Cardamom-scented Fastelavnsboller and other recently-published recipes

Fastelavnsboller - DSC_2615

A few weeks ago I pounded so much cardamom in the mortar and pestle that I must have sneezed about ten times in the half hour that followed, whispers of the spice hovering around me and clinging to my hair. I briefly worried that I might develop an allergy to this favorite Nordic flavor. (I’ve since bought myself a spice grinder.) In the weeks that have followed, I’ve managed to maintain a sense of hygge or koselig in my home with little more than the aroma of freshly-baked boller, sweet cardamom buns. I’m still working on recreating my grandma’s boller recipe, which many of you have been waiting for with anticipation, but I trust that these Fastelavnsboller will tide you over in the meantime.

Sweet cardamom-scented buns bursting with rich almond paste and a cloud of whipped cream, Fastelavnsboller are the Norwegian symbol that Lent is approaching–and spring along with it. (Those of you with Swedish backgrounds will know them as semlor.) Head on over to the Norwegian American Weekly for the story and the recipe.

Fastelavnsboller - DSC_2619

While I’m at it, let me point you to some of the other recipes I’ve featured in the NAW in recent months: Scandinavian pickled beets with star anise, my signature recipe for gløgg/glögg, lingonberry swirl brownies, author J. Ryan Stradal’s family recipe for potato patties, Viking Soul Food’s pickled eggs with black pepper mayonnaise and caviar, Bergen fish soup, and grilled salmon with lemon-horseradish cream. You’ll find many more great Scandinavian recipes over there, too, from the talented writers I’m so happy to have as part of my team.

To wrap up a bit of housekeeping, I’d also love to share with you my recent cover story for Edible Seattle, “Norwegian Christmas Cookies: a tradition of butter, time, and love.” The recipe was only in print until a few weeks ago, but now that it’s available online too, I hope you’ll file the article–and its accompanying recipes for serinakaker, sirupsnipper, and Berlinerkranser–away for next Christmas.

Thanks to all of you who share this passion for using food to connect with our heritage–no matter where we’re from, Norway or otherwise–and those we love. I always enjoy hearing from you, whether it’s to share your experience with one of my recipes or a story about one of your own favorite recipes and how it’s touched your life in some way. You can keep in touch here, and on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. I especially hope you’ll sign up for my new Scandinavian food newsletter.

Until next time,

Daytona

Fastelavnsboller - DSC_2641

Arme Riddere (Norwegian Poor Knights)

Arme Riddere

Earlier today, I wavered between taking the kids on an outing or staying home for some leisurely time in which I could make them something special to eat. I opted for the latter. Whisking eggs, milk, sugar, and some cinnamon together, I poured the silky, spice-speckled mixture over a few slices of bread, leaving the milk to saturate it. Swirling a pat of butter in a hot pan, I added the bread and transformed it into Arme Riddere, or in plain English terms, Norwegian French toast. What a special treat for the kids, it seemed!

Let’s stop for a minute. Your idealized visions of life of a food writer should end right here.

I’d like to say that my attempts at making my children a special Norwegian meal were a success. But such is the life of a food writer testing recipes, sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t.

At first, my son commented, “Mmm! It’s good!” But after that initial bite, the slices lingered on my children’s plates and my son soon said he was done. I felt the initial reaction of disappointment. I tasted the toast. Lackluster. Too healthy: That’s what I get for using healthy white bread, I thought. Too thin: not enough egg? Not enough flavor: maybe add more sugar and some spice. And so that’s what I did.

In cooking and baking, it’s amazing how subtle changes can transform something from mediocre to amazing. Adding an egg and boosting the sugar and spices a little made all the difference—even allowing me to keep the healthy white bread. (I say healthy because it’s an organic one that contains quite a bit of whole grains and no artificial ingredients, things that are important to me to maintain as much as possible.)

The recipe we’re talking about today is Arme Riddere, also known as “poor knights.” This is one of those dishes that brings to mind the linguistic concept of cognates. Much as with the French toast that Americans are familiar with, Arme Riddere is a great way to use day-old bread, as it gets puffed up and moistened with sweetened milk before being fried in a generous pat of butter. What might seem different, though, is the use.

