Sunday, April 14, 2013

Finnish Roots and Family Traditions (Rusk recipe)

When I was a child, I remember visiting my Finnish great-grandfather’s home on the farm and always there was a big bowl of filia sitting on the kitchen table.  Filia is the Finnish version of yogurt.  My great-grandparents were always referred to by the Finnish names for Mom and Dad, Isa and Aiti.  Until recently, I have always thought it meant Grandma and Grandpa, but my mother said it is actually a form of respect to call them Mother and Father, even though they are grandparents.  I didn’t particularly like the filia, so Isa would sprinkle it with a little sugar to make it more palatable.  As an adult, I made my own yogurt and we would eat it with sweetened fruit or berries on top, but yogurt is not quite the same as filia, or villi, which has a little different consistency.  With the advent of the internet, providing easy access to all things known and unknown, I found a place that sells the actual villi culture! 

Isa would sip his coffee from the saucer… another Finnish practice, which allows the hot beverage to cool a bit.  And always there was the Finnish toast, or korpu, to go with the coffee or tea.  The cinnamon toast used to be readily available in the grocery stores in the midwest, but I haven’t looked for it in years.  Most nationalities have a version of this, ranging from the Italian biscotti to the rusk of the Scandinavian countries.   I began to make my own, from a recipe a Scandinavian friend gave me.  It’s not the same as the korpu I remembered from my youth, but I liked it even better.  It contains the traditional Finnish spice, cardamom, for flavoring, along with mace.  My husband used to love it with his coffee better than anything else.  It’s a little sweet with a lot of flavor, and enhances either coffee or tea.  This recipe is crisp but tender, much like a dried shortbread.
Norwegian Rusk:                                                        
1/2 cup soft butter
1/2 cup shortening
1-1/2 cups sugar (may use less, if desired)
2 eggs
1 cup sour cream
Cream the above ingredients in a large bowl.
3-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cardamom seed
1/2 teaspoon ground mace, optional (could substitute nutmeg)
Shape dough into two long loaves on a cookie sheet.  You will need to flour your hands, and it helps to put the dough onto a floured board to coat it lightly in order to shape it.  Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  Remove from cookie sheet and place on cooling racks.  When the loaves are cooled, slice them into ½” slices and place them side down on cookie sheets.  Return to the oven for an additional 12 to 15 minutes until the slices are golden brown, no need to turn them over.  I let them cool and dry on the baking sheet before removing them and putting them into a container for storage.  The rusk does not need to be refrigerated.  If you have an empty cardboard coffee can with a lid, that works great for storing the rusk, and if you want to get creative, you can decorate the can with old pieces of wallpaper or some other covering to match your kitchen.  If you have children, they will have fun making decorated coffee cans for your gifts to your friends. 

I’ve started saving my coffee cans for storage, whether they are plastic or cardboard.  It seems that my plastic containers disappear, sending leftovers home with people, and rather than to keep buying more “disposable” containers, I save my large plastic jars from nuts and coffee cans.  The larger ones are great for sending soup or casserole leftovers home with guests.  The containers have wide mouths and sometimes screw-on lids, making them ideal for storage. 

 The ornamental pear trees tower their blossoming branches about forty feet toward the sky on my front boulevard.  This is a beautiful time of year, when the flowering trees are arrayed in pinks, purples and whites, waving aromatically in the spring breeze.  The staunch forsythia is proudly sporting yellow and the trees are beginning to leaf out in that lovely shade of bright green that heralds spring.  The grass is growing so fast you can almost hear it singing.  I noticed there are pretty purple violets blooming already in the grass in my front yard.  Spring races in with colorful excitement, and the world is alive with the birth of another season. 

Southern Ohio is a lovely place to experience the seasons… each season has its own time and space, and is not dominated by dormant winter as it was in northern Minnesota.  We have snow, but there is not so much it lasts for months on end.  The cold is seldom frigid and usually does not dip below the zero mark.  My friend, Sandra, posted photos of blowing bubbles in Minnesota a few months ago, and it was so cold the bubbles froze and remained intact when they hit the ground!  But that morning it was forty degrees below zero at her home, as shown by the photo of her thermometer!  Alas… they are still experiencing snowstorms, while we sit outdoors in our shorts and sleeveless  tops, enjoying the colors of spring!

Family traditions are wonderful things to pass on to your children and grandchildren.  I remember Aiti had a huge wooden rug loom in one end of their living room, where she had once woven beautiful rag rugs.  I always have wanted to learn to use one, and for many years wanted a loom of my own, but they are very large and take up a lot of room.  My mother remembers cutting old clothing into strips and winding it into balls for the rugs.  Now, at 70, I am quite sure I will never own a loom or learn to use one!  And rag rugs are no longer in demand, with store-bought rugs available to match every décor imaginable. 

Isa and Aiti also had a separate “house” next to their main house, which was framed in windows and was referred to as their “summer kitchen”.  That was where they did most of the cooking, baking and canning in the hot months, so their main home wasn’t made hotter from the cooking process.  I assume this also was a Finnish custom, to have a summer kitchen.  I remember it as a bright, cheerful place, unlike the dark somber mood of their main living area.  The summer kitchen was surrounded by lofty hardwood trees, providing a shady bower from the heat of the summer sun.

Wherever you live, make yourself a batch of Rusk and brew a cup of coffee or tea to go with it, and take a few moments to reflect on your childhood. 

What things do you remember that you might not have shared with your own children and grandchildren?  What traditions, ethnic or otherwise, did you grow up with?  If you had none, then perhaps it is time to begin them with your own family.  And know that if the crocus isn’t yet blooming in your yard, the blossoms can’t be far away!

Speaking of flowers, here's an addendum to my Easter posting... my oldest daughter and son-in-law showed up at my house on Easter with a big beautiful bouquet of flowers and some colored eggs!  They took me to dinner at Red Lobster, and it was a festive Easter, after all, even if we did not sport Easter bonnets!
May spring be flowering in your heart!



  1. I love the idea that you share about saving coffee containers to send food home with others. Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. Being the oldest daughter in our family definitely has some advantages over being the youngest, Alaena. I never got the chance to meet Isa and Aiti. You're very lucky and it's great for all of us that you have such a good memory! Thanks for the beautifully written post.

  3. Fun to see my frigid photos in your blog post! Even though we're still getting lots of snow here, they remind me that at least it's not -40 anymore! Perhaps there is still hope for spring in Minnesota! ~Sandra