I contacted my Finnish friend Sanna a little while back to ask her about what she would do on Christmas day in Finland.
I met Sanna a year and a half ago when we were both taking a short evening class on portrait photography in Melbourne, Australia. She lives in Melbourne with her husband and little boy. She is a really great photographer, you can see her work on her website here and her blog here.
Having lived in Australia for three years, I can tell you that it makes a huge difference to spend Christmas in Summer. So imagine being from Finland and not having a decent Winter landscape on the day!
Despite the fact that she really misses her Finnish Christmas (and I know it is quite overwhelming to think about it when you live so far away), Sanna was very happy to share her memories of Christmas with me and you.
On 23rd December, the Christmas tree is brought indoors and this is when the celebration really starts. Sanna and her family drink glögi (mulled wine) and eat gingerbread while they decorate the tree.
On Christmas Eve, they have riisipuuro (rice porridge) for breakfast and Sanna's mother usually puts a blanched almond into the porridge pot. The person who finds the almond can make a wish. The rice porridge is served warm with a knob of butter or a dash of milk, a sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon powder on top. It can also be served with a fruit soup (or compote). You would usually find bilberries in it (it is a fruit similar to blueberries, only smaller and sourer; its flesh is red or purple and usually taints the mouth of whoever eats it).
At midday, Christmas peace is declared in Finland (you can read it here). Sanna and her family would usually watch it on the television or listen to it on the radio.
They spend the rest of the day preparing the food and listening to Christmas carols. If the temperature outside is below zero degree Celsius, they like to make ice lanterns.
The main meal of a Finnish Christmas is the Christmas Eve dinner.
They start with rosolli. It is a beetroot salad with a cream dressing. They serve it with pickled herring. In Sanna's family, the pickled herring is homemade with onion or mustard. They also have some smoked salmon with dill and lemon, and boiled potatoes.
Then, they eat kinkku and luumukastike (ham and prune gravy). It is served with lanttulaatikko (a swede casserole), porkkanalaatikko (a carrot casserole) and imelletty perunalaatikko (a potato casserole).
The casseroles are a very important part of the Finnish Christmas dinner. Sanna's family normally buys the swede and carrot casseroles ready made in the supermarket (as they can find it made really well there), but the potato casserole is homemade. The reason for that is that they use Sanna's grandmother's recipe in which the casserole is sweetened.
For dessert, they then drink coffee and eat prune tarts and chocolates.
After dinner, they all open their presents. Families that have young children hire a Santa who will visit them and bring the gifts.
The rest of the evening is spent playing boardgames, reading books or just enjoying some time together.
On Christmas day itself, Sanna and her family like to sleep in late, and getting up only to eat chocolates and leftovers. They will also go out a bit to make snowmen and have a nice walk, but Christmas day is all about resting and relaxing.
All I could dream of after hearing about Sanna's Finnish Christmas was to one day spend Christmas in Finland. I think that the traditions and the weather there make it very special and lovely.
I decided to adapt two Finnish Christmas dishes. So keep scrolling down and you will find a recipe for a Finnish Christmas breakfast and a recipe for a Finnish Christmas starter. The gingerbread recipe is here as a little gift so you make it and enjoy it while decorating your Christmas tree.
250g sifted buckwheat flour
100g sifted brown rice flour
180g unsalted softened butter
160g demerara sugar
60g maple syrup
1 free range egg
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground star anise
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Put the softened butter and the sugar in a large bowl. Cream them together until the mixture is thick and pale. Add the egg and maple syrup and mix well until it is combined.
Add the baking powder and spice. Pour in the gluten free flours a bit at a time (about 100g each time) and combine the mixture well after each addition of the flours.
Make a ball with the dough, wrap it in cling film and leave it in the fridge for at least one hour.
(For those of you who do not have an electric mixer, I did not use one either for this recipe. I used a fork for the creaming process and combining of the egg and maple syrup. After that, I used my hands to finish making the dough. A bit of elbow grease goes a long way!)
When it comes to cooking this dough, preheat the oven to 180ºC and line one or two baking trays with baking paper (depending on how many cookies you want to bake at a time).
