Christmas gingerbread sandwich cookies

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Mömmukökur (Mama's Cookies)

My mother only makes these gingerbread cookies before Christmas, but they are excellent at any time of the year. When I was little, I really thought it was my mother's own recipe.

Different people have different ways of making Mömmukökur. My mother makes them very thin and bakes them until they are dark brown and crisp. Others make light brown, thicker cookies that soften quickly once the icing is on. Mother allows them to stand until completely cooled, before putting in tins for storage. This is to ensure that they will stay crisp. Then, just before Christmas - usually on Þorláksmessa (December 23rd) - the four of us (my parents, brother and I) sit down together and make cookie sandwiches, sticking the cookies together two by two with vanilla butter icing.

125 g butter/margarine
250 g golden syrup
125 g sugar
1 egg
500 g flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp powdered ginger
1 portion butter icing

Melt together the butter, sugar and golden syrup and mix well. Cool. Stir in the egg. Mix together flour, baking soda and ginger. Add the syrup mixture and knead until smooth. Store in a refrigerator over night. Flatten out until very thin and cut out shapes with cookie cutters or a glass. Bake at 200°C, until the cookies area a proper gingerbread brown colour. Cool completely before icing.

Note: Don't use this recipe to make gingerbread houses – this gingerbread is too fragile.


Sarah Bernhardt cookies - Sörur

Like several other great artists, most famously the ballerina Pavlova and opera singer Nellie Melba, actress Sarah Bernhardt had some sweet desserts named after her. There is a Sarah Bernhardt cake, and then there are these delicious confections called Sarah Bernhardt cookies, invented by a Danish pastry chef who wanted to honour the actress.
These cookies, which we usually just call "Sarahs", are a great favourite of mine, and I try to make some every year for Christmas.

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I have updated the recipe. The original has one thing wrong with it, which is that the buttercream icing has a tendency to separate when made like the recipe tells you to. I found more precise instructions on how to make this kind of icing in my trusty cooking encyclopedia, and have added them into the original recipe (in closed brackets) for those interested. The downside to the new version is that it does not yield enough icing for all the macaroons (at least if you like to use as much as I do). A little extra butter (50 g or so) and syrup (maybe increase it to a cup of sugar and and a cup of water) and one more egg yolk should take care of it.

400 g blanched almonds, finely ground
2 1/5 cup icing sugar/confectioner's sugar
5 eggs, yolks and whites separated
2/3 cup sugar
2 tbs baking cocoa
2/3 cup water
300 g butter, soft
250 g chocolate for coating - use dark
2 1/2 tsp instant coffee powder (optional)

Mix together ground almonds and icing sugar. Whip the egg whites until they are stiff and form peaks and fold into the almond/sugar mixture. With a teaspoon, put small dollops of dough on a baking sheet covered with baking paper, and bake at 180°C for about 15 minutes, or until the cookies begin to take on a golden colour. Remove the cookies from the baking sheet with a spatula while still hot and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

Buttercream icing: Put the water and sugar into a saucepan and cook until the sugar is melted and a thin syrup has formed (for an icing that does not separate, cook the sugar to the soft ball stage, that is 115°C or 239°F of you prefer to use a candy thermometer). Remove from the heat and cool. Beat the egg yolks and slowly pour the cooled syrup into them, stirring constantly. Add the softened butter and mix well. Add cocoa and instant coffee powder (if using). Put in the refrigerator to cool. Spread the cooled icing on the underside of each cookie, forming a small mound in the center. Put in the refrigerator. The icing needs to be cold and stiff before proceeding on to the next step.

Coating: Melt the chocolate in a bowl over boiling water. Cool to about 40°C (use a candy thermometer or finger test). Dip the icing-covered part of the cookies in melted chocolate to coat. Serve cool or frozen with hot cocoa or strong coffee.

-These cookies should be stored frozen if they are not meant to be eaten immediately.
-Try different flavours of buttercream fillings.


Spicy gingersnaps - Piparkökur

The Icelandic term for gingersnaps and gingerbread cookies literally means “pepper cookies”.
These unusual gingerbread refrigerator cookies not only contain pepper, but also paprika. My mother modified the recipe from one she found in an old recipe booklet.

