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

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.

Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)

Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)

This morning I woke up to the sight of freshly-fallen snow. I snapped a quick photo through the window in the blue-tinted light just to capture the moment for myself. As I excitedly looked from one window to the next, I took in the images of the smooth white surfaces covering my neighbors’ roofs as perfectly as the icing on a gingerbread house and of the snow on the driveway untouched except for a row of dainty little paw prints.

As is usual in Seattle, the snow didn’t last and by mid-afternoon, when the setting sun had turned the gauzy sky a light dusty rose, the snow was gone. But it was enough to call for a snow day. Appointments canceled, my son and I cuddled fireside to read books while warming up from a brief time outside. As he continued to play I savored the still, quiet morning hours–such a rarity–and settled in, knowing we had absolutely nowhere to go.

Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)

That reminds me of a recent cozy day when I baked this julekake, cardamom-scented Norwegian Christmas bread studded with raisins and candied citron. There’s something about the process of baking bread that creates a steady, still rhythm to the day. Mixing the dough in the morning, I let it undergo multiple rises throughout the day, monitoring the temperature as I went along.

The scent of woody cardamom and yeasty bread is one of the quintessential marks of Christmas time in my memories. Mom would butter slices of julekake and top them with slices of geitost for snacks during this time of year and I loved the sweet-savory elements of both the bread and the brown goat cheese.

Our julekake tended to be dotted with an assortment of candied fruits in black, green, yellow, and red. This year however I decided to bake a batch of my own and follow a Norwegian tradition of including only raisins and citron, candying the latter myself.

Candied Citron

Citron

The bread, though shaped differently than the julekake of my youth, was just as I remembered it: warming, aromatic, festive, and just right for eating with thinly sliced geitost. 

The sky has darkened and night is almost here. The tree is lit and a fire flickering in the fireplace. The snow may be gone–just like the julekake–but that little bit of snow this morning was the perfect way to usher in the last weekend before Christmas, full of holiday parties and just the tiniest bit of last-minute shopping. However you are spending the days leading up to Christmas, I wish you the coziest, merriest, and blessed time possible. God Jul!

Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)

Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)
Adapted from Ekte Norsk Jul Vol. 2 and Ekte Norsk Mat, both by Astrid Karlsen Scott. Be sure to use freshly-ground cardamom. Next time I’ll increase the amount of candied citron.

3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup salted butter, cut into dice
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
5 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (75-80 degrees F)
3 eggs, divided
5 cups flour, sifted, divided
1-2 teaspoons freshly-ground cardamom
1 1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup candied citron (see David Lebovitz’s recipe, or use store-bought)

Warm milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. When bubbles begin to form around the edge, remove from heat and stir in sugar, butter, and salt, stirring to melt the butter. Set aside to cool to lukewarm.

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the water and stir until dissolved. Add the lukewarm milk, then stir in two beaten eggs. Add 2 cups of the flour and the cardamom and beat with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth. Stir in raisins and citron. At this point you’ll want to stir in just enough of the remaining flour to form a soft dough–I used about 2 1/2 cups. Let rest, covered with a towel, about ten minutes.

For the first rise: Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes, then transfer to a large, lightly-greased bowl. Turn it so that the oil coats the entire ball of dough. Cover with a towel and set in a warm place, about 85 degrees F, to rise until it’s doubled in bulk. (In the conditions in my home, this took about 90 minutes.)

For the second rise: Punch down the dough and divide in half, forming the dough into two balls. Cover them for ten minutes, and prepare baking sheets by lightly greasing them. Place a round loaf onto the baking sheets and let rise again in a warm spot, covered with towels, until they’ve doubled in bulk, another 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Toward the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. When ready to bake, beat the remaining egg in a small bowl then gently brush it over each loaf, taking care not to press down on the dough too much. Bake for 20 minutes, then cover with foil and bake until done; the original recipes suggest the second period should take about 25 minutes, until the bread is deep golden brown. Mine–which I baked in 2 ovens–took about 17 or 18 minutes for the second part. Immediately transfer to wire racks and cool.

Makes 2 round loaves.

Two Red Cabbage Salads for Your Christmas Table

Red Cabbage Salad

The Christmas tree stands unadorned in my living room where it’s taken residence since the Sunday before last. The strings of lights and masses of translucent, opaque, and metallic red bulbs are ready to be strung and strewn throughout its natural, Douglas fir branches–waiting, just waiting, for the right time. As I scroll through Instagram during the quiet moments I see home after home decked out in an abundance of decorations. One person remarked on how she was taking a relaxed approach to decorating this year and had taken a week to trim her tree–she’d probably be shocked to see how much I have her beat!

