About Daytona Strong

I share stories about food, family, and Scandinavian hospitality here at Outside Oslo.

Norwegian Bacalao Stew

Norwegian Bacalao Stew

The end of June, beginning of July. The calendar marks the month but also the moment. It was just about this time, when one month rolled into the next, when I stepped foot in Norway for the first time.

“We’ll go to Norway together some day,” my grandfather said when I was growing up. It was an ideal, a good intention and a comforting one I think, to look ahead to some time in the future when he would return to his homeland decades after leaving–he along with my grandma, my parents, and me. But he never did go back.

I grew up steeped in the traditions of my Norwegian heritage but it would be years before I would visit Norway. When I finally did, exploring the city where my father was born and passing by his hometown on the train on the way from the airport into the city, I felt at home, right where I wanted to be.

The country calls to me. It might sound strange, but there’s a part of my heart that’s there. I see photos of the fjords and the craggy green hills, the weathered red barns and slowly-setting summer sun and I yearn to go back. I know the country, but at the same time I don’t. I know its essence even though I’d need a map to navigate its streets.

Norwegian Bacalao Stew

During that visit in the summer of 2008, I met my husband’s Norwegian relatives. A couple of them had flown to Seattle for our wedding a few years before, but I still had yet to meet the others. After eating meals and drinking aquavit with them in their part of the world, I had the chance to return the hospitality for one of the cousins last week. As far as dinners go, these were pretty spontaneous and we served what we had, echoes of the Scandinavian-inspired Midsummer dinner just days before. So as we sat around my kitchen table that first night, eating grilled steak accompanied by dill-speckled potatoes and sliced cucumbers bathed in a creamy dressing–and we happened to have a bar of Scandinavian chocolate in its distinct yellow wrapping on the counter–my husband noted how we were unintentionally giving this Norwegian cousin a little taste of home, far away from home.

Norwegian Bacalao StewBut back to Norway, Bergen to be specific. It was uncharacteristically hot those days we were there. Temperatures in the 80s, 90s perhaps. It being the peak of summer, the sun hovered above the horizon well into the night, casting a golden glow on the multicolored Hanseatic wharf and illuminating the waters spilling in from the North Sea.

On one of those days we ate bacalao stew, the salt cod bathed in rich tomato broth and nestled amongst the broken tomatoes and chunks of potatoes. Food often serves as a link to memories, so when I recreated that stew recently I thought back on those sun-drenched days, remembering the afternoons spent exploring Bergen. I loved that city, loved walking along the cobbled ground and peering down windy narrow streets. There I savored eating a traditional, rustic dish of red deer in a tiny restaurant, washing it down with bracing dill aquavit as clear as the purest water in the fjords. I got to know another cousin a little as we shared beers and tapas, and I sampled smoked whale from the outdoor fish market at his suggestion.

During those days, my husband and I walked and ate, talked and visited. It felt relaxed but it was brief; in an instant it was time to return home and let the memories settle deep into my heart.

Norwegian Bacalao Stew

Norwegian Bacalao Stew
Andreas Viestad says his recipe from Kitchen of Light–which I’ve adapted here–is the classic Western Norwegian interpretation of bacalao. Aside from a little advance planning to soak the salt cod, this recipe comes together easily enough to make on a weeknight. Be sure to have plenty of crusty bread on hand for sopping up the flavorful juices. It’s even better the next day.

1-1 1/2 pounds salt cod
2 medium russet potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 large yellow onions, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 (14 1/2-ounce) cans chopped tomatoes, with juices
1 pound roasted red bell peppers, cut into 1/2-inch slices
4-6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 dried hot red chiles, chopped and seeded
10 black peppercorns
1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil

Thoroughly rinse the salt cod and place in a large container of water to soak for 24 to 36 hours, changing the water at least twice. Drain and cut the fish into 2-inch pieces and set aside.

Place a large pot on the stove and arrange the potatoes on the bottom, followed by the onions and then the cod. Next scatter the tomatoes on top, followed by the roasted peppers. Add the garlic, bay leaves, two thirds of the parsley, chiles, and peppercorns, gently working these down into the other ingredients by about an inch, taking care not to disrupt the layering. Pour the olive oil all over the top and turn on the heat.

Simmer gently for 30 minutes, shaking the pot every once in a while. Adjust the heat down if necessary and continue to cook for another 45 minutes, still shaking it every once in a while (avoid stirring the stew at any point).