500 g flour
500 g brown sugar
250 g butter
2 eggs
5 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp powdered cloves
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1/4 tsp paprika

Mix together the dry ingredients. Add soft butter and eggs and knead until smooth. Cool in the refrigerator overnight. Roll out into sausage shapes of even thickness, pinch or cut off small portions and make little balls out of the dough. Put on a cookie sheet covered with baking paper and press your palm on top of each ball to flatten slightly. Bake at 200°C until browned.

Update: I made a batch on Saturday. These are very good gingersnaps. Instead of making balls and flattening them with my hand on the cookie sheet, I cut the dough rolls into thin slices (about 5 mm - 1/5 of an inch thick):

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They do not spread much when they get in the oven, so a space of about 2 cm (4/5 inch) between them is enough. I baked them at 180°C in my convection oven. The cookies took only 4 minutes to get to the stage where I like them best: golden but with a slightly chewy center. If you plan to store them for more than a week I recommend 2-4 minutes more in the oven to get them dry through. They will be a darkish medium brown by that time. Any longer than that and they will burn, unless you go for the ball method, which will yield thicker cookies that will need slightly longer baking.

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Cinnamon 'snails' (Kanilsnúðar) & Jewish Cookies (Gyðingakökur)

An anonymous commenter requested a recipe for Cinnamon 'snails', so here it is. This first recipe is the way my grandmother makes them. The second recipe is included for those who can not get their hands on hartshorn (baker's ammonia).

This is originally a recipe for Jewish Cookies, which are a Christmas staple in many Icelandic homes. I have included instructions for both cookies and 'snails'.

According to Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, author of the Icelandic food encyclopedia Matarást,  Jewish cookies got the name because they were originally made and sold by Jews, who presumably had a different name for them. It's a bit ironic that they should have become associated with Christmas in Iceland.

Cinnamon 'snails'/Jewish Cookies

175 g flour
100 g butter or margarine
1/2 tsp hartshorn powder (baker's ammonia) – see Note
60 g sugar
1 egg
1 tbs sugar

For cookies:

10 almonds

For 'snails':
Sugar and cinnamon, mixed together, approx 4 parts sugar to 1 part cinnamon (or more, if you like an intense cinnamon flavour)

The dough:
Mix flour and hartshorn. Add sugar and margarine and mix everything together with your hands until you have a crumbly mixture. Add the egg and knead until solid. Cool in the refrigerator for a couple of hours at least.

To make snails:
Flatten the dough quite thin with a rolling pin and try to keep it an approximately square or rectangular shape. Sprinkle cinnamon sugar on top. Roll the dough up into a roll, then slice into approx. 1 cm thick slices. Arrange slices on a cookie sheet and bake at about 200°C until golden brown.

To make Jewish cookies:
Finely chop the almonds and mix with sugar. Flatten the dough and use round cookie cutters to cut out the cookies. Brush beaten egg on the cookies and dip into sugar/almond mixture. Bake in a medium oven until golden brown.

Note: Hartshorn can be hard to find outside Northern-Europe. In the USA, you may be able to find it in German or Scandinavian markets, drug stores or baking supply stores, or through mail order catalogues. It may be labelled either as hartshorn or as baker's ammonia (do not confuse with regular ammonia!).
Hartshorn gives more lift to cookies than baking soda or baking powder, and cookies made with it turn out very light and crisp. It may be substituted thus: 1 tsp baking powder for 1 tsp hartshorn (the cookies will probably not be quite as light or crisp as when using hartshorn) OR 1 tsp baking powder and 1 tsp baking soda for 1 tsp hartshorn (this is supposed to yield similar results to hartshorn, but I have never tried it, so I don't really know if it's true).

Alternative recipe for Cinnamon snails (no hartshorn):
This recipe is from my home economics recipe book from school. I made these once – they looked beautiful but had very little taste. If I make them again, I will use more cinnamon than the recipe states and perhaps add a little vanilla to the dough.

400 ml flour
100 g margarine
2 tsp baking powder
2 tbl sugar
1 egg
50 ml milk

Cinnamon sugar:
2 tbs sugar
1 tsp cinnamon

Follow the above direction to make kneaded dough. Melt the margarine and brush over the rolled dough. Sprinkle cinnamon sugar over the dough. Roll up and store in the refrigerator for about an hour. Cut into slices with a sharp knife. Arrange the slices on a cookie sheet and bake at 200°C until golden brown.


