News from the Norwegian American Weekly (plus Kaffefromasj)
Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)
Ashley Rodriguez’s Apple Cake from “Date Night In”
Norwegian Coffee Treats: A Class at Nordic Heritage Museum

News from the Norwegian American Weekly (plus Kaffefromasj)

Kaffefromasj

We’ll get to the dessert in a moment. But first I can’t wait to announce that I’m the new food editor for the Norwegian American Weekly! Starting this week, I’ll be shaping the paper’s Taste of Norway section, sharing everything from traditional recipes and stories about the connection between food and heritage to interviews with chefs and features on modern Nordic cooking.

I’ve been contributing to the publication for a few years, and it’s exciting to now be able to take on this role. The paper has some great existing writers, and I’m also seeking new contributors. I’m looking forward to seeing the coverage unfold. But first, I’m settling in with kaffefromasj–basically a Norwegian coffee mousse. It’s no surprise that Norwegians–well, almost all Nordics–love their coffee, and this recipe celebrates that bold, bitter flavor with a creamy, not-too-sweet dessert.

Head over to the Norwegian American Weekly’s website (it’s subscription-based; subscribe here) for my first article as editor–and the recipe for kaffefromasj!

Kaffefromasj

Norwegian Coffee Mousse (Kaffefromasj)
Visit the Norwegian American Weekly’s websit for the recipe

Kaffefromasj

 

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)

Happy Marriage Cake

photo I posted on Instagram and Facebook the other day got people talking. I’m not sure if it was the image of a tart with plump mounds of golden-brown buttery dough or the idea that this particular dessert married rhubarb, cardamom, and oats in one pan. But after all the response I got, I think I need to share the recipe right away.

What you see here is Hjónabandssaela, which translates to marital bliss. Or, as this dessert is commonly called in English, Happy Marriage Cake. I first learned how to make this traditional Icelandic dessert at the Nordic Heritage Museum last month–they’re in the middle of their coffee treats series, featuring recipes from each of the five Nordic countries; I taught the Norwegian class back in January–and this week I came up with my own version.

Happy Marriage Cake

Happy Marriage Cake

Hjónabandssaela can be made as a cake or as bars. This recipe is more bar-meets-tart, with a rich, crumbly yet buttery oat crust and simple, not-too-sweet rhubarb jam that almost melts into it.

All around, cherry blossoms and daffodils are blooming. The sun has prevailed over the rain in the local forecast this week, and where I live, it’s definitely spring (though we have two calendar days to go before it’s official). This time of year, it seems like everyone gets excited about the rhubarb popping up in markets and getting ready to harvest in gardens. With its vivid magenta stalks, it demands attention and is as good of a predictor of the season as the groundhog. I’m not sure why this particular dessert is called Happy Marriage Cake, but it seems like a great way to celebrate the start of spring.

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake - DSC_1487

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake
A number of recipes call for quick oatmeal. I wanted to use whole rolled oats so took a cue from Sarah of The Sugar Hit and gave them a quick whirl in the food processor before adding the rest of the crust ingredients.

Rhubarb Jam:
1 pound rhubarb, sliced 1/2-inch thick (fresh or frozen)
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Crust:
1 1/2 cups whole rolled oats
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 sticks (salted) butter, softened and cut into a few pieces
1 egg
Whipped cream, for serving

Start by making the jam. Combine rhubarb, sugar, and vanilla extract in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Simmer, stirring frequently, until the rhubarb releases its juices and breaks down considerably into a spreadable consistency, 20-30 minutes. (Some texture is okay.)

While the jam is cooking, start working on the crust. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter or spray a 10-inch cake or tart pan, ideally with a removable base.

Place oats in a food processor and give a few quick whirls to break them up slightly–holding the button down to the count of two a few times should do. Add flour, sugars, cardamom, and baking soda, and pulse again to mix. Add the butter and process some more, removing the lid and pushing down the butter into the rest of the dough a few times if necessary. Crack in the egg and mix just to combine.

Spoon about three-quarters of the dough into the prepared pan. Using your hands, press it evenly across the bottom and slightly up the sides, taking care to not let the bottom of the rim get too thick.

Spread the jam evenly across the crust. Use the rest of the dough as a topping, breaking it into clumps to scatter across the top.

Bake until the curst turns golden brown, about 25 minutes. Cool in the pan, then serve with whipped cream.

Makes one 10-inch cake.