Divide the stew between six bowls, arranging each of the ingredients in every bowl. Garnish with the remaining parsley. Serve with a bowl of sea salt on the side so everyone can adjust the seasoning to their tastes.

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart

The doorbell rings a little before 7 p.m. on a Tuesday evening each month. By now I know exactly who it is, which friend is always punctual and comes bearing a couple of bottles of wine with the food she’s brought to share. As we catch up on what’s taken place in each other’s lives over the past month, there’s a knock and then another knock as more friends trickle in, gradually filing my kitchen.

Conversation takes place as easily as wine flows. That is one of the things I love most about this group. A little over a year and a half ago I got a crazy little idea in my head and began to wonder if I might know enough people who would want to join me for a food-based book club. Now, 17 books and “Foodie Lit Book Club” dinners later, there are roughly a dozen members–some I knew previously and some I’ve met because friends have invited their friends. We’re from different walks of life and most of us would never have met had it not been for the common interests of eating and reading about food.

There’s nothing pretentious here, no need to impress. But we eat exceedingly well. We cook from the recipes in the book we’re reading–or bring something inspired by it–and so many times we’re trying something new for the first time. We’ve experimented with pizza toppings, experienced dried dates given a new dimension with olive oil and sea salt, analyzed what made a particular polenta recipe fail, and how to take an already-good shortbread recipe to the next level. We’ve proven that no matter the menu or the skill of the cook, just gathering over a meal is a sure way to connect on a meaningful level and nurture relationships.

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart

I served this particular recipe, a Norwegian cheese and onion pie, at a recent book club. It had nothing to do with the book we were reading–The Language of Baklava–unless you consider that author Diana Abu-Jaber’s family immigrant story has parallels with my own family’s transition to a new country. But I was working on adapting a recipe from the Scandinavian cookbook Kitchen of Light for my own preferences and decided to test it out on these friends.

Made with cheese such as Norwegian Jarlsberg, plenty of thick red onion slices, and my addition of sliced mushrooms, it’s a substantial appetizer that would pair well with a glass of chilled white wine on a hot day, the condensation forming on the outside of the glass in the summer heat. Jarlsberg tastes great with the onion, but in a pinch, sharp white cheddar works too. Viestad also says Gouda, Parmesan, or Gruyere are options.

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart
Adapted from the Onion Pie with Jarlsberg and Thyme from Kitchen of Light by Andreas Viestad

3 tablespoons butter, divided
2 red onions, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
Freshly-ground black pepper
2 whole cloves
Leaves from 2-3 sprigs fresh oregano, divided
8 ounces sliced cremini mushrooms
1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted if frozen
2 cups shredded cheese such as Jarlsberg, divided

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and lower the heat to medium-low. Sprinkle garlic, bay leaf, a few grinds of pepper, cloves, and leaves from 1 sprig of oregano over the pan. Cook 10 minutes, then carefully flip the onion slices, taking care to leave them intact. Cook another 10 minutes, until they’re softened but before they turn brown.

Meanwhile, melt remaining tablespoon of butter in a skillet and saute the mushrooms over medium to medium-high heat until they’re cooked through but still have a toothsome bite, 4-5 minutes. (You can do this in a separate pan while the onions cook, or you can do what I do and reduce the amount of cleanup by using the same pan when the onions are done–just give it a quick wipe beforehand.)

The recipe can be made in advance until this point; just refrigerate the onions and mushrooms until shortly before you’re ready to assemble the tart, giving them a little time to come up to room temperature.

Roll out puff pastry into a 10×16-inch rectangle onto floured parchment paper. Trim away any rough edges. Transfer the parchment and pastry onto a baking sheet and prick the pastry all over with a fork, avoiding an inch-wide border. Bake for about 12 minutes, until it turns golden.

Sprinkle pastry with 1 cup shredded cheese, leaving a 1-inch border, then layer on the onion slices followed by the mushrooms. Scatter remaining cheese over the top and bake until the cheese is melted and glistening, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining oregano leaves and serve.

Serves 6.

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies with Sea Salt

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies

A wooden spoon and a simple recipe are all it takes to create a memory. “I want to help Mama bake cookies,” he says, coming inside and finding out I’m starting to bake. The butter is melting in the saucepan, the coconut measured. There’s really little else to do. And that’s perfect for this particular early-May evening.