Rice Pudding - Hrísgrjónagrautur

This lovely pudding is served for lunch at my parents' house almost every Saturday, and we all love it. This is a cheap, nourishing, tasty meal, which I make much too seldom in my own home.
At Christmas, we have a small serving of rice pudding before the main meal of hangikjöt. According to tradition, my mother hides a peeled almond in the pudding and we each choose one bowl. The person who finds the almond (usually my brother) gets a small gift, typically some chocolate.

1/2 litre water
200 gr. rice (do not use quick-cook or instant)
1 1/2 litre whole milk
1 tsp salt

Cook the rice in the water until it's almost completely absorbed. Add the milk and lower the heat to simmer. Continue cooking until the rice is tender (the whole process takes about an hour). Add salt and serve with cinnamon sugar.

- cook a handful of raisins with the rice for a few minutes before serving, for an authentic, old-fashioned "rúsínugrautur" (raisin pudding).

- The pudding is usually eaten with milk or "saft" - a sweet drink made with berry syrup (raspberry, red currant or crowberry tastes best). Some people serve the pudding cold with hot caramel sauce at Christmas.


Half-moon cookies – Hálfmánar

My paternal grandmother always makes these for Christmas.

500 g flour
250 g sugar
200 g margarine
½ tsp hartshorn powder
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg
100 ml (2/5 cup) milk
Cardamom essence to taste
Rhubarb or other jam

Mix together sugar, baking powder, hartshorn powder and flour. Add soft butter and mix until crumbly. Add egg, milk and cardamom essesnce and knead until smooth. Store in a refrigerator until cold through (overnight is usual). Flatten with a rolling pin and cut out cookies with a glass or circular cookie cutter. Put about a teaspoonful of jam in the center of each cookie, fold cookies in half and press edges together with a fork. Arrange on a lightly floured baking sheet and bake at 200°C for 7-10 minutes, or until golden.


Currant cookies - Kúrenukökur

I don't particularly care for these, as I don't like raisins in food and the currants remind me of them, but my grandmother loves them.

375 g butter, softened
375 g sugar
7 eggs, yolks and whites separated
a few drops of lemon essence
500 g flour

For decoration:
Currants, chopped blanched almonds, extra sugar (no amounts are given in the original recipe)

Cream sugar and butter, then add the egg yolks one by one, mixing well in between. Gradually add the flour, then the lemon essence. Whip the whites separately until stiff and fold into the dough.

Put the doughonto a baking sheet and spread evenly over the sheet, using a spatula. Sprinkle a mixture of currants, almonds and sugar on top. Bake at about 180°C until golden and cut into squares while still warm.


Coconut wreaths - Kókoshringir

My mother used to make these every Christmas when I was little. They have a buttery, coconutty taste and are great with tea or cold milk.

200 g flour
200 g dessicated coconut
150 g sugar
200 g butter, softened
1 egg

Mix flour, coconut and sugar. Fold in the egg and butter and knead. Run through a cookie press, taking lengths of about 8 cm. and forming them into circles. Put on a baking sheet and bake at about 180°C for about 8 minutes, or until they are a light golden colour.


Crullers or twisted doughnuts - Kleinur

While technically they are everyday pastries, I think kleinur deserve to be included in the Christmas fare. I have added a second recipe for those who do not have access to hartshorn powder.

In many homes in Iceland a large cooking pot lurks in a kitchen cupboard. Its sides are black with burnt-in fat, and a guest might wonder what the monster is used for. Occasionally, in some homes as often as once a week, this pot will be pulled out from its hiding place and put to good use for frying doughnuts in. It is not unusual for a doughnut-maker to make a double or even triple recipe in one session.

Twisted doughnuts are not a specifically Icelandic phenomenon, but neither are they as common in other countries. Making these delicacies is time consuming and hard work, and therefore the batches are usually large to save time and effort.

  • Don't try this if you have never deep-fried anything before, as the frying fat must be very hot, and certain precautions must be taken to avoid accidents. They include:
  • not letting the hot oil get into contact with water, 
  • never leaving the frying pot or deep-fryer unattended, and, in case of accidents, 
  • having a fire-blanket and/or fire extinguisher at hand. 

I am including 2 recipes, one with hartshorn powder and one without it, as hartshorn seems to be quite difficult to find outside Europe. Both recipes are mixed and handled in the same way.

