Norwegian Apple Cake with Autumn Spices (Gluten-, Dairy-, and Egg-Free)

Norwegian Apple Cake (Gluten- and Dairy-Free)Norwegian Apple Cake

When the leaves begin to turn and the air becomes laced with a chill, I know that fall has finally arrived. It’s my favorite season, the one that brings back memories of crunching through fallen leaves as a child, picking out the perfect pumpkin to carve, and sipping steaming cups of apple cider to brace against the cold.

This time of year it seems as though either pumpkin or apple arises as an individual’s favorite fall flavor. Pumpkin doesn’t have much of a place in traditional Norwegian cooking and baking, but apple sure does, with apple cake (eplekake) being a true favorite. Typically a rich buttery sponge cake with apple slices wedged in the batter, it’s as simple as can be, requiring little more than good ingredients to create a comforting cake.

Norwegian Apple Cake

Norwegian Apple Cake

I’ve begun experimenting with alternatives to gluten, dairy, eggs, and even sugar in my baking, and I recently decided to see if I could convert my own eplekake recipe into one that would work with a number of dietary restrictions. The first time I put it to the test, I used gluten-free flour, which I had never used before, swapped out the butter for a vegan butter spread, used coconut sugar instead of cane sugar, and tried my hand at a flax “egg.” Honestly, I almost didn’t serve it to the guest who was coming for coffee—I was nervous that I had tried too many modifications at once. But my guest was pleased and I think the results were just right; upon making the cake this way again since, I’ve found that I prefer it. While it’s hard to improve upon a classic, this version has a heartier texture and dare I say tastes a little healthier, which is a good thing when I want to enjoy a slice with my morning coffee.

If you’d rather use all-purpose flour, real butter, and brown sugar, then by all means go ahead. And the flax egg (which is simply ground flaxseed soaked in water) can be swapped out for two real eggs. I’ve made this cake both ways, and while the results are different depending on the ingredients, both versions of this cake are delicious.

Norwegian Apple Cake

Norwegian Apple Cake with Autumn Spices (Gluten-, Dairy-, and Egg-Free)
(Glutenfri norsk eplekake med høstkrydder)

2-3 large apples
2 cups gluten-free flour (I use Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour)
2 tsps. baking powder
½ tsp. cinnamon, plus more for dusting
½ tsp. freshly-ground cardamom
¼ tsp. kosher salt
1 cup unsalted vegan butter spread (I use Earth’s Balance), at room temperature
¾ cup coconut sugar, plus more for dusting
2 tbsps. ground raw flaxseed/flaxseed meal
5 tbsps. water
2 tsps. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease an 8-inch springform pan.

Peel and thinly slice the apples and set aside.

In a medium sized mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cardamom, and salt. To prepare the flax egg, stir the ground flaxseed and water in a small bowl and let rest for five minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter spread and sugar until it’s pale and silky and mousse-like, about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the flax egg, mixing well. Stir in the vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture and stir until incorporated.

Pour the batter into your prepared pan. Arrange the apple slices in a decorative circular pattern around the bottom of the pan, starting in the center and working your way out.

Dust cinnamon and sugar over the top of the cake. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes, checking occasionally. The top will be deeply colored, but feel free to place a sheet of foil over the top if it’s coloring too quickly. Cool on a baking rack, then remove from the pan.

Makes 1 8-inch cake

Norwegian Apple Cake

Chanterelle, Fig, and Blue Cheese Salad in The Norwegian American

Chanterelle, Fig, and Blue Cheese Salad

It was some years ago when I realized I loved September. I don’t think I had actually thought about it until I was an adult, but Septembers have been peppered with sweetness throughout my entire life. Some people gravitate toward the warmest months, while others among us lean into the slower, calmer time, the quieting into autumn. September, to me, means a new school year (oh how I loved this time of year when I was a student!), shopping for pencils and notebooks, gentle breezes rustling a symphony of newly-colored leaves, and my wedding anniversary. It alternates between blue skies and rain showers, flip flops and a mental note to start wearing my boots. September exists in a place in between–neither summer nor fall, warm nor cold, entirely rainy nor dry.

The salad we’re talking about today reflects that transitional nature. Its very ingredient list celebrates a slight window of time in which figs and chanterelles mingle in season, those sensual bites of fruit nestled among forest gold. I created this chanterelle, fig, and blue cheese salad in September a few years ago and am sharing it this week in The Norwegian American. The produce itself is luscious enough on its own, and a scattering of blue cheese crumbles elevates it to something extra special. It’s substantial enough to be a light meal in itself, perhaps with a little protein on the side if you’re so inclined. Head on over to The Norwegian American for the recipe. I hope you’ll give it a try!

