Baked ham being the centrepiece of the Finnish Christmas dinner table, a special effort is made in finding and buying "the perfect piece of ham", whether fresh or salted, boneless or with bone.
Picture on right: sliced ham on Christmas dinner table.
In the old times, Christmas ham was prepared at home by salting a fresh ham for several weeks in heavy salt brine. To remove the excess salt before cooking, the ham was soaked in fresh, cold water for a few days.
Nowadays, a faster salting process mostly used in professional kitchens or by the food industry, is to inject the ham with saltwater solution and to store it in a lighter salt brine until just salty enough, making the soaking unnecessary.
Professionally prepared salted hams are often sold frozen and need to be slowly thawed, which, depending on the size of the ham, may take several days. Before baking, the inner temperature of the thawed ham should have reached about +10 °C.
There are also many types of fresh, ie unfrozen, often organically produced salted hams available in Finland. Hams like these are usually nitrite-free, and being the traditional Christmas ham type in Finland, are considered by many to be the sole, authentic choice for their Christmas dinner.
After cooking, the colour of nitrite-free hams turns brownish-grey and they have a rather dry, flaky texture. Because of the colour, this ham type is called harmaasuolattu kinkku, literally translated as "grey-salted ham". A ham salted with a solution containing sodium nitrite (E250) is called punasuolattu kinkku, literally translated as "red-salted ham", as the sodium nitrite
preserves the pink colour of the meat also after cooking.
While the "traditionalists" usually opt for "grey-salted ham", in my family we prefer slightly smoked "red-salted ham" to which sodium nitrite gives an attractive pinkish colour and, in my opinion, a much better flavour and a moist, more succulent texture.
This type of ham is usually lightly smoked and bought ready-baked (see the picture on right).
Picture on right: lightly smoked, "red-salted" Finnish Christmas ham.
Raw salted ham is usually first boiled in seasoned broth and then baked in slow oven. Traditionally, ham was often baked enclosed in a crust of rye dough, to keep it juicy and succulent. Today, oven cooking bags and foil are often used to replace the rye dough.
After baking, the rind of the ham may be removed and its surface smeared with a mixture of mustard or egg yolk and sugar, dark molasses or honey, thinly coated with breadcrumbs, rye flour, or the like, and broiled in the oven until nicely browned.
The rind of a boiled ham can also be decoratively scored, studded with whole cloves and broiled in hot oven until crisp and brown.
Ham is served sliced, warm or cold, with sweet, hot mustard and traditional Finnish root vegetable casseroles. The serving dish can be garnished with poached apple halves filled with green peas, prunes, etc.
Nowadays various other baked or smoked boneless roasts, fillets and other cuts of pork, turkey or reindeer have become popular in replacing the traditional ham, especially in smaller-size families. Reindeer roast is a traditional substitute for Christmas ham in the areas of Lapland, the northern province of Finland, where reindeer are typically kept as semi-domesticated livestock.
Other meat dishes
Besides baked ham, other meat dishes may include liver casserole or slowly simmered mixed meat stews and hotpots like the Karelian stew.
Liver casserole (in picture on left) is made of ground pork or beef liver mixed with rice, milk, egg, onion, dark molasses and raisins and baked in the oven.
It is traditionally served with sugared lingonberries or lingonberry jam.
Cold cuts and cheese
Various cold cuts and cheeses are also a part of Finnish Christmas dinner.
In picture above: Finnish cold cuts from left to right lightly smoked pork fillet (Finnish: kinkkufile), cold-smoked reindeer roast, salami (Finnish: meetwursti), cooked tongue, smoke sauna cured ham (Finnish: saunapalvikinkku).
Cold cuts may include cooked or cured sausages and meats, succulent aspics made of pork and/or veal, and silky-smooth or rough-textured pâtés made with pork, beef or chicken liver mixed with pork, beef, veal or reindeer meat.
Canned Swedish anchovies are the "secret ingredient" used in many Finnish and Nordic liver pâtés to give them their distinctively piquant, sweetish flavour.
Picture on right: Finnish pork and veal aspic, aladobi.
Along with homemade mustards, herring preserves, candies, etc, homemade liver pâtés are popular Christmas gifts given to friends and relatives.
Picture on right: a piece of "Kalaasi Maksapasteija", a delicious brand of Finnish liver pâté.
At Finnish Christmas dinner, a selection of cheeses may be served either at the end of the meal, for dessert, or as hors d'uvre, together with cold cuts.
Among the many domestic and imported cheeses found on the Finnish Christmas table, the most traditional is the Finnish fresh cheese, similar to the fresh cheeses made in Finnish farmhouses in the old times.
Picture on right: traditional Finnish fresh cheese.
Read more about Finnish cheeses here.
You will find recipes for some of the dishes mentioned above in here.
Read more about traditional Finnish Christmas here.