Ready to fry dough and fried kleinur.
1st recipe:
500 g flour
40 g margarine/butter, soft
2 tsp baker's ammonia/hartshorn salt (ammonium carbonate)
2 medium eggs
1 tsp baking powder
150 ml milk, sour milk or buttermilk
150 g sugar
2 tsp essence of cardamom

2nd recipe:
1 kg flour
150 g butter
250 g sugar
3 eggs
4 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
3 tsp powdered cardamom
a few drops of vanilla essence
250 ml buttermilk or cream

Mix together dry ingredients. Mix in the margarine/butter and then eggs and milk/cream, followed by the essence of cardamom or vanilla essence. Knead into a fairly soft dough. Avoid over-kneading, as this will make the doughnuts tough.

Making the twist.
Roll out the dough until fairly thin (2-3 millimeters thick), cut into strips (these should be anything from 5-10 centimeters wide, depending on weather you want small or big doughnuts) and then cut diagonally across the previous cuts to make diamond shapes. Cut a small slit in the centre of each diamond and gently pull one end through the slit, to make the twist in the doughnuts.

Heat the frying fat. It must be very hot, and will have reached the right temperature when a doughnut browns and cooks through in about 1 to 1:30 minutes.

Genuine Icelandic twisted doughnuts are fried in sheep tallow, which leaves a special taste, but this is now considered unhealthy because of all the saturated fat.
I use about 2/3 cooking fat and 1/3 tallow, which produces healthier kleinur that still have that old-time tallow flavour. If you can't get tallow, use about a litre of vegetable cooking fat that can be heated to a high temperature, for example canola or coconut oil.

When they reach this colour, remove from fat.
Most deep-fryers can not get the oil hot enough for frying kleinur - but they are safer than using a pot on the stovetop. If you do use a fryer, heat the oil to the maximum temperature, and allow the oil a short time to heat up again after each round of doughnuts.

Interesting tidbit:
I found an American recipe for twisted doughnuts in The Little House Cookbook by Barbara M. Walker (New York, N.Y., Harper & Row, 1989). The recipe is taken from an old American cookbook, and although the twisting method is quite different, the recipes themselves are clearly related.


Siggi's cookies - Siggakökur

I don’t know who Siggi is or was, but the recipe is for dry chocolate chip cookies that can be stored for several months. It is one of three types cookies my mother always makes for Christmas. They are excellent dipped in coffee.

1/2 cup margarine or butter (softened at room temperature for no more than 40 minutes, or the cookies will spread too much)
6 tbs sugar
6 tbs brown sugar
1 egg
1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped nuts. My mother uses hazelnuts, but I bet it would also be good to use cashews, peanuts or macadamias.
1/2 cup (100 g) chopped chocolate or chocolate chips (dark, semi-sweet is best)
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
Dash of lukewarm water, if needed

Cream the butter and sugars together until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and mix well. Mix together flour, baking soda and salt and add gradually to the batter. Fold in nuts and chocolate, adding a little water if the dough gets too thick to stir easily. Drop teaspoonfuls of dough on a baking sheet bake at 180-200°C for about 10 minutes. This dough will keep in the refrigerator for 2 days.


I'm back...for a while at least

It has been months since I last posted here, for several reasons that I will not go into. Because Christmas is getting nearer, I will be posting some Christmas recipes (mostly for cookies) in the weeks leading up to the holidays, and also bringing back to the top some (or all) of the Christmas recipes I have already posted.

The poll I posted about having ads on the site showed that most of my visitors do not object to the milder forms of online advertising, but in the end I decided that since I would not have full control over the kind of ads that would appear here, I am not going to have any ads at all.


Lifrarpylsa - Liver Sausage (Icelandic “Haggis”)

I made some liver sausage with a friend of mine yesterday. This is a popular Þorri food that is available year round in Iceland. It is the season for making liver and blood sausages right now.

There are many ways of preparing liver, and the following is one method of preparing a good, nutritious meal from lamb's liver. This delicacy has relatives in various other countries. The most famous is do doubt the Scottish Haggis. This is an original traditional recipe. Below the instructions you will find a tip on how to make it lighter and healthier. Pork liver can be substituted for lamb's liver, and beef suet for the mutton suet, but for genuineness, you need lamb's liver and suet.

