The white, grainy porridge risengrød is the only traditional Danish Christmas dish from the common people that has survived to the modern-day dining tables in Denmark. For me it is the most special dish because of its cultural significance and its transformation into one of the greatest leftover dishes of the holidays.
Porridge based on rice and milk might not sound like a luxurious holiday tradition, but in Scandinavia up until the late 1800s, rice was an imported specialty product, not to mention the cinnamon sprinkled on top. Back then, everyday porridge in Denmark was made with water and other grains such as barley, oats, and rye, but at Christmas you would treat your guests and use rice, whole milk, sugar, butter, and cinnamon.
Risengrød is also what the farmers would feed the Danish mythical character known as the Nisse. According to Danish folk beliefs, the Nisse lives in the hayloft and helps around the farm, but he is said to have a bit of a temper. To keep him in good spirits and away from teasing the farmer by making the animals upset, the cow’s milk go sour, or the crops mold, one would make sure to leave him a bowl of risengrød. The Nisse is still present in Danish folklore, but now only around Christmas. He has become friendlier and appears in songs, decorations, and TV show—but he is still as fond of risengrød as always. Nissebanden (“The Nisse Gang”) is one of the most popular Christmas TV shows in Denmark, broadcast several times since it first aired in 1989. Of course the most popular song is a tribute to risengrød.
In my family, we make a big batch of risengrød on the evening of December 23, also called Lille Juleaften, “Little Christmas Eve.” That is an evening of relaxation, after completing all the Christmas preparations: the tree has been decorated, the last gift is wrapped, and all the grocery shopping is done.
The next day, my mom mixes the cold leftover porridge with whipped cream, sugar, vanilla, and chopped almonds. As tradition prescribes, she hides one whole almond in the pudding, and the lucky finder will get an extra present—often a pink marzipan pig. This is our Christmas Eve dessert, called risalamande. Don’t be fooled by the French sounding name; it does originate from the French ris à l’amande (rice with almonds), but the dessert is no more French than French toast. When making risengrød became more affordable and widespread among the common people, wealthier Copenhagen citizens would make the dish more exclusive by adding whipped cream, almonds, and vanilla. They would often borrowed French words to make things sound particularly sophisticated, so that is how risalamande got its name.
Risengrød is a very beloved Christmas tradition in my family, and as a child I would beg for it year round. This, I believe, led my parents to form the rule: “Risengrød is only for the months that are spelled with an R.” Luckily, that only leaves out the summer months from May to August. You can imagine my pleasant surprise when my current Mexican roommate one day served me a very similar traditional dessert from his home, arroz con leche—in the middle of summer!
½ cup water
1 cup short grain white rice
4 ¼ cups whole milk (or less than whole if you prefer)
1 tsp coarse salt
4 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp cinnamon
1 tbsp of butter in each bowl
1. Pour water, rice, and salt in a medium pot, cover with a lid, and let it boil for 2 minutes.
2. Add milk and simmer over low heat for 40 to 45 minutes. Make sure to stir often so the milk doesn’t burn. You may have to turn the heat all the way down and cover with a lid for the last 15 minutes.
3. Mix sugar and cinnamon together in a small bowl.
4. Serve the risengrød warm, with a tablespoon of butter in the center, sprinkled with the sugar/cinnamon mixture, and enjoy a glass of mild dark ale or red- or blackcurrant juice.
Happy holidays, everyone!
Anne Sandager Pedersen is the assistant to the associate director for finance and administration and is excited to go to Denmark to spend Christmas with her family. She prefers blackcurrant juice with her risengrød.