Ever have those days where a childhood taste or smell memory sweeps through your body, bringing you thoughts of a sweet, warm time? I had one recently.
I remembered sitting in my mormor’s (grandmother’s) kitchen, where, over freshly made havrekjeks (oat crackers), gjeitost (the brown goat cheese so dear to my heart), and a pot of hot tea, she asked about my day in school. Over the sounds of our munching and sipping, she’d listen with interest as I shared my news.
With the memory of mormor’s havrekjeks dancing in my mind, I felt an urgent need to bake some. I even had the red-wrapped goat cheese already waiting in the refrigerator, ready to be sliced.
I pulled out Beatrice Ojakangas’s The Great Scandinavian Baking Book and made up a batch of what she says is an Icelandic version, hafrakex. Hmmm. Tasty but not quite what I remembered from mormor’s kitchen.
Worse, Beatrice’s hafrakex quickly lost their crispness. Mormor’s havrekjeks were crisp!
I carefully unearthed mormor’s handwritten cookbook. The book is a collection of recipes and instructions from her time in husmorskole (a school of home economics) in Hidra, Norway, in 1926-27. Her book even has a picture of the once well-known Henriette Schønberg Erken on its cover! (My mother pushed me to attend husmorskole only because she wanted me away from a boyfriend. In retrospect, I should have gone if only for that reason!)
In any event, I carefully poured through mormor’s book and found her recipe for havrekjeks, which I then made.
Topped with gjeitost, I nibbled the freshly-made crackers and sipped my tea. That was it — the taste and smell in my memory — and the crackers were crisp!
So how to explain the differences between the two? Both recipes use milk, rolled oats, butter, salt, flour and a dash of salt. The most significant differences between the recipes, however, are:
- Mormor’s recipe calls for wheat flour, while Beatrice’s uses a combination of all purpose white and rye flours and adds a lot of crushed anise.
- Mormor uses hjortetalgsalt – hartshorn salt – as the leavening agent, while Beatrice calls for baking powder. (Today hjortetalgsalt would be hjortetakk or hjortetagg salts.)
- (En) hjort = (a) stag, (an) adult male deer.
- Talg (in mormor’s notes only) is tallow.
- Takk and tagg are words for antlers.
So what is hartshorn? “Hart” is an archaic English word used in medieval times to refer to a fully matured red male deer over the age of five years. Originally made from the ground up antlers of a hart, hartshorn is a chemical leavener commonly used before baking powder was widely and easily available. It is chemically reproduced as ammonium carbonate ((NH4)2CO3); it is also called baker’s ammonia. Heated, ammonium carbonate quickly degrades to gaseous ammonia and carbon dioxide. For certain recipes for a crisp cracker or cookie (e.g., Springerle, Pfeffernuesse and gingerbread), many bakers still won’t use anything else.
As I particularly like both rye and anise, I incorporate them into my now go-to havrekjeks from mormor’s recipe. (At the end of her instructions for havrekjeks, mormor writes “stikkes over med en gaffel” so if you look closely you’ll see the havrekjeks have marks from fork tines, which allows steam to escape as the crackers bake.)
Deilig og sprø (delicious and crispy)!
If you like thin, crisp cookies or crackers, give baker’s ammonia a try. Admittedly, after opening up and sniffing the baker’s ammonia, I gagged. But don’t worry – the smell quickly dissipates during the baking time and you won’t taste it in your baked goods. I was happy that my olfactory memory doesn’t extend to leavening agents or I might never have made mormor’s havrekjeks!
For some recipes using baker’s ammonia, see Recipes from a German Grandma. If you want to try baker’s ammonia in your own recipes, according to King Arthur Flour: “The basic rule of thumb is to use half as much ammonia as baking powder in your recipe. Be sure your cookies are thin, as the ammonia needs to bake out and isn’t able to dissipate in thicker baked goods.”