The days of December and the weeks of Advent are passing by more quickly than I anticipated, and I’m choosing to be okay with that. I won’t manage to set up the entire ceramic Christmas village that has been in my family for years. I won’t bake as many cookies as I had hoped. I won’t be able to squeeze in every single Christmasy activity that I enjoy. December snuck up on me this year (perhaps due to a late Thanksgiving) and rather than trying to catch up, I’m choosing to relax and be okay with a calmer, quieter season. What I am striving for is a month full of special moments, quality time with loved ones, sweet activities at home with my family, and reflection on the reason we celebrate Christmas to begin with.

As I’ve worked through my calendar and my thoughts to come to that conclusion, I’ve reflected on the stress, frenzy, and overcommitments that might otherwise permeate the too-few minutes and hours of this short season. Rather than worrying about the faint dust that’s inevitably gathered on my bookshelf or whether I’ve put away the toys scattered around the family room (which are still in use into the evening) before guests come for dinner, I would prefer to do my best: to offer hospitality by warmly welcoming friends and loved ones through my door, ushering them into a peaceful and tidily lived-in home, and feeding them well.

Red Cabbage Salad

That was the case with the lutefisk feast I served my parents and grandma last week. What I really wanted that evening was to treat those dear people to a meal full of tradition, memories, and love. There were still dishes in the sink when they came (I would have needed two dishwashers to keep up after that day of cooking!) and the table had yet to be set. But the food was coming together, and it ended up filling each family member with not just the satiation of a good meal but with the warmth and love that I had so hoped. There was the julekake that Grandma loves so much and the Norwegian rice cream with raspberry sauce that my dad’s late mother always served at Christmastime. I served lutefisk with melted butter for my family and with cream sauce for my husband who remembers eating it that way while visiting relatives in Sweden. Looking back at how content and joyful everyone was at the end of the evening, I wouldn’t have prioritized anything differently.

We’re slowly bringing out the decorations. The stockings are hung, the Advent candles on the dinner table. When I start to feel antsy about the progress–what seems like slow momentum relative to so many other households–I reflect on my goals for the season and remember that for many families in Scandinavia, the Christmas tree wouldn’t be decorated until Christmas Eve. This year I’m trying just to savor. My attempts will be imperfect–that is just inevitable–but it feels good to know that I’m trying.

Red Cabbage Salad

Two Red Cabbage Salads for Your Christmas Table

I served the following two salads for last week’s lutefisk feast. While I love rødkål–the slowly-simmered sweet-and-sour red cabbage that’s a traditional Scandinavian Christmas side dish–I wanted to add something fresh and raw to what was otherwise going to be a rich and hearty meal. These two recipes have three things in common: red cabbage, apple, and walnuts. The first has a creamy dressing and the second is sweetened with lingonberry preserves. For either salad, you could certainly prepare the vegetables easily by shredding the cabbage using the slicing blade of a food processor and switching to the shredding disk for the apples as I did, which will result in a slaw-like consistency. Next time, though, I’ll try slicing the cabbage thinly using a sharp knife and cutting the apples into matchsticks. The latter approach is more work, but I think the vegetables will stand up better to the dressings.

Creamy Red Cabbage and Apple Salad
Adapted significantly from the Rødkålsalat in Ekte Norsk Jul Vol. 2 by Astrid Karlsen Scott. 

2 cups shredded or thinly-sliced red cabbage
2 cups shredded or matchstick-cut apples (peels left on; 2 small apples or 1 1/2 medium apples)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup plus 1-2 tablespoons roughly chopped toasted walnuts, divided
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Salt and pepper to taste

Place cabbage and apples in a medium bowl and toss with lemon juice to prevent the apples from discoloring. This will also help season the salad. Stir in 1/2 cup of the walnuts. Mix sour cream, mayonnaise, and kosher salt in a small bowl. Add just enough of the dressing to coat the salad. Taste, and season with salt and pepper if you’d like. Place in a serving bowl and garnish with the remaining walnuts.

Serves 6-8.

Red Cabbage Salad with Green Apple, Lingonberry Preserves, and Toasted Walnuts
Adapted from Bon Appétit, January 2010, from Chefs Andrew Chase and Erwin Schrottner. The original recipe calls for blending part of the lingonberry preserves with part of the dressing, then stirring in the rest of the preserves later. I followed those steps and included that below, but next time I’ll try blending all the preserves with the dressing–that will make it easier to adjust the ultimate seasonings to taste.

4 cups thinly sliced red cabbage
1 large Granny Smith apple, coarsely grated
1/2 cup toasted walnut halves, divided
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons lingonberry preserves, divided
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup canola oil

Place cabbage, apple, and most of the walnut halves in a large bowl, reserving about a tablespoon or two of the walnuts for the garnish. Toss with lemon juice.

