Scandinavian Cinnamon Rolls

Scandinavian Cinnamon Rolls

While the cloudless blue sky and wind-free warmth of August hardly seem like the start of a new season, in reality autumn will creep up surely in the coming weeks—subtly at first, then erupting into its crisp, fog-laden fullness. I’ve been noticing the shift already, from hazy mornings draped in gray to the spiders testing out nooks and posts around the house to spin their webs. This is a time for coziness.

It seems like Americans have been gradually catching on to the Scandinavian idea of hygge in the past couple of years. Hygge—the Danish term for a cