Sinikka's snippets

Finland and travelling, a woman's life, cultures, languages, photography plus family recipes


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Mothers and daughters and a mysterious suitcase

It’s the second Sunday in May, celebrated as ‘Mother’s Day’ in Finland. A bitter-sweet day for me for several years now, ever since our only daughter moved abroad to study, and then stayed on for a couple of ‘gap years’, working in Asia. Still not back this year either although, hopefully, we will enjoy a visit later this month, at last!

This year, to celebrate Mother’s Day, I decided to reminisce on the generations of mothers and daughters in my family. It is often stated that your mother is your first love, your first friend but also your first enemy. I think it’s undeniable that these female family bonds are strong, and have a profound effect in shaping our lives.

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Here we are, four generations of women, starting with my grandmother Linda, then my mother Mirja Helinä, then me Päivi Sinikka, and finally my daughter Riikka Rosalinda or Rosie. Originally, I suggested we should give our daughter the name Linda, after my beloved grandmother. My husband wasn’t too keen on it, though, but then, luckily, from a children’s picture book, we came across Rosalinda (Spanish for ‘beautiful rose’). Is there any resemblance between us? I can’t tell but seeing old pictures, friends say they can notice many similarities. The sad thing is that Rosie never met her maternal great-grandmother, nor grandmother. It was about a month after my mum’s passing away that I realised I was pregnant. Such a pity, as all of us missed out on a lot. My mum would have loved and spoiled Rosie to bits, and I missed sharing the ups and downs of motherhood with my own mum. I used to feel that my experience of a significant birth and death intertwined withing one year of my life was nature’s way of replacing a missing piece, making sure that the female family genes were passed on down the line.

My grandmother – or ‘mummi’ as we used to call her in Finnish – was the sweetest and most even tempered old lady I’ve ever known. I’ve often thought how she managed to keep herself so calm and friendly, despite her unpredictable, grumpy and bossy policeman husband.The old sepia picture of her has been printed on a thick, cardboard-like surface. She looks young and innocent there, probably not yet married, somewhere in the first two decades of the 20th century, her gentle and compassionate nature shining out even from that old photo. I wonder what the occasion of this picture was, and why they’d placed her sitting on a suitcase? Crazy to think that she spent her childhood and youth in the time when Finland still was an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia. She was 17 when our country gained independence.

My grandparents lived in the east, close to the Russian border, while our home was a 6-hour-drive away in the west. Sometimes poor mummi used to take the train, and come and stay with us for a few months when, I gathered, she simply had had enough of granddad’s antics. Those were the loveliest times for me and my two brothers. There was always somebody to welcome us from school, as both our parents worked long hours. And more often than not mummi would have baked something nice for us kids to eat. I also loved the evenings when mum and mummi had their long women-to-women talks, and I, pretending to read on the couch, kept an alert ear, not to miss any of their words. Mummi was a woman of a different era. In her day, people usually stayed married for appearances, divorce was rare. At least to my knowledge, she never had a job, but you never saw her sitting idly. She would always have busy fingers sewing, mending, crocheting or knitting. In fact, I still have carpets woven by her in our home today!

How many modern products last for over 50 decades? This rug was woven by my grandmother in the 60s, and still on my floor, as good as new!

How many modern products last for over 50 years? This rug was woven by my grandmother in the 60s, and still on my floor, as good as new!

How about my mother then? The black and white picture was taken at the post office where she worked in a little village in the 50s. It was there that she also met my father. My mum was the oldest of two daughters. I have gathered that she was considered the less academically gifted of the two, so she had to finish school and start working at 16, whereas her younger sister was sent to university to become a primary school teacher. Nevertheless, my mum did a long career in the Finnish postal services, and gradually got promoted to higher and higher positions. She was a very ambitious, determined and hard-working woman. Later on in life, she went to several further training courses, and even got some higher education qualifications through the Open University. She never talked about it much but, in hindsight, I suspect that she probably resented not having had the same chances as her sister in her youth.

Compared to me, the women of my mum’s generation, were expected to do everything themselves – work long hours, and then come home and start with the never-ending household chores. That was a woman’s lot, and it was also the women, themselves, who let these expectations determine their worth. My mum was a wizard in the kitchen, and would spend most weekends just baking everything from scratch, even most of the bread we ate. Naturally, she made sure our home was always spotlessly clean, all our clothes neatly ironed after wash, and bed linen washed, mangled and changed every three weeks. Later on, my parents were lucky to earn enough between the two of them, to afford weekly cleaning help, which was quite unusual in those days. All in all, though, it must have taken an awful lot of effort, running a family of five, especially as I and my two brothers were all born within five years. It seemed that my mum had inherited her father’s temperament, which wasn’t helped by her duty-bound life. She would often overstretch herself, and when tired, be bad-tempered, and in those moments not tolerate any nonsense from us kids. We were all expected to help a lot around the house, and she was also very particular about appearances and school performance, and took pride in showing off her well-behaved children, boasting about our achievements. Quite often this would be a real burden for us kids. I sometimes felt suffocated, and having to put on a front, never being accepted as the person I was becoming inside. Mind you, my mum also had her loving and affectionate side, and her hearty laughter still rings in my ears when I think about her. If I could go back to those old days, I would try to tell her to take it easy, not agonise over irrelevant appearances, and just enjoy life. Not that she, with her rather stubborn disposition, would have listened to me, or anyone!

As for me, being the only girl, born in the middle of two boys, granted me a special place in my childhood family. I was the high-achiever at school, obedient and conscientious – the archetypical good-girl swot! I never dared to contradict my strict mother as that would have been totally unacceptable and disrespectful behaviour. However, I was clever enough to find my ways of secretly bending the rules, without her knowing. I was teased ad nauseam by my incorrigible brothers, but fought hard to defend myself against them. The two boys always ganged up against me, and it was invariably me who ended up doing all the chores set for us kids by our parents! Early on, I got passionate about learning languages, spending ages writing down the lyrics of foreign pop songs that I had recorded on old-fashioned cassettes, or dreaming about distant, exotic lands. Back in 1972, I watched the Winter Olympics from Sapporo, Japan on TV, spell-bound by the intriguing looks of Asian people. You see, in those days, foreigners were still a rare sight in Finland, especially in the small village where I grew up! Not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that in the future, I would personally get to know many of those fascinating Asians, and have the chance to even visit their countries. I guess my fate was sealed – no surprise then that I married a Brit and started a bicultural life of teaching languages, with lots of international contacts, work projects abroad and travel. I don’t think my mum saw this coming when she and dad paid for me to go on a language course in Eastbourne, England, when I was only 15! Maybe there is a “wandering gene” in my family women. Maybe that suitcase my grandmother is sitting on in that photo is a symbol of the women in my family?

And it seems my daughter is continuing on this restless, wandering path, even more strongly as our world really has shrunk, with the ease of travelling, and finding opportunities online. In the two photos above, I and Rosie are about the same age, 23-24, both university students. There is a resemblance for sure, especially in our smiles, I think. Now at 25, Rosie is already an experienced world-traveller, thanks to us showing her the world in her youth but latterly, her own wanderlust has also truly surfaced. Not only has she studied in several countries already but she has just returned from a two-year stay in Taiwan, where she successfully taught English.

Hopefully, one day Rosie will be become a mother, too. And I’m also keeping my fingers crossed that, unlike my mother, I will be able to be there when that happens. Motherhood is one of the most miraculous aspects of a woman’s life. Nothing in life quite compares to carrying your baby inside you for nine months, then giving birth and afterwards seeing a wonderful, new person grow and develop. At the same time, being a mother is one of the most daunting roles in a woman’s life. It involves lots of self-doubt and worry, feelings of inadequacy and fears of doing it all wrong. Been there, done that, and still, I wouldn’t change it for the world! I’m confident that I was able to ease off the rigid rules of my own mother but still, I can’t let go of the gnawing insecurity in my mind whether I was able to provide my darling daughter the love, support and encouragement my darling daughter needed and deserved.

Looking at these four photos, I can see how, over the years, each of our lives becomes an inseparable part of the intricate family tapestry (or maybe woven rug in our case!), with customs and traditions passed on from mother to daughter, and with each new member adding their own special touch to the emerging pattern. What’s more, in the big picture of things, these personal life stories beautifully reflect the history of your country, and the whole world. In four generations, the women of my family have turned from housewives of a modest, agrarian society, to globe-trotting, independent and empowered creatures, claiming more and more equal rights with the men in our lives.

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Runeberg’s cakes

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February. Still winter but finally, days are getting noticeably longer, and brighter on sunny days like today. The bare birch trees, with their white trunks against the winter blue sky, made me feel very Finnish today – blue and white being the colours of our national flag. A good day to feel slightly patriotic, too, as February 5th is celebrated as Runeberg’s day, commemorating the birthday of our national poet, Johan Ludwig Runeberg. Today, it’s 212 years since his birth in 1804.

We Finns are keen on signature pastries and baked goodies for special occasions. And so there is the “Runeberg cake” to enjoy today. Legend has it that it was Runeberg’s wife, a talented baker, who invented this cake for her husband.

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Bakeries and supermarkets start selling these small cupcake-like delicacies the moment the Christmas season is over. There is such a variety to choose from that you really have to know what you prefer. The main differences are the size, and whether they are “dry”, or moistened with some punch, or liqueur. Personally, I am for the dry version but hubby wants his drizzled with a spoonful of Swedish punch. Most years I bake my own, using a recipe passed down by my mum, another talented baker. Mine look more like cupcakes, compared to the more “tower like” commercially baked versions.