Arme Riddere

Arme Riddere

Though today it seems to be widely considered appropriate to eat it for breakfast or brunch, the impression I get from older, classic Norwegian cookbooks is that it was more commonly considered a dessert.

As a dessert, it’s traditionally served with red sauce and also can be served with berries and cream, perhaps a scoop of ice cream. Want to switch things up? One Norwegian website suggests serving it with homemade dulce de leche and berries. But if you’re in the mood for breakfast, then by all means poor on some maple syrup, spoon on a mound of jam, and eat up.

By the time I got around to testing another batch, hours had passed and dinner was still well in the distance. I stood at the counter by the stove and pulled off bites of the cooling bread to sample while the kids played nearby, not knowing what they were missing. Even without the ceremony of sitting down for a meal, even without the requisite toppings, I could tell that this was going to be good.

**A bit of news: I’m launching a new Scandinavian newsletter on Monday morning. It will be a place where we can share more stories, cooking tips, and recipes. I hope you’ll take a moment to sign up.**

Arme Riddere

Arme Riddere (Poor Knights)
We don’t usually have white bread around here, opting for wheat or seed instead, but there are those dishes—like meatloaf or meatballs—that call for a few slices, so this is the perfect way to use up some of the excess bread that might otherwise start to go south from stale in the pantry. If you’d like something extra special, Whitney Love of the blog Thanks for the Food suggests using stale brioche or challah.

4 thick slices day-old white bread
2 eggs
2/3 cup milk
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vaniljesukker or vanilla extract*
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1-2 Tablespoons butter
Powdered sugar, for dusting

Arrange the bread slices on a dish large enough to hold them in one layer. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, milk, sugar, vaniljesukker or vanilla extract, cinnamon, cardamom, and kosher salt until smooth. Pour the mixture over the bread and let sit for 20 minutes, carefully flipping the slices halfway through (alternatively, dip the slices in the milk mixture and lay them in a dish to rest). Heat butter in a large skillet and add the bread, working in batches if necessary to avoid crowding them. Fry until golden, 2-3 minutes on each side. Dust with powdered sugar and serve immediately with your choice of toppings.

Serves 2.

*If you don’t have vaniljesukker, Scandinavian vanilla sugar, go ahead and use a little vanilla extract. I’m a big fan of vaniljesukkar—which is completely different from the vanilla sugar you might make by infusing granulated sugar with a spent vanilla pod—as it imparts a subtle yet distinct flavor. It’s available at stores like Seattle’s Scandinavian Specialties, which also sells it online.

St. Lucia Saffron Buns (Lussekatter)

Lussekatter

“Who made these?” she asked, sitting across from me at the dinner table the other night, a golden swirled saffron bun in her hand.

“I did.”

“They’re good,” she replied, her face in a slight grimace of satisfaction. It’s been nearly two years since the strokes tangled the words and ideas in my grandmother’s mind. I didn’t expect to necessarily receive such a compliment from her again. But there we were, sharing a meal in the company of extended family, still connecting over baked goods, the things that have brought us together time and time again each Christmas season.

Each fall and winter my grandma, mom, and I would get together, often weekly, to bake lefse, Norwegian waffles, and a variety of cookies. It was our pre-Christmas tradition, one that marked the season with a time of festivity and love. We don’t do it anymore, not since the strokes. For the past week I’ve been thinking about how it doesn’t feel like Christmastime yet–I think the loss of a tradition has a lot to do with that.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be like that, maybe it’s not necessarily gone. Maybe we’re just doing it differently. I’m still trying to bake as much as I can this month, still trying to infuse my home with the Scandinavian aromas of hot butter, sugar, and spice. And even if Grandma is not here baking alongside me, I can still share with her the products, perhaps sparking sweet reminiscences with each familiar flavor and bite.

