In the Nordic countries, like Denmark, today is Lille Juleaften or Little Christmas Eve, the beginning of Christmas festivities. Sweden and Norway have similar celebrations.
A sort of Christmas Eve eve, you might say.
The longest night of the year has passed, the sun has started its return journey, the Son of God is coming – it is time to rejoice!
The big activity today is bringing in and decorating the Christmas tree. Many families have a special day set aside in December for making ornaments, like the pleated paper Julehjerter (Yule Hearts). A festive atmosphere surrounds the trimming of the tree; meanwhile, æbleskiver make the hearts (and tastebuds) of children glad, and glögg does the same for the adults.
The traditional dinner tonight is a treat of Risengrød, a rice porridge topped with cinnamon, sugar, and butter.
[While that may not sound like much of a treat, remember that neither cinnamon nor sugar is necessary to sustenance, and that for most people, hard-earned money was spent on necessities. When sugar or spices could be afforded, they were saved for the most special occasions and often seen only a few times in the year.]
This is a very simple recipe, but needs a deal of care in the making. You will need to stir the contents of the pot often to make sure the milk doesn’t scorch or the rice burn.
The ingredients are rice (short-grain is best) and milk. A lot of milk. About four to six times the amount of rice, more or less.
For a large number, use 2 cups of rice and 10 to 12 cups of milk. For three to four diners, use a scant ½ cup of rice and 2 cups of milk.
In a suitable sized saucepan, bring the milk to a boil. Don’t let it boil over.
Add the rice, stirring continuously, and bring the contents back to a boil.
Reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer until slightly thickened, stirring often to keep the rice from burning. The amount of time depends on the amount of porridge. It can be anywhere from 30-40 minutes for a small batch to an hour for a large batch. If it ends up too thick, add a little more milk.
Bury an almond in the rice after it is finished and spoon rice into individual bowls. Top each serving with a nice pat of butter (about a tablespoon) and cover with a dusting of cinnamon-sugar. The one who finds the almond is the next one to marry, but if your young’uns don’t consider that a welcome idea, the one who finds the almond will have good luck for the year.
For cinnamon-sugar, you can either buy it ready made, or make it yourself. I like a 4:1 ratio, so I mix ¼ cup of white sugar and 1 tablespoon of cinnamon together in a bowl (and keep the extra in an empty spice bottle with a shaker top). Add more sugar or more cinnamon to the mixture to suit your taste.
Such a simple dish has any number of variations. Some add salt, either at the beginning of the cooking process or at the very end. Some add the rice with the milk and bring them to a boil together. Some cook the rice first in water, then add the milk. Some add the rice and turn off the heat, letting the rice absorb the milk for several minutes, before finishing the cooking. Some add a little more in the way of flavor, like orange juice.
And if you can’t see your way to eating porridge for dinner, there’s always breakfast.