Roll out the dough on a floured surface (you can use buckwheat flour for that stage). The rolled dough should be 5mm-thick. Cut out the biscuit shapes (gingerbread man, reindeer, snowflake, etc.). When you lay them on the tray, leave 2cm between them.
Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until the biscuits are cooked and look golden. Take the trays of cookies out of the oven, let them cool down for a couple of minutes. Then, transfer the cookies onto a wire rack.
When they have cooled completely, dust with icing sugar or decorate.
Ingredients (serves 4, or 6 smaller portions)
4 or 6 gingerbread men (one per person, you can make them using the recipe above)
Cinnamon powder and caster sugar for serving
For the mulled wine fruit compote
50ml white wine (use red wine if you prefer a darker, richer compote)
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp orange peel
1 tsp cardamom pods
1/2 tsp ground allspice
For the rice porridge
150g pudding rice (or short grain rice)
700ml whole milk
Let's start with making the fruit compote. You can make it the day before as it will help saving time on Christmas day itself.
Pour the blueberries, cranberries, white wine and sugar in a saucepan. Put over a medium heat. When it starts simmering, add the rest of the ingredients, turn the heat down to very low, cover (you do not have to cover but I do it as the fruits spit quite a bit and you can end up with very colourful spots on your kitchen walls) and let it simmer for 30 minutes.
Turn off the heat, discard the cinnamon stick and cardamon pods (little tip here: I counted the pods before adding them so I know that I have removed them all afterwards) and transfer the compote into a bowl. I like to leave it uncovered for 10 to 15 minutes to help some of the moisture evaporate and get a thicker compote (if you prefer a compote with more of a fruit soup aspect, you can skip and serve as it is). If you are using it the following day, let it cool down completely, cover and put it in the fridge.
Make the rice porridge on the day, it needs to be served lovely and warm.
Use a saucepan with a thick bottom as you do not want the porridge to burn. The level of heat for cooking is also very important in this recipe.
Pour the water in the saucepan, put over high heat and bring to the boil. Then, add the rice, reduce the heat to medium and stir until the water is all absorbed.
Add the milk and bring to the boil while stirring frequently.
When it starts boiling, turn the heat down to very low (the lowest setting you have). Cover the saucepan and let it simmer for 40 to 60 minutes, or until the mixture has turned into a smooth porridge (you should be able to pour it; not too thick but not too watery either). While it is simmering, stir every now and then to avoid having the porridge burning in the bottom and having a skin forming at the surface.
When it is done, let it rest for about 5 minutes and then serve warm.
For serving, use small bowls. Crumble a gingerbread man in the bottom, add some of the compote (cold or warm), pour in the rice porridge, sprinkle with caster sugar and cinnamon powder.
And if you feel like having a Finnish tradition, add a blanched almond in the porridge while cooking it. Whoever finds it can make a wish!
(Adapted from traditional Finnish recipes)
Ingredients (serves 4)
6 baby potatoes (250g)
2 carrots (100g)
200g diced pickled beetroot
1 diced sour apple (Granny Smith for example)
1 finely chopped gherkin
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
200g double cream
1 tsp cider vinegar
2 tsp beetroot juice (use the juice from the pickled beetroot)
salt and white pepper (to season)
4 smoked salmon slices
2 lemon slices (divided in two to serve 4)
2 tsp finely chopped dill
Put the potatoes and carrots in a large saucepan. Cover with cold water, put over high heat and bring to the boil (cover the saucepan with a lid to keep the heat in and cook faster). When it is boiling, reduce to medium heat and cook for 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.
Drain the potatoes and carrot well and let them cool down for 5 minutes. Peel the potatoes and dice them (1cm cubes). Do the same with the carrots (I do not find a need to peel them). Transfer everything to a large bowl and let it cool down.
In the meantime, put the double cream in a large bowl and whip until you get soft peaks. Add the cider vinegar and juice from the pickled beetroot and mix well. Season to your taste with the salt and white pepper.
Add the diced beetroot, apple, chopped gherkin and parsley to the carrots and potatoes. Pour in the cream and fold in delicately with a spoon.
Divide the salad between the plates, and serve with a slice of smoked salmon each, half a slice of lemon and a sprinkle of dill.
Hyvää Joulua and bon appétit!