I scoop up my little boy and position him on my hip, holding him up with one arm as I show him how the eggs change properties when beaten with sugar in our cobalt blue stand mixer. He’s too heavy to hold like this for long, but with the addition of a little vanilla extract, the components are soon ready to bring to the counter and mix.

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies

He stands at the counter on a stool eager to help. I begin to stir the butter and coconut into the rest of the ingredients and quickly give in, handing him the wooden spoon. He is big enough to try. I am as ready as I’ll ever be to relinquish control of the process. I watch, hoping for minimal spills, as his little hand clutches the wooden handle. I hold the saucepan still as he concentrates and maneuvers the spoon throughout the coconut, the handle just the right size for an easy grip.

I do the rest of the work, dropping little mounds of dough onto parchment-lined baking sheets while he watches. He is just like his mother and wants to sample the dough before it’s baked. I must be asking a lot, to make him wait until the cookies are done and we have finished our dinner. But soon enough, soon enough, we’re all back in the kitchen–mom, dad, and son–each eating a cookie before bed.

Scandinavian Coconut CookiesAs many excursions, activities, and adventures I’m tempted to fill our days with, I know that moments like these are special. While I teach and nurture healthy eating habits with my son every day, these occasional baking sessions allow us to connect, to take a little time to engage in an activity together and finally to savor the results of what we have made.

My childhood memories are full of moments like this, helping my mom cook and baking alongside my grandma as she indulged my curiosity when I’d find a recipe of interest.

A wooden spoon and an easy recipe. Yes, that’s all it takes to make a memory. May you make some of your own in the coming days too.

Scandinavian Coconut CookiesScandinavian Coconut Cookies with Sea Salt
I first wrote about these cookies–adapted from Aquavit: And the New Scandinavian Cuisine by Marcus Samuelsson–almost four years ago. But I love how quick and easy they are to make and decided to revisit them with the addition of sea salt from semiswede.com. I hope you enjoy making them as much as I do.

2 1/2 cups unsweetened, medium grated or shredded coconut
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 eggs
3/4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon flaky sea salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Melt butter in a small saucepan, then remove from heat and stir in the coconut until well-coated.

Beat eggs in a separate bowl to combine the yolks and whites. Add sugar and continue to beat until light and fluffy. Stir in vanilla extract.

Stir the coconut into the eggs until combined. Drop batter by rounded teaspoons into mounds onto the parchment paper, giving almost an inch between cookie. Flatten slightly using the bottom of a glass or the back of a spoon. Stir the batter occasionally as you work to reincorporate the melted butter. Sprinkle each cookie with just a little sea salt; you want to add just a touch of flavor, otherwise they’ll be too salty. Bake until golden, 8 to 11 minutes depending on the size of the cookie.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies

Syttende Mai: Seattle, 1980s

Syttende Mai with Grandparents 1980s

Old Ballard was about as Scandinavian as you could get. Though far from the Nordic countries, the little neighborhood north of downtown Seattle had drawn immigrants by the thousands over the years. It used to be as easy to find lefse as it was a burger. And if you needed gjetost, pølse, or any other type of Scandinavian food–not to mention housewares or souveniers with Norwegian flags or “Uffda” printed on them, you didn’t have to look far.

The neighborhood has changed a lot over the years, but I still distinctly remember what it used to be like before the massive changes of the past decade. With Syttende Mai coming up tomorrow, I’ve been digging up old photos and memorabilia and thought I’d share some here today.

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

From a handful of family photos taken during the celebrations in the 1980s to old Syttende Mai issues of the Ballard News-Tribune, this box is filled with nostalgia for me. The photo up at the top of the post is my favorite. On the left are Grandpa Lauritz and Grandma Agny, who had arrived in Seattle from Norway right around Syttende Mai in 1956. Next to them are Grandma Adeline–my only surviving grandparent–and Grandpa Lowell. That little girl in front is me. If you’ve spent time in Ballard throughout the years, you’ll recognize the old Bergen Place behind us, prior to its redesign a decade ago.

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

Syttende Mai 1980s Mementos

Syttende Mai 1980s MementosBoth sets of my grandparents lived in Ballard when I was growing up, and driving down to meet them at the parade was an annual event. I’m so glad my parents saved these old issues of the Ballard News-Tribune; at some point along the line, a photographer had captured photos of me and they were published for a couple of years (on the chair in the lower left of the May 15, 1985 cover, and holding a flag in the May 14, 1986 issue).

Today’s Ballard might be known more for its condos, restaurants, and nightlife than its Scandinavian roots, but Syttende Mai is still one of its biggest events of the year with events at the Nordic Heritage Museum and Leif Erikson Lodge during the day, leading up to a parade through the streets of Ballard in the evening (the 17th of May Committee says more than 20,000 people came out for the parade last year). I’ll be there tomorrow, hopefully adding more photos to the collection–photos that I’ll someday look back upon with the same sort of nostalgia as I do with these.

What are some of your Syttende Mai memories–in Ballard, Norway, or elsewhere? I’d love to hear about them!

Gluten-Free Scandinavian Almond Cake with Rhubarb Compote

Gluten Free Scandinavian Almond Cake

I sometimes wonder what it was like to be her. Two feet on Norwegian soil, then one. And with the second step onto the gangway, a release, a launch into a new life.

My grandmother was about 40 years old when she packed up her life to immigrate to the United States with her husband and son in the spring of 1956.

Standing on the ship, she would have seen the verdant seven hills of Bergen rising high above the glistening waters as clean and pure as tears. The gentle sway of the ship at dock would have been subtle but perhaps just present enough to be a scapegoat for the tightening chest and quaking belly. Soon the ship would depart, sailing inch by inch, then mile by mile, memory by memory, from a country that had, until that day, always been home.

I think about that journey each spring as the anniversary rolls around. And yet, I can only imagine what that experience would have been like, only speculate at the emotions swirling in my grandmother’s heart as the ship sailed out of the fjord, the town and the hills disappearing from view as gradually yet surely as the sun setting below the horizon.

I got the phone call announcing Grandma’s death in 2009 as I was getting dressed to visit her to celebrate her birthday. That was the day I was going to ask her if we could start talking–really talking–about her life. I know there were stories there–firsthand accounts of living in Nazi-occupied Norway, heartbreaking memories of losing an infant son, the decision between a husband and wife settled well into their adult years to leave home and start fresh in a new country. I wish there were unknown journals and letters somewhere out there that I would happen upon someday, words scrolled in a handwriting I’ve since discovered that my own eerily resembles. The chances of that happening are slim. A generation is dying; one of her closest living relatives in Norway recently passed away. Memories exist in the minds of the few she left behind and in the photos bound in old-fashioned albums stored away.

Still, I think about that monumental move each spring. And as I do, I always reflect upon my grandmother, a woman I understood only so much during her lifetime but who fascinates, intrigues, and inspires me more and more all the time.

Rhubarb and Almond Cake Diptych

Gluten Free Scandinavian Almond Cake

One of the qualities that stands out most when I think about Grandma Agny was her hospitality, something I strive to emulate. That takes many forms for me, from hosting dinners to taking dietary restrictions into consideration when baking for an event. So many people avoid gluten that I’ve found it helpful to have a go-to cake recipe that I can bring just about anywhere.

This cake–adapted from the blackberry, almond, and cardamom cake in Signe Johansen’s Scandilicious: Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking–incorporates the distinctly Nordic flavors of almond and cardamom into its rich, moist, and pleasantly toothsome texture. I shared a version of it on the blog a while back, but have simplified it and adapted the ingredients for standard measurements rather than metric. The cake pairs wonderfully with a Scandinavian rhubarb compote loosely adapted from The Scandinavian Kitchen by Camilla Plum. Plum recommends cooking the compote in the oven rather than on the stovetop, a process that helps protect the appearance of the rhubarb’s structure, even as it melts into shreds; the stirring in stovetop cooking breaks apart and mixes the rhubarb, yielding a much different result.

Almond Cake with Rhubarb Compote Diptych

Scandinavian Rhubarb Compote

Gluten-Free Scandinavian Almond Cake with Rhubarb Compote

For the compote:
5 medium stalks rhubarb
1/3 cup sugar

For the cake:
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 medium eggs
2 1/2 cups almond meal*
2 teaspoons gluten-free baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt
Gluten-free powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut rhubarb stalks into 2-inch lengths and arrange in a baking dish that can roughly hold them in one layer. Sprinkle sugar over the top. Cover dish with a sheet of foil and bake for 10 minutes. Peel back the foil and carefully turn over the rhubarb pieces. Bake for an additional 5 to 10 minutes until the rhubarb is cooked through. Carefully lift the cooked rhubarb with a wide spatula or spoon and transfer to a serving dish. Cool. The compote can be made up to a couple of days in advance if you’d like.

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a round 9-inch springform cake pan. Cream butter, sugar, and vanilla, then add eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly between each addition.

Whisk the almond meal, baking powder, cardamom, and salt in a medium bowl, then fold into the batter.

Pour into the pan, spreading the top evenly with a spatula. Bake for 30-40 minutes; you’ll know it’s done when the top has turned golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Set the pan on a wire rack and cool.

Remove the cooled cake from the pan and sift powdered sugar over the top. Serve with the compote.

Makes 1 9-inch cake.

*The original recipe calls for 250 grams ground almonds. I like the precision of metric measurements but understand that not everyone uses a kitchen scale. Since the weight of the almond meal with vary depending on how much you pack it, pour it into the measuring cup and let it settle, but do not pack it in.

In Print: Orange Pound Cake with Wine-Poached Strawberries and Mascarpone

Orange Pound Cake with Wine-Poached Strawberries and Mascarpone

If you follow along on Instagram, this image might look familiar. I offered the sneak peak a couple of months ago when developing a recipe for my latest article in Costco Connection magazine. That article–Beyond the Bun: A Camper’s Guide to Outdoor Cuisine–is now in print, and I want to take a moment to share it with you today. It’s all about how to break away from the typical camping fare of hot dogs and burgers and to eat as well as you would at home, with just a little extra preparation before the trip. You can find the article–along with my recipe for Orange Pound Cake with Wine-Poached Strawberries and Mascarpone–in the May 2014 issue of Costco Connection. Enjoy!

Norwegian Rhubarb Cake (Rabarbrakake)

Norwegian Rhubarb Cake

Amidst almond-scented cakes and recipes featuring plenty of dill, I’ve occasionally veered from the topic of Scandinavian food to talk about writing. As a journalist and creative writer, it’s long been a big part of my life. Lately, with a dear relative suffering from a series of strokes in February, it has become a way for me to cope as well.

The past month or so has been challenging in ways I am still working through. I process best sometimes through the written word, and so I have spent some of my writing sessions trying to wipe away the heartache with pen to paper or keystroke by keystroke. As a personal form of writing, it hasn’t been right to share here, and with the weight of my loved one’s illness shadowing me on many days, I’ve struggled to write much about food on the blog. But oh how I have longed to!

Week by week, as she has shown continued signs of improvement, the melancholy has lifted little by little. And along with that, the Seattle weather–which recently gave us the rainiest March on record–has been offering white cottony clouds strewn in patches against an otherwise clear, vivid blue sky. Spring has brought with it the cottony explosions of cherry blossoms, steady gaze of daffodils, and now Japanese maples unfurling a little bit each day. There is rhubarb waiting to be stewed into compotes and fruit soups, cocktails and pie. And there is Norwegian rhubarb cake.

Norwegian Rhubarb Cake

I’m often struck by the simplicity of Norwegian recipes. Looking at a short list of ingredients–often mostly some variation of butter, sugar, milk, flour, and eggs–I’m tempted to dress it up a bit, adding a little bit of spice here, some flavoring or other adornment there. Usually when I resist, it’s a good thing; the term elegant simplicity has come to mind again and again when I’ve speared a fork into a slice of Norwegian dessert and brought a bite to my mouth, letting the richness and wholeness of the finished product linger for a moment as I reflect on how it’s just right. That’s the case with this rhubarb cake, which is little more than a moist butter cake studded with slices of fresh rhubarb that almost melts into the batter as it bakes. In its simplicity, it is perfect.

I hope to be back to writing about food here at Outside Oslo more frequently in the near future. There are all sorts of Scandinavian recipes I’d love to share, especially leading up to Syttende Mai. In the meantime, please do keep in touch–I love getting notes and comments from you, and you can also connect on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. And now, I hope you’ll enjoy a slice of rabarbrakake!

Norwegian Rhubarb Cake

Norwegian Rhubarb Cake (Rabarbrakake)
Adapted from Norwegian National Recipes. Also featured on the blog last year.

1/4 cup butter (I used unsalted)
1/3 cup whole milk
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 large stalk rhubarb
Powdered sugar (optional)
Whipped cream, for serving (optional)

Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir in milk and set aside to cool slightly.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a nine-inch springform pan.

Beat eggs and sugar on high for a minute or two–let them get light and fluffy. Reduce the speed to low and slowly pour in the milk and butter. Mix in the flour and baking powder until just incorporated, then pour the batter into the prepared pan, spreading the top into an even layer with a spatula.

