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Krumkake in Gayville
Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the Nov/Dec 2007 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117.
For Ardys Olson of Gayville, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without krumkake (krum ka ka), or crooked cake. The thin, crisp Scandinavian cookie is a family tradition.
Ardys and her brothers, Duane and Jake, were raised on a farm near Irene during the Depression by their parents, Alfred and Alice Lee. The difficult times forced a frugality that touched all aspects of life, including the holidays.
When Ardys was very young, the Lees didn’t have a tree for the Christmas holiday. “Our first Christmas tree was one we were lucky enough to win in a drawing at school when I was in the seventh grade,” she says. Christmas gifts were pajamas sewn by her mother and toys carved with a pocketknife by her father. Ardys still treasures a set of doll furniture her father made.
On Christmas Eve, the family went to Bethlehem Lutheran Church near their home, where Ardys and her siblings sang and recited little verses in the Christmas program. “It wasn’t an elaborate pageant,” she says. Her mother recorded the following recitation in Ardys’ baby book: “I’m just a little girl and I haven’t much to say except to say I wish you Merry Christmas before I run away!” After the program, sacks of hard candy, nuts and an orange were handed out. That was the only orange the kids would eat all year.
There was something else the Lees had only once a year. Just before Christmas, Ardys’ mother baked krumkake using a special decorative two-sided iron similar to a waffle iron. She heated the iron on the top of a cook stove fired by cobs and wood. It must have been a real challenge but Ardys says, “My mother was an excellent baker and cook.” Since the krumkake were such a treat, they were hidden away until Christmas Day dinner.
As a child, Ardys didn’t have much interest in the kitchen. She taught herself to make krumkake as a young bride when she married Eugene “Swede” Olson. He’s really a Norwegian, but his childhood barber called him “a white-haired Swede” and the name stuck.
After his retirement, Swede became Ardys’ first assistant in her holiday krumkake baking. She still uses her mother’s 80-year-old iron baker, heating it over an old gas stove in the garage. Grates on newer ranges won’t heat the iron properly. Ardys also uses her mother’s recipe for the delicate cookie. “I’ve seen lots of other recipes,” she says, “but this one works, so I stick with it.”
After mixing the batter, Ardys pours a scant teaspoon on the preheated iron. The cookie is done on the first side in about 10 seconds. She turns the iron over to complete the baking on the other side. After another 10 seconds, Ardys flips the cookie off with a knife onto a flat tray. While still hot and flexible, Swede quickly rolls the cookie around a wooden peg. The Olsons make three batches of three dozen cookies and store them in gallon ice cream containers. And, just like Ardys’ mother, they must put the cookies in hiding for the holidays.
Ardys and Swede have three daughters and all of them covet their grandmother’s krumkake iron. “They’ll have to draw straws for it,” Ardys says. These days, electric irons are available with Teflon surfaces and timers. When the Olsons bought their daughter one of the new-fangled electric bakers, she told them, “The cookies just don’t taste like yours.”
Here is Alice Lee’s krumkake recipe. Without her special iron, the cookies may not taste just like hers, but it’s a good bet your family will love them just the same.
1 beaten egg
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup cream
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
Heat iron until drops of water dance on the surface. Put 1 scant teaspoon of batter in middle of iron. Close the lid, press down tightly and bake for 10 seconds. Turn iron to other side and bake 10 seconds. Open lid. Flip cookie off with a knife to a flat pan. Quickly roll on wooden peg. Let set until next cookie is ready to come off iron.
Optional: dust with powdered sugar or fill cones with whipped cream or other filling.