Chanterelle, Fig, and Blue Cheese Salad

 

Chanterelle, Fig, and Blue Cheese Salad

 

Chanterelle, Fig, and Blue Cheese Salad

Fårikål (Lamb and Cabbage), Norway’s National Dish)

I remember the first time I tasted fårikål, the national dish of Norway. I had read for a long time—years maybe—about this stew of lamb and cabbage that is Norway’s national dish. It seemed too simple, I thought—just lamb and cabbage, with water, salt and pepper, the building blocks of most stews. Most recipes I’d seen were light on details, too. It must be easy to mess up, I figured, so I stayed away. Emboldened with a deadline and a job to do, however, I set to work this past spring at tackling this dish that had previously intimidated me. With Fårikålens Festdag, Norway’s fårikål feast day, coming up in the fall (it’s always the fourth Thursday of September), I knew I’d have to write about it. As food editor of The Norwegian American, I didn’t feel right outsourcing our coverage of this annual classic yet again.

Armed with a small quantity of bone-in lamb, cabbage, and a handful of recipes, I began the traditional process of arranging the ingredients in the pot, letting it all simmer, and trusting that over the next couple of hours some sort of culinary magic would take place. The results, let me tell you, exceeded my expectations.

I knew the finished dish would be simple, but I couldn’t anticipate the way the modest list of ingredients—humble ones for that matter, as mutton and tougher cuts of meat would typically be used—would somehow yield results that were just right in their restraint. The flavors of the cabbage and lamb shone individually and yet informed by one another. The whole peppercorns added an herbal, subtle floral note that was almost imperceptible and yet accented the flavor of the lamb.

I’ve since come to appreciate the dish for not only its simplicity, but also its ease. After layering or nestling the ingredients in a pot, all you need to do is wait for a couple of hours, perhaps boiling some potatoes to serve on the side, and dinner is served. Of course, we don’t always have that amount of time for dinner to cook, but one of the wonderful things about fårikål is how easily it reheats, and some people swear that leftovers get better over time. (That served me well last week when I cooked a batch of fårikål early in the day and chilled it until dinnertime, when we had only a brief amount of time for dinner before rushing off to an event.) Still, there’s nothing saying you have to make a large batch of fårikål to enjoy it. I’ve found that I prefer small-batch fårikål, the type of dish that might serve two hungry adults or a small family.

Aside from perhaps the small quantity, the recipe I’m sharing today is typical. Many recipes call for layering the ingredients in a pot. This is a small batch, so nestling them is fine. Don’t mess with the dish as it cooks, aside from checking it every once in a while; let the cabbage retain its shape. As unattractive as the dish often is—and that’s to be expected—this is one way to thoughtfully preserve the visual integrity of the ingredients, letting the eyes as well as the mouth perceive the simplicity in which the dish’s key ingredients are allowed to shine. Serve with boiled potatoes—red-skinned ones with flecks of bright green parsley will further add visual interest when serving. Flatbread and lingonberry preserves round out the meal.

The ingredients themselves reflect foods that are integral to the region. Sheep are plentiful and a fixture of Norwegian mountains. Cabbage has a significant role in Nordic history—it’s one of the oldest vegetables in the region, writes Camilla Plum in The Scandinavian Kitchen, who adds that it was the only vegetable grown in the Viking age. Though it mutes to a nondescript color as it cooks down with the lamb, it’s flavorful and is so cozy and nourishing.

For as simple as fårikål is, the results are fantastic. The challenge for many may be the cooking time, a long time for a weeknight. If you’d like to mark Fårikålens Festdag this month with a batch of homemade fårikål but don’t have the time, feel free to make it in advance—it reheats easily and will taste just as good—perhaps even better—the next day.

Fårikål (Lamb and Cabbage Stew with Peppercorns, Norway’s National Dish)

1.5 pounds lamb (shoulder, shank, or neck) cut into 1 ½-inch pieces
1.5 pounds green cabbage, cut into wedges
1-2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
water to barely cover (approximately 4 cups)

In a large pot, nestle the lamb amongst the cabbage wedges. Sprinkle the peppercorns and salt over it, then add water to just barely cover. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for about two hours, until the lamb is remarkably tender and pulls easily away from any bones.

To serve, carefully lift the cabbage out of the pot and arrange it in bowls with pieces of the lamb. Pour over the broth, and make sure to distribute peppercorns between the bowls.

Serves 2, with perhaps a little left over for the next day’s lunch.

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)

The thought of rhubarb takes me back to my grandparents’ garden, a place that surely was dwarfed by the farms that were their former landscape back in North Dakota yet seemed to me the most amazing sort of wonderland. Some of my sweetest childhood memories are set in that garden, amidst the rows of raspberry bushes, rhododendrons, and of course a rhubarb plant that to any kid would likely seem almost prehistoric.

