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Every week, we’re unearthing Heirloom Recipes -- dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next.
My mormor, my mother’s mother, grew up in Norway amidst the Nazi occupation of the country during World War II. Her father worked in the government, and while most officials escaped the country and fled to England, he chose to stay with his wife and two young children. Unfortunately, this meant that Nazi soldiers came to their house weekly for an inspection and complete search of the house. One of my mormor’s proudest moments was the day when a Nazi soldier offered her a chocolate bar during a routine inspection. It was mormor’s favorite thing in the world and she missed it desperately -- because of the drained food supply, chocolate was nowhere to be found in Norway. Even so, she looked the soldier in the eye and told him, “no thank you, I don’t like chocolate:" a small but magnificent act of resistance.
Such a childhood, combined with a few other little family scandals, led to my mormor becoming a deeply anxious person. She developed an uncontrollably jumpy wrist that made daily activities like knitting, writing, and cooking an enormous challenge. From almost as soon as she could walk, my mom helped my mormor in the kitchen with tasks like stirring the gravy (almost all Norwegian food involves gravy of some sort) because if mormor tried it, her jumpy wrist would send food flying everywhere.
Cooking in post-war Norway wasn’t exactly easy, anyway. Ingredients were extremely limited: chicken was something you ate once a year, if lucky, and garlic was virtually unheard of. My mom vividly remembers the first time she ever ate pasta, which mormor topped with her improvised version of tomato sauce -- some tomato paste mixed with a cup or two of cream. Mormor was not one of those powerful grandmothers whose cooking is the stuff of legends, nor was she a bad cook. She was just a normal woman who cooked meals for her family every single day. Well, with perhaps a few more mishaps than usual.
Maybe it was the way her hand shook, preventing her from kneading properly, or maybe she was too impatient and always killed the yeast, but my mom says that mormor could never get her boller – the traditional Norwegian cardamom snack bun – to rise the way everyone else’s mothers’ did. Mormor’s were always flat and dense. One day when she finally got the dough to rise a little, she was so excited that she ran out into the yard to call my mother and all the other neighborhood children to come over for snack. The buns still weren’t as fluffy as other women’s, but my mom couldn’t have been prouder of her mother than she was that day.
My mom learned mormor’s boller recipe, but she learned proper technique from her best friend Anne Marie’s mother. My mother’s boller are always as light and lofty as if angels had kneaded them. I learned to bake boller from watching my mother, but for several years when I started trying to make them on my own, my buns turned out more like my mormor’s than my mom’s. They would rise only the tiniest bit and I would present my college friends with trays of doughy cardamom rocks. Happily, I didn’t give up, and with persistence and practice, my boller vastly improved. Now I can make them without getting a nervous pit in my stomach, and I feel proud to share them with anyone who would like a taste. (They’re still not as good as my mom’s though!)
My mormor died of cancer when I was only five. I don’t remember her much except for some hazy memories of visiting the statue park in Oslo with her, playing on a playground, and splashing in the fountain. Still, I feel like I know her well from the stories my mom tells and from all the many hearty, traditional Norwegian recipes we cook today.
In a few short months my own mother is going to become a grandmother. I can’t wait to get into the kitchen with her and my little one when he comes, so we can keep passing these recipes along.
Makes about 16 to 24, depending on what size you make the buns
2 1/2 cups warm milk, at about 100 to 104° F
1 stick butter, melted
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cardamom (or 1 teaspoon of freshly ground)
5 1/2 cups all purpose flour (plus more if needed)
1/2 cup raisins (optional)
1 egg, for an egg wash