1 kg lamb's liver
50-100 g flour
approx. 450 g rye flour
750 ml milk
150 g oatmeal
30 g salt
1 kg sheep suet
Sheep's stomachs/tripe (optional), large sausage skins, or cooking bags

Wash and clean the liver and remove all blood vessels and membranes. Mince the liver thoroughly into a paste. Mix with milk and salt and then rye flour, oatmeal and flour (best done using one’s hands). The mixture should be thick. Chop the suet, finely or coarsely, depending on your tastes, and mix with the liver paste. This mixture is traditionally sewn up into sheep's stomachs that have been cut down to size, but sausage skins or plastic bags that are suitable for cooking in can be substituted, and are much quicker. Fill the bags and close them well. One lifrarpylsa should be about the size of a man's clenched fist. They can be made larger or smaller, but the cooking time given is for this size.

Drop the sausages into boiling salted water and cook for 2-2 1/2 hours. Right after the sausages are dropped into the water, it is a good idea to prick them few times with a pin to prevent them from bursting. Turn over occasionally.

Health tip:
To make this healthier, halve the amount of suet you use in the recipe. To keep the paste thick, use 1/3 less milk to begin with, and if it needs more, add a little at a time until you reach the desired thickness.

Eat hot with boiled or mashed potatoes, cold with porridge or skyr, or use as topping for bread.
Frying is a good way to use up leftover sausage. You can either brown slices of it in a frying pan with some sugar, or sprinkle some sugar on it before eating. Serve with mashed potatoes.

Liver sausage is often preserved in skyr-whey, along with other traditional foods, such as blood sausage, sheep's head jam and whale blubber. This pickling produces a sour flavour that is definitely an acquired taste. Food preserved in this way is traditionally eaten during the old month of Þorri, at festivals called Þorrablót.

convert measures from metric to your preferred system


A personal restaurant review: Jómfrúin

A friend and I meet for lunch a couple of times a month, and recently we decided to try a new restaurant or café once every month, instead of always going to one of the same three places over and over. This month’s choice was Jómfrúin, a Danish-style smørrebrød (open-faced sandwiches) restaurant in Lækjargata in the heart of Reykjavík. Neither of us had eaten there before, but I have eaten party food from them on several occasions (at my workplace we sometimes order canapé versions of these bread dishes to serve to special guests).

The place is small and bustling with activity. The environment is in the plain café style, with old Danish advertising posters on the walls, dim lighting and paper tablecloths. The floor is tiled and there was too much noise in there for us to have a quiet conversation. The service was fast, efficient and friendly.

You can get most of the dishes in "full" and "half" portions, which is good, because a full portion is really a meal in itself and there are so many tempting things on the menu that it is nice to be able to order half portions of 2-3 dishes, rather than just one dish.

For variety I decided to order a half-portion of a dish we have never ordered in at work, namely pastrami, and a half-portion of an old favourite, the classic "Shrimp pyramid".

The pastrami was served on French (white) bread, and topped with sauerkraut, Dijon-mustard, a slice of tomato, miniature gherkins and fresh herbs. The pastrami itself was very good and the sauerkraut went well with it, but the Dijon was a bit overpowering considering the mild flavour of the pastrami.

The shrimp pyramid was served on white bread, with Thousand Island sauce on the side and a wedge of lemon to squeeze over the shrimp. The shrimp were overcooked and therefore slightly tough, but tasted good nonetheless.

My friend had a "Bombay": toasted French bread with butter, curried chicken salad, tomato, egg, smoked salmon and caviar, and the classic herring with egg: rye bread topped with butter, spice-pickled herring, egg, tomato, onion and dill. The Bombay was okay, but she did not like the herring, said it was not as good as the herring she had tasted in Denmark (at the original bar where smørrebrød was invented).

All in all, the lunch was a bit disappointing, but I would go there again, and then I would order dishes I know to be excellent: "The Veterinarian's Supper" (liver pate, port aspic, salt pork, onions and dill on rye), roast beef (on rye with tomato, egg, fried onions and remoulade), plaice (on rye with remoulade, shrimp, asparagus, smoked salmon, caviar, and lemon), smoked eel (on rye with scrambled egg, tomato and chives) or ham (on rye with spicy beetroot salad, egg and leek).

The Jómfrúin website. The website is in Icelandic, but the menu is in English as well. To see the menu (with photos of the dishes), click on the link “Aðal matseðill” and to see the choice of hot lunch courses, click on “Heitir réttir í hádeginu”.

In the summer the restaurant offers live jazz from 3 to 5 p.m., out on the patio behind the restaurant.