A love for rhubarb extends far beyond those of us with Nordic roots, but I’ll still always associate it with Norwegian rhubarb cake and rhubarb soup, Andreas Viestad’s bracing devil’s rhubarb (basically you stick a stalk of raw rhubarb in sugar and chase it with vodka), and Iceland’s hjónabandssaela, happy marriage cake.

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)

I first tasted hjónabandssaela at a baking class at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle a few years ago. While good, it lived up to the cake’s tendency to be a bit dry, the sort of thing you’ll be thankful to pair with coffee or perhaps a scoop of ice cream. I wanted to create a version of my own and set to work, utilizing the traditional components of rhubarb and oats but transforming them into the recipe I’m sharing with you today, one that’s just as hearty but with a texture I prefer. It’s a simple recipe, remarkably easy to make. After breaking down the oats slightly with a few whirls in a food processor, you incorporate the rest of the crust ingredients and then press it into a pan. No rolling, no perfection needed. The filling itself is simply rhubarb cooked down with sugar until it melts into itself, leaving little more texture than a trail of luscious silky strands behind. While you could omit the cardamom if you really wanted to, I love the aromatic warmth it lends to the dish, another reminder of both sets of my grandparents, whose homes were always as full of love as they were of food.

I used to keep an empty cardamom spice jar in my office. Opening the lid would release an olfactory nostalgia as the woody fragrance–as strong, complex, and sophisticated as my grandfather’s cologne–reached my nose. There’s something vintage, aged and almost mysterious about the spice, which conjures up memories of my grandparents because the scent mingles in my memory with the aromas that greeted me when I’d arrive at their house for dinner.

I’m living with the reality now that I’ll never see my grandparents again this side of heaven. Now, the ingredients and the foods that provide a gateway to the past are all the more precious to me. One of these days I’ll plant a garden in their honor, with berries and rhubarb, roses, and rhododendrons. In the meantime, though, I’ll keep making this dessert, thinking of them all every time.

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)
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. Also, if you’re wondering about the dessert’s name, no one seems to know its origins, but the cake is well known and a traditional part of Icelandic baking.   

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.

Cardamom-scented Fastelavnsboller (Semlor) with almond and cream

Fastelavnsboller

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the scent of cardamom filling the house when baking boller. These plump Norwegian buns with the slightest touch of sweetness need nothing–aside from perhaps a smear of butter—to make them a treat any time of the year. But during Shrovetide of Fastelavn, the time leading up to Lent, these fluffy buns get stuffed with rich almond filling and clouds of whipped cream, transforming them into the over-the-top delicacies known as Fastelavnsboller in Norway and Semlor in Sweden. I’m sharing my recipe over at The Norwegian American this week–find the recipe here!

Fastelavnsboller

Fastelavnsboller

Fastelavnsboller

Fastelavnsboller

Norwegian Christmas Cookies: Fattigmann

Fattigmann

Gathering the dough into a ball, I inhaled the scent of the cardamom and butter, warm in my hands. Like all those memories from my childhood, the feelings stirring in my heart filled me with a sense of love, a security in belonging.

My family’s roots burrow deep into Norwegian and Norwegian-American history. With a dad who immigrated as a preteen and a mother who’s also Norwegian, by way of North Dakota, the culture and heritage of my family’s past was as familiar to me as the sandwiches, salads, pizza and burgers that were part of my American childhood. Though I could identify many of the flavors and treats as Norwegian–probably because they came directly from my grandmothers–I knew them well. I loved the flavors, too, even though it would take many years to realize just how special they were. Today, I keep an empty spice jar in my office. Recently containing cardamom, it was too precious to discard it when I replaced the spent stash. A whiff of nostalgia awaits, with the unscrewing of the cap.

I write about Norwegian food (and if you’re new around here, that’s where I’ve directed my energy as a former news journalist turned food writer) because I believe with all my heart that one of the most profound ways we can show love and extend hospitality and acceptance with those around us is at the table. I never could have realized as a child at any of those family dinners that I was receiving a gift–one of unconditional love and of selfless hospitality, of my Norwegian-American heritage, and of my family itself. But I felt it in my heart. When I was mature–or perhaps wise–enough to realize it, I discovered a truth that I will always cherish.

Fattigmann

Fattigmann

So today I bring you a recipe for fattigmann, a cardamom-scented Norwegian cookie that somehow brings all those memories of childhood back with just its aroma. To many, fattigmann–which can be translated as “poor men”–are an essential part of Christmas, a requisite member of the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies. These represent an important element of the baking tradition in that they’re fried. Norwegian Christmas cookies fall into three camps: baked (like Berlinerkranser and pepperkaker), cooked on irons (like krumkaker and goro) and fried (like fattigmann, smultringer, and rosettes).