Happy Marriage Cake

Ashley Rodriguez’s Apple Cake from “Date Night In”

Ashley's Apple Cake

Let’s get one thing out of the way. I’m sharing today’s recipe purely out of my enthusiasm for a new cookbook, one that I tested recipes for a while back: Date Night In: More than 120 Recipes to Nourish Your RelationshipMaybe you’ve seen it? Author Ashley Rodriguez is a friend of a friend and creator of the award-winning blog NotWithoutSalt.com. I tested many of the recipes while pregnant and without much of an appetite. Yet she surprised me with enticing recipes and complex, appealing flavors just about every time.

So, with that said, let’s talk about apple cake. The recipe for this one comes from a wooden box that Ashley’s grandmother gave her. Don’t we all love finding gems in the form of recipe cards? That story alone was enough to make me want to give this recipe a try. On the surface, it’s a simple cake: butter, sugar, flour, and some spices–not much else–mixed with chunks of tart apples. But Ashley has a way of transforming something as ubiquitous as apple cake into something remarkable. With cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg–and a touch of salt, after all she named her blog after the James Beard quote, “Where would we be without salt?”–it’s one of the most flavorful and interesting apple cakes I’ve ever tasted (not to mention easy).

Ashley's Apple Cake

Enough about the cake for now–the recipe follows. We should talk about the book. Throughout the course of over 120 recipes, Ashley weaves in a love story. The premise is sweet: A young couple’s marriage starts to fall flat when life with three small children overshadows the romance that surrounded their early days–that is, until the wife starts cooking up special restaurant-worthy dinners to enjoy after they’ve tucked the kids into bed. Date nights–in. Ashley tells an honest, vulnerable, and refreshing love story in the form of 52 dates she created for her husband, Gabe. Organized by season, the recipes range from simple no-cook antipasti to enjoy on a hot summer evening to braises that benefit from hours in the oven.

Ashley's Apple Cake

The first menu I tested started with a pineapple rosarita: fresh rosemary muddled with pineapple and shaken with triple sec, tequila, and lime juice. Tart and refreshing, it whet the appetites while I assembled an avocado salad complete with generous handfuls of fresh herbs and pepitas. The main course came together in stages: chilaquiles layered with citrus-braised pork, roasted tomatillo salsa, gooey cheese, and an assortment of condiments including Ashley’s pickled red onions. If all that weren’t enough, we ended the meal with Mexican chocolate sorbet with red wine-poached cherries.

That menu was elaborate yet accessible. It would have been over the top to tackle on a single day, but Ashley instructed how to break down the steps over the course of a few days to make it doable for a date night. The whole idea is that it can be easy to create something special, a meal that’s elevated a bit from the regular weeknight dinner. The menus themselves are perfectly balanced, but the recipes stand alone as well: The BBQ pulled-pork sandwiches with apple and radicchio slaw are a regular in my kitchen. The bittersweet chocolate malted shakes are a crowd-pleaser. And I could eat the white salad with pomegranate–built from celeriac, apple, fennel, leek, and white cheddar–as a meal in and of itself.

Ashley starts by making me hungry. And by the time all is said and done, I’m totally satisfied.

Ashley's Apple Cake

Ashley Rodriguez’s Apple Cake from Date Night In
Ashley would have you serve the cake with maple cream. I’ve tried it with and without, and though I usually serve it alone, either way it’s delicious.

For the cake:
Unsalted butter, for the pan
1 1/2 cups / 210 g all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 cup / 150 g granulated sugar
3/4 cup / 180 ml mild-flavor oil, such as canola or walnut
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 medium-size tart apples, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Turbinado sugar (optional)
Maple cream (optional, recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare an 8-inch round cake pan (I use springform): Butter or spray it, line the bottom with parchment, and butter the parchment.

In a medium bowl, stir flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar. Whisk the oil, eggs, and vanilla in a separate bowl, then pour the wet ingredients into the dry. Tip the apples into the bowl, and fold all the ingredients together.

Pour the batter into the pan and and smooth the top with a spatula. Sprinkle on some turbinado sugar on top, if you wish. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the pan to finish cooling.

Ashley recommends wrapping the cake in plastic wrap and leaving on the counter overnight. It’s one of those cakes that benefits from a day of resting.

To make the maple cream, just whisk 1/2 cup crème fraîche and 1 tablespoon maple syrup together. It’s that easy.

Makes one 8-inch cake.

Ashley's Apple Cake

Great-Grandma Josephine’s Norwegian Waffles (Vaffler)

Norwegian Waffles

As I sat next to her yesterday on the aubergine leather sofa, the water of Puget Sound placid outside the window behind her, I studied how the afternoon light fell across her profile and how the shadows formed where age has carved deep crevices in her skin. At 95 years old, Grandma Adeline’s face reveals almost a century of experience. And she is beautiful.

I longed to take a photo, to capture that moment and the light and the wrinkles and everything I was feeling that I couldn’t fully comprehend. Now, a day later, I think I understand. I wanted to grasp something that is fading, to preserve her as she is. I want her with us forever, to know that those wisps of white hair—as delicate as the spun glass “angel’s hair” that she would use to decorate her house at Christmastime—will always be there to tickle my wrist when I sit with my arm around her. Each time I give her a hug goodbye, I pause to absorb the way her hunched back and shoulders feel in my arms. Just in case this time might be the last.

Things look a lot different these days in my relationship with Grandma. We’ve moved from the kitchen counter to the sofa. The hands that once kneaded dense potatoes into lefse dough now almost quiver as she tickles my delighted baby. But now, a year after the strokes, her signature spark is finding its way out of its tangled brain and frail bones. She can still charm a baby, after all.

I brought the kids up to visit Grandma Adeline yesterday, just a quick visit between naps. Grandma doesn’t eat much these days, but I brought her Norwegian waffles. Her mother’s waffles.

Norwegian Waffles

Norwegian Waffles

We used to bake them together, the recipe being handed down from generation to generation. My memories of Grandma are filled with platters of these little heart-shaped waffles decorated with jam or geitost (brown goat cheese). They were one of her signature dishes, along with lefse, sandbakkels, potato dumplings, peanut bars, and any number of Norwegian Christmas cookies. In my memories, I can’t separate Grandma from the food that she served.

That was how she loved us. With butter and cream. Bowls of ruby raspberries, fresh from the garden, dusted with sugar and drenched in cream like white satin. Dense balls of potato dumplings served with ham and root vegetables and a bottle of light corn syrup for good measure. Strawberry malted milks blitzed together in the blender with ice cream.  And of course, waffles.

Norwegian Waffles

We don’t talk much anymore, don’t have much we can really say these days—not since the strokes. But I listen with my whole heart when she says, holding my hand, “I love you. I really, really love you.” Mom listens when Grandma tells her, “love you, love you, love you.” When Grandma says those words, we hear the ache of a heart that’s pleading with us to understand something deeper than she is now able to articulate. Though I am a writer, I now realize that words are sometimes just words, placeholders for something bigger, something deeper. We don’t have to talk much. We just have to be there, sitting beside her, reminiscing and remembering, and communicating with our own hearts too.

A photo would have broken the moment. But I captured one in my memory, and I’ve been replaying it today. I think about how our culture celebrates smooth skin and talks about wrinkles as something to be treated. I shake my head as I even write that, because I love every one of those creases in my grandmother’s face. They tell a story. They’ve deepened, I think, in the year since the strokes. But they’re real, she’s real. She’s here with us. I wouldn’t change a thing. She is beautiful.

Norwegian Waffles

Great-Grandma Josephine’s Norwegian Waffles with Cardamom (Vaffler)
I’ve written about these before. And I probably will again. The difference this time is the cardamom. If you like the spice, this is probably the ideal amount. If you don’t, just leave it out.

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup milk
2 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Beat eggs in a separate bowl, then add to the butter and beat until smooth. Mix in buttermilk and milk. Sift together flour, cardamom, baking powder, and baking soda and mix into the batter to combine.

Bake using a heart-shaped waffle maker and serve with geitost or lingonberry preserves.

 

Nordic Whipped Porridge & The Writing Life

Whipped Porridge

We find our own way, sometimes.

I started my career on the serious journalism track, my days played out to the soundtrack of police scanners and competing top-of-the-hour headlines.

“You have to love news,” the golden-haired anchor told me over coffees outside a cafe not far from the TV station one day. She had once been where I was, a beginning journalist, and she was there to share her knowledge.

Of course I love news, I told myself, wanting to believe that my drive–which would soon motivate me enough to flip my schedule upside down for work–was enough to count. But in reality, the truth that I didn’t want to acknowledge was that I didn’t understand what she meant. How could anyone love car wrecks and politics?

I went on to spend several years working nights, writing and producing for the morning newscast. Until 2007, when I realized it was time for a change. Waking up to a full life after leaving the newsroom for the real world, I soon discovered a different pace. Daylight was for living, darkness for sleep. Resolute in my quest to find a 9-to-5 job that would put me on the same shift as my husband (we had spent the first two years of our marriage on opposite schedules, but that’s another story), I found myself working for a great theatre in the neighborhood next door while building a clip file of freelance articles. And then in 2009 I started this blog.

Whipped Porridge

Whipped Porridge Diptych with Coconut

Scandinavian food is as normal to me as hot dogs and burgers. Though I’ve grown up in the Seattle area, I’m the daughter of a Norwegian immigrant, and because of the Nordics’ tendencies to settle in tight-knit communities, I managed to be born entirely of Norwegian blood. But it’s one thing to know something intrinsically, another to understand and be able to describe it. While I was eating spiced medisterkaker sausages and surkål (very loosely a Norwegian sauerkraut) at holiday meals and tucking into tins of any number of Scandinavian Christmas cookies throughout my childhood, I was obliviously and blissfully taking part in traditions that generations on both sides of my family had brought with them from Norway to Seattle, from Norway to small-town North Dakota. When Grandma Agny died in 2009, I found myself taking it to the next level, seeking out Scandinavian cookbooks as a way to soothe my grieving heart. It didn’t take long for me to discover a cuisine much more varied than the flavors of pickled herring, dill, salmon, and almond that I had long associated with Scandinavia.

Over the years, I’ve traded breaking news for baked goods, and I couldn’t be happier. Today I’m a food writer specializing in Nordic cooking, and I love learning about dishes and desserts from each of the Nordic countries and sharing them with others. (I make a distinction between “Scandinavian” and “Nordic,” the former made up of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and the latter including Iceland and Finland.)

Whipped Porridge Whipped Porridge Diptych with Cream

When I started my career cocooned in the newsroom in the early morning hours, I didn’t know what lay ahead. I didn’t know that I would end up trading the conventional 40-plus hour week for the freelance life. I knew I would eventually have a family, but I was unsure of how I’d be able to realize my career dreams while giving my future kids the experience my mother had given me as a stay-at-home mom, something I had always been thankful for. With my youngest currently a baby, I’m still figuring out the logistics. But I’m getting there, slowly but surely, embracing motherhood to the fullest while finding room in my life for the writing that’s always been there, in some form or another, the writing that must always be there. I’m getting the hang of it again.

Yes, we find our own way, sometimes. As much as I’ve always wanted to have the perfect plan, to know what comes next, to map it all out, I’ve also discovered that sometimes what lies ahead looks even better than what I could have imagined.

Whipped Porridge

Grape Nordic Whipped Porridge with Coconut and Honey
Whipped porridge, also known as air porridge, is one of those Nordic dishes that I’ve only recently discovered. But I think I might be hooked. Open to any number of variations, it’s fluffy and light, nothing like the oatmeal-type dish I had always associated with “porridge.” In a nutshell, you cook farina in water with a bit of berries or juice until it thickens, then let it cool and whip it until it fluffs up into a pale cloud. Traditionally made with tart lingonberries and just a touch of sugar, you can substitute just about any sort of berry or fruit juice. My version is lightly flavored with grape juice. It’s simple and subtle on its own but really becomes something special when drizzled with honey and cream and given a light dusting of coconut. Go ahead–give it a try.

2 cups water
1 cup grape juice
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup farina
Cream, for serving
Honey, for serving
Unsweetened coconut flakes, for serving

Bring water and grape juice to a boil over high heat in a medium saucepan with a pinch of salt. Pour in the farina at a steady pace, whisking constantly. Lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes until thickened, then remove from heat and allow to cool. Transfer to a mixing bowl and whip until fluffy, ideally using a stand mixer. Serve with cream, honey, and coconut.

Serves 4.

Norwegian Coffee Treats: A Class at Nordic Heritage Museum

Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_143116

When we bake with love, that’s when beauty comes into our creations, I told a sold-out crowd of students at the Nordic Heritage Museum on a recent Saturday. They were there to learn how to make a variety of Norwegian coffee treats, each one of the recipes beautiful or intricate in its own right. My objective in teaching is for students to leave a class with the confidence and ability to recreate the dishes at home. Teaching the steps of a recipe is only part of the equation. One of the most important parts, I believe, is the heart.

But until that Saturday in January, I hadn’t been able to fully articulate what makes a recipe work. Butter, sugar, flour, eggs–I had been playing around with that mix of ingredients in the weeks leading up to the class, making heart-shaped waffles (vaffler), prince cake (fyrstekake), and sandbakkels. I had studied how a handful of simple ingredients could yield such dramatically different results with just a few variations of ingredients.

In class I kept encouraging the students to just give it a try. Just put the batter in the waffle iron and practice–you’ll soon get a feel for how much to spoon in and how long to cook the waffle. Just make sandbakkel after sandbakkel, getting used to the feeling of pressing the dough into the crevices of the little tins until it’s as thin as you think it can be. Then when it was time to talk about the fyrstekake–an almond cake with a shortbread crust baked in a tart pan–I assured everyone that it really is easy.

Don’t stress out, I told students time and time again as they oohed and ahhed over the cake. Baking isn’t fun if you do. When it comes to crafting the crisscross or lattice topping that gives the fyrstekake a hint of elegance, you can get frustrated when the soft dough warms up too much and sticks to your work surface as you cut it into strips. Or you can roll with it, doing the best you can, and putting your heart into what you’re doing. Nothing about Norwegian cooking is fussy, as far as I’m concerned. Even the beautiful fyrstekake allows for grace, the filling puffing up into the top layer and rounding out the rough edges.

When you bake with love, that impacts the way you approach the food. It works its way into each cup of flour measured, the care taken in beating sugar into eggs, the way the dough is manipulated into something of beauty. I’m as much of a perfectionist as the next person–it was my downfall as a child trying to strike a balance between booksmart and just being a kid–but when it comes to baking, I do it because I love it, because I love people. I do it because I love watching how a few simple ingredients can be transformed into something that feeds and nourishes others–their stomaches and their souls. Sure, care and precision are important. But love is essential.

Thanks to each of you who attended the class last month–it was a joy to teach you to make some of my favorite Norwegian treats. I enjoyed meeting each and every one of you, and I hope I inspired you to work some of these recipes into your own homes.

If you’re in the Seattle area and interested in learning more about Nordic baking, be sure to check out the rest of the Nordic Heritage Museum’s coffee treats series. I kicked it off last month with Norwegian coffee treats, and the museum continues with recipes from the other Nordic countries in the months to come.

Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_155350 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_154300 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_144811 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_143906 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_142931

 Photos courtesy of Jeremy Ehrlich / Nordic Heritage Museum

Starting Again, with Pickled Beets

Scandinavian Pickled BeetsTime goes quickly here, sometimes too quickly. I know it’s something we all experience, the subject of small talk and of catching up with old acquaintances at big events, but it’s true. The time really does fly. As I sit here at my desk on this 14th of January, the sun forces its way through the shades, reminding me that it’s a new year, that winter will soon give way to spring, that though the calendar might point to a season of stillness, new life–from the maple trees outside my home to the bulbs nestled in soil–is getting ready to burst forth in full bloom. It’s hard to believe that it’s already mid-January, that I have been sick–cold after cold and now bronchitis–for over a month. Has it really been almost a year since Grandma suffered her strokes? Almost a year since I drove my toddler son to the hospital to visit his great-grandma one blindingly sunny winter day after another? Soon it will have been a year since we gathered at the rehabilitation center for the makeshift 95th birthday party my dear Grandma couldn’t even comprehend.

I’ve shied away from this space lately for a variety of reasons: a sense of perfectionism that’s creeping in due to my other forms of writing; being uninspired by the formula that food blogs are falling prey to, getting duller and duller even as their photos and graphics get shinier and shinier (tell me, please, that you know what I mean?); and being in a season of life that I want to write about but find too personal to approach quite yet in such an informal place as a blog.

But I miss it, too, miss the way it feels to have a place to write quickly and without the gloss of perfection that some other forms of writing require. While there’s a permanence to blogs–content lives out there unless deleted–one post is replaced by another and then another in a fleeting way, almost like a journal entry that gets buried deeper and deeper into a collection of notebooks that the keeper fills and collects just in case there might be a time, somewhere down the road, when she might want to remember.

For a long time I’ve wrestled with the purpose of this blog. Sure, it’s a Nordic food blog, and its food sticks to that theme for the most part. But who is it for? Am I trying to create content for the reader? Or for myself? Maybe it’s just weariness from a seemingly-endless illness talking (right now my ribcage hurts each time I take a deep breath or dare to cough), but I think I want to care less and write more. There was a time when I didn’t believe in writer’s block. I was a journalist, writing story after story, day after day, focusing my brain on the words at hand even as scanners scratched and top-of-the-hour headlines blared on the competing networks. Deadlines didn’t wait for inspiration. Writer’s block was a luxury I couldn’t afford. These days–though I’m beginning to step up my freelance writing and other projects again–I have more of that luxury. And I’m afraid I’m giving in to it too often. Oh, I don’t feel like writing today. I can wait until tomorrow. Or this one (if you’re a writer, too, I’m sure you know it too): I should clear my desk. Or better yet embark on a massive organizing spree before I start writing! Yeah, the writing life can be full of excuses.

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions or strict goal-setting. I find those too restrictive. But I do like to have intentions and a system to make them happen. So I’m not promising to blog here on any sort of predictable schedule. But I do want to do it more frequently. There will be recipes, sure, because that’s what a food blog is all about. But I’m going to care less about the format, the glossy veneer, the oneupmanship that’s so common, and care more about the practice, the experience of getting those words to flow more freely, and getting comfortable again with sharing those words online rather than obsessively editing myself.

And so I’m starting again today, with pickled beets.

Scandinavian Pickled Beets

Scandinavian Pickled Beets with Star Anise
After baking a bunch of cookies (krumkaker, pepperkaker, sirupsnipper and more) while at home, sick, over the Christmas season, it seems appropriate to trade sweet for savory today on the blog. Pickled beets are a classic Scandinavian condiment, something to serve with everything from the Swedish hash pytt i panna to sjömans biff, or sailor’s beef stew. Though coming from no single source, this recipe takes cues from The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trine Hahnemann, a 1964 recipe found on Epicurious.com, and An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler; the addition of star anise comes from Hahnemann, a Danish chef.

3-4 medium beets
2 cups distilled white vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoons pepper
1 star anise

To cook the beets, I like to use Tamar Adler’s method from An Everlasting Meal: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Arrange the beets snugly in a shallow pan, she instructs, then with the water running and the pan tipped to the side, wash the beets under its stream, leaving a little of the water pooled in the pan once it runs clear. Cover the pan tightly with foil, then roast until the beets are cooked through, about 40 minutes for medium-sized beets. Adler’s method steams the beets and allows the skins to be easily rubbed off once the beets are cooled. After rubbing off the skins, cut the beets into quarter-inch slices and place in a shallow, heat-safe dish.

Place vinegar in a medium-sized pot along with sugar, salt, pepper, and star anise. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Pour over the beets. Let cool, the refrigerate overnight before serving.

For the sake of transparency I should let you know that I’ve received review copies of some of Hahnemann’s books. I love them, regardless, and they hold prime spots in my Nordic cookbook collection.

Scandinavian Pickled Beets

Norwegian Baking Class in Seattle, January 24

Norwegian Heart Waffles Horizontal

In a few hours the clock will strike midnight and Christmas Eve will be upon us. There are a few more gifts to wrap–plus my husband and I just decided a few hours ago to host Christmas dinner at our house–but all is calm, all is bright. Before setting into planning mode, I wanted to take a little time to share an announcement with you.

On January 24, I’m teaching another baking class at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, and this time the menu features heart-shaped waffles (vaffler), prince cake (fyrstekake), and sandbakkels. If you’re in the Seattle area, I hope you’ll consider joining me as we kick off the museum’s 5-part series on coffee treats from each of the Nordic countries!

Vaffler, fyrstekake, and sandbakkels are three of my all-time favorite Norwegian treats, and I have special connections to and memories of each. My grandmother taught me to make the sandbakkels and vaffler, and I grew up eating fyrstekake frequently. It will be a delicious day.

You can learn more about the series on the Nordic Heritage Museum’s website, and you can register for any or all of the classes online here. This might be just the last-minute Christmas gift for someone in the Seattle area who loves Nordic food!

Sandbakkels

Fyrstekake Slice on Plate with Crumbs

Easy Holiday Appetizer: Gravlax

Gravlax Finished

Oh friends, how does one even start after having been silent for so long? Life is full in the real world, even if it seems quiet in the virtual one. I’ll get to the gravlax you see here in the photos soon enough, but first I just need to reflect a little out loud, to cast some light on the events happening between the lines of this blog.

I think 2014 will go down in my memory as a year of heartache and blessings. There’s tension as those two intermingle, so close and simultaneous. I’ve only alluded to it on the blog until now, but early in the year my dear grandma suffered a stroke and it’s been a long road of recovery. She’s closer to 100 than most people will ever be and she knows her time is coming. She’s ready. But still. Still.

During Grandma’s first stages of recovery at the hospital and then at a rehabilitation center, I was pregnant and getting ready to welcome my daughter into the family, all the while preparing my son for his new role as a big brother and helping him to create space his his heart and home for a new little one. Grandma hung on long enough to meet my daughter–who’s named in part for her–and hold that little baby in her frail, thinning arms. Now, each time I take my son and my daughter to visit Grandma, I know that it’s significant. There might be another time–maybe years’ worth, I don’t know. But it also might be the last.