Puree 1 tablespoon of the lingonberry preserves with the mustard, vinegar, and salt in a blender. With the machine running on the slowest speed and a hand guarding the hole in the lid to keep the dressing from splashing out, slowly add the oil until incorporated. Taste and add salt and pepper if desired.

Add the remaining preserves and about half of the dressing and toss to combine. Add additional dressing until you have enough to coat the salad–be careful not to overdress it. Season with salt and pepper if you wish, transfer to a serving dish, and garnish with the remaining walnut halves.

Serves 8.

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies with a Scandinavian Touch

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies

They’d all be here in 15 minutes, my mom alerted me in a text message. My mom and dad, grandma, uncle, and contingent of cousins were on their way, the first arrivals of a 21-person Thanksgiving feast. I reflected on the progress, what still needed to be done, and felt a sense of calm.

The tables were set, the turkeys in the oven and rotisserie, the soup simmering on the stove. Despite a short period of feeling pressured to get everything done a half an hour prior, my husband and I were ready to welcome the first of our first guests.

We’ve hosted feasts in the past–large groups of so many people that we’ve made big batches of chili or ribs and let our guests serve themselves with paper plates and plastic cups. But being our first sit-down meal with more than about 15 people, this event required quite a bit of extra preparation. So off I headed to Ikea for a ridiculous amount of plates, utensils, water glasses, and wine glasses (and a necessary serving of Swedish meatballs in their cafe), and I braved the pre-Thanksgiving holiday rush at the mall to find linens. And then there was the food. Last Sunday I realized that I could minimize my time at the grocery store–guaranteed to be crowded any time in the following days–by ordering most of my groceries online. By the time Tuesday rolled around, I told the women in my Bible study that I was feeling strangely relaxed about hosting such a feast–perhaps that was cause for concern?

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies

But before I knew it my house was full of relatives from both sides of my husband’s and my family, who were happily mingling and sampling from bottles of bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau, Côtes du Rhône, Grenache, and Tempranillo. Soon the dining room was full of relatives hungrily eating a first course of butternut squash and chipotle soup garnished with cocoa-toasted pumpkin seeds and served with aged-cheddar biscuits. While the bowls were emptying, my husband carved the turkeys and the side dishes were passed: Mom’s sweet potatoes in orange cups and her classic sausage dressing, my mother-in-law’s creamy mashed potato casserole, a perfectly sweet-tart cranberry sauce from my sister-in-law, and a squash and radicchio salad from my brother-in-law.

The calm I had felt in the days leading up to the event had not been the calm before the proverbial storm, but rather a sense of peace and confidence that everything was under control, that the day would turn out to be what it should be: a time to spend with loved ones and to reflect on all the things we have to be thankful for.

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies

A few days ago I even managed to bake a batch of cookies–not for Thanksgiving, but just for fun. I had seen a recipe for cardamom thumbprint cookies in Food & Wine and wanted to give it a try, adding lingonberry preserves to the mix for an extra-Scandinavian touch. We certainly didn’t need any more sweets–we had more pies, cakes, and cookies than we could eat–but baking these amidst all of the holiday preparations gave me a chance to do a little something for myself and it also resulted in being able to send home a box of treats with some family members last night.

With Thanksgiving in the past and the countdown to Christmas now here, I’d like to share with you the first in a series of cookie recipes I’ll be featuring on Outside Oslo in the coming weeks. Whether your Christmas preparations include making the traditional syv slags kaker–seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies–or perhaps making just a few batches of favorite family cookies, I hope you’ll find ideas and inspiration here on the blog. I’m aiming to share seven cookie recipes in the weeks to come, but even though I’ve read that it wouldn’t be a proper Norwegian Christmas without at least seven types, I’m modifying the tradition for my family and choosing to do as many–and only as many–as we can make while still maximizing a sense of togetherness, fun, and holiday cheer. Whether that ends up being three, four, seven, or ten types, I’ll be happy with the results.

I hope that you all had a good Thanksgiving and that you have a blessed holiday season.

Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies

 Almond-Cardamom Thumbprints with Lingonberry Preserves
Adapted from Food & Wine, December 2013

1 cup fine almond flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Approximately 1 cup lingonberry preserves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and prepare two baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper or using a Silpat baking mat (I did the latter and baked the cookies in rounds batches).

Whisk almond flour, all-purpose flour, cardamom, and salt together in a medium bowl to combine. In a medium-to-large bowl, beat the butter and sugar using an electric mixer for about three minutes, until it becomes light and fluffy; scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary to fully incorporate the ingredients. Beat in the egg and vanilla extracts, then turn down the speed to low and mix in the dry ingredients, just until incorporated. Turn out the dough onto your work surface and knead it a few times, forming it into a ball.