Trim the rhubarb and cut into quarter-inch slices on the diagonal. Scatter slices evenly over the top of the cake. Bake for about 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Let cool on a rack in the pan for about five minutes, then remove from pan and continue cooling on a rack.

Dust top of cake with powdered sugar and serve with whipped cream if desired.

Cake will keep a day or two if covered, but is best on the first or second day.

Makes one 9-inch cake.

Norwegian Rhubarb Cake

Getting to the Heart of Food Writing (and a Swedish Currant Cake)

Swedish Currant Cake

There’s a secret that food writers keep. We don’t mean to, of course, but when one’s beat is food, it’s easy for most of the media we use to reflect only a tiny facet of who we are. That secret is the varied nature of our lives–outside of the kitchen. Aside from the occasional clue found on our Instagram feeds or the other publications you might find our work in, you probably wouldn’t know a lot about us other than the fact that we read a lot of cookbooks, can use work as an excuse for baking after cake, and that we sometimes get a little sentimental and nostalgic about something as ephemeral as food.

I’ve been thinking, though, about how much more there is to each of us. In fact, food writing isn’t about the food at all to me. I could get all starry-eyed about that amazing meal I ate and fill up a blog post with overused words like “delicious” and “perfect” but chance are that would end up sounding shallow at best, disingenuous or pretentious at worst. Food is all about the people, the memories, the experiences–it’s about life.

It’s about the beachside crêpe stand down the square from the house where I stayed the summer I studied in Normandy–a little white truck luring passersby with the sweet aromas of melted butter and warm sugar carried on the ocean breeze–and how my awareness of the world and its many cultures expanded as I fumbled my way through my order in a foreign language. Then there’s the glow of early love I felt as I sat by the side of a street by the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome for lunch with my husband on our honeymoon. We ate slices of chewy, yeasty pizza by hand, savoring the balance of the delicate zucchini blossoms and assertive anchovies adorned with little more than olive oil and salt; eight years later we still stalk zucchini blossoms together at the farmers’ market each summer until we find them, just so we can attempt to recreate that pizza at home and keep that experience of early romance alive. It’s also about how deeply comforting a protein-fortified milkshake and peanut butter and jelly sandwich paired with Earl Grey tea in a paper cup tasted when I was recovering from an emergency cesarean delivery and how even the mention of stewed prunes takes me back to the first sweet but hazy days with my newborn in the hospital.

That’s a little bit of my story right there, all wrapped up in food. And none of it really is about food. The pizza and the crêpes sucrées and the milkshake from the hospital cafeteria mean nothing in and of themselves–they’re just things that someone made and that someone ate, sustenance that meets one of our biggest needs for survival. But when there’s a story associated with them, they become something more: an entry point into our memories and a framework by which to contemplate our pasts.

If you were to look at what I’ve been eating in the past couple of weeks, the number of quick café meals–a breakfast sandwich here; yogurt, milk, and a panini there; and an occasional blended strawberry and cream drink and double nonfat latte along the way–would help define this moment in time occupied with hospital visits. As my son and I have eaten our drive-through coffee shop meals in the car (which I try to avoid) and out of crinkly white paper to-go bags in a lobby, I’ve experienced guilt about abandoning the structure and nutritional quality that I’ve built around our daytime meals. But in a way, while I watch someone dear to me struggle with the debilitating effects of stroke and wonder whether her speech and comprehension will ever fully return, I am thankful for the steady, predictable schedule of mealtime, no matter the form or its contents–that rhythm, at least, is one thing still in my control.

Swedish Currant Cake

And so we come to cake. Just as with that milkshake and those crêpes, there’s no inherent magic in a bunch of flour, sugar, butter, and currants baked together in a pan–unless you have something bigger to attach it to. Food blog guidelines would instruct me here to use evocative language that would entice you to want to drop everything and head to your kitchen right now to bake, but perhaps because of what I’m going through at the moment that seems beside the point–pointless even. For me, what this cake really represents is a gateway to a day I don’t want to forget, something a little ordinary, a little special, and full of sweetness in a time otherwise filled with grief and uncertainty.

This cake sat in my kitchen this morning, surrounded by toasted English muffins, sliced tomatoes, ham, artichoke hearts, avocados and bacon. As my husband made Hollandaise sauce and poached eggs, we mingled with a dozen or so friends, inviting them each to whip up a Bloody Mary and build their own eggs benedict. To have a houseful of people so early in the day is a rarity (late to bed, typically late to rise), but it was opening day of the Seattle Sounders FC season, and we wanted to mark the occasion well. In the blur of it all, I didn’t even think to snap a photo as a visual record of the morning. All I have are the photos of this cake, which I took yesterday.

