Because we have other holiday activities, on Christmas Day we typically eat in the afternoon. We gather about 4 p.m., and chat, open small gifts of the kind to provoke much laughter and enjoy such old-fashioned hot drinks as Tom and Jerrys. A couple of years ago, I found a set of tiny aquavit glasses for sale at the Washington area’s annual Danish Club bazaar, and, after some local searching, a bottle of Aalborg Akvavit. So we have added the custom of tossing down a tablespoon or so of that before dinner, reviving for me an experience during a visit to friends in the Faroe Islands some years ago.
All of this contributes to the anticipation of the last of the day’s events — Christmas dinner, the centerpiece of which is a crown pork roast. That wasn’t always so. For years I did prime rib with Yorkshire pudding. But I shifted to a more Danish plan some 30 years ago because it seemed easier and because most of the menu could be made ahead.
I combined directions from newspaper and magazine articles to accomplish what I envisioned a crown roast should look like. For this, I order, a few days or week in advance, a bone-in pork loin that’s large enough — nine or 10 pounds, with at least 14 ribs — from a butcher or good supermarket meat department. It should be trimmed of excess fat and tied so its frenched (cleaned) rib bones stand up and look like a crown. When carved, each slice between the bones yields a generous pork chop. In an attempt to make it more Danish, I fill the center of the crown with cooked prunes and apricots, whose juices also help keep the meat moist.
Once the roast is in the oven, its exposed bones and fruit filling protected with a cap of foil, it is time to put a big pot of tiny potatoes on to cook until just tender, for a recipe I found in the 1968 Time-Life book, “Foods of the World: Cooking of Scandinavia,” by Dale Brown. Then comes one of my favorite and relaxing tasks of the day: peeling the potatoes. I set them aside until the roast is almost done. They are sauced, in batches, with sugar and butter that has been melted into a rich-looking caramel.
When the roast has rested and is ready for its platter, we surround it with the warm, caramelized potatoes and sprigs of dill. In recent years, we have managed to find the little white paper frills as toppers for the bones that form the crown, adding to its festive appearance.
My oldest daughter, Mara — who lived in Denmark during her junior year at the University of Wisconsin and for some time after she graduated — always brings the sweet-sour red cabbage (another recipe from the Dale Brown book) in sufficient quantity that there is plenty for everyone to take home. Its flavor offsets the sweetness of the potatoes and fruity pork, as does my Wisconsin-bred shortcut for pickled beets and my middle daughter Clare’s big green salad.
It is all accompanied by lefse, the Norwegian griddled flatbread I began making in my own kitchen in the 1950s. Each of the past 15 or 20 years, on a Saturday or Sunday in early December, a group of eight family members and friends, all of Scandinavian American heritage, gather in my home to transform eight pounds of peeled, cooked potatoes into enough thin, lightly browned rounds for everyone to take some home. My youngest daughter, Lisa, helps with the rolling. My portion of the 80 or so breads goes into the freezer, to be thawed, warmed and spread lavishly with butter that melts and oozes.
Dessert is a big bowl of rice and almond pudding, enhanced with a generous amount of sherry and a lot of whipped cream folded in. Hidden somewhere in it is a whole blanched almond, and whoever finds that nut in their bowl is supposed to have a fine and fortunate year ahead. Everyone is entreated to announce as soon as the almond is discovered, and the young boys at the table have been known to help themselves to a second or third bowl to increase their chances. A bowl of lingonberry sauce is passed to top the pudding. Cherry or raspberry sauce may be used instead of lingonberry on the pudding because the color combination stays red and white, the colors of the Danish flag.
We have numbered as few as six and as many as 13, but I always set the table with what everybody my age calls “the good china.” We exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, but empty stockings filled with silly gifts the next day, such is Danish Christmas tradition. What is not Danish is our reading aloud “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” at the end of the meal, and perhaps the scramble for leftover containers.
Still, the feeling overall is one of warmth and coziness, or hygge — so important in Danish culture. And because we do this each year, there’s reassurance that life, and our family, goes on.
Cherkasky describes herself as being from Wisconsin even though she has lived in the Alexandria area for 50 years.
8 to 10 servings
MAKE AHEAD: The fruit can be cooked a day or two in advance, covered and refrigerated. The roast should be trimmed of excess fat underneath by the butcher so that when carved it will make a one-chop serving for every bone of the “crown,” which refers to the effect of the standing frenched (cleaned) rib bones.
From Alexandria resident Shirley Cherkasky.
20 dried apricots
One 9-to-10-pound pork crown roast, prepared, shaped and tied by your favorite butcher, with the ends of the bones frenched (scraped clean)
Freshly ground black pepper
Early in the day, place the prunes in one small saucepan and the dried apricots in a separate pan. Add enough water to cover each fruit and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove from the heat; the fruit should look somewhat plumped. Let cool, adding a little more water as needed if the fruit is not still submerged.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a large, shallow roasting pan with aluminum foil. Place a low, flat rack on the foil.
Pat the roast dry with paper towels. Season it generously with salt and pepper, then place it on the rack in the pan.
Drain the prunes and apricots, reserving their separate liquids in a single measuring cup. Fill the center of the crown roast of pork with the drained fruit, mixing it up. Pour some of their liquid over the fruit. Use a piece of foil to cover the fruit and the exposed rib bones. Roast (middle rack) for about 1 hour, then remove the foil. Roast for another hour, until nicely browned, basting the meat occasionally with the reserved fruit liquid. The internal temperature of the pork, taken away from the bone, should register 145 to 150 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
Transfer the pan to the stove top (off the heat); let the roast rest for 15 minutes, then transfer it to a cutting board for carving or to a platter for the table.
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