Lussekatter

Lucia Buns Diptych with Saffron

Grandma used to make airy round buns scented with cardamom. They were golden on top and slick, and they really didn’t need to be spread with any butter, probably thanks to all the butter in the dough. Those buns were on the list of things I had wanted to learn to make in my baking sessions with Grandma. Over the years, as she downsized homes and eventually moved into a retirement home–and as she stopped cooking much independently–I think she forgot which recipe she used. I have a thing about lost recipes; I regret their loss and want to recreate them, but then the task itself becomes daunting.

When I baked a batch of St. Lucia saffron buns the other day, however, I bit into the yeasty, buttery dough and savored a taste and texture reminiscent of so many of the breads of Grandma’s that I grew up eating. Don’t get me wrong, these saffron buns are distinct and quite different from cardamom buns. But if you’ve tasted either, Scandinavian style, then you might understand what I mean when I say that these contained enough of the essence of Grandma’s old baking to bring me back to a place where a taste conjured up a wealth of memories. I hope that for Grandma they did too. At least, these saffron buns have inspired me to try recreating Grandma’s cardamom buns. Maybe the task won’t be as challenging as it might seem.

Lucia Buns Diptych

In the meantime, I’ve been eating saffron buns for days and have a large bag of them in my freezer waiting to serve with the morning coffee on St. Lucia Day, December 13. The day is marked, in Scandinavia, with light and the image of children wearing long, flowing white robes tied with red sashes and carrying candles. One wears a crown of candles. (Read more about the tradition here and here.)

As most celebrations are accompanied by good food, saffron buns are traditionally enjoyed on December 13. Saffron, a very special and expensive spice, is used in a variety of Scandinavian baked goods, especially during Christmastime. It’s the single showcased flavor of these traditional buns, which are soft and buttery and perfect with a cup of coffee, gløgg/glögg, or hot chocolate.

Lucia buns, commonly known as lussekatter, can be formed in a variety of shapes (there’s a great illustration of some of them here). One of the most common and simplest is the S shape, which–as Magnus Nilsson points out in the new The Nordic Cookbookis really called the julgalt, or Christmas boar. The real lussekatt shape has four curls, which I suppose could be interpreted as paws, each curling outward.

The recipe I’m sharing with you today is quite traditional, flavored simply with saffron and decorated with only a couple of raisins or currants each. If you don’t mind playing around with tradition, you might want to try tossing a handful of currants into the dough, as does Anna Brones, coauthor of Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. I tasted her lussekatter recently at an event, and it’s definitely worth a try. Signe Johansen adds cardamom and replaces the currants with sour cherries in her book Scandilicious Baking. No matter how you choose to make them, do be sure to wrap up a package of them to share with a Scandinavian (or anyone, for that matter) in your life. Fresh or toasted, with butter or plain, they’re sure to bring a smile to their face.

Lussekatter

St. Lucia Saffron Buns (Lussekatter)
There’s no shortage of ways to shape these buns. I’ve included instructions for the simplest version, the S shape, also known as julgalt. But feel free to get as creative as you’d like. Lucia buns are best served on the day that they’re made, as they have a reputation for drying out quickly. If you’re not going to eat them that day, freeze them immediately, recommends Anna Brones. Then when you’re ready to serve them, just defrost them for 10-15 minutes, wrap them in foil, and pop them back in the oven to reheat. If you happen to have extra buns that have begun to dry out, toast them for breakfast the next day or make them into French toast, she suggests.

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon whiskey
1 cup unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups milk
3 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
About 8 cups flour
64 currants or raisins

The night before baking, crush saffron with a tablespoon of the sugar in a small bowl. Pour in whiskey, give it a quick stir, cover with plastic wrap, and let the whiskey draw out the saffron’s color and flavor.