Though they’re known as fattigmann amongst Norwegians, people in other Nordic countries know cookie, or crullers, of this type as klenäter, klejner, kleina, and kleynur. I could go on about the history and cultural context–and I will someday–but for now, I’m hoping that the personal and familial significance resonates with and perhaps inspires you. Because it’s never just about the food. We need to eat for sustenance, sure. But I think that those of us with Scandinavian-American backgrounds (including those who appreciate the culture for other reasons) value the food of our heritage because it reminds us where our families have come from. It prompts memories of special times and people in our lives. No matter what those recipes or dishes are for you, I’m hoping that I’ll inspire you to make some of those and to reflect on the people you cherish.

Fattigmann

Fattigmann
Fattigmann
As with many of the Norwegian Christmas cookies, you’ll want to plan ahead for these: Mix up the dough on one day, fry the cookies the next. Ideally you’ll use a fattigman roller (available at Scandinavian supply stores and online), although you can use a pastry wheel as well. As for the Cognac, if you have it, then go ahead and use it. Bourbon will also work in a pinch.

5 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup whipping cream
1-2 Tb Cognac or brandy
1 3/4 cups flour
1/2-1 teaspoon freshly-ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup melted butter
Canola oil, for frying
Powdered sugar, for dusting

In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar thoroughly. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until stiff peaks form. Gently fold in cream and brandy. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, cardamom, salt and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients a bit at a time, alternating with the melted butter, adding a little more flour if needed to make a dough that will roll well, but work the dough just as little as needed. Refrigerate overnight.

When you’re ready to make the fattigmann, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8 inch thick. Cut using a fattigmann roller and separate the diamonds. Work one of the ends through the slit, repeating with each one. I find that it’s helpful to hold one end up and give it a slight shake to let gravity gently elongate the dough before placing it in the hot oil.

Heat about two inches of oil to 350-375 degrees in a heavy pan. Working in batches so they fit in a single layer, fry the fattigmann, flipping them with tongs when one side is golden, and removing as soon as the other side colors. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined surface to drain and cool slightly, then dust with powdered sugar. These are best the day they’re made.

Fattigmann

Norwegian Christmas Cookies: Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

I never tire of seeing the variety of cakes and cookies in the Scandinavian tradition. With little more than butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, and often a scattering of spices, we can create an extensive assortment of treats. Sometimes elegant and elaborate, often simple, the recipes of my heritage have helped me to understand more about where my family came from, as well as those who came before me.

I’ve been writing about the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies, in recent weeks, and today I’m sharing my family recipe for sandbakkelse, or sandkaker, those iconic tart-shaped cookies that many Scandinavians and Scandinavian-Americans love so much.

Flavored with almond, sandbakkelse (I’ll use this name throughout my post, as that’s what my family knows them as, although they’re just as commonly called sandkaker) can be served plain as a cookie, or they can be filled. They’re delicate and crisp, and honestly they’re so good that they don’t require a filling.

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

Sandbakkelse are formed by carefully pressing dough into little tins until they’re as thin as can be while still holding together when baked. It can be a tedious process, I suspect, if done alone. But when made in the company of loved ones, perhaps while sipping a glass of wine and nibbling on something savory, it’s a wonderful way to connect, to spend time together and create memories.

It’s hardly about the cookies, is it? For me, at least, the cookies have been the excuse for gatherings, a reason to get together in the kitchen and bake with those who are dear. Mom, Grandma, and I began our regular baking sessions quite a number of years ago. We’d get together throughout the year, as often as once a week in the months leading up to Christmas. Grandma wanted to teach us how to make the treats that our family had loved throughout the years, including lefse, krumkaker, and these sandbakkelse.

We haven’t been able to bake together in recent years, Grandma isn’t well enough. But last week, we all gathered around the table again. Though my grandmother–the woman who taught me to make sandbakkelse–couldn’t actually make the cookies, it meant so much to have her there with us, supervising and giving her approval on the ones that looked just right.

I’ve shared this recipe before, in an old, old blog post and in other publications, but it wouldn’t be a proper syv slags kaker series if I didn’t share it again. In a 1992 survey in Aftenposten of people’s favorite Norwegian Christmas cookies, sandbakkelse/sandkaker made it into the top seven, along with smultringer and hjortetakk (these two tied for first place), krumkaker, sirupsnipper, berlinerkranser, goro, and fattigman. For many people–myself included–these are one of the most delicious treats of the Christmas season.

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

My Grandma’s Sandbakkelse / Sandkaker
While it’s very typical to make these cookies with ground almonds, some families–mine included–use almond flavoring instead. It’s difficult to mimic the flavor of real almonds, and extract can be overpowering if overdone. However, the flavoring is used sparingly in this recipe and is accented with vanilla extract. The result is delicate and fragrant, a real treat. Sandbakkel tins are available in Scandinavian supply stores and you should be able to find them easily online. My favorites are the ones handed down from generation to generation in my family, but any should work just fine. 

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt

Cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and almond extracts and stir until combined. Add flour and salt and mix until incorporated and the dough comes together. Gather the dough together, flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least 15 minutes.

Now comes the fun part: shaping the cookies. To start, pinch off a little dough and roll into a ball about 3/4 of an inch in diameter. Place into the center of the mold, using your thumbs to flatten the dough into the mold. Rotating the mold as you go, work the dough out from the center of the mold and up the sides. You’ll want the dough on the bottom to be as thin as it can be while still holding up when baked. As you work, take special care at the ridge where the bottom connects to the side. Dough tends to collect here, and it’s easy to let this part be too thick. Delicately continue to work the dough from this ring up the sides. Using your hand, scrape off the excess dough from the top of the mold, and set aside while you form the rest of the cookies.

When it’s time to bake, arrange them on a cookie sheet (if you’re using different shapes of tins, try to keep the like tins together in a batch so they cook evenly) and place in an oven preheated to 375 degrees. Watch closely as the cookies bake, as they quickly go from done to overdone. When they’re just starting to take on a slightly golden hue, remove from the oven and take the molds off the cookie sheet to cool.

Allow the cookies to cool for a while, and then carefully remove from the tins. This is done by inverting the molds onto your work surface and giving a little tap. The cookies should pop right out.

Yield: About 5 dozen cookies, depending on size of tins.

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

Norwegian Christmas Cookies: Pepperkaker

Pepperkaker

I returned home the other day and was surprised by the warmth and smell that greeted me. Cinnamon and cardamom, clove and ginger. Warm butter and sugar. The scents of baking. Earlier in the day I had made pepperkaker, but I hadn’t noticed just how fragrant the cookies were until I left for a while and then returned. This is what I want my home to smell like all season long.

This time of year I think a lot about the experiences of the holidays. I think about the senses, how the music we listen to and the decorations surrounding us impact our experience. I keep things pretty simple, all in all. But there are touches that can make all the difference. That’s why I’ll be putting a pot of gløgg on the stove whenever we’re expecting guests and churning out buttery and spiced cookies as often as I can. No matter how much or how little I manage to decorate the house for Christmas, the aromas and warmth pouring out of the kitchen will convey a sense of the season, one that’s inviting and welcoming, one that hopefully hints at the hospitality of my mom and grandmothers, whom I hope to emulate.

Pepperkaker Diptych

Pepperkaker

There’s a lot of talk out there right now about hygge, that Scandinavian word that somehow encapsulates big ideas of coziness, community, and a sense of well-being in an economical five words. I’ve been striving to embrace that lifestyle, or state of being, for a while now.

This time of the year it’s easy to feel the darkness. My friend Dianna posted a photo on Instagram today of her morning coffee, a candlelit scene capturing the available light while it lasts. She lives in Tromsø, a Norwegian city above the Arctic circle, where the sun will make its final appearance next week, not to return until January.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we never truly say goodbye to the sun, though it’s often shielded by veils of cloud and fog; for those working office hours, the sun may have set by the time one heads home from work. We feel the darkness too. Yet for all that’s missing during the late autumn and the winter months, there is much to celebrate, much to embrace during this time. The darkness doesn’t have to be something to dread. Rather it can be an excuse–an opportunity–to pull out all the stops and get as cozy as can be. Baking cookies is one way to do so.

I’ve been writing about the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies, here on Outside Oslo in recent weeks, and today I’m sharing my recipe for pepperkaker, crisp, richly-spiced cookies that are similar to gingersnaps. Out of all the Norwegian Christmas cookies I’ve made, these might be the most fun. Anytime you can roll out dough and cut it into any number of shapes, it’s going to be a good day.

Pepperkaker Diptych

Pepperkaker are unfussy and forgiving, easy to make with the family. Once the dough comes together and rests in the refrigerator overnight, you’ll be ready to bake cookies at a moment’s notice, anytime you have little hands who want to help with rolling and shaping cookies.

That’s part of what’s so special about this time of year. For me, it’s not about the cookies themselves. The cookies are the excuse for spending quality time with people, for building relationships and extending hospitality. I can’t separate my memories of the holiday season from the cookies that my grandmothers served while I was growing up, and then the regular baking sessions that I shared with Mom and Grandma Adeline in recent years when my grandmother was well enough. There’s a glow in all those memories, one created by time spent with dear ones. There’s a saying—supposedly a Norwegian proverb—that goes like this: Cookies are baked with butter and love. Based on my own experiences, I can say without a doubt that this is true.

Pepperkaker

Pepperkaker (A Norwegian Gingerbread)
I analyzed many recipes for pepperkaker (spelled pepparkakor in Swedish) while creating the one I’m sharing with you today. The spices vary considerably, most notably the use of black pepper. People have different opinions on its presence, and I omit it. Recipes generally include both cinnamon and cloves, and often ginger. An addition that I use, that I don’t always see, is cardamom—freshly-ground, of course. Another thing to note is the syrup. I use golden syrup—specifically Lyle’s, which I can easily get at the grocery stores around here. It wouldn’t be as authentic to use molasses or honey, although there are recipes that use such alternatives with good results (my mother-in-law uses molasses, and her pepperkaker are fantastic). If you can get your hands on golden syrup, you’ll find that it produces a rich sweetness that accents the spices without being cloying or tasting flat.

2/3 cup butter (I use salted)
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup golden syrup
1/4 cup cream
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly-ground cardamom
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda

In a medium saucepan, mix the butter, sugar, and golden syrup over medium-low heat until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves. Cool a few minutes, then stir in the cream and the spices.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and the baking soda. Add the butter mixture and stir until the ingredients are incorporated and a dough comes together. Divide into two pieces and wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

When it’s time to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper–you’ll be baking one sheet at a time, but this way you can keep rolling out and shaping cookies while one tray bakes. On a very-lightly floured surface, roll out a little of the dough very thin, about 1/8-inch thick. (Keep the other portions chilled—you want the dough you’re working with to always be cold.)

Cut the dough into the shapes of your choice and transfer to the baking sheets. Bake one tray at a time for 5-7 minutes, until the edges are barely starting to turn color. Remove from the oven and cool on the baking sheet.

Store in an airtight container.

Embracing hygge with gløgg (Scandinavian Mulled Wine)

Gløgg

A pot of spiced wine simmering on the stove, releasing its fragrant spices into the air. The flickering glow of candles, a crackling fireplace. It’s hard to imagine a more cozy setting in which to celebrate the holiday season or perhaps to welcome friends in from the cold. This is, for me, the easiest time of year to actively practice the art of hospitality that I grew up experiencing from the Norwegians in my life. these days, one of my favorite ways to do it is with a pot of gløgg.

Essentially a mulled wine, gløgg—spelled glögg in Swedish—conjures up that Scandinavian idea of hygge, or coziness, that Americans are beginning to catch on to. Even an ordinary bottle of red wine becomes something special when it’s combined with warm spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. Add a bit of orange peel, a generous pour of aquavit, a dash of sugar, and a handful of almonds and raisins, and you have a drink that’s as festive as can be.

Gløgg Spices

Gløgg

I have been wondering lately if the antidote to the hustle and bustle of the holiday season might be found in a handful of Scandinavian recipes. What if, by creaming sticks of butter into sugar to make cookies and mixing up pots of spiced wine, we could somehow infuse the essence of hygge into our own lives? That’s certainly what I’m trying to do.

Hygge—the Danish term for a cozy, warm lifestyle and an emphasis on wellbeing—is embraced throughout Scandinavia, and it seems like it might be just what we need to dampen the stress and frenzy that so often accompany the holiday season.

We can hygge with the typical cozy things like warm, fuzzy blankets and fragrant candles glowing on shelves. We can pull on our softest sweaters and cradle portable mugs of steaming beverages between mitten-covered hands, then tuck into buttery cookies upon returning indoors. But we’d be missing the point if we didn’t pair it with community and relationship, those parts of life that are so essential.

Gløgg

Gløgg

This holiday season it’s a goal of mine to pour a bottle of wine into spice-infused aquavit anytime I’m anticipating visitors. I have the wine already purchased, the spices waiting in the pantry. Gløgg is simple to prepare, only requiring a little bit of advance planning. And the result? Well, who wouldn’t feel instantly welcomed when walking into a warm home filled with the aromas of wine and spices? Paired with the company of good friends and loved ones, this is as hygge as it gets.

Gløgg

Gløgg (Scandinavian Mulled Wine)
There are multiple ways to make gløgg. Around here, we steep the spices in the aquavit, ideally overnight. But on the occasions when we don’t plan ahead, we simply let the spices mingle in the aquavit over a low heat for a couple of hours, keeping the pot covered to minimize evaporation. I first shared my recipe for gløgg in The Norwegian American a year ago. Each time we make it, we do it a little differently, but the idea is the same. If you don’t have aquavit, go ahead and use vodka or even whiskey. I’ve added dried figs to the traditional mix of raisins and almonds, a tip I learned from Anna Brones, coauthor of Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, at a baking class last year. No matter how you make it, be sure to enjoy the company. Oh, and if your guests are new to gløgg, be sure to warn them that it’s stronger than it tastes. Taking care of them in this way is just another way to extend your hospitality.

1 1/2 cups aquavit (or vodka or whiskey)
1/2 cup raisins
8 dried figs, quartered
3 cinnamon sticks
10 green cardamom pods
2 teaspoons whole cloves
1 star anise
2-inch piece of orange peel
1 (750 ml) bottle red wine, such as cabernet sauvignon
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup blanched almonds

The day before you’re going to serve the gløgg, pour aquavit into a jar along with raisins, figs, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, cloves, star anise, and orange peel. Cover and let steep overnight, swirling it occasionally. After about 12 hours, strain the mixture, reserving the spices and fruit. You can make it ahead up to this point or proceed immediately to the next steps (in which case you need not strain the aquavit).

When ready to heat the gløgg, combine the spice-infused aquavit, wine, sugar, and the reserved spices and raisins in a medium saucepan with the almonds over low heat. Cover and let it slowly warm up for about half an hour or so, stirring occasionally and giving it a taste now and then to check the flavors. (There’s a moment, which is somewhat magical, in which the gløgg goes from good to amazing—it’s hard to describe until you’ve tasted it, but once you have you’ll know what I mean.) Be patient and keep a gentle heat—you don’t want it to boil, or even really simmer . When the gløgg is hot and the flavors have developed to your liking, ladle the gløgg into mugs, ideally something clear and heatproof, adding raisins, figs, and almonds to each. Garnish with a cinnamon stick and slice of orange, if you wish.

Note: The longer the spices stay in the gløgg, the stronger they will become. If you’re going to keep the gløgg on the stove for a while, you might want to remove the cloves, and maybe the cardamom and orange peel too, when it develops its proper flavor. If you have leftovers, strain into a jar, reserving the raisins figs and almonds. Reheat on the stove, with the reserved raisins, figs, and almonds, when ready to serve again.

Serves six.

Gløgg

Norwegian Christmas Cookies: Berlinerkranser

Berlinerkranser

I grew up knowing the tradition by taste rather than by name. Syv slags kaker–or seven sorts of cookies. The way it goes, you wouldn’t be a proper Norwegian if you didn’t serve at least seven types of cookies at Christmastime. I only became aware of the tradition a handful of years ago, but there’s no doubt that my family’s propensity to load platters with multitudes of cookies stems from that particular part of our heritage.

My memories of Christmastime often take place in the kitchens and dining rooms of my mom and my grandmothers, the heart of the hospitality that pulses through my family. Grandma Adeline would drape clear plastic sheets over the china cabinet, shelving, carpet, and furniture come autumn, in preparation for baking potato lefse, the traditional flatbread that Norwegian-Americans love so much. As I wrote in an article about Christmas cookies for Edible Seattle magazine last year, once my maternal grandparents had frozen an adequate amount of lefse for the holidays and cleaned away any molecules of errant flour that had crept beyond the plastic sheets, they could relax (a bit at least) and begin baking cookies.

There were Norwegian favorites such as sandbakkels and krumkaker, plus a variety of other favorites. In my memories, Grandma Adeline is rarely siting still–rather, she’s on her feet rolling dough or drying dishes, always with a look of focus and joy in her expression. Sometimes I wonder where she got her energy.

Berlinerkranser

Berlinerkranser

In my research for the Edible Seattle article, I interviewed Dr. Kathleen Stokker, author of Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land. She helped me put in context the special nature of the family tradition.

Christmas has been extraordinarily special to Scandinavians, Stokker said, especially in Norway, which was the poorest of the Scandinavian countries and also had strong class divisions. For those who weren’t of an upper class, cookies infused liberally with butter would have been very special indeed. Farmers, among others, would have sold their butter and used lard instead for daily use–except at Christmastime, in which they’d use the butter to create cookies that reflected the celebratory time that it was. While I can now whip up a batch of cookie dough on a whim, my ancestors’ experience would have been much different. I now understand something of the context of the baking tradition that’s been passed down from generation to generation, one that’s as linked as much to hospitality and generosity as it is to the pleasure of eating something sweet.

You can read more about the tradition of the syv slags kaker in my first post of the series, which is about krumkaker. But in the meantime, let’s talk a bit about Berlinerkranser. Rich and buttery, these wreath-shaped treats were among the most popular in a survey of Norwegian Christmas cookies that Aftenposten—Norway’s largest daily paper–conducted in 1992.

Berlinerkranser

Berlinerkranser

These cookies are as Norwegian lutefisk and Jarlsberg cheese, writes Sunny Gandara, the voice behind the blog Arctic Grub and one of my contributors at The Norwegian American, where I’m the food editor. The name, Berlinerkranser, she says, could be related to a history of German immigrants bringing their baking skills into Norway, as well as Scandinavians going to Germany to study the trade.

