BY BEATRICE OJAKANGAS
Excerpted from Homemade
The Christmas season for us was marked by the beginning of Christmas tree season in October. Isä [Ojakangas’s father] had discovered that he could make a bunch of money by cutting and selling Christmas trees. He would pile the cut trees onto the platform of his truck and deliver the trees to a Christmas tree lot in Minneapolis. In spite of his lack of education, Isä had also figured out how to make paint for flocking smaller Christmas trees that he would deliver along with the larger trees. He studied college-grade chemistry books and ordered the ingredients to make a paint that adhered to the three- to four-foot trees, which were actually the tops of larger balsam and spruce trees. The remainder of the trees were harvested later in the year as pulpwood.
Isä would flock the little trees with a fluffy substance after dipping them into all shades of blue, green, pink, and red paint. This preserved the trees so that they didn’t lose their needles as quickly as fresh trees. The colored, flocked trees were packed into narrow boxes that he would pile on his flatbed truck and haul to Minneapolis to ready and eager customers.
All I remember is that the lot was run by a group called the “Wise Men’s Club.” Later I came to realize that the name was actually the “Y’s Men’s Club”—the men who ran the YMCA in south Minneapolis. They were professional men who dressed well and knew that my dad enjoyed his booze. So they provided it. The hired men who accompanied my dad were always willing to make the trip with him because of that.
The Wise Men’s Club, knowing we were a large family, sent us Christmas gifts every year, beautifully wrapped and transported in big plastic bags. They were always a surprise. There were sweaters, coloring books, crayons, dolls for the girls, and little cars and trucks for the boys.
But when Isä came home, regardless of the bags of gifts, it was another story. After his happy trip to Minneapolis, the homecoming wasn’t so happy. Mummy had been left with the farm chores all day (and sometimes all night) and could hardly have been called a happy camper. She was “pissed,” as we would say today. I knew how much he had had to drink when I observed him take that first step out of the truck.
The memory, to this day, makes my heart thump, though I have tried hard to understand both sides of the story.
Mummy used to make little yeast-raised dough people for us at Christmastime. We called them gingerbread men—but of course, they weren’t cookies and they didn’t include any ginger. On top of it all, she didn’t have a gingerbread man cookie cutter, so she used her all-purpose kitchen knife to slash pieces of dough to shape the legs, arms, and heads of these cute doughboys and doughgirls. Of course, if you have a large gingerbread boy cutter, use it! This dough is easy to handle because it is chilled, and chilled dough is really fun to work with!
2 packages active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit)
1/2 cup (1 stick) melted butter
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom (optional)
4 to 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 egg, beaten, for glaze
Raisins for eyes, noses, mouths, and buttons
In a large bowl, combine the yeast and warm water. Let stand for 5 minutes or until the yeast foams up. Stir in the butter, sugar, eggs, salt, and cardamom, if using. Gradually stir in 4 cups of the flour, 1 cup at a time, until the dough is too stiff to mix by hand (which may be before all 4 cups are added). Cover with plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to 4 days.
Lightly grease a baking sheet or cover it with parchment paper. Dust the dough with flour and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll with a rolling pin or flatten with the palms of your hand until the dough is about 1 inch thick. With a large gingerbread boy cookie cutter, cut out people shapes and place on the prepared pan.
Or, cut the dough into 12 equal rectangles. Roll each part into a 6- by 3-inch rectangle. With the tip of a knife or with scissors, cut out snips of dough where the neck would be, to shape the head of each. Then, to shape the arms, make cuts about 1 inch lower than the neck, making the cuts on opposite sides of the body. With fingers, smooth out the body of the dough person. Starting from the center of the bottom of the dough, make a 3-inch slash to shape the legs. Place on the prepared pan, separating the legs slightly so they will not bake together. Roll one of the little snips of dough into a round shape for the head. Make a little hole where the dough person’s nose would be and place a raisin in the hole. Roll out the other snip of dough into a skinny strand and place it over the top of the head to make hair. Repeat with the other dough parts to shape a total of 12 people.
Let rise, covered, for 45 minutes or until puffy.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the dough people with egg glaze, then press raisins into the dough to make the eyes, mouths, and buttons down the front of each. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove from the pans and cool on a wire rack.
Makes 12 pulla people.
Beatrice Ojakangas is author of Homemade: Finnish Rye, Feed Sack Fashion, and Other Simple Ingredients from My Life in Food. She grew up on a small farm in Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota–Duluth. Ojakangas is the author of twenty-nine cookbooks and was inducted in 2005 to the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame.
Ojakangas will be at Ingebretsen’s (1601 East Lake Street in Minneapolis) on Thursday, Dec. 15, from 1pm – 2pm, to sign copies of her book.
Homemade was included in Heavy Table’s 2016 Local Food Gift Guide.