The next day, melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Pour in the milk and bring to lukewarm over medium heat. Scoop out a half cup or so and place in a bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over, cover, and let sit until bubbles form, 10 to 15 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, beat one egg. Stir in the rest of the sugar, salt, the milk and yeast mixture, and the saffron. Take note of the brilliant color the saffron has added, almost like a dye. Pour in the rest of the milk mixture and mix well with a wooden spoon. Gradually add flour, thoroughly mixing as you go; it should still be sticky and moist. Turn dough out onto a lightly-covered surface and knead for about five minutes until light and elastic. Take care to not add too much flour, either when mixing the dough or flouring the work surface, otherwise you’ll end up with dry buns; this is a very sticky dough, and a bench scraper can help pull it from the surface while you work. Return the dough to the mixing bowl. Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Line baking sheets with parchment. Cut the dough into 32 equal sized pieces. Roll each into a log, working from the center out, until they’re about the thickness of a finger. Form into simple S shapes by simultaneously rolling each end in opposite directions. Place the buns on the baking sheets, then cover with a damp tea towel and let rise again for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Beat the remaining egg and brush it onto the tops of buns. Press raisins or currants into the crevices, two per bun if you’re making the s shape. Bake until golden yellow on top and cooked through, taking care not to overbake them or they’ll be too dry. Time will depend on size, but it should take 8 to 12 minutes. Transfer to the counter and place another damp tea towel over them while they cool to keep them from drying out.

Makes 32 buns.

Lussekatter

Cardamom-Almond Custard with Blueberries

Cardamom Almond Custard with Blueberries

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

Cardamom Almond Custard with Blueberries

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 Mat by Astrid Karlsen Scott with cues from the no-bake custard in Bakeless Sweets by Faith Durand to make 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

Blueberries:
3 cups frozen blueberries
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon potato starch flour
1 tablespoon water
1/4 teaspoon vanilla 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.

Serves 4.

Cardamom Almond Custard with Blueberries

Chocolate Cake with Lingonberry Cream

Chocolate Cake with Lingonberry Cream

When I was first setting out to discover my heritage for myself as a heartbroken adult, I gravitated to the recipes, specifically the cakes. There were Norwegian Tosca cake, Swedish brandy cake, and fyrstekake (after a number of years, this is now my favorite fyrstekake recipe), then as time went on there came bløtkake, Kvaefjordkake, and Norwegian rhubarb cake, among many, many others.

When I was challenged recently–along with a few other blogs in the Seattle area–to take a tube of Ashley Rodriguez’s Not Without Salt Salted Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix and create something new with it, I decided to bake a cake. Surely a little baking science could back me up and help me convert cookie dough into cake batter, right? I had just the idea in mind to test out my theory: chocolate layer cake with lingonberry cream.

Chocolate Cake with Lingonberry Cream

Chocolate Cake with Lingonberry Cream

Chocolate Cake with Lingonberry Cream

The cake itself is delightfully dense, almost like a brownie but with the fluff and crumb to make it truly a cake. It’s loaded with lingonberries, from the preserves spread between the layers to the additional jam folded into the cream filling. And, just for fun, I topped the cake with some vibrant whole lingonberries.

I tested the recipe three times (as a contest participant, Ashley gave me two tubes of cookie mix; I already had one additional tube in my pantry), and now I’m happy to present to you my recipe for chocolate layer cake with lingonberry cream. Each participant is publishing a recipe this week, and the two finalists will have their recipes featured at an event on June 30 at Marx Foods (which carries the cookie mix) in Seattle. Enjoy!

Chocolate Cake with Lingonberry Cream

Chocolate Layer Cake with Lingonberry Cream

Cake:

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter
1 tube of Not Without Salt Salted Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
4 extra-large eggs, room temperature

Lingonberry Cream:

4 egg yolks
2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in quarters
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups lingonberry preserves, divided

Topping:
1 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ cup vanilla extract
Whole lingonberries, optional*

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease one 9-inch springform pan, at least 2 1/2 inches high.

Cut butter into cubes and place in a small saucepan with the chocolate from the cookie mix package. Place over medium-low heat and melt, stirring frequently, until the butter and chocolate are completely melted and smooth. Stir in the espresso powder. Set aside to cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour from the mix with baking powder to combine and fluff. Set aside.

Using a stand mixer, beat eggs on medium speed with the whisk attachment until frothy, one minute. Add packet of sugar from the mix and beat vigorously on high for about three minutes, until the eggs triple in volume. Add the flour and fold in carefully, just until combined. Take care not to disturb the air bubbles. Pour in the melted butter and chocolate while continuing to fold, just until mixed. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the center of the oven for 35 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

Meanwhile, make the lingonberry cream: In a medium saucepan, whisk together the egg yolks, milk, sugar, cornstarch, and a pinch of salt from the cookie mix. Add the butter and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly. Stir in vanilla extract and set aside to cool. When cooled, stir in 1 cup of the lingonberry preserves.

When the cake has cooled, remove from the pan. Cut in thirds lengthwise using a long serrated knife.

Place the bottom layer on a serving plate or cake stand and spread with 1/2 cup of the lingonberry preserves, then half of the lingonberry cream. Set the middle layer over this and repeat with the remaining lingonberry preserves and cream, reserving a little cream for the end. Top with the final layer of cake.

Whip cream until stiff peaks form and fold in sugar and vanilla extract. Spread on top of the cake. Spread remaining lingonberry custard around the sides of the cake. Garnish with whole lingonberries, if desired.

Serves 16

*I found my whole lingonberries in the frozen section at Scandinavian Specialties in Seattle.

Chocolate Cake with Lingonberry Cream

News from the Norwegian American Weekly (plus Kaffefromasj)

Kaffefromasj

We’ll get to the dessert in a moment. But first I can’t wait to announce that I’m the new food editor for the Norwegian American Weekly! Starting this week, I’ll be shaping the paper’s Taste of Norway section, sharing everything from traditional recipes and stories about the connection between food and heritage to interviews with chefs and features on modern Nordic cooking.

I’ve been contributing to the publication for a few years, and it’s exciting to now be able to take on this role. The paper has some great existing writers, and I’m also seeking new contributors. I’m looking forward to seeing the coverage unfold. But first, I’m settling in with kaffefromasj–basically a Norwegian coffee mousse. It’s no surprise that Norwegians–well, almost all Nordics–love their coffee, and this recipe celebrates that bold, bitter flavor with a creamy, not-too-sweet dessert.

Head over to the Norwegian American Weekly’s website (it’s subscription-based; subscribe here) for my first article as editor–and the recipe for kaffefromasj!

Kaffefromasj

Norwegian Coffee Mousse (Kaffefromasj)
Visit the Norwegian American Weekly’s websit for the recipe

Kaffefromasj

 

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)

Happy Marriage Cake

photo I posted on Instagram and Facebook the other day got people talking. I’m not sure if it was the image of a tart with plump mounds of golden-brown buttery dough or the idea that this particular dessert married rhubarb, cardamom, and oats in one pan. But after all the response I got, I think I need to share the recipe right away.

What you see here is Hjónabandssaela, which translates to marital bliss. Or, as this dessert is commonly called in English, Happy Marriage Cake. I first learned how to make this traditional Icelandic dessert at the Nordic Heritage Museum last month–they’re in the middle of their coffee treats series, featuring recipes from each of the five Nordic countries; I taught the Norwegian class back in January–and this week I came up with my own version.

Happy Marriage Cake

Happy Marriage Cake

Hjónabandssaela can be made as a cake or as bars. This recipe is more bar-meets-tart, with a rich, crumbly yet buttery oat crust and simple, not-too-sweet rhubarb jam that almost melts into it.

All around, cherry blossoms and daffodils are blooming. The sun has prevailed over the rain in the local forecast this week, and where I live, it’s definitely spring (though we have two calendar days to go before it’s official). This time of year, it seems like everyone gets excited about the rhubarb popping up in markets and getting ready to harvest in gardens. With its vivid magenta stalks, it demands attention and is as good of a predictor of the season as the groundhog. I’m not sure why this particular dessert is called Happy Marriage Cake, but it seems like a great way to celebrate the start of spring.

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake - DSC_1487

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake
A number of recipes call for quick oatmeal. I wanted to use whole rolled oats so took a cue from Sarah of The Sugar Hit and gave them a quick whirl in the food processor before adding the rest of the crust ingredients.

Rhubarb Jam:
1 pound rhubarb, sliced 1/2-inch thick (fresh or frozen)
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Crust:
1 1/2 cups whole rolled oats
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 sticks (salted) butter, softened and cut into a few pieces
1 egg
Whipped cream, for serving

Start by making the jam. Combine rhubarb, sugar, and vanilla extract in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Simmer, stirring frequently, until the rhubarb releases its juices and breaks down considerably into a spreadable consistency, 20-30 minutes. (Some texture is okay.)

