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Keeping a Danish tradition alive

Family members rely on Niceswanger’s skill

December 22, 2012
By HANS MADSEN, hmadsen@messengernews.net , Messenger News

The special Danish Christmas cookies that Betty Niceswanger, of Fort Dodge, makes for her children and siblings only have a few simple ingredients.

"It's water, flour, vinegar and butter," she said.

In addition, a little bit of sugar is sprinkled on them right before baking.

Article Photos

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Betty Niceswanger, of Fort Dodge, begins the process of rolling out the dough for the Danish cookies she makes for members of her family every year. The labor-intensive process results in a batch of about 50 cookies which is less than half of what she needs to satisfy her siblings and children’s annual cookie craving.

While that completes what goes into the mixing bowl and oven, the biggest ingredient comes from her.

"Hours and hours of work," she said.

Those hours and hours of work are the reason making the cookies became her job when her mom, Olivia Hansen, died about 20 years ago. She has since been making them every year for the whole family.

Fact Box

Butterdejg cookies

4 cups flour

1 pound butter (frozen)

1 teaspoon vinegar

1 cup cold water

Sugar as needed

Cut butter into small chunks. Mix half of the flour and half of the butter with the vinegar and cold water in a bowl. Roll out to mix with a cloth-covered rolling pin on a pastry cloth. After mixing first batch completely, set in refrigerator for 30 minutes. Roll out dough a second time, adding more of the frozen butter and flour. Repeat cooling and rolling cycle four times till all ingredients are mixed together. On the fourth cycle, roll out dough, wet with water and sprinkle with sugar, then cut into strips and form into pretzel shapes. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or until brown. Makes about 50 cookies.

"I learned when I was a teenager," she said, "Nobody else wanted to make them."

Why?

"It's too hard, it takes hours, it takes all day," she said.

The process is a lot of work. Each batch of dough has to rolled and folded dozens of times to mix the pats of frozen butter into the flour, water and vinegar.

She keeps going until the butter pats are smoothly blended into the dough. Then the mix goes into the refrigerator for a half hour before the process is repeated with additional butter and flour. Four times.

That cold butter means the process needs a lot of elbow grease as the process goes on.

"Each time you add butter it's harder to roll out," she said.

When the dough is finally ready, the last step is easy - the dough is cut into strips, then folded into a pretzel like shape before being baked for 20 minutes at 375 degrees on a cookie sheet.

There is one pitfall that bakers need to watch out for.

"Be sure when they're rolling out that all the butter is worked in," she said.

That's the work needed for one batch, which makes about 50 cookies - far short of what she needs to fill the tradition. She sends them to her five remaining siblings and keeps them on hand for visits by her three children. She said she had to make about six batches every year to satisfy the demand.

Getting them there safely can be a challenge.

"You have to put padding around them so they won't get crushed," she said.

In addition to sending the Danish cookies to her siblings, she also keeps many other Danish Christmas traditions alive in her home as well.

This includes making ornaments, small gift baskets of baked goods to give as gifts, baking klejner - another type of Danish cookie - making appleskiver and celebrating the holiday on Christmas Eve.

There is one old Danish tradition she doesn't do anymore.

"Dancing around the tree," she said of the custom of holding hands while walking around the tree and singing carols with family members and guests.

Her parents, Magnus and Olivia Hansen, were immigrants.

"I'm thoroughbred," she said, "They came over 100 years ago."

The light crispy cookies are a hit already this year. Her brother Jim Hansen got his package a few days ago. He called her to let her know they had arrived.

"Betty," he said, "they're already half gone."

 
 

 

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