Cocoa soup - Kakósúpa

I loved cocoa soup and cocoa pudding when I was a child. The soup would be served with zwieback that we would crumble into coarse pieces into the bowl and then we would eat the soup while there was still some crunch left in the zwieback. On special occasions cocoa soup would be served with whipped cream and then it was like thick cocoa, only you ate it with a spoon. It was wonderful to come in from the chill of a winter's morning and sit down to some hot cocoa soup for lunch.

Cocoa pudding was poured into a large bowl prior to serving, sugar was sprinkled on top to prevent a skin from forming, and then we would eat it warm or cold. I never liked it much cold, preferring cold chocolate pudding made with Royal pudding mix, served with whipped cream mixed into it so it looked marbelised.

My mother never used cinnamon but sometimes she put a little bit of vanilla essence into the soup.

2 tbs baking cocoa
2 1/2 tbs sugar
250 ml water
1 cinnamon stick or vanilla pod (optional)
1 litre milk
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbs potato flour or cornflour (double or triple as needed to make pudding)
100 ml cold water

Mix together cocoa and sugar and add to the water in a cooking pot. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes.

Mix the potato flour/cornflour with cold water to make a smooth paste.

Add the milk, salt and cinnamon or vanilla pod (split lengthwise), if using, to the cocoa mix and bring to the boil. Stir the potato flour/cornflour paste into the boiling soup and wait until it boils again.

Serve hot with zwieback or whipped cream.

For a real treat, make the soup with real chocolate.


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Icelandic style choux buns - Vatnsdeigsbollur (edited to add a photo)

In Iceland, the last Monday before Lent is called Bolludagur, or Bun Day. On this day, we stuff ourselves with delicious, sweet buns, and many families eat meatballs or fish balls for dinner (bolla can mean both "bun" and “ball”). Two kinds of buns are made, one recipe uses yeast for rising, the other uses eggs. My mother always makes the egg kind, which are made with choux dough. As a result, I have never been able to acquire a taste for yeast buns.

Choux buns

125 g margarine or butter
250 ml water
125 g flour
4 eggs
400 ml heavy cream or whipping cream

Put the water and margarine together in a saucepan and heat until margarine is melted. Sift the flour into the mixture and stir until the dough is smooth and thick. Keep the saucepan on the hotplate while stirring. Remove from the hotplate and allow to cool a little. Break the eggs into a glass, one at a time, and stir to break the yolk. Pour into the dough and mix well. Drop on to an oven-plate with two tablespoons, keeping a good space between the blobs, as they expand quite a lot. Bake at 200°C, in the middle of the oven, for 20-30 minutes, or until the buns are a pale golden colour. Do not open the oven for the first 12-15 minutes, or the buns will fall. Allow to cool before slitting open and filling with whipped cream and jam, and top with cocoa glaze (icing sugar + cocoa powder + warm water) or melted chocolate.

-Mash fruit or berries, such as strawberries, bananas, blueberries or peaches and stir into whipped cream and use as filling.
-Add small chocolate chips to the whipped cream before filling the buns. Leave out the glaze.
-Experiment with different flavours of icing, such as maple syrup, caramel, lemon or vanilla.
-Put a piece of creme-filled candy inside the bun for a burst of flavour.

Party treats: Make tiny buns (use teaspoons or a pastry tube instead of tablespoons) and fill with flavoured cream-cheese or tuna dip (mash tuna into mayonnaise and flavour with garlic and pepper). Make a small hole in the side of each bun and fill, using an icing tube. Serve as nibbles or appetizers.


Þorrablót or Thorrablot (Icelandic midwinter feast)

Þorri begins today, so I moved this post from last year to the top. Here you will find some information about the traditional Icelandic foods eaten at the Þorri feasts. The links will take you to recipes or instructions for making some of these foods.

Þorri is one of the old Icelandic lunar months. It always begins on a Friday, between the 19th and the 25th of January, and ends on a Saturday between the 18th and 24th of February. The first day of Þorri is called Bóndadagur or "Husband's Day/Farmer's Day", and is dedicated to men (formerly only farmers). In my family (and many others) , the women bring the men breakfast in bed on this day - just as the men will do on Konudagur “Woman's Day” (if they know what's good for them). Many women will give their husbands flowers as well. The flowers are a fairly new custom, introduced by flower shops in order to sell more roses. (They are trying import Valentine's Day for the same reason).

