It’s an almost old-fashioned word, conjuring up 1950’s housewives and a deceptively spotless kitchen hiding days’ worth of preparation.
But I love the grace and ease that the word evokes, and the memories that it conjures up of my late Grandma Agny.
Grandma was born in Norway during the first part of the 20th century, in a time when the country was still enjoying its relative new independence. She grew up Norwegian through and through, and then sometime in the 1950s—after the hardships and heartbreak of watching her beloved country be invaded and suffering the unimaginable grief of losing an infant son—she and Grandpa Lauritz packed up their lives and moved to the United States with my father, who was 11 years old at the time.
The newly-immigrated family arrived in New York in 1956, with the sites of Manhattan and the American cars leaving an impression on my young father. They made their way to Seattle where they would begin their new lives. My grandparents—though already established in their adult years—would learn to speak English with ease, though always with rich, thick accents. They would make new friends and assimilate the best they could into their new culture, while always feeling a bit of yearning for home. Grandma Agny would go on to find a job at one of Seattle’s finest hotels, where she must have honed her gracious sense of hospitality. Her references to that time were always marked with a sense of honor and pride, and she carried that sense of service into her home.
Dinners at my grandparents’ home were always formal affairs, with my grandmother preparing a menu of traditional Norwegian foods and serving them on a table set with fine, creamy linens, decoratively fanned napkins, and her finest dinnerware. We would sit around the small dining room table—which sat the five of us comfortably—each taking our place at one of the chairs adorned with embroidered seat cushions. Grandpa and Grandma would sit with their backs to the window, giving my dad, mom, and me the seats with the view of Puget Sound. On Christmas Eve we could see the houses adorned with Christmas lights in the neighborhood below where their house was perched. There would be Scandinavian red cabbage, steamed carrots, roast pork, and plump little savory meatballs called medisterkaker, which stood out as a juicy contrast to the drier roast. Always prepared with an abundance of food to feed a large dinner party, my grandparents would pass the bowls and platters around, and my grandfather would make his contribution to the meal by frequently asking each of us if he could pass us more meat, or vegetables, or whatever the item might be. We would drink Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider in stemware and mark the occasion together—the little family of five that we were.
My dad, mom, and I were the only family that Grandpa and Grandma had here in the United States, and they poured out their love to us abundantly, most often in the form of giving and service. Though I wouldn’t make my first trip to Norway until I was an adult, they made me aware of my heritage and demonstrated the hospitality that Scandinavians seem to be so good at.
As I develop my own vision of hospitality, inspired by the generations before me, one of my current considerations is how to graciously host friends with dietary restrictions. While it was initially a challenge to plan a satisfying meal for a vegetarian friend or how to bake a cake for my book club while being inclusive to a friend who avoids dairy, I’ve since developed a growing repertoire of menu choices for all sorts of diets. I’ve begun a list: a walnut cake made with walnut oil instead of butter for my dairy-free friends, a protein-packed quinoa and black bean salad for vegetarians, a gluten-free cardamom, blackberry, and almond cake.
Speaking of that cake, it’s made with ground almonds in place of flour, which gives it a different crumb than a tradition cake, but its nutty texture goes perfectly with the texture of the blackberries baked in its batter. I baked it recently for a group of people who were new to me, and bringing a gluten-free cake along with a chocolate one–which I’ll have to tell you more about soon–felt like a great way to quietly ensure that my new friends were properly taken care of, and in such a way that made them not worry about their dietary needs being a burden. I’m sure my grandmother would have done the same thing.
Gluten-Free Cardamom-Almond Cake with Fresh Berries
This recipe, adapted from Scandilicious: Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking, is given in metric units. I resisted the urge to convert it because I really enjoy the precision.
125 grams unsalted butter, softened
200 grams baker’s sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 medium eggs
250 grams ground almonds
2 teaspoons gluten-free baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt
200 grams blackberries (fresh or frozen will work)
200 grams fresh fruit for garnish (I used strawberry, but peaches or nectarines would complement the blackberries beautifully as well)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9-inch round cake tin.
Get started on the batter by creaming butter, sugar, and vanilla together with a stand mixer. Add eggs, one at a time (the original recipe suggests doing so with a tablespoon of ground almonds to stop the mixture from splitting).
Combine the remaining almonds, baking powder, cardamom, and salt and then fold into the butter mixture, taking care not to overmix.
Add the blackberries to the batter, and then pour into the prepared pan. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until golden brown and a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack in its tin. Serve with fresh fruit.