From there we went to the game, a match against Sporting Kansas City, a game in which the 0-0 score glared down at the fans until after the 90th minute, in stoppage time, when the Sounders finally made a goal, winning the game with what felt like less than 30 seconds to go. I’m not a huge sports fan, but to be there with my husband and son, surrounded by tens of thousands of people cheering on a team in the rain–and erupting in applause as fireworks went off and the word “GOAL” flashed on the screen–that was something special, a memory I don’t want to forget.

And so there’s cake today, a dense, subtly-sweet one studded with almost three cups of dried currants, the type of cake you serve for brunch rather than a special occasion. One that would taste just as good toasted and spread with butter as any raisin-cinnamon toast. I’ll leave you with a recipe, should you want to give it a try. For me, it’s another way to remember something that has absolutely nothing to do with cake but has everything to do with friends and fellowship, brunch and soccer, and the bright hours of an otherwise challenging couple of weeks.

Swedish Currant Cake

Swedish Currant Cake
Adapted from Swedish Cakes and Cookies. As the original recipe recommends, plan on making this cake a couple of days before you plan on serving it. Just keep it covered and it will stay moist and get better with time.

2 3/4 cups dried currants
3/4 cup salted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
Zest of one lemon, grated
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon water, plus more hot water for rinsing currants

Preheat oven to 300 degrees and grease a tube pan. Rinse the currants briefly in hot water; drain well and set aside.

Beat butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, scraping down the sides occasionally, until light and fluffy. This will take a couple of minutes–don’t rush it. One at a time, add the eggs, mixing well before each addition.

Toss a tablespoon or two of the flour with the currants in a separate bowl. Add the rest of the flour–along with the cinnamon, lemon zest, and baking powder–to the batter and beat until mixed. Stir in almond extract, lemon juice, and a tablespoon of water until everything is incorporated, then fold in the currants.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean and the edges start to pull away from the sides. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for about five minutes, then loosen the cake from the sides of the pan with a knife, invert it onto a plate and remove the cake. Store covered.

Pannekaker–Norwegian Pancakes–For Dinner

Norwegian Pancakes

There’s a retirement home in Seattle overlooking Puget Sound, where western-facing residents watch the sun set over the Olympic Mountains in one of the best views the city has to offer. Scandinavians founded the community in the middle of the 20th century, and walking into the beige midcentury building today you’ll still feel like you’re entering an expansive version of your Norwegian relatives’ living room. My grandma Agny lived there for a while after my grandfather died, and she would occasionally have my parents, husband, and me join her for a Scandinavian pancake brunch.

Scandinavian pancakes–why not Swedish or Norwegian? Most other places around Seattle served what they called Swedish pancakes and back then my family didn’t know the distinction. I only knew they were warm and comforting, the sort of eggy yet carb-filled food that tasted like dessert but for some reason counted as a real meal. I’ve since learned quite a bit about them, and I had the opportunity to share the enthusiasm and knowledge in a pannekaker cooking class at the Nordic Heritage Museum this winter.

“Mama gets to make pancakes for work,” I told my toddler son as I prepared for the class, researching and analyzing recipes as I developed my own version with the right balance of delicacy and toothsome bite, and with plenty of flavor. We ate plenty of pancakes the week of the class, and I can imagine few better jobs to have during a chilly Seattle winter.

If you have Nordic roots or at least live in a place like Seattle with a rich Scandinavian background, chances are you’re familiar with the pancakes I’m talking about. Much thinner than the ones Americans typically eat for brunch, slathered with pats of melting butter in a pool of maple syrup, pannekaker–Norwegian pancakes–are much thinner, more like a crepe. As for the Swedish distinction? Pannekaker are a little thicker and eggier than pannkakor, but they’re really quite similar. Oh, and about that mention of brunch–you wouldn’t typically serve these in the morning hours. Instead, they’re about the most indulgent dinner I can think of. (Yes, dinner.)

The Scandinavians have a tradition of eating the pancakes with soup–sometimes a yellow pea soup, other times a version studded with little pieces of meat and vegetables. While the idea of eating pancakes with pea soup originated in Sweden, many Norwegians have adopted the tradition, making the combination comfort food to people in both countries.

