Topic: The Sacred Ritual of Danish Rice Pudding by Kristina Jensen

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived verson here.

Ask any Danish person and they will tell you that a traditional Danish Christmas meal is not complete without rice pudding, or risalamande, and in our house, there was no exception. Except that we lived in Te Kawa, a small dairy farming community just outside of Te Awamutu, New Zealand.

Sacred Ritual of the Danish Rice Pudding 1

My father was born in Denmark and somehow, the ritual (and probably delicious taste) of rice pudding captured my Kiwi mother’s heart and culinary attention when she traveled to Denmark with my father as a new bride in 1966.

Now many folks, some of them dairy farmers in Te Kawa, tend to eat a lighter evening meal before their big day of Christmas gluttony on the 25th December. My mother however chose to ignore this sensible idea and treated us to a Danish Christmas feast on the night preceding. Presumably the outward reason for this celebration was to honour my father’s cultural heritage but secretly, I think she loved making the rice pudding.

Occasionally, my mother would release a smidgeon of her control in the kitchen so that the rest of her family could be involved in some small way in food preparation but not on this night. The rest of us had to get the cows milked, scrub up and get ready to witness (and devour) Danish Christmas fare once it arrived on the table.  There were always guests and my mother, well known as a very good cook and a consummate hostess, would have primed them with tantalizing snippets of what they were about to receive, and we children, even though we knew the menu off by heart, were happy because our mother was happy, doing what she loved to do best – feed people good food.

Her jewel in the crown was, of course, the Danish rice pudding. My mother used her mother-in-law’s age-old recipe, translated patiently by my father long ago in the early days of their marriage. She slowly cooked the rice in milk and cream and no-one dared interfere in the process, lest it be rendered rubbery by burning or boiling from unwanted interruptions. Then it was left to cool and set in the fridge.

Intensely creamy but not too sweet, served with lightly stewed cherries, you must know that this stuff fairly melts in your mouth. There were always two bowls. Both had to be completely emptied before the most sacred of sacred rituals took place on the Jul night (Danish for Christmas, pronounced ‘yule.’)

We would be nearly stuffed from the irresistible sweetness of baby potatoes coated in caramel, the perfectly-cooked roast chicken and pungent pickled-and-served-hot red cabbage. Incidentally, the governing aroma in our house on this day of the year was that of pickled red cabbage. It simmered gently all day on the kitchen stove, mingling pleasantly with the piney scent of the Christmas tree in its corner and the new mown hay harvested that week. It was likely that we would all a bit sun-kissed, sporting red noses, wearing shorts and T-shirts because it was so hot.

My mother carried her beautiful bowls of rice pudding proudly to the festively adorned table. The centre runner was made and embroidered by my father’s sister, and featured jolly red-capped julemen, elf-like characters that resemble pixies. Candles flickered despite the heat of mid-summer. We obediently uttered our oohs and aahs at the pureness, the whiteness, the cool smooth exterior of the dessert placed before us.

Some groaned inwardly, usually the guests, regretting that last piece of chicken, but we of the fold ate cautiously. We knew how good this stuff was and, also, that it all had to be all gone before the best bit began.

You see, my mother had spent some of those laborious hours blanching and peeling almonds (buying them pre-blanched was strictly forbidden.) She then chopped all but one up into small chunky bits. There were even a few halves left in for good measure. Then, as she spooned the pudding into the crystal bowls specially reserved for such a divine dessert, that one whole virginally white almond was casually tossed in.

A few deft folding motions with the spoon instantly buried it and maybe she tried to forget which bowl it fell into but we kids suspected that she knew all along which one contained the magic nut.

This almond was the apex point of the entire meal for my brother and me. Find the almond and you get the special gift. He and I knew it was a box of perfectly delicious chocolates, purchased specially by my mother for this occasion. We have been here and done this for as long as we can remember and the desire to be the one to find that nut has never left us. The pantomime of the next half an hour was always worth waiting for.

My mother would have spelt out the rules clearly to anyone fortunate enough to join us before we began to even eat the first course, so that everyone was clear about what was about to happen.