The tradition of a Þorri feast is an ancient one. It has its roots in the old midwinter feasts of the pagan era, the Þorrablót, although the way in which it is celebrated has changed. This month falls on the coldest time of the winter, and therefore it is no surprise that Þorri has become a personification of King Winter. He is usually portrayed as an old man, tall and grizzled, who is as cruel to those who disrespect him as he is gentle to those who show him respect. Some have suggested that the month is named after the legendary king who united Norway into one country. Others think it is derived from the name of the thunder-god Þór (Thor), and that this was his feast during the pre-Christian era in Iceland.

Whatever the origin of the feast of Þorri, it is today a standard part of the Icelandic social calendar, and has even been exported to many countries which have ex-pat Icelandic populations, often to the utter dismay of foreign friends and spouses.

The eating habits of the Icelandic nation have changed a lot in the last hundred years or so, and it is only during Þorri that people will eat many of the old-fashioned foods. As this feast takes place in the middle of winter, it is no surprise that most of the food served at the feasts is preserved in some way: by pickling in whey, salting, smoking, drying or fermenting.

A typical Þorrablót takes place at any time during Þorri. The season for it now extends into the following month, Góa, but the feast is then usually dubbed Góugleði. It is advisable to hold it on a Friday or Saturday night, to give the participants time to recover from the effects of overeating and heavy drinking that goes with a good Þorrablót. The form the feast takes is similar everywhere, the indispensable ingredients being merrymaking and lots of food. Additional ingredients are staged entertainment (often a cabaret or revue), dancing and lots of alcohol.

The traditional method of serving the food in deep wooden trays is these days usually only extended as far as the buffet, ordinary plates taking their place at the table, and cutlery taking the place of the traditional sharp knife and the diner's bare hands.

Menu for Þorrablót,
comments courtesy of your host.

Traditional Appetizers:

Shark, served in small cubes. It is prepared by burying it for several weeks, and then hanging it up and allowing it to dry. The semi-opaque flesh of the belly is called glerhákarl (glassy shark), and is not nearly as popular as the skyrhákarl, which is flesh from the body of the fish. Skyrhákarl draws its name from its resemblance in appearance to the Icelandic curds called skyr. The tough glerhákarl is recommended for beginners, as the soft skyrhákarl has been known to cause an involuntary gagging reaction due to its texture. Wash down with a shot of cold Brennivín (caraway schnapps). Believe it or not, this is actually good for the digestion - especially before eating the heavy Þorri food.

Dried fish, usually haddock, cod or catfish, beaten to soften it. Delicious with or without butter. In olden times harðfiskur was eaten like bread in those homes that could only afford flour for baking on special occasions. It is still Iceland's favourite snack, and a popular travel food. (Chances are, if you meet an Icelander and he has a funny smell about him, it will be because of the harðfiskur tucked away in his luggage).

Modern Entrées:
At many Þorri feasts there is now offered a wide variety of entrées, usually food that can be found in a typical Scandinavian Julefrokost (Christmas buffet): marinated herring (both plain and in several different kinds of sauce), smoked salmon and
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Main courses:
This is where the menu begins to get really interesting. Almost everything you find on a typical Þorri buffet is made from lamb or mutton, with a few exceptions. The food can be separated into two categories: sour and non-sour. The sour food has been pickled in extra strong skyrmysa (whey) for several weeks. The trick is to get it sour enough to tell where it's been, but not so sour that you can't tell what it is. Most of the sour food is also served non-sour. In the old days, sour milk was sometimes uses instead of mysa.