The interesting, or perhaps peculiar, thing about these cookies is that the dough begins with a mix of both cooked and raw egg yolks.The eggs are the centerpiece of these rich, buttery cookies, and the result–if done right–is a cookie that’s substantial while remaining tender and delicate. The yolks give the cookies a subtle yellow glow, and they augment the buttery characteristic without tasting entirely of eggs.

Norwegian cookbook author Astrid Karlsen Scott granted me permission to adapt her recipe for Berlinerkranser in my Edible Seattle article last year. But this season I wanted to take my research a step farther. Berlinerkranser can be a bit finicky to make, especially as the dough has a tendency to break easily when shaping. I collected and analyzed recipes and compiled as many tips as I could find to ensure that anyone will have success when baking Berlinerkranser. Read on after the recipe for tips, and please be sure to leave a comment with yours as well.

When I took my first bite of Berlinerkranser still warm from the oven yesterday, I savored the warm, comforting experiencing of letting the cookie almost melt as it disintegrated in my mouth. The buttery richness took me back to my childhood, and I finally remembered a taste memory I had forgotten–my grandma Agny’s Berlinerkranser. Mom recently told me that Grandma used to make these cookies, but I had forgotten. The memories are vague–it’s been many years since those Christmases at her home. But–as I’m sure you know–we never forget the taste.

Berlinerkranser

Berlinerkranser (Berlin Wreath Cookies)
This recipe is very good, if I do say so myself. The cookies, especially when warm out of the oven, are rich and eggy, warm and comforting. Be sure to enjoy one or two for yourself to enjoy–perhaps with a cup of coffee–before setting them out for guests.

2 hard-cooked egg yolks 
2 raw egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup butter (I use salted), at room temperature
2 1/2 cups flour
Egg whites, lightly beaten (reserved from the raw eggs above)
1/4 cup pearl sugar

In a mixing bowl, mash the hard-cooked egg yolks (you can do this with a fork, or you can do what Magnus Nilsson does in The Nordic Cookbook and press the yolks through a sieve). Mix in the two uncooked yolks. When smooth, add the sugar and whisk vigorously until smooth. Next you’ll add the flour and the softened butter, alternating, a little at a time, working as little as possible. It will still appear crumbly, but it will come together when you press it. Divide the dough into two thick logs, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for a couple of hours or overnight.

When you’re getting ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375, line two baking sheets with parchment paper, and remove dough from the fridge (you want it to warm up slightly before you start shaping them—about a half an hour).

Divide each piece of dough into 14 even pieces. Put half of the dough back in the fridge to stay cool while you work on the first half—the dough can be challenging to work with as it gets warm. Roll each piece into a log about 1/3-inch in diameter, and about 4-4.5-inches long. Form each into a wreath with edges overlapping, and press together. Place the cookies on the baking sheets, about two inches apart. Chill in the refrigerator for 15 minutes or to help them keep their shape—if your baking sheets won’t fit, you can transfer them very carefully on the parchment onto a surface that will. Dip the tops of the chilled cookies into the beaten egg whites and then into the pearl sugar. Bake in the middle rack of the oven for 8-10 minutes, or until the cookies are very lightly golden.

Cool a little on baking rack, then transfer with care to a baking rack—perhaps just sliding the whole sheet of parchment on. Store in an airtight container. Freeze if you’re making them well in advance.

Makes about two dozen.

Tips:

I discovered that recipes generally resemble each other, with virtually all of them beginning with two hard-cooked egg yolks and two uncooked egg yolks. Recipe vary slightly in the amount of sugar used, ranging from 1/2 to 1 cup (I’m using 2/3 cup, which is somewhere in the middle, and I wouldn’t recommend any more–but you can use a smaller quantity if you’d like them a little less sweet). The amount of flour also varies quite a bit, from 1 1/4 to 3 1/3 cups. You don’t want to use too much flour, I read, as that will impact the texture—you want them to be tender. Also, work the dough as minimally as possible.

As for rolling the dough, one recipe said that working as little as possible, while still incorporating the ingredients, should help.

Getting the temperature just right is also key, as I learned from Gandara, as you want it neither too warm nor too cool. She suggests removing the dough from the refrigerator about a half an hour before forming the cookies. I find that putting unused portions of dough back in the fridge while I work keeps them from warming up too much.

I’m grateful for discovering the tip of putting the shaped dough back in the fridge for a while–15 minutes perhaps–before proceeding. The chilled cookies are so much easier to dip into the egg white and sugar at this point, and this step might help them keep their shape as well.

Berlinerkranser

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