. Do not over-stuff casing.
Put into hot water and boil slowly for one hour.
2 pounds lean ground beef
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup bread crumbs, toasted
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ginger
Flour to dredge meatballs in, about 1 cup
2 tablespoons butter
Combine beef, onion, (crumbs with the water), egg, salt, nutmeg and ginger. Mix well. Shape into balls the size of a tablespoon. Dredge balls in flour. Save the rest of the flour for the gravy. Melt butter in large frying pan. Brown meatballs on all sides, cover and cook for about 20 minutes on low. Remove meatballs and make gravy.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
About 1 tablespoon flour
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/4 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (optional)
Leave particles from meatballs in the pan and add flour, butter, milk, salt and nutmeg. Cook at low to medium, stirring until thickened.
SWEDISH RYE BREAD
Makes four loaves.
High-altitude adjustments aren’t needed.
1 quart lukewarm water
3 cakes yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
About 12 cups white flour, divided
4 tablespoons molasses
1 pinch of baking soda
1 cup brown sugar
2 scant tablespoons salt
4 tablespoons melted shortening
3 cups rye flour
Combine lukewarm water, yeast, one teaspoon of sugar and about 6 cups of white flour to make a soft spongy bread. Keep in a warm place until bubbly, about one hour.
Heat molasses slightly with a pinch of baking soda. Mix brown sugar, salt, melted shortening and molasses with the spongy bread. Add rye flour. Add enough white flour to finish, about 6 cups. Knead and separate into 4 loaves. Set to rise for 2-3 hours. Bake at 375 for 40 minutes.
OATMEAL DATE BARS
1 package pitted dates
1 cup sugar
1 cup hot water
2 1/2 cups rolled oats
2 cups flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup margarine or butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons boiling water
Powdered sugar, optional
Boil dates, sugar and 1 cup hot water until thick. Let cool.
Rub together rolled oats, flour, brown sugar, margarine or butter and salt.
Add 1/2 teaspoon baking soda to 3 tablespoons boiling water. Pour over flour mixture, mix well.
Put half of the mixture into a greased 9 x 13 pan and pat down firmly. Spread date filling, then top with the remainder of the oatmeal mixture.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Sprinkle with powdered sugar while still warm.