Sour only:
Hrútspungar or pressed sheep's testicles. Has little taste of its own, and a texture reminiscent of pressed cod roe.
Hvalspik or whale blubber. This became hard to find after the parliament passed a law forbidding whaling several years ago. It has made a small comeback recently, due to the whaling ban being lifted. Fresh whale blubber is stringy and tough, but pickling it makes it soft and more digestible.
Lundabaggar - This is a tough one to explain - it is made from secondary meats, like colons and other such stuff, rolled up, boiled, pickled and sliced. Usually very fatty.
Bringukollar - breast meat. These are cuts of really fat meat on the bone, which have been boiled before pickling. As the name suggests, these pieces come from the breast of the animal.
Selshreifar - seal's flippers. These are rare, except at some family feasts where the participants have hunted the seals themselves.
Hvalllíki or fake whale blubber. This was invented after the whaling ban. It is made from fish, and has a colour and texture reminiscent of the real thing, but an entirely different taste. Has become a Þorri staple for many, and is by some preferred over the real thing. I think that now whale blubber is available, this will probably disappear soon, unless whaling stops again.
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Sour and non-sour:
Slátur. Of this there are two types: Lifrarpylsa or liver sausage and Blóðmör or blood sausage. Both are cooked before pickling. Both are quite good when fresh, but take on wholly different taste when pickled, which people either love or loathe (I happen to like it). Both contain rye meal, which contributes to the souring process and creates a special kind of taste that's hard to describe. Both are quite firm when fresh, but will take on a crumbly texture after extended pickling. These can actually be pickled in water or milk, as the rye meal causes a souring action similar to whey.
Sviðasulta - sheep's head jam (headcheese; brawn). This is quite good when pickled, and delicious fresh. It is made by cutting up the meat from cooked sheep's heads (svið), pressing into moulds and cooling. The cooking liquid turns into jelly when cold, and keeps the whole thing together.
Svínasulta, or spiced pigs' head jam/headcheese. A recent addition to the Þorri table, probably borrowed from the Danish. Tastes much better fresh than pickled.
Lappir and/or Fótasulta - sheep's legs and sheep's leg jam. This is a rare sight, both due to the effort it takes to produce the jam, and the fact that the slaughterhouses are required to throw the legs away. Therefore only available where people do their own butchering.*

*The must have changed the regulations - you can now get legs at my local supermarket.

Hangikjöt - Literally "hung meat". This usually refers to smoked lamb or mutton, although smoked horse-meat is also called hangikjöt. This is one of those courses that are eaten outside the Þorri season as well, and is really delicious.
Magálar - heavily smoked sheep's bellies. Eaten like hangikjöt.
Svið - singed sheep's heads. The name refers to the tradition of burning away all the hair from the head before cooking. This gives the meat a smoky flavour. The heads are cut in half lengthwise and the brains removed before cooking. Like hangikjöt, this is also quite a popular dish outside the Þorri season.

Side dishes:
Kartöflustappa - mashed potatoes. This hopefully needs no explanation.
Rófustappa - mashed rutabagas. These are boiled until soft, mashed and sweetened with sugar.
Flatbrauð - flat bread, served with butter.
rúgbrauð - rye bread. Dark (almost black) "thunder-bread" served with butter. Top with pickled herring for an entrée, eat on the side with the main courses.

Brennivín - caraway schnapps, locally known as Svartidauði - "Black Death". These days many people will rather drink vodka and/or whisky - which they claim tastes better.
Mysa - whey. Yes, it can also be drunk. Before the arrival of carbonated beverages, this was the refreshment of choice. Unfortunately, it is not much used as a drink anymore. The taste? It is reminiscent of dry white wine, and mysa can actually be used instead of white wine in cooking, without anyone noticing the difference.
Bjór - beer and its relatives, Malt (non-alcoholic brown ale) and Lageröl (pale ale). During the beer-less years (several decades), the only ale allowed in Iceland was the low-alcohol Malt and Lageröl. Since we have been allowed to drink beer again, it has become "the drink" for many at Þorrablót feasts. These days you can even buy special Þorri beer.
Soft drinks - for those who don't like ale or strong spirits.

Stuff that is sometimes served, but strictly speaking is not traditional:
Many people, especially young people, don't like the Þorri food, but like to participate in the Þorrablót. In order to accommodate these people, non-Þorri food is sometimes served (especially at restaurants). Therefore we now have:
Þorri chicken - grilled Þorri steak - Þorri pizza, and other such stuff.

Every year, I hear people, especially young people and those who like to consider themselves cosmopolitans, grumbling about the Þorri feasts. They go on about the food being horrible and the tradition outdated and cheesy, and ask why we should eat all this horrible, fattening preserved food (which must be horrible to everyone because they don’t like it) when we can get it fresh. In my opinion, they should count themselves lucky to have been born in the modern era, when they at least have a choice as to what they eat, a luxury our ancestors didn't have. The old-fashioned food of today is much healthier than the same kind of food used to be. Here I am not just referring to the traditional Þorri food, but also for example to sour and mouldy butter, rotting meat and bread with lots of extra proteins due to maggots and insects in the flour. Many people had no choice but to eat this kind of food, or else starve.