While the jam is cooking, start working on the crust. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter or spray a 10-inch cake or tart pan, ideally with a removable base.

Place oats in a food processor and give a few quick whirls to break them up slightly–holding the button down to the count of two a few times should do. Add flour, sugars, cardamom, and baking soda, and pulse again to mix. Add the butter and process some more, removing the lid and pushing down the butter into the rest of the dough a few times if necessary. Crack in the egg and mix just to combine.

Spoon about three-quarters of the dough into the prepared pan. Using your hands, press it evenly across the bottom and slightly up the sides, taking care to not let the bottom of the rim get too thick.

Spread the jam evenly across the crust. Use the rest of the dough as a topping, breaking it into clumps to scatter across the top.

Bake until the curst turns golden brown, about 25 minutes. Cool in the pan, then serve with whipped cream.

Makes one 10-inch cake.

Happy Marriage Cake

Ashley Rodriguez’s Apple Cake from “Date Night In”

Ashley's Apple Cake

Let’s get one thing out of the way. I’m sharing today’s recipe purely out of my enthusiasm for a new cookbook, one that I tested recipes for a while back: Date Night In: More than 120 Recipes to Nourish Your RelationshipMaybe you’ve seen it? Author Ashley Rodriguez is a friend of a friend and creator of the award-winning blog NotWithoutSalt.com. I tested many of the recipes while pregnant and without much of an appetite. Yet she surprised me with enticing recipes and complex, appealing flavors just about every time.

So, with that said, let’s talk about apple cake. The recipe for this one comes from a wooden box that Ashley’s grandmother gave her. Don’t we all love finding gems in the form of recipe cards? That story alone was enough to make me want to give this recipe a try. On the surface, it’s a simple cake: butter, sugar, flour, and some spices–not much else–mixed with chunks of tart apples. But Ashley has a way of transforming something as ubiquitous as apple cake into something remarkable. With cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg–and a touch of salt, after all she named her blog after the James Beard quote, “Where would we be without salt?”–it’s one of the most flavorful and interesting apple cakes I’ve ever tasted (not to mention easy).

Ashley's Apple Cake

Enough about the cake for now–the recipe follows. We should talk about the book. Throughout the course of over 120 recipes, Ashley weaves in a love story. The premise is sweet: A young couple’s marriage starts to fall flat when life with three small children overshadows the romance that surrounded their early days–that is, until the wife starts cooking up special restaurant-worthy dinners to enjoy after they’ve tucked the kids into bed. Date nights–in. Ashley tells an honest, vulnerable, and refreshing love story in the form of 52 dates she created for her husband, Gabe. Organized by season, the recipes range from simple no-cook antipasti to enjoy on a hot summer evening to braises that benefit from hours in the oven.

Ashley's Apple Cake

The first menu I tested started with a pineapple rosarita: fresh rosemary muddled with pineapple and shaken with triple sec, tequila, and lime juice. Tart and refreshing, it whet the appetites while I assembled an avocado salad complete with generous handfuls of fresh herbs and pepitas. The main course came together in stages: chilaquiles layered with citrus-braised pork, roasted tomatillo salsa, gooey cheese, and an assortment of condiments including Ashley’s pickled red onions. If all that weren’t enough, we ended the meal with Mexican chocolate sorbet with red wine-poached cherries.

That menu was elaborate yet accessible. It would have been over the top to tackle on a single day, but Ashley instructed how to break down the steps over the course of a few days to make it doable for a date night. The whole idea is that it can be easy to create something special, a meal that’s elevated a bit from the regular weeknight dinner. The menus themselves are perfectly balanced, but the recipes stand alone as well: The BBQ pulled-pork sandwiches with apple and radicchio slaw are a regular in my kitchen. The bittersweet chocolate malted shakes are a crowd-pleaser. And I could eat the white salad with pomegranate–built from celeriac, apple, fennel, leek, and white cheddar–as a meal in and of itself.

