The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Christmas cooking

hansjoakim's picture

Christmas cooking

Hi all,

It's been a while since my last blog post, but that doesn't mean I haven't been baking. It's mostly been variations on my favourite recipes, however, so I have not bothered blogging about them. Over the weeks, I've baked my favourite pain au levain at different hydrations and with different flour combinations. I've found that I prefer a 80% bread flour: 12.5% whole rye flour: 7.5% whole-wheat flour combination (similar to my original formulation, from way back), mixed to a hydration of approx. 76%. I've previously used 70% as base hydration, but noticed over the time that the dough could use more water. At 76%, the dough is wetter and slacker, but still not very difficult to work. Below are two snaps of the a loaf that I baked yesterday:

Pain au levain @ 76

... and crumb:

Pain au levain @ 76 crumb


There are few things I enjoy more than working in the kitchen. Each December, I reserve time during weekends for some traditional Norwegian Christmas cooking. One such meal, is the (in)famous lutefisk, a dish based around stockfish. The stockfish is first soaked in cold water for five days. Afterwards, it's soaked in a solution of water and lye for a day or two. This soaking gives the fish a squishy, jelly-like mouthfeel. After the lye treatment, the fish is soaked in water another five days before it's turned into a real meal. Often served with potatoes, various pea stews, mustard, bacon, flatbreads and liberal servings of Aquavit, a strong liquor flavoured with herbs and spices. The homecook usually buys lutefisk that's already gone through the various soaking stages. I've not come around to making a lutefisk meal so far this year, but there's still time left.

This weekend I prepared another traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner, the also (in)famous smalahove. This is a dish made from salted, smoked and dried sheep's head, and hails originally from the area around Voss, in western Norway. It was originally something poor peasants ate, and has for a long time been something reserved for die-hard enthusiasts. The dish has gone through something of a reneissance/revival over the last couple of years, and is now quickly becoming a trendy thing to eat before Christmas eve. In the western Norwegian dialect, "Smalahove" is the word for "sheep's head". It's not something you can easily find most parts of the year, but the heads usually turn up in well-stocked grocery stores sometime in late November. The heads are usually split in half and sold vacuum-packed.

Preparation of smalahove is very simple: Place your sheep heads in a large pot, cover with water and boil for a few minutes. This step removes some of the intense salty, smoked flavour. (Alternatively you can soak heads in water overnight instead, but that can quickly draw too much salt out of the heads.) Pour out the water, refill the pot with new water, and put some vegetables and herbs in with the sheep heads. I used a leek, some carrots, shallots, garlic cloves and thyme (the garlic and thyme are decidedly un-traditional, but I have some Francophile tendencies...):


Bring the water to a boil, and let simmer between 2 and 3 hours, until the meat on the heads are tender and comes off easily. Serve with freshly boiled potatoes and rutabaga stew. The traditional Aquavit drink is required to enjoy smalahove:


The dish is really delicious and quite unlike any other parts of the sheep that I've tasted. One usually starts eating near the ear-region of the head, where there is most fat. You want to eat this part while it's still smoking hot. Then gradually work your way down the jaw bone. Some 45 minutes later:



SylviaH's picture

Lovely bread, Hans. 

Wow, that's some traditional dinner...looks like you enjoyed it to the bones...I've been there, but not with sheep's head, I know I could not eat a sheep's head, but can very much appreciate that others enjoy it.  I just watched on the tv today a whole program dedicated to eating parts of animals that as they said were once let on the chopping board.  It was very interesting...and I think I even saw what was in the soup a mexican lady once brought my husband, who loves mexican food.  It looked very strange to me...but I think it had to be pigs least I hope it was..

Always love your posts!

Happy Holidays!


Mebake's picture

Lovely Looking Batard, Yum, Hans! as always, you bake some fine looking products!

ehanner's picture

I was very happy to see your post today. I have been missing your wisdom in the kitchen.

I totally concur with you on the hydration levels. Your post today is a brilliant example of perfection of the process. Beautiful!

The sheep head looks like a wonderful meal from here. Is the portion shown a half a head? Is that the amount considered a portion for one adult? I'm guessing that the head has had the brains removed. Is that true? The amount of meat would be limited after removing the skin and fat I would think.

I have never seen cured and smoked heads in the meat markets here in the US. BUT, I do have a friend who cures and smokes 1000 lbs of ham and turkey products every week for the Navy. I'll bet I could get him to entertain me with some sheep heads if we can get it. There is a good market here for lamb especially around holiday times. You have me thinking.

Thank you hans for waking me up this morning.


hansjoakim's picture

Thank you!

It is a wonderful meal.

Half a head is the standard portion size for an adult. The brains are removed, but the rest can be eaten. And you're right, the amount of meat is limited after skin and fat are removed. One of the most delicate parts of the head is actually the muscle right behind the eye; incredibly tender with a flavour quite unlike anything else. Apart from that, my favourite part of meat is what can be found some way down on the jaw bone. This part resembles pinnekjøtt, cured salted lamb, in both colour and texture.

