For two generations, Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik in Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula, has offered the only Scandinavian Christmas smörgåsbord (Julbord) in the area (which is saying a lot because there are a lot of Scandinavians in Door County). Like the restaurant, the Julbord has become an institution in itself, an annual event that people from all over the Midwest plan for well ahead of time.
The Julbord at Al Johnson’s offers two evenings of all the traditional holiday food that Sweden is well known for: herring, cheeses, meatballs, beet salad, liver pate, potato sausage — and the ubiquitous Swedish Christmas ham.
If you’ve never had Swedish Christmas ham, you might not realize that it is in fact quite different from American holiday hams, which are usually smoked in one way or another. The Swedish tradition is to prepare a pickled ham — soaked in a salt brine. Al Johnson’s head chef Freddie Brexel, a native of Sweden, is making sure this year’s Julbord has plenty of his Christmas ham (julskinka), the recipe for which is included below.
In an interview with Brexel, he explained the most important thing is to minimize the smokiness of the ham: soak it in salt brine. If it sounds like julskinka might be salty, you’re right.
Brexel has vivid memories of eating julskinka — on Christmas and the two or three days following. His extended family of 50 cousins and aunts and uncles would gather at his grandmother’s small, 3-bedroom house, and she would cook enough food, and more, for everyone.
“My father’s mother was a typical stubborn Swedish grandmother who wouldn’t let anyone help her,” but she spent hours in that cramped little kitchen preparing all the staples of Christmas food that every Swedish family enjoyed, Brexel said.
He chuckled when asked if perhaps this year’s julskinka recipe might be hers. “Well, my cooking is definitely influenced by my grandmother, but being a stubborn Swede also meant she wouldn’t share her cooking secrets!”
Brexel came to the U.S. on vacation for the first time in 1992. He was friends with someone in his hometown of Österbymo, in Östergötland, who was related to Al Johnson’s wife Ingert, and they all met that year in Door County. After alternating his residence between the U.S. and Sweden a few times, he finally settled down in the U.S. with a job at Al Johnson’s in 2000.
This year will mark the first Christmas in 19 years that he’ll be with his family back in Sweden. And his farmor will be there, too — celebrating her 97th birthday on Christmas Eve. She doesn’t cook anymore, but someone will bring ham, and Brexel is looking forward to sneaking into the kitchen in the middle of the night and making a sandwich with leftover julskinka and strong mustard — with her.
Al Johnson's Christmas Ham
5 pounds pickled or lightly smoked ham
1 tablespoon whole allspice
1 teaspoon whole black pepper
2 bay leaves
1 leek, sliced into thin pieces
• Soak ham in water overnight
• Bring to boil and discard water
• Cover ham with cold water, add spices and leeks
• Bring to boil
• Turn down and simmer for 2 – 2.5 hours or until 160° internal temperature
• Leave ham in water and cool in refrigerator
• Put cold ham into shallow baking pan
• Mix together:
3 tablespoons Swedish mustard
1/2 tablespoon light molasses
1 egg yolk
1/2 tablespoon potato flour or corn starch
• Spread mixture over ham.
• Sprinkle bread crumbs over ham, spread 1 tablespoon butter over top.
• Bake at 375° for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.
• Let cool in refrigerator.
• Serve with Jansson's Temptation and Swedish mustard.
Recipe by Chef Freddie Bexell, Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant & Butik. For more info, see www.aljohnsons.com