Ashley starts by making me hungry. And by the time all is said and done, I’m totally satisfied.

Ashley's Apple Cake

Ashley Rodriguez’s Apple Cake from Date Night In
Ashley would have you serve the cake with maple cream. I’ve tried it with and without, and though I usually serve it alone, either way it’s delicious.

For the cake:
Unsalted butter, for the pan
1 1/2 cups / 210 g all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 cup / 150 g granulated sugar
3/4 cup / 180 ml mild-flavor oil, such as canola or walnut
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 medium-size tart apples, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Turbinado sugar (optional)
Maple cream (optional, recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare an 8-inch round cake pan (I use springform): Butter or spray it, line the bottom with parchment, and butter the parchment.

In a medium bowl, stir flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar. Whisk the oil, eggs, and vanilla in a separate bowl, then pour the wet ingredients into the dry. Tip the apples into the bowl, and fold all the ingredients together.

Pour the batter into the pan and and smooth the top with a spatula. Sprinkle on some turbinado sugar on top, if you wish. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the pan to finish cooling.

Ashley recommends wrapping the cake in plastic wrap and leaving on the counter overnight. It’s one of those cakes that benefits from a day of resting.

To make the maple cream, just whisk 1/2 cup crème fraîche and 1 tablespoon maple syrup together. It’s that easy.

Makes one 8-inch cake.

Ashley's Apple Cake

Great-Grandma Josephine’s Norwegian Waffles (Vaffler)

Norwegian Waffles

As I sat next to her yesterday on the aubergine leather sofa, the water of Puget Sound placid outside the window behind her, I studied how the afternoon light fell across her profile and how the shadows formed where age has carved deep crevices in her skin. At 95 years old, Grandma Adeline’s face reveals almost a century of experience. And she is beautiful.

I longed to take a photo, to capture that moment and the light and the wrinkles and everything I was feeling that I couldn’t fully comprehend. Now, a day later, I think I understand. I wanted to grasp something that is fading, to preserve her as she is. I want her with us forever, to know that those wisps of white hair—as delicate as the spun glass “angel’s hair” that she would use to decorate her house at Christmastime—will always be there to tickle my wrist when I sit with my arm around her. Each time I give her a hug goodbye, I pause to absorb the way her hunched back and shoulders feel in my arms. Just in case this time might be the last.

Things look a lot different these days in my relationship with Grandma. We’ve moved from the kitchen counter to the sofa. The hands that once kneaded dense potatoes into lefse dough now almost quiver as she tickles my delighted baby. But now, a year after the strokes, her signature spark is finding its way out of its tangled brain and frail bones. She can still charm a baby, after all.

I brought the kids up to visit Grandma Adeline yesterday, just a quick visit between naps. Grandma doesn’t eat much these days, but I brought her Norwegian waffles. Her mother’s waffles.

Norwegian Waffles

Norwegian Waffles

We used to bake them together, the recipe being handed down from generation to generation. My memories of Grandma are filled with platters of these little heart-shaped waffles decorated with jam or geitost (brown goat cheese). They were one of her signature dishes, along with lefse, sandbakkels, potato dumplings, peanut bars, and any number of Norwegian Christmas cookies. In my memories, I can’t separate Grandma from the food that she served.

That was how she loved us. With butter and cream. Bowls of ruby raspberries, fresh from the garden, dusted with sugar and drenched in cream like white satin. Dense balls of potato dumplings served with ham and root vegetables and a bottle of light corn syrup for good measure. Strawberry malted milks blitzed together in the blender with ice cream.  And of course, waffles.

Norwegian Waffles

We don’t talk much anymore, don’t have much we can really say these days—not since the strokes. But I listen with my whole heart when she says, holding my hand, “I love you. I really, really love you.” Mom listens when Grandma tells her, “love you, love you, love you.” When Grandma says those words, we hear the ache of a heart that’s pleading with us to understand something deeper than she is now able to articulate. Though I am a writer, I now realize that words are sometimes just words, placeholders for something bigger, something deeper. We don’t have to talk much. We just have to be there, sitting beside her, reminiscing and remembering, and communicating with our own hearts too.