These events have been the defining parts of this past year. Writing has helped me to process the emotions swelling in my heart–so, yes, I have been writing even if things have been pretty quiet around here–but it’s been too personal to publish on such an immediate, informal format as a blog. There’s a story there, many stories. I’ll share them someday. But in the meantime I’ve been working them out, creating a narrative around my experiences, and trying to just embrace and enjoy life and to savor the moments big and small. Tuesday night was one of them.

Book Club Holiday Party

As a dozen friends gathered in my kitchen for our book club holiday party, I didn’t have any idea I’d be sitting down over the next days to write about it. I took some photos of the food with my phone for the purpose of posting them on Instagram, but I didn’t plan on sharing a recipe or any sort of story here on the blog. But a comment one of you left on Facebook the other day prompted me to write again. And a fellow blogger at book club reminded me how much fun this can be.

So today I’m writing about gravlax, with photos taken with iPhones for the purpose of social media. Salmon, salt, sugar, dill–that’s it. Our book club is all about food. Italian for Under the Tuscan Sun, French for On Rue Tatin and The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. There have been Caribbean dishes (An Embarrassment of Mangoes), Indian (The Hundred-Foot Journey), Chinese (The Fortune Cookie Chronicles), and pizza (Delancey). I work in a little bit of a Scandinavian touch whenever I can, so for our holiday party this week I served gravlax.

Gravlax in Salt "Snow"As with any traditional recipe, there are plenty of variations out there for gravlax, ranging from the simplest list of ingredients to ones that get fancy with fruits, vegetables, spices, and spirits that lend varying essences and hues to the salmon. I’m sure that orange, horseradish, aquavit, and beetroot–all things that I’ve spotted in recipes–yield excellent results, but I like my gravlax pure, the flavor of the salmon concentrated and accented only with a hint of dill.

Gravlax is, by definition, cured salmon. It’s typically a Nordic preparation, and the parts of the word–grav for pit or grave, lax or laks for salmon–hint at the days of preserving fish by burying it in the ground.

Gravlax Cure

My husband and I use Mark Bittman’s recipe as our base. We read about in the New York Times some years ago and have always had great results. In a nutshell, we take a fillet of frozen salmon (frozen to kill the parasites), then defrost it, cover it with a thick blanket of sugar, salt, and chopped fresh dill. We generally leave it out in a cool spot for a few hours, then refrigerate it for about 24 to 36 hours before rinsing off the salt mix and slicing the salmon thinly. For the specific recipe, I’m going to point you to Bittman’s article (it includes several recipes–we use The Minimalist’s Gravlax). Making gravlax is so simple, but perhaps because of that, I find it helpful to refer to Bittman’s guidance. It’s about using good fish, understanding the process, and not getting intimidated by something that just looks fancy.

For serving gravlax, it’s as easy as lemon wedges, mustard sauce (such as this one from Ina Garten), capers, maybe some chopped red onion, and crackers or crispbread of some sort.

Gravlax-Platter

It’s been one of my goals this holiday season to keep our schedule light, the to-do list to a minimum. It’s far too easy to become swept up in the bustle and busyness of this time of year, and perhaps because of the time in life, I’m just trying to minimize as much stress as possible. But my book club holiday party was one of the events that I happily did write down–in pen–in my calendar. And gravlax was something special I could serve my friends–while being simple and easy to make at the same time. If you’re still looking for the perfect appetizer for a holiday party, go ahead and give it a try. With just a little planning ahead, you’ll find yourself with a gorgeous, delicious dish that took almost no hands-on time to prepare.

Thanks, E, for the photo of the gravlax platter.

Note: This fall I attended a couple of sessions at IFBC, the International Food Bloggers Conference, in Seattle. The organizers offered steep discounts to bloggers for writing about the conference, so you’ll be noticing a few posts that showcase what I learned. For this one, I’m taking cues from Shauna James Ahern‘s session on professional recipe development. She emphasized authenticity and living a full, rich life–plus not worrying about using iPhone cameras for food blog photography. Thanks, Shauna. That’s exactly what I’m doing here. If I had had to pull out the DSLR for this post, it never would have happened.

New Potatoes and Chanterelles with Lemon and Dill

Chanterelles and Potatoes - IMG_9893

As a Seattle-born Norwegian-American, a woman once removed from the country of her father, my way back to my heritage has been through its food. I’ve always loved being Norwegian. Dressing up in a child-sized bunad for Syttende Mai parades in the Scandinavian-rich neighborhood of Ballard, eating the traditional feasts my grandparents would serve us on holidays, listening to the heavy and melodic accent that wove its way through my relatives’ speech–this was my upbringing and I loved it. But there’s a difference between the cultures in which we’re raised as children and the ones that we embrace as adults. I grew out of the black and red bunad. My paternal grandparents aged and passed on. The adults who kept their heritage alive so vibrantly and shared it with me faded into memory. The culture was no longer handed to me and it started to become peripheral.

