Risalamande: A dish to bridge two worlds
Whether you’re travelling or staying put this Christmas season, consider embracing this rice pudding as part of your own holiday tradition.
Photographs: Gina Lorubbio
Text: Gina Lorubbio
At no other time of year do I feel my dual-country-ness more than Christmas. If I spend the season in my home state of Ohio, I find myself missing the cosy rituals Denmark practices to survive the darkness. If I spend December in Denmark, I long for my family’s Christmas Eve feast of homemade fettuccine and seafood.
After 1900, rice became more widely available, and thus, risengrød (rice porridge) became an everyday staple. When wealthy Danes introduced almonds to the dish to distinguish it from peasants’ food, risalamande was born.
No matter what any of us does, there is simply no way (currently) to be in two places at once. But food traditions stand right behind teleportation on the list of tools that can transport us from one place to another in an instant. I propose Denmark’s risalamande as one of those dishes that can easily cross borders.
Risalamande, if you’ve not yet had the pleasure, is vanilla bean rice pudding, folded with whipped cream and slivered almonds, and topped with warm cherry sauce. On Christmas Eve, the cook hides one whole almond among the slivered ones. Whoever finds it wins the ‘almond gift.’
Though it sounds French, this dish is wholly Danish. Stemming back to a time when it was a rare luxury to make rye, barley, or oat-based grød (porridge) with milk, the dairy version was reserved for parties. After 1900, rice became more widely available, and thus, risengrød (rice porridge) became an everyday staple. When wealthy Danes introduced almonds to the dish to distinguish it from peasants’ food, risalamande was born.
The first time I came to Denmark, everyone eagerly put their favourite tastes on my plate. With my Italian-American palette conditioned more for olive oil and pasta, I filed most of these new flavours under the ‘learn to love’ category. But after working through pickled herring, pungent cheeses, and liquorice so salty it stung, I encountered a light at the end of the tunnel, the crown of the Christmas celebration: risalamande. The dish was foreign enough to be novel but familiar enough to feel like a hug as I spent this first Christmas away from my family.
Fast forward a year, and it was my Danish husband’s first time joining my family for Christmas in Ohio. I wanted to make sure he could contribute a piece of his own tradition to the table. Since risalamande is quite likeable – the familiar comfort of vanilla, indulgence of silky cream, warm cherry sauce, and the playful joy of searching for the whole almond – it lends itself well to sharing. My family loved it so much they requested it the next year, too.
Consider whipping up risalamande for your family outside of Denmark
It can be a window into your world for those family members who may never make it to Denmark to experience your life here. Who knows – maybe they’ll even adopt it as a new tradition as my family did.
Embrace the tradition if you’re spending Christmas in Denmark
If you live in Denmark without Danish family or friends to cook for you, risalamande could draw you closer to the land you reside upon – maybe more easily than learning to commute by bike or say ‘rød grød med fløde.’ If you find yourself at a table surrounded by Danes this Christmas Eve, enthusiasm for this dish could knit you more tightly to your comrades.
And that feeling – that my American family knows the flavours I’ll be tasting on Christmas, whether we’re eating from the same bowl, or digging in six time zones away — stitches my cross-ocean life together in such a comforting way. Perhaps a bowl full of creamy rice and cherry sauce can offer the same to you.