A photo would have broken the moment. But I captured one in my memory, and I’ve been replaying it today. I think about how our culture celebrates smooth skin and talks about wrinkles as something to be treated. I shake my head as I even write that, because I love every one of those creases in my grandmother’s face. They tell a story. They’ve deepened, I think, in the year since the strokes. But they’re real, she’s real. She’s here with us. I wouldn’t change a thing. She is beautiful.

Norwegian Waffles

Great-Grandma Josephine’s Norwegian Waffles with Cardamom (Vaffler)
I’ve written about these before. And I probably will again. The difference this time is the cardamom. If you like the spice, this is probably the ideal amount. If you don’t, just leave it out.

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup milk
2 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Beat eggs in a separate bowl, then add to the butter and beat until smooth. Mix in buttermilk and milk. Sift together flour, cardamom, baking powder, and baking soda and mix into the batter to combine.

Bake using a heart-shaped waffle maker and serve with geitost or lingonberry preserves.

 

Norwegian Coffee Treats: A Class at Nordic Heritage Museum

Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_143116

When we bake with love, that’s when beauty comes into our creations, I told a sold-out crowd of students at the Nordic Heritage Museum on a recent Saturday. They were there to learn how to make a variety of Norwegian coffee treats, each one of the recipes beautiful or intricate in its own right. My objective in teaching is for students to leave a class with the confidence and ability to recreate the dishes at home. Teaching the steps of a recipe is only part of the equation. One of the most important parts, I believe, is the heart.

But until that Saturday in January, I hadn’t been able to fully articulate what makes a recipe work. Butter, sugar, flour, eggs–I had been playing around with that mix of ingredients in the weeks leading up to the class, making heart-shaped waffles (vaffler), prince cake (fyrstekake), and sandbakkels. I had studied how a handful of simple ingredients could yield such dramatically different results with just a few variations of ingredients.

In class I kept encouraging the students to just give it a try. Just put the batter in the waffle iron and practice–you’ll soon get a feel for how much to spoon in and how long to cook the waffle. Just make sandbakkel after sandbakkel, getting used to the feeling of pressing the dough into the crevices of the little tins until it’s as thin as you think it can be. Then when it was time to talk about the fyrstekake–an almond cake with a shortbread crust baked in a tart pan–I assured everyone that it really is easy.

Don’t stress out, I told students time and time again as they oohed and ahhed over the cake. Baking isn’t fun if you do. When it comes to crafting the crisscross or lattice topping that gives the fyrstekake a hint of elegance, you can get frustrated when the soft dough warms up too much and sticks to your work surface as you cut it into strips. Or you can roll with it, doing the best you can, and putting your heart into what you’re doing. Nothing about Norwegian cooking is fussy, as far as I’m concerned. Even the beautiful fyrstekake allows for grace, the filling puffing up into the top layer and rounding out the rough edges.

When you bake with love, that impacts the way you approach the food. It works its way into each cup of flour measured, the care taken in beating sugar into eggs, the way the dough is manipulated into something of beauty. I’m as much of a perfectionist as the next person–it was my downfall as a child trying to strike a balance between booksmart and just being a kid–but when it comes to baking, I do it because I love it, because I love people. I do it because I love watching how a few simple ingredients can be transformed into something that feeds and nourishes others–their stomaches and their souls. Sure, care and precision are important. But love is essential.

Thanks to each of you who attended the class last month–it was a joy to teach you to make some of my favorite Norwegian treats. I enjoyed meeting each and every one of you, and I hope I inspired you to work some of these recipes into your own homes.

If you’re in the Seattle area and interested in learning more about Nordic baking, be sure to check out the rest of the Nordic Heritage Museum’s coffee treats series. I kicked it off last month with Norwegian coffee treats, and the museum continues with recipes from the other Nordic countries in the months to come.

Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_155350 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_154300 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_144811 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_143906 Norwegian Coffee Treats - 20150124_142931

 Photos courtesy of Jeremy Ehrlich / Nordic Heritage Museum

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