There was a time when my ideal evening at home would involve cuddling up with a pillow by the weathered-brick fireplace in our old house, my hardcover edition of Les Misérables or trade copy of Out Stealing Horses in hand. My husband would sit nearby on the sofa having a little quiet time of his own, and we would share the evening in good company, each immersed in our own little world of fiction and stories. I might sip on an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan as I turned page after page, and Max the cat would inevitably make himself known.
Months and years go by and routines and rhythms change. These days my husband and I still enjoy those quiet moments together whenever possible, often stealing the time from precious sleep. But rather than becoming engrossed in a book, I often now sit side by side with him–surrounded by books and bags and sweaters and toys–with a laptop, catching up on the day’s correspondence and planning my week, sometimes multitasking while we watch a show we’re following. Reading happens in found moments throughout the day rather than in luxurious hours-long evening sessions.
For someone like me who has historically devoured books like cookies, I seem to have taken a bit of a reading hiatus these past couple of years. It’s not that I haven’t read; rather, my attention turned from classic literature to informative guides on timely topics, including pregnancy, parenting, writing, and travel.
I’m excited to say that a new routine has begun this year, thanks to some great friends who enthusiastically backed my crazy little idea to start a “foodie lit” book club. We’re two meetings in, and I can already sense a great group forming. As friends arrived one by one last night, new connections formed and people whom I know from different parts of life came together and met. The ice breaker of the evening–having everyone bring a food that told a little about who they are or where they came from–would have been adequate to get people talking, but it turns out that they didn’t need my help at all. As we dined on Meagan’s Swedish meatballs, Julie’s fennel and apple salad, my Jansson’s Temptation and Christy’s salted chocolate chip cookies, we kept realizing that the topic of the evening–the books we had read–was taking a backseat to all the wonderful conversation. Success? I think so.
I’ve been curious about making Jansson’s Temptation for quite a while, and with adventurous cooks such as my friends, I knew my company would appreciate the culinary exploration. Jansson’s Temptation–or Janssons frestelse–is basically a traditional Swedish version of scalloped potatoes with the addition of Swedish Abba “anchovies,” or sprats. (The tiny fish are soft and somewhat sweet, and nothing like the anchovies you’re undoubtedly thinking about right now.)
So, the verdict? Make this dish as part of a smörgåsbord on a chilly winter evening when you have a lot of company (there’s a reason it’s often served for Christmas). The cream and the anchovies–not to mention the potato-based nature of the dish–make it a hearty and rich meal that probably ranks among the top Scandinavian comfort foods. I did, you’ll notice, add sliced mushrooms to the recipe below, which are not at all traditional. I couldn’t help thinking while shopping for ingredients that the recipe needed a little toothsome quality from mushrooms, and my guests concurred, calling the addition a must. There are a few couple of things I would do differently next time: slice the potatoes more thinly using a mandolin, experiment with other kinds of potatoes, increase the quantity of fish, and possibly add a little chopped parsley or dill–for garnish if nothing else. Aside from that, this recipe is a keeper.
Janssons Frestelse or Jansson’s Temptation (Swedish Anchovy and Potato Gratin)
Adapted from Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking…Scandilicious by Signe Johansen
2 large onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 100g tin Abba anchovies (or two tins if you like a more pronounced flavor), anchovies drained and cut in half
4 large potatoes
8 ounces sliced cremini mushrooms
3/4 cup sour cream or crème fraîche
3/4 cup whipping cream
Approximately 1/2 cup crushed melba toasts (plain)
2 tablespoons butter for topping
Preheat oven to 375 degrees and butter a shallow 2 liter pan.
Heat olive oil in a medium frying pan and add the onions, stirring occasionally over medium heat until soft and translucent. Meanwhile, get to work peeling the potatoes and cutting them into 1/5-inch slices (or thinner).
Layer the ingredients as follows:
- Place a third of the potato slices in the bottom of the dish.
- Top with half of the anchovies.
- Evenly cover with a quarter of the onions.
- Lay half the mushrooms over the onions.
- Spread half of the remaining potatoes on top.
- Scatter the remaining anchovies over the potatoes.
- Spread the remaining mushrooms over the anchovies.
- Add another quarter of the onions.
- Arrange the final layer of potatoes.
Put the remaining onions in a small saucepan and add sour cream, whipping cream, and some salt and pepper. Stir over medium heat until it it just barely begins to simmer, then pour the mixture over the final layer of potatoes. Scatter the crumbs evening over the top, and dot with butter cut into pieces.
Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until the topping is golden brown and the potatoes are cooked through.