Scandinavian Traditions Persist in Northeast Iowa

Scandinavian Traditions Persist in Northeast Iowa

by: Beth Hoven Rotto

Holiday traditions are ingrained in our families, our communities and our heritage. I grew up in Wisconsin, daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a homemaker of Scandinavian heritage (Norwegian, Danish and Swedish stock). I’ve been asked to share some food ways from our tradition.

My mother was always baking, but she did more than usual during November and December, baking holiday cookies and bars, candies, pies and desserts. She hosted gatherings at our home for family, friends, church circle meetings, etc, as well as making donations for bake sales and for church “coffee hour.” She purchased specialties baked by others too, so that our holiday table always had a great variety of cookies. One favorite for both my family and my husband’s family was a buttery delicacy containing ground pecans and rolled twice in powdered sugar. Look for the recipe titled Hvite Notter below.

Christmas eve, for our family was a simple meal consisting of cold meats and cheeses, homemade rolls, Norwegian lefse and kringle (the sweetbread type, not the cookie type). Lefse is a soft, paper-thin potato pastry that looks similar to a tortilla. It is buttered and sugared and rolled up, from the large end to the small. Below is a classic Decorah recipe for lefse. As kids, we were always in a hurry to finish eating so that we could open the mountain of presents under the tree, almost certain to include something handknit by Mom.

My husband’s Norwegian family from North Dakota had a different sort of traditional meal on Christmas Eve. To remember the humble birth of Jesus in the stable, they ate a simple meal of risengryn, or rice pudding. Included in the large bowl of porridge, there was one hidden almond, and the person who ended up with that bite expected good luck in the following year. By the time I joined their family there was sometimes more than one lucky almond in the porridge. I enjoy this traditional food, although it has become a side dish in recent years.

Christmas morning our family always anticipated cardamom bread, braided, frosted and beautiful. After church we gathered, usually with grandparents, for a meal that might be turkey, ham or meatballs (never lutefisk), mashed potatoes, a vegetable, homemade rolls, lefse, and a pretty jello salad. Sometimes we also had Norwegian fruit soup, or sot suppe. Some traditions cook the fruit in grape juice, which produces a dark, heavy product. The recipe below uses apple juice and orange juice and it is delicious.

We still enjoy these traditions, blending the customs of our families, modifying occasionally and also adding new favorites. If you would like to start a new tradition or try a new recipe for traditional Scandinavian foods, please consider the recipes here.

Cardamom Bread

Mom makes this Christmas bread every year. She got the recipe from her mother, Pearl Jacobson who was raised in Lac Qui Parle County in Minnesota. Mom used to buy whole cardamom and crush it under the handle of one of her big knives. Now she uses ground, but I still like the various sizes and the little crunch of using the whole spice.


1 c. milk
1/3 c. sugar
½ c. shortening (add to hot milk)
2 eggs
1 ½ pkg. dried yeast, dissolved in lukewarm milk
1 tsp. salt
6 cardamom seeds, crushed
Some raisins


Mix together and add enough flour for soft dough (approx. 6 cups). Let rise until light. Divide to make 2 loaves. Make each into a braid. Let rise again. Bake in hot oven (375- 400 degrees F.) for 35 minutes or until golden brown. Can drizzle with simple powdered sugar frosting.

Hvite Notter (Cookies)

Hvite Notter means White Nuts in Norwegian. Every cookie assortment at Christmas needs some Hvite Notter! Grandma didn’t use a food processor, but it works great to make this dough. Pulse the nuts, then process until fine. Cut the butter into the processor, then process until smooth. Pulse in liquids, then pulse in flour until dough ball begins to form.


½ lb. butter (1 cup)
1/3 c. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 Tbsp. water
2 c. flour
1 c. chopped pecans


Cream butter and sugar together, then add the rest of the ingredients. Refrigerate dough for one hour. Roll in palm of hand to the size of a date. Bake at 325 for 15-20 minutes. Roll in powdered sugar while warm. Let cool. Roll in powdered sugar again.


My cousin, Rachel Faldet, and I often make lefse with our daughters during the holidays. We use Ida Sacquitne’s recipe, popularized in Decorah when Ida presented lefse-making at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Like making bread, or fresh mozzarella, there are some things about making lefse that are best learned from someone who already knows how to make it. If you have never made lefse before, try to find someone to help you the first time, so you can avoid frustration. It’s the type of thing that works best with two people anyway.


5 c. well-packed, riced Idaho Russet potatoes
½ c. margarine or butter
3 Tbsp. powdered sugar
2 c. flour
1 tsp. salt


Boil, then mash and rice potatoes. Add margarine or butter while potatoes are still warm. Cool to room temp. Add powdered sugar, flour and salt. Mix with hands and knead well. Make balls with approximately 1/3 c. dough. Press by hand, then roll on flour-covered canvas. Use a covered rolling pin. A grooved rolling pin can be used for the last roll. Pick up with a lefse stick. Bake on 400 degree lefse griddle. Bake a minute or two, then turn. Cool between towels. Store in plastic bags.

Risengryn (Rice Porridge)


1 1/2 c. white rice
4 c. milk
½ tsp. salt
½ c. sweet cream, scalded
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 almond


Wash rice well. Scald milk, add rice and salt. Cook in a double boiler until done, adding more milk if porridge gets too thick. When rice is done, add cream and sugar and the almond. Serve hot with sugar, cinnamon, and a bit of melted butter. Everyone should wait to begin until all are served and it’s not fair to search for the almond!

Norwegian Fruit Soup

(Sot Suppe- Sweet Soup)
Soak 1 c. pearl tapioca in 3 c. water in a huge pan overnight. The next day, in the same water, cook on low until the tapioca becomes clear.
Also, cut up dried fruit of your choice: apricots, pears, peaches, raisins, and soak overnight, just covered in water.
Combine soaked fruit with 1 can frozen apple juice concentrate and 1 can orange juice concentrate, 2 cans purple plums with juice, the cooked tapioca, 12 cloves and 7 cinnamon sticks. Simmer on low for 3 hours. A crockpot works well for this.