I agree that lamb is great this time of year. In Norway, the season for lamb dishes starts in the fall and culminates around Christmas time with many traditional dishes (including pinnekjøtt and smalahove).

Thanks for your reply Eric, and a merry Christmas to you and yours!

ehanner's picture

Good Holiday wishes to you and yours also my friend.

In these parts it is common to have a  pig roast where the entire animal is roasted slowly over hot coals. The best meat is quickly eaten by those who know in the head, but it is all good eating. I'm going to look around for a way to try this dish at home. I'm no expert in meats but I think a lamb is just a young sheep. If that's the case I should be able to find a source.

Stay warm and enjoy the season hansjoakim.

All the best,



wally's picture

Beautiful crumb that clearly has benefited from the higher hydration.  The sheep's head looks, well.... interesting.  I'm pretty sure that it would require a fair amount of aquavit before I could attack it, but the pictures show you obviously enjoyed it!

Happy Holidays and nice to have you posting again!


GSnyde's picture

Beautiful crust and crumb.  Your "usual" is pretty close to mine in flour blend (I use a bit more whole wheat and a bit less rye).  I will try it at a little higher hydration next time.

As to the sheep head, I think I'll stick with lamb chops and shish kebab.  But I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Happy Holidays.


Thaichef's picture

Hello Hans:

  I am always enjoyed your post. All your bakings are a beautiful piece of of Arts. I "bookmarks" this post to show it to my friends who are" squirmish" on my regular Thai squid salad.

  Thanks for sharing.


Daisy_A's picture

Hi Hans Joakim,

Loaf looks super, as usual.

Interesting about the traditional food. This has happened to some degree in the UK, with restaurants such as Fergus Henderson's St. John, making 'nose to tail eating' fashionable again among some food connaisseurs. 

Mmm, love the Aquavit and looks like the golden one too! We developed a real liking for this when my husband's school was in a Comenius triplet with a school in Italy and one in Norway and the Norwegian contingent brought Aquavit among their gifts :-).

Wishing you a good Christmas season, Daisy_A 

rossnroller's picture

The crumb looks especially lovely. Wish I could reach into the monitor and take a hunk out! Was your starter 100% rye, as  per your usual pain au levain?

Hmm, I think I'll have to take your word for it on the sheep's head dish. Silly, isn't it, that as someone who has an avid and enduring interest in traditional national cuisines and regional specialties I still have blocks about a few things. Why should the sheep's head be any sort of issue, when I am very partial towards lamb and mutton dishes in general? In the end, I guess it's all about cultural influences and what we're used to.

We're going to Vietnam for a food-orientated travelling stint in February, and I'm looking immensely forward to sampling as many different dishes as possible. And yet, as open as I am to new eating experiences,  I know right now that dog, cat, rat, snake and insects will be precluded from my experimentation! Not that any of those have anything to do with sheeps' heads - except inasmuch as they are things I shirk from eating.

Ah well, we never have been entirely rational creatures, as much as we might like to delude ourselves otherwise.

Thanks, as always, for your post - and all the best for the festive season!


Jo_Jo_'s picture

My grandfathers name was Joakim, and I was actually named after him.  I grew up on potatoe lefse, krumkake, sandkake, julekaga, fiske balls, fish cakes, and many other specialty norwegian dishes.  Must say I had never heard of this one, but found the description and pictures really interesting.  I'm not big on lutefisk either, but my dad loves the stuff.  I live in the middle of eastern oregon now, and do not have access to any norwegian markets like I did when growing up near Seattle, so I really miss these things.  I have made quite a few of them myself, but they never seem to be as good as my Bestemor's.  She passed when I was quite young, so I have a few of her recipes but not many.

Such good memories....

LindyD's picture

It's always fascinating to learn how Christmas is celebrated across the planet and especially the traditional foods to be enjoyed.

I hope you have the opportunity to be with your family over the holiday.

gary.turner's picture

So the head is salt cured rather than fresh? Sounds like an interesting dish. The photo brings to  mind the movie "The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & her Lover". Those who have seen this Helen Mirren jewel will know what I mean.



hansjoakim's picture

Thanks so much for all the kind comments, everyone!

A very happy holidays to you all :)

EvaB's picture

but you can keep the sheeps head, I'm not that desparate yet! I have been known to eat strange things, but that is just not something I'm going to be cooking soon.

But I do miss the Aquavit, we used to buy it quite often here in the local liquour store, but can't get it now, since they only send stock that sells tons, so its Jack Danials and god only knows what that the young drink and is trendy!

I aslo can't get my favourite bourbon anymore as its imported from the US and apparently no one drinks it in BC anymore. It can really suck to have the government say what the stores supply.

rossnroller's picture
you can keep the sheeps head, I'm not that desparate yet!

I don't think eating sheep's head has anything to do with desperation. Culinary traditions are different the world over - and vive la différence! We should respect these differences, regardless of whether we're willing to sample dishes we see as exotic.

hansjoakim's picture

Well said, Ross!

