Kissel Pudding and The Legend of the Nisse
“Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.” - Terry Pratchett, from “The Hogfather.”
Historically, Yule/Christmas was a time of dualities. Warm fires and happy singing were balanced by a very real fear of the dark and cold… darkness that, to many, was full of restless spirits and forest trolls and other threats. Communities gathered together on these long winter nights not only to celebrate the return of the light and enjoy each other’s company, but also to stay safe and warm and fend off anything that might be lurking in the shadows. And during those gatherings, they told stories:
“Story telling was not taken lightly, and for good reason. In the long, oppressive darkness, the relentless cold, and with the ever present threat of illness, famine and death, story telling was a lifeline. It opened a window from their dark, snowy prison. It spoke of summer and adventure and —yes, of fear.”
Perhaps that’s why older versions of a Christmas elf are a little more sinister. Our modern Western Santa Claus and his jolly ways just wouldn’t have fit into a world where the duality of dark and light was so much more apparent. In those days (and in those places), it was the Nisse. The Nisse (or Tomte) of Scandinavian folklore is a mischievous little creature that lives on the homestead. They are small, dressed in plain clothes, and wear a red stocking cap. The Nisse rarely makes an appearance, though evidence of him is plentiful if you look for it. While they can be extremely helpful (feeding the horses, keeping cattle safe from harm, tidying up, etc.) a Nisse in a bad mood can be a disaster indeed - missing livestock, spilled milk, bread that won’t rise, and so on.
In some tales, the Nisse was more akin to a spirit of the land itself than a resident mischief-maker:
“The nisse may have his origin in an even older superstition…in parts of Norway it was believed the original owner of a farm, the pioneer who first hewed it out of the wilderness, continued to own it even after he was dead and buried under a large mound of earth. Through the generations he came back to see that the farm was well cared for. When he came he expected to be entertained with food and drink, especially on Christmas Eve when even the dog and the birds got extra food. The dead one was called haugebonde (the farmer under the mound) and was treated with respect but hardly with affection…If the farm had no mound, a particularly fine tree was picked as a symbol of the prosperity of the farm. “Somebody” lived under that tree, and every Christmas Eve a pint of ale was poured over its roots…In some parts of the country this “old man of the mound” gradually developed into the nisse, who stayed with the farm generation after generation, seeing to it that the animals weren’t mistreated but wreaking a certain discomfort on the folk of the farm. Sometimes he was so troublesome there was nothing to do but move.”
I love the thought of a personified symbol of the land itself, speaking to its residents through an elf-like little mischief maker. Is the nisse a ghost? A spirit? An elf? A troll? Whatever he is, he represents something that, in many ways, seems entirely… human. Like humans, the Nisse can be fickle and only like to perform their duties when they feel they are appreciated. And so it became tradition to leave a special bowl of porridge with a pat of butter out for the Nisse on one day of the year - Christmas Eve. Perhaps this tradition is what evolved into leaving cookies out for Santa. In any case, a special bowl of porridge once a year is a small price to pay to keep your resident Nisse happy and satisfied. I like to think that if my home had a Nisse, he’d have similar tastes to me. And this time of year there is nothing I crave quite so much as red berry kissel.
Kissel is a type of cornstarch-based pudding, topped with whipped cream. I know that sounds bizarre if you’ve never tasted it before, but it’s a special treat indeed. Last summer’s foraged berries glisten like rubies and garnets in suspension. This pudding heats frozen berries up just enough to make them seem fresh and juicy, almost as good as they were straight off the bush! My family always makes sure to have a stash of wild huckleberries saved up for this special dish during the holiday season. The bright summer flavors are captured perfectly in a wholesome breakfast or dessert, a taste of summertime’s forgotten sweetness.
A perfect treat for a nisse or a human. And a wonderful time to tell stories. Because stories are important.
“At a time when few could read and fewer still had books, the story teller was more than an entertainer…the story teller was in his own way a therapist and healer. People listened, sighed, shuddered, laughed, nodded and went back to their work. Then they repeated the stories again and again through their own lifetimes.”
Storytelling is an escape from the darkness. It is an activity to occupy minds and bring people together through times of both work and leisure - if you’ve ever spent hours shelling nuts or plucking berries, you might know of the reprieve it brings. And so the wild berries in my annual kissel recipe carry with them the memory of connection - of the stories told by my friends and family as we sat in the woods together harvesting and of the good feeling of being that much closer to the earth and each other.
That’s what the tale of the Nisse is, for me. A metaphor for the land and our relationship to it. A reminder to take a moment to show appreciation and gratitude for all that it offers. And a mischevous, amusing story to tell on a long cold night while enjoying a bit of summertime’s sweetness.
Red Berry Kissel:
5 cups assorted berries
2 cups water or juice
3 Tbs cornstarch
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/4-1/2 cup sugar (to taste)
1/2 c. heavy whipping cream
1/4 c. powdered sugar
1 vanilla bean
1-5 stories, to taste
Mix a little bit of water into the cornstarch to form a slurry, then add that mixture to the rest of the water in a small saucepan. Add the sugar. Bring to a simmer and cook until thick, stirring constantly. As you are stirring, formulate a story in your head. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just a memory of yours or a made-up adventure. Remove the mixture from heat and stir in berries. Pour into serving glasses or bowls and chill.
To make the whipped cream: whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form, then whip in the powdered sugar and seeds scraped from a vanilla bean. Whip until everything is combined and the cream is the right consistency.
Serve the kissel chilled and topped with whipped cream. Enjoy it with your loved ones with no other distractions. Take the time to share stories and savor your treat! This is a wonderful holiday breakfast addition (especially when served with a nice bread or some sausage and eggs) or an after-dinner delight.
*Note: this recipe works very well with frozen berries. They hold their shape and the heat of the pudding base is just enough to thaw them completely. It makes a lovely summer treat but is equally tasty in the middle of winter!
*All quotes in this post are from the book Norwegian Trolls and Other Tales.
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