Julekage, or Julekaka, or Julekake — spell it however you like, but if you say it please remember that J is Y, G is hard, and the word has four syllables. In my family it always sounded like you-leh-kah-keh.
This Norwegian Christmas bread (literally “Jule cake”) was a holiday standard when I was growing up, and I always loved it. Perhaps Julekage is an acquired taste; not everyone, not even everyone in my own family, likes it. My niece calls it “fruitcake”, with a note of disgust in her voice.
Like fruitcake, Julekage contains candied fruit, but a much smaller amount, and the sweetened bread dominates the fruit. I suspect that English fruitcake, Scandinavian Julekage, German Stollen, and other European winter holiday “cakes” developed partly as a way, limited as it is, of bringing some fruit into the midwinter diet when fresh fruit is considerably less available, especially citrus which was rare enough in the north anyway. Converting some part of the fruit to candy allowed it to be stored longer, and allowed a limited taste of summer fruit in the midst of the snows.
Over the years as my cousins and I, who had been the children at the table, grew older, family became more scattered, and large holiday get-togethers became less common, this treat gradually vanished from the Christmas menu. At some point I became distressed about the vanishing tradition and (probably obnoxiously) pointed out that no one baked it anymore, not even my mother. The next year I think Julekage reappeared in every household in my family. But best of all, my cousin gave me the recipe and said “you can bake it yourself, too.” She was right. I have baked it nearly every December for many years, often baking several batches.
My grandmother, Anna Jacobsen, was the source of the recipe. Anna (Åsa Åmundsdatter Kvamsøy) was born in 1880 in Øystese on the Hardanger Fjord in Norway, and it must be true that her recipe was based on her mother’s. This bread ultimately comes down through generations of rural Norwegian mothers, modified by my grandmother for American ingredients and baking methods. Since Grandma just “knew what to do” it was my aunt Evelyn who actually wrote it all down. She followed her mother around the kitchen asking questions and noting the ingredients and quantities on a card, then passed the recipe on to the rest of the family. I have seen other Julekage recipes, but this one is my family’s and it’s the one I use.
- 2 pkgs yeast
- 1/2 C water
- 1 C scalded milk
- 1/2 C butter
- 3/4 tsp ground cardamom
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 C sugar
- 1 1/4 tsp salt
- 5 C flour
- 1/2 pkg raisins
- diced citron
Soften yeast in 1/2 C water. [Soften — I have always liked that description of this step]
Scald milk, add butter, sugar, salt. [Scalding may have been necessary before pasteurization became standard, but I don’t scald the milk anymore and it seems to work anyway] Stir to dissolve, cool to lukewarm.
Add 2 C flour, yeast, eggs, cardamom, raisins, and citron. [I don’t know how big a “pkg of raisins” or how much citron Grandma used, so I just put in “what looks right”.] Beat thoroughly.
Add 3 more C flour, or “enough to make dough that can be handled”.
Knead until “satiny”. [I usually work as much as another cup of flour into the dough while kneading]
Place in greased bowl, rise to double.
Pull down, let out air, rise again to double.
Shape into 2 round loaves, about 9″ [at some point I started making standard bread loaves instead of round bread — it slices a bit more easily, and the slices fit in the toaster which is desirable according to some people — but one can just form round loaves and place them on cookie sheets]. Let rise to desired size.
The recipe as handed down does not mention baking — my aunt, like my grandmother, didn’t think it was necessary to include that obvious detail. In my experience, it’s best baked at 350° for 30 to 40 minutes.
Variations and comment
My mother used black raisins, but I usually use golden. Black raisins add some color contrast to the citron, but I like the golden anyway.
I have seen recipes that say that cardamom is “optional”. Any ingredient could be optional, but the result wouldn’t taste the same. Use cardamom unless you really can’t get it.
I have noticed from time to time that some people claim that “citron” refers to a type of melon, or that it’s a synonym for lemon. Neither statement is true of the candied citron used in Julekage. Citron (sukat or søtsitron in Norwegian) is a citrus fruit (Citrus Medica). Candied citron is usually available in grocery stores in the United States in November and December.