Each person was graciously given a serving of rice pudding with hot cherries. My shameless family would watch each spoonful with eagle eyes to see if we could spot that whole almond poking shyly out from a mound of pudding but all the while saying nothing. It was delightful to be eating with the good Danish silver. The dessert spoons were our favourite utensil of the lot, being rounded and smooth, unlike New Zealand spoons which tend to be flat and slightly sharp on the edges. Danish spoons are made for scooping rice pudding and hot cherry sauce, each a perfect complement for the other.

The cool white mound of rice pudding is like a pristine glacier clad mountain and the cherries, a stream of deep claret lava pouring down the side.

After the initial ‘Oh, Nancy, this is divine’, we would continue to eat in silence, those of us in the know sifting briefly through each spoonful in case the whole nut could be spied in advance. Here the fun truly began as the ‘rules’ kicked in. You must eat ‘normally’ without flinching your facial muscles. And if you find the nut and identify it with your tongue correctly, you must then find a place to put this awkward object until ALL the rice pudding is gone.

As you try to secret it under your tongue or into a crevice of your cheek, wishing you had pouches like a squirrel, my family and assorted guests who have got the idea, stare hard at you. They look around the table with suspicious eyes, scrutinizing your every move, analyzing every mouthful, watching the spoon dip and rise from the crystal bowl.

“Maybe it’s still in there?”

“Look, I think I see it there!”

“She’s got it, look, her eyes are watering.”

Whatever you do, don’t pretend that you have to go to the bathroom. This is outright admission. Also, take care not to choke and spit your nut out unceremoniously onto the table. You must last it out, politely, having just a little bit more until that last morsel is finally cleaned out of the last bowl and everyone is sitting back, patting bursting stomachs and pledging days, nay, months of repentance for this act of absolute gluttony.

Slowly, and to great dramatic effect, my mother would cast an especially intense look around the table; a look of what could only be deemed intense satisfaction liberally sprinkled with scrutiny. We are slaves to her delectable cooking but the experience is not over just yet. Slapping her hand down onto the table, she would throw the question out to us like a knight issuing a challenge.

‘Well then, who’s got the almond?’

But wait! Don’t speak up just yet. Let them guess. Let them speculate. Cultivate intensity and build up to a climactic release. Don’t make the mistake of blurting it out upon discovery like my cousin Gillian. Her younger brother, Nigel, was utterly incensed and threw down his spoon.

“I’m not eating another mouthful of this crap,” he shouted and ran from the room, and indeed I never saw him eat rice pudding ever again. I doubt whether my mother would have invited him back either with a comment like that made about her sacred dessert.

When all the guessing has been done and you have guessed along with the best of them, then and only then is it time. It’s your turn to employ great dramatic effect and you can swish that nut out of your mouth to the astonishment of the assembled party and claim your prize.

Go on, talk everyone into squeezing just one more chocolate in and the best part is, now you can eat that bothersome nut!

 

 

Photos:

 The first shows Mum with a nice dress on, and all the dishes prepared for a Christmas meal. Not the Danish rice pudding, sadly; we have no photos of that. The guests are my father's Danish niece, Anne Lisbeth and her boyfriend, Peter. That's my dad at the end of the table and my brother is cracking up with a cracker in his mouth. I took the photo when I was seventeen.

 

The other photo is of Mum and our son, her grandson Theo, outside the Kiwi House in Otorohanga. She worked tirelessly for this organization and was an amazing conservationist aa well as being a speech language therapist, something that was a bit of a joke in our family as she was awarded a QSM in 2007 for efforts in conservation. However, one of the local dignitaries sent her a letter congratulating her on her QSM for 'conversation,’ which wasn't far wrong!

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This page archived at Perma Cc in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/VL6U-GLPU

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The Sacred Ritual of Danish Rice Pudding by Kristina Jensen


Year:c.1966
Note:About the author: Kristina Jensen is a poet, freelance writer and musician living a life of voluntary simplicity in the beautiful Marlborough Sounds of New Zealand. She is an enthusiastic advocate of spending as much time in nature as possible and especially enjoys wild food foraging, sailing, building pixie houses on the beach and looking for insects under fallen logs. Her articles, poems and essays have been published in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and America and she holds a diploma in Creative Writing. She looks forward with interest to the ‘drying up’ of oil and the subsequent economic and social mayhem that will follow in the hope that people will be more inclined to read poetry and stop digging up our precious Earth. .
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License
The Sacred Ritual of Danish Rice Pudding by Kristina Jensen by Tauranga City Libraries Staff - HC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License