Shape the dough into little balls using a tablespoon measure and arrange them on the baking sheets about an inch apart. Make an indentation in the center of each–Food & Wine suggests using a teaspoon for this–and bake until slightly firm, about 10 minutes. Reinforce the indentation in each cookie one more time and return the cookies to the oven until they start to turn lightly golden and feel dry to the touch. This should take about seven more minutes.

Immediately transfer the cookies to a rack. When completely cool, stir the lingonberry preserves in a small bowl to create a smoother jam (it’s okay to leave the berries intact), then carefully spoon a little into the center of each cookie.

Makes about two dozen cookies.

Mor Monsen Kake – A Classic Norwegian Cake for Christmastime

Mor Monsen Cake

I’ve sat down twice to write this post—actually, I’ve sat down to write it more times than I can count, but twice I’ve drafted something and decided to start over. I’m in a dry spot creatively and I’ve struggled to find the right words to communicate the things I’d like to tell you. I’ve been sitting on this post for far too long, though—and the cake you’re looking like is already long gone—so it’s about time I stop worrying about telling the perfect story and just touch base here on the blog, even if just for a moment.

The cake I’m sharing with you today is called Mor Monsen Kake, or Mother Monsen’s Cake. It’s a classic Norwegian cake flavored richly with lemon zest and garnished with almonds, currants or raisons, and pearl sugar. Have you ever tasted it? It’s been a beloved cake since the 19th century since a Norwegian author wrote what is believed by some to be the first Norwegian cookbook. Hanna Winsnes, in her 1845 book, Lærebog i de forskjellige Grene af Huusholdningen (which Norwegian-born Sunny over at Arctic Grub loosely translates to A manual On The Different Household Chores), included a recipe for this cake, attributing it to Mor Monsen. That woman’s legacy lives on to this day in this popular cake, though we don’t know much else about her.

Mor Monsen Cake

I’m intrigued by the history of recipes—how they originated, what inspired them, who developed them. The mystery surrounding Mor Monsen is part of what draws me to this cake. Was she a friend of the author’s, or perhaps a relative? Did she attend the author’s church (Hanna was the wife of a priest)? What other recipes did she develop that may have been lost (or attributed elsewhere)? We’ll probably never know the answers, but I love that we have her name and that her recipe has stood the test of time: Her cake is still popular in Norway today.

I also wonder about the inclusion of lemon. Citrus is not native to Norway, so it must have been an expensive ingredient for housewives in the 19th century. Perhaps this is why Mor Monsen Kake is enjoyed during holidays such as Christmas, times in which families would work extra hard to provide a special, warm environment for their loved ones.

With the all the questions I have about this cake, I do know one thing: You should make it part of your Scandinavian Christmas this year. The simplest cake batter, all it takes is creaming butter and sugar together and adding the lemon zest and other requite cake ingredients, then pouring it all into a pan. Sprinkle with almonds, currants or raisins, and pearl sugar, then bake. When it’s cooled, cut it into its distinctive diamond-shaped pieces, and you’ll have a cake that’s simple yet elegant, already cut into serving pieces making it great for transport, and that keeps well. I’ve heard that you can even freeze it—though you may not need to.

While we’re on the subject of Scandinavian Christmas, I have a number of recipes lined up for you this season, so I hope you’ll subscribe to the blog and follow along on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. You can also access some of my past Scandinavian Christmas posts here. And now for the cake…

Mor Monsen Cake

Mor Monsen Kake (Norwegian Mother Monsen Cake)
Adapted from Authentic Norwegian Cooking by Astrid Karlsen Scott

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon (salted) butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
6 eggs
Grated zest of one lemon (use an organic one if possible, or scrub thoroughly)
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cups slivered almonds
1/2 cup dried currants or raisins
3 tablespoons pearl sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a 9- by 13-inch pan with parchment paper and grease it.

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, blending thoroughly into the batter before adding the next. Mix in lemon zest. In a small bowl, combine flour and baking powder, then tip into the batter and stir just until combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan, scraping all the last bits from the bowl, then smooth it into an even layer with a spatula. Sprinkle the almonds, currants, and pearl sugar evenly over the top and press the garnishes gently into the top of the batter. You want to do this ever so slightly–Scott says to do this so the garnishes stick to the cake once baked.

Bake until lightly golden and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, 20-25 minutes. Cool on a rack until cool enough to handle, then remove the cake from the pan and let finish cooling (Scott suggests doing this by inverting the pan with a baking sheet). When cool, cut the cake into the signature diamond shapes, or into parallelograms if preferred.

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