Posted in Memoir

Finnish traditions, food and family stories

The history of American families are comprised of many cultures. Today I highlight the Finnish people and the land where my great-grandparents immigrated from in 1904, through Ellis Island. Below is a letter required of immigrants, usually written by a church official. There are many of these letters hanging in the Ellis Island Museum. My families letter hangs in my house, lovingly framed as a Christmas gift given to me last year.

Lüsa’s (great-grandmother) letter of recommendation

I have always had a fascination with my family background. Many of our Finnish traditions, language and food has been lost. This is often a result of becoming Americanized. In an effort to restore my heritage I research the internet, mostly to find traditional Christmas celebrations, as it is a favorite holiday. For several years I have adopted the Piggy cookie, made with Piparkakkuja dough (an adopted recipe). Everyone knows Christmas is coming when a plate of these are set out.

2 sticks plus 2 tbsp of unsalted butter
1 1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup molasses
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cloves
1 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp fresh finely ground black pepper*
3 tsp ginger powder
2 tsp orange zest
2 eggs
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
5 1/4 cup flour, or more

Preheat the oven to 350. Heat butter, sugar, molasses, spices, and orange zest over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Cool to room temp. In a mixing bowl, combine eggs, salt, and soda with the sugar and spice mix. Beat until combined. Slowly add flour, in increments, barely combining until the last of the flour is mixed in well. Dough should be sticky but manageable. Add more flour if dough is too wet. Cover with wax paper and chill for 8 hours or make ahead of time and freeze until ready to use.

When ready to roll, cut the chilled dough into quarters. Make sure your rolling surface, rolling pin, top and bottom of dough are sprinkled with flour. Roll out 1/16 -1/8th of an inch thick, turning one quarter circle after every 8 or so rolls. As you turn, spread some extra flour under the dough. By the time the dough is extra thin it will be well floured on the bottom, and will not stick, making cookies easier to cut. I also use a metal spatula on the last few turns to help move it.

1 egg white
sugar for decorating

Place shapes on a greased cookie sheet about 1/4 inch apart. Lightly beat 1 part egg white to 2 parts water with a fork to make a glaze, adding sheen to the cookies and to adhere the sprinkled sugar. Evenly and lightly glaze using a pastry brush. Bake for 8-10 minutes. Cookies will darken around the edges when ready. Let cool and decorate with icing if desired.

*Piparkakkuja means “pepper cookie” in Finnish. See a comment to explain this better since I am just a novice to a culture in my distant past.

My familiarity with other Finnish foods is limited. There is one recipe that has been passed down and that is Pastys. A simple dish of pie crust filled with ground meat and diced root vegetables; potato, carrot and rutabaga. My grandfather took this in his lunch everyday as he headed off to the mining fields of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. This is a rather bland dish so when I do make it my children slather it in ketchup. Doh!!

Here are some lovely Christmas articles about Finland. A traditional Christmas decoration is the Himmeli (just found this out). Here are directions, and here is where to find wheat straw. It would look prettier made with a natural product rather than the plastic tubing in the tutorial. Another traditional ornament is the Finnish Star, and here is a tutorial. Happy crafting!! (Do share some of your traditional Christmas ornaments in the comments. Would love to see them.)

There are always family stories to share and one I recall is the loom my great-grandmother brought with her, as large as my dining room. It must have been grand. She made rag rugs. Here is an article about Finnish weaving done in South Dakota, a past display of rag rugs in Minnesota, and information about Ryijy.  Unfortunately the family loom was not kept. When she passed away it was given to the Lutheran Church.


Hazel Maki, a Finnish-American rag rug weaver, demonstrates her craft.
Photo by Terry McCrea (Wisconsin)

My great-grandparents and grandparents had a sauna. Winter nights were spent running back in forth from sauna to snow. I tried this once at a resort but never officially made a snow angel. Too cold. Not too many other stories, that I am aware of, exist to share. Our local gym has a sauna, so I think I will pack my bags and head out.

Be well, J




4 thoughts on “Finnish traditions, food and family stories

  1. Being Finnish myself, it’s always nice to read stories about the Finnish culture from another point of view.
    A small correction. It’s piparkakkuja (with 2 k’s) BTW the peppar in the dough is optional. I never do. I think they used to put that in it in the early days, hence the name. Even if you don’t put it, it’s still called piparkakkuja though 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. Will edit when I’m at my computer. Internet is not always the most correct way to find out things. 🙂 Unfortunately there is not much I know. Just a few stories here and there. Somewhere in the past I wrote more stories. Maybe I can find it. ?


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