INGREDIENTS (for about 8 big ones, or 16 smaller ones)

  • 200 g butter
  • 2 dl sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 dl crushed almonds
  • 2 dl bread crumbs
  • 1 dl wheat flour
  • 1 ts baking powder
  • punch (if desired)
  • raspberry marmalade
  • icing

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THIS IS WHAT YOU DO

  • cream the butter and sugar
  • add the eggs, one at the time
  • mix all the dry ingredients and add them to the mixture
  • spoon the mix into cupcake or muffin pans or moods (paper or other)
  • set the oven at 200 degrees Celcius, and bake for about 15 minutes
  • if you like, drizzle one tablespoonful of punch over the warm cakes
  • decorate with a spoonful of raspberry marmalade, with a ring of icing around it

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I’m a great fan of seasonal food and baking. Whatever you eat or drink only once a year never gets boring, and tastes extra delicious!

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February is also the time for colourful tulips. So here’s a bunch to wish “Happy Birthday Mr. Runeberg”!


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Finnish shortbread teaspoon bites

Spring, especially May, and early summer are festive periods in Finland. May starts with a big carnival on the 1st of the month, then there is Mothers’ Day on the second Sunday, and May ends with the biggest national school celebration, upper secondary (or senior high) school graduation. This is also a popular time for weddings, with nature awakening and the famous white nights. In short, there is lots to celebrate.

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And celebrations and parties usually include traditional, festive recipes. Here is one of them. If you were a little nonplussed by the title, that is the name I and hubby coined today to give you an idea of what to expect. Online, I have seen people call these ‘Finnish spoon biscuits’ or ‘Finnish teaspoon cookies’, which I chose to reject for the simple reason that, to me, these are not biscuits nor cookies. The pastry definitely has the taste and consistency of British shortbread but the rest is very Finnish. To begin with, the bites are sandwiched, with some jam or marmalade in between.

But let me explain about the spoon. Many Finnish families have their own heirloom silver teaspoon for this particular purpose. It is exactly the right size, shape and depth – all essential requirements of the right spoon. It should be a small oval-shaped teaspoon, slightly pointed at one end, and not too shallow. Those who haven’t got one passed down the generations, might go to a flea market to look for one. I always go to my sister-in-law to borrow her ideal family teaspoon. The prettier the spoon, the lovelier, I would say, although, naturally, it won’t make any difference to the taste in the end! To make the bites, the pastry is pressed into the spoon to get the right shape – hence the name. In Finnish it is ‘lusikkaleipä’, which literally translates as ‘spoon bread’. A bit misleading, I know. You see, in Finnish ‘a biscuit’ is called ‘pikkuleipä’, which means ‘small bread’. Aren’t languages just great!

My sister-in-law's family spoon is simply perfect

My sister-in-law’s family spoon is simply perfect

These bites are usually baked for extra special occasions, at least in my family. They are proudly and lovingly prepared, usually by an older lady in the family. My mother baked them for my wedding, I baked them for my daughter’s school graduation party, and my sister-in-law told me that she had just baked them for her daughter’s engagement party. The rare occasions you get to taste them make them a luxurious treat that is truly appreciated. I also think the bites look very cute, like tiny sugar-coated eggs, and add a nice touch to any coffee table spread.

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INGREDIENTS (for c. 35 sandwiched bites)

  • 200 g butter (unsalted if you like, but works with ordinary, too)
  • 2 dl (200 ml) caster sugar
  • 4 dl (400 ml) all-purpose wheat flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder or bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 tsp vanilla sugar

FOR THE FILLING

  • jam or marmalade (firm enough, not too runny) – the most traditional ones used are apple (my favourite) or raspberry, but feel free to experiment with any you desire
  • + fine sugar for coating

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THIS IS WHAT YOU DO

  • melt the butter in a thick-bottom saucepan till it starts bubbling
  • let it bubbly on medium heat till it gets nice nutty brown (make sure you don’t burn it!)
  • pour into a bowl
  • add the sugar and let the mixture cool down
  • in another bowl mix the flour, baking powder and vanilla
  • add the dry ingredients to the cooled down butter mixture
  • press some pastry into the teaspoon to form the halves of the bites
  • put the halves onto a baking tray, which has been lined with grease-proof paper (make sure you make an even number of the halves!)
  • bake in 175° Celsius for c. 12 minutes (till just lightly brown)
  • let the halves cool down
  • spread a thin layer of jam/marmalade on one half, and press another one on top (do this very gently as the pastry is quite crumbly)
  • roll each bite in fine sugar to coat them

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Very simple ingredients, simple procedures. Only the “spooning” is quite fiddly and time-consuming but I find it quite relaxing, tantamount to meditative. I never worry too much about making each bite exactly evenly shaped. Any rough edges, odd shapes or unevenly spread marmalade are just signs of home-baking, hand-made unique pieces. Much better and more precious than uniform factory or bakery products, in my opinion.

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With all that butter and sugar, obviously the bites are quite rich in calories. On the other hand, they are rather small, so I don’t think indulging in one will ruin anybody’s diet. The slightly browned butter adds a lovely, nutty, slightly bitter side taste that is totally irresistible. These Finnish delicacies really are worth trying as they literally melt in your mouth!

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 HAPPY CELEBRATIONS!