In the (sold out!) class, I taught about 20 students how to make pannekaker and yellow pea soup. Since the pancakes are really quite simple but rely heavily on practice and technique, I wanted everyone to have a chance to make as many as possible. While I can’t replicate that experience in a blog post, I do want to share the recipe with you today along with detailed instructions and a number of tips to help you successfully make pannekaker for your family.

First of all, be aware that practice makes perfect. As I told my students, don’t be afraid to just start cooking–the first ones will be imperfect and might even tear while you’re flipping or rolling them. That’s okay–it’s part of the process, and each one will turn out better than the next as you get the technique down and adjust the heat of your pan to the right temperature. Also, I like to take a cue from cookbook author and food writer Signe Johansen who starts the process with a mini test pancake to check the flavoring of the batter and then adjusts accordingly.

Finally, when it comes to serving, lingonberry preserves are a popular condiment, and some people like to top their pannekaker with both fruit jam and sour cream. Butter and sugar is a classic combination, and whipped cream or honey are also options. Sunny over at Arctic Grub loves to eat them with bacon and blueberry jam.

I hope you’ll give these a try. They’re really quite easy to make, and once you’ve prepared a batch or two, you’ll feel confident enough to work these into your weeknight dinner repertoire.

Norwegian Pancakes

Norwegian Pannekaker
When developing this recipe, I noticed a lot of similarities between the ingredients in other ones. Basically, if you have flour, salt, sugar, eggs, milk, and butter, you can make pancakes. The differences come from the flavorings–which can include cardamom, lemon zest, and vanilla–and the ratios. Through analysis and testing I came up with my ideal ratio, which turned out similar to some others, and it results in a texture that’s just right, in my opinion. Of course, feel free to tweak it if you’re trying to replicate ones you remember eating–perhaps an extra egg or less flour? More liquid will result in a thinner pancake. I also added Scandinavian vanilla sugar, which lends a touch more sweetness and a pleasant vanilla flavor to the batter. You can find this at Scandinavian speciality stores, or you can use a little more sugar and some vanilla extract instead, although I have yet to exactly mimic the results of the Scandinavian vanilla sugar through substitutions.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon Scandinavian vanilla sugar*
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus more for pan

Mix all ingredients except butter in a medium-sized bowl using a whisk or fork until the batter is smooth and you have no lumps. Stir in butter. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to let the batter rest.

Meanwhile, warm a pan over medium heat. I prefer a well-seasoned cast-iron pan, which minimizes the need for additional butter to keep the pancakes from sticking. Melt a little butter in the pan and make a small test pancake like Signe Johansen recommends–this will help you gauge the heat and adjust the flavors if necessary–giving it a minute or so on each side to cook.

To get started on your first pancake, pour in enough batter to thinly coat the bottom of the pan–I find that a 1/3-cup measure is just right for my 10-inch pan. Twirl the pan around to coat the bottom, and when the top starts to set and the edges begin to color slightly, carefully but confidently and swiftly slide a heat-safe silicone spatula under the pancake, jiggling it slightly as you do, and flip the pancake. It will probably need about 2 minutes on the first side and a minute or so on the second. When done, use the spatula to roll the pancake in the pan and transfer to a plate.

Repeat until you’ve used up all the batter, adding a little butter to the pan between pancakes if necessary. Cover the pancakes with a tent of foil paper as you go to keep them warm. You may even wish to place them, covered, in a warm oven, but I find that if I’m going to serve them as soon as they’re ready, they retain heat well enough that keeping them tented near the ambient heat of the stove keeps them hot enough.

Serves 2-3.

Coming Up: Cooking Class in Seattle

One of the things I love best about food is how it brings people together. That’s certainly the case for family meals and socials with friends, and also with the news I’m excited to share with you today. In just a couple of weeks I’ll be leading my first cooking class at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle. The Museum has scheduled a fun lineup of pancake classes–one for each of the Nordic countries–this winter and spring and they’ve asked me to teach the Norwegian one that kicks off the series this month.

If you’re in Seattle and have an interest in cooking alongside other people with a passion for Nordic food (particularly pancakes!), I hope you’ll consider coming out for the class on Saturday, January 25, from 10am to 12:30pm. We’ll gather in the kitchen for some hands-on time making pannekaker and a hearty Norwegian soup then sit down to brunch.

The class is just $30 ($25 for museum members), and there’s a discount if you sign up for the five-class series. Find out how to register–and see the whole lineup–on the museum’s website. I hope to see some of you there!

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