They were just photos of landscapes. Muscular earth covered in green. A pair of cantilever bridges rising and falling, meandering through a snowy fishing village. Placid fjords reflecting their surroundings as they swallowed the light into their depths. Yet the photos almost brought tears to my eyes as I scrolled through an online acquaintance’s Facebook page the other day. Sunsets filled the skies with an otherworldly glow and as I looked at an image of the amber light bending around the mountains–the last light of day for the homes tucked along the shore–I felt a longing I’m still trying to process. It’s as though part of my heart resides in Norway, the country that my family left nearly 60 years ago.
When I visited Norway for the first time in 2008, something happened that I didn’t expect. Immediately I was struck with a sense of home, like I belonged there. I mentioned this to a friend at lunch recently, my story filled with apologies in case it sounded trite. She understood. And as time goes on I think I’m beginning to understand it more too. Norway is, in a way, home. It was home to my father for the first 11 years of his life. It was home to my grandparents, great grandparents, and countless other generations from both sides of my family tree. I’ve felt for so long that maybe I don’t deserve to claim the heritage. I’ve questioned whether I am “Norwegian enough,” despite being Norwegian 100 percent. I never traveled to Norway as a child, and only finally visited at the age of 26. I don’t speak the language (though I’m trying to learn). I don’t know any of my relatives in Norway, the few still remaining. My family is trying to connect with them but we’ve gotten news of one death and then another, making it feel like they’re drifting farther and farther out of reach.
But then a few photos stir up something deep inside me and I push all those doubts aside. When Grandma Agny died without warning almost six years ago, I dove into our shared heritage as a way to cope, to try to feel closer to her, even though I knew I couldn’t bring her back. Month after month, year after year, recipe after recipe, I’ve been working to understand more, to discover for myself this country that she knew so well. When my grandparents and father packed up their belongings and sailed to the United States in 1956, they were making a move that would shift the course of the family. We would, from that point, be Americans. But when I look back at my childhood, I see how my grandmother worked to keep the heritage and the traditions alive–through her hospitality and her food, the way she decorated her house, and even settling in Ballard, a neighborhood in Seattle with deep Scandinavian ties. She was giving me a gift, a starting place. I wouldn’t understand it until I became older and decided to take an interest in all of it myself. But when I was ready, there it was, infused in my memories, embedded in my heart.
Cardamom-Almond Custard with Blueberries
Grandma Agny had a flair for simple elegance. She spread her table with creamy fine linens and china when my parents and I came to eat, the napkins folded into fans. The food she served was steeped in the traditions of her native Norway, from the spiced medisterkaker meatballs and tart surkål that I loved so much to the rice pudding folded into a mound of fluffy whipped cream and drizzled with a deep magenta raspberry sauce. Norwegians have a number of rich, creamy desserts, and I’ve been noticing a theme of them in some of the Norwegian recipes I’ve been baking this spring. When I made the fillings for bløkake and Kvæfjordkake (also known as verdensbestekake, or world’s best cake), I found myself stopping at the fridge with a spoon repeatedly to sample the sweet, rich smooth creams and custards. This recipe takes the idea of those fillings and makes it into a dessert all its own. It’s inspired by the eggekrem in Ekte Norsk Matby Astrid Karlsen Scott with cues from the no-bake custard in Bakeless Sweets by Faith Durand tomake it more of a dessert and less of a filling. I’ve added almond and cardamom–two of my favorite Norwegian flavors–and finally topped it with luscious blueberries.
For the custard:
2 cups whipping cream
1/3 cup sugar
¾ teaspoon ground cardamom
6 egg yolks
1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon almond extract
Start by preparing a shallow pool of ice water in a container large enough to hold a heatproof bowl. You’ll use this to cool the custard at the end.
To make the custard, combine milk, sugar, and ground cardamom in a saucepan over medium heat, whisking to combine. Continuing to whisk, bring the milk almost to a simmer, then remove from heat.
In a mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks, cornstarch, and salt, and mix until smooth. You can use a stand mixer here, or simply a bowl and whisk. Pour the milk into the eggs while mixing on low speed. Once smooth, pour back into the saucepan. Whisking constantly, bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil two minutes, continuing to whisk, until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in almond extract.
Strain the custard into a heatproof bowl set in the pool of ice water. Give the custard a good stir until it reaches a smooth, uniform consistency. Divide between four individual serving dishes and chill for several hours.
Shortly before you’re ready to serve the custard, give the frozen berries a quick rinse and drain. Place them in a medium saucepan with the sugar over medium heat. Stir occasionally and gently until the liquid from the berries comes to a boil, about three minutes. While the blueberries are heating, dissolve potato starch flour in a tablespoon of water. Add to the blueberries in a steady stream, stirring constantly. The liquid will immediately start to thicken and a sauce will form. After about a minute, when the liquid has thickened slightly, remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Keep warm.
When ready to serve, spoon the blueberries over each custard.