I believe many are becoming ever more interested in culinary traditions and regional specialties. I think many feel pride in their heritage, both culturally, historically and culinary. I'm amazed and fascinated by how my own ancestors developed ways of curing, preserving and culturing their food and raw ingredients. In a cold, harsh climate, where winters can be agonizingly cold, they had to invent ways of preserving and storing their food to get them through the season. The scarcity of resources that was so characteristic here up north, every last piece of edible meat on wild and domesticated animals was put to good use. This has resulted in (now, sadly partially forgotten) very special regional dishes, with flavours, textures and aromas quite unlike anything else.

Daisy_A's picture

Hi Hans Joakim

So you are in the north? My husband's project triplet was with Mysen in Østfold. There was a residency in each country and each country had to provide hospitality. The Norwegians and Italians had hospitality budgets, although I have to say that my husband reported that the teachers also provided wonderful hospitality. The UK had no hospitality budget (LOL), so the teachers and their friends and families provided several meals in their homes. There was also one trip where just the Norwegians came to the UK.

The UK team was multinational as it involved both Art and Language Departments. For the typically 'British' meal for the whole contingent the Brit staff got together and did pumpkin soup, bangers and mash and summer pudding.

The next time just two of the Norwegian staff came. One of the UK staff, who is a German national, made a wonderful fish starter, ghoulash and an amazing torte. That left me next, to cook for Britain, and I was far less experienced a cook than I am now. The Norwegians had brought a wonderful cured wild salmon but they wanted us to save their gift rather than use it for the shared meal. 

I share this in the context of the debate here about traditional cuisines, learning what our ancestors cooked and what can be recuperated for today. I didn't accompany my husband to Norway, sadly. However from what I learned about the cuisine, which he like a great deal, I thought that it had traces of a 'hunter gatherer' diet about it.

In terms of the UK, this reminded me of traditional Scottish cuisine. I grew up near the Scottish borders and one of my closest friends and a great cook, is Scottish. To me, both cuisines raised thoughts of foraged berries and funghi, wild game and wild fish. In the end we had homemade field mushroom and herb pâte with homemade potato bread, venison with fresh raspberry and blackberry sauce and creamed potatoes and lemon syllabub. This is the nearest I could come in a British tradition to foods that would have relied historically on 'hunting and gathering'. Granted lemons would have been imported, but this dish of milk or cream, sweet wine and other flavourings traditionally made in Britain since Tudor times is certainly worth reviving!

With best wishes, Daisy_A


EvaB's picture

and if you think that tradition didn't come from living in desparation then you don't have any idea of what people will eat when food is scarce.

One of the traditions of the local natives is to cut open the stomach of the moose and eat the partially digested raindeer moss, while it is a cultural delicacy, and probably good, I'm not going to partake, and even for stopping open warfare, there is just a point past which I'm not going to eat something. It is a thing that is no longer needed in the society they are now living in, so I pass.

I also think blood sausage, is another one of those foods that while I'm sure is good and probably had useful life in the days of freshly killed meat (not killed in some super plant and grown with god knows what) and the fact that the animal needed to be used as fully as possible since it was an expensive drain finacially to feed and keep for the farmer it only makes sense to use it fully, but its not something I want to eat. Neither is moose nose, which the recipe for goes take one moose nose, and boil the snot out of it. Not exactly what I want to be doing. I also don't eat kidneys, and liver is not mentioned in the house, not because I don't like it, but because it gives DH fits to even talka bout it.

hanseata's picture

In Sweden/Maine there's also a strong tradition of lutefisk. Maybe the guy who infamously laced the parish's after church coffee with Arsenic some years ago was high on it... Anyway, it's the butt of many jokes about Swedes and Norwegians in one of our popular (and really nice) radio shows from Minnesota, "The Prairie Home Companion".(There they also often mention grains "grown by Norwegian bachelor farmers - so you know it's pure").

I agree with Larry, you'll need probably several glasses of Aquavit to down lutefisk and  sheep's head. When I mention the bloodwurst with raisins I grew up with in Hamburg, my husband and the kids make ugly faces and gagging noises. Only my son likes it, too.

Thanks for sharing these interesting food stories, Hansjoakim,

Happy holidays



pmccool's picture

haggis in Scotland; walkie talkies (chicken heads and feet) in South Africa; head cheese, chitlins, and Rocky Mountain oysters in the U.S.; there's a lot of offal (some might say awful) in the offing for an adventurous diner who's interested in traditional foods.  Grandpa's head cheese was mighty fine stuff to me; my wife can't stand the thought of it.  Then again, I'm not that interested in black pudding or kidneys.

My take is that if we grew up with it and it was something our families liked, we probably like it too.  Even more so if a dish is a cultural identifier that bolsters our sense of "us"-ness.  Things that other folks eat, though, tend to be viewed as weird or disgusting until we can get past our prejudices and/or learned flavor templates.  Curry was not part of my upbringing but I thoroughly enjoy it now.  Boerwors is actually pretty good stuff but I had to get to the point that I could accept allspice (as opposed to garlic, say) as a major flavor contributor in sausage.

Thanks for sharing part of your traditions, hansjoakim.  I don't know whether I would like it or not, but I would at least give it a try.