Grandma Agny’s death five years ago was a big turning point for me. I think I’ve mentioned before that I was going to ask her to start telling me her stories the day I got the phone call saying she had died. Grandma had been a young woman during the German occupation. She had a baby during the war, and she later uprooted her family and moved them to the United States. During my first trip to Norway in 2008, I became intrigued about her life–and the corresponding Norwegian history–and I wanted to know more. But I waited too long. Grandma’s death left me feeling a profound sense of loss, and in response I found myself seeking out elements of my heritage.

And that’s where the food comes in.

Chanterelles and Potatoes - IMG_9887

I still remember scanning the spines of books at Barnes and Noble shortly after Grandma’s death. I had come up with the idea of looking for Scandinavian cookbooks, as though the food between their pages might provide some comfort or solace. I found just a couple: Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine by Marcus Samuelsson and The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas. My journalistic tendency to research things in detail came into play and I started seeking out as many Scandinavian cookbooks as I could find. Nordic cooking wasn’t as much of a trend in the U.S. then as it is now, and it took a little digging. But I wanted to know more, to understand more. And it was becoming clear to me that the way in was going to be through the food.

As I explored my Norwegian heritage, I started Outside Oslo as a way to document what I was discovering. Although Scandinavian food had always been in my family’s repertoire while I was growing up, I was discovering it for myself. I was finally starting to get a sense of its origins, a sense of place. In the process, I was also beginning to understand my late grandmother more deeply.

Things look a lot different now, five years later. My grandparents’ generation is fading fast, but the opportunity I lost when Grandma Agny died is not entirely gone. I will never get her back, but I’m learning more about my family and its history as my father helps me fill in the gaps. I’ve heard stories of my other grandmother’s life and created countless sweet memories with her as she’s taught me how to make sandbakkels, lefse, krumkaker, and other Scandinavian treats. And now it’s my turn to share the heritage that my grandparents so graciously shared with me. As I’ve studied Nordic food and worked it into what I cook at home, I know that the culture that my family brought with them to America will continue to live on. I have two kids of my own now, and they will grow up knowing the pleasure of eating pannekaker for an occasional dinner, the taste of sweet heart-shaped vaffler served with gjetost (Norwegian brown goat cheese), and all the warmth and love that surround meals shared together at the table.

I never expected five years ago, in the darkest days of grief, that such richness was in store. But Grandma Agny had given me a gift by keeping her heritage alive and sharing it with me through all those Syttende Mai parades, traditional Norwegian meals, and with her generous heart.

Chanterelles and Potatoes - IMG_9897

Today I’m still cooking my way through various Nordic recipes, sometimes returning to family classics, other times trying something new. Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking with Andreas Viestad was one of the early books I discovered, and to this day it is one of my favorites. (I wrote a review a couple of years ago; despite receiving a copy from the publisher, I can say genuinely that this is an excellent book.) I had found it at the library while researching Scandinavian food, and this dish–chanterelles and potatoes with lemon and dill–was one of the first recipes I featured on the blog. I made it this week for my parents and was reminded of how just a few simple ingredients can be so satisfying: just new potatoes and chanterelles, flavored intensely with lemon, garlic, and dill. The season for chanterelles is fleeting, but if you can still find some, I hope you’ll give this recipe a try.

New Potatoes and Chanterelles with Lemon and Dill
Adapted from Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking with Andreas Viestad

2 pounds new potatoes
½ pound (or more) chanterelle mushrooms
3 tablespoons butter
3 garlic cloves, pressed
Salt
Small handful of fresh dill, coarsely chopped, plus a few sprigs for garnish
Small handful of flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Lemon

Cook the potatoes in a pot of salted boiling water until tender, then drain. While the potatoes are cooking, trim the mushrooms and cut them lengthwise into halves or quarters, depending on their size. I like to keep them as large as possible, so I halve most of them, only quartering the really thick ones to make their size even with the rest. Melt the butter in a large skillet and add the mushrooms, stirring from time to time, until tender. Add garlic and a dash of salt, then cook for another moment just to take the edge of the garlic’s flavor. Add the mushrooms to the potatoes, making sure to spoon up all the flavorful butter from the pan. Add the dill and parsley, along with the juice of one lemon, and stir to combine. Add a little more salt if necessary, then transfer to a dish, garnish with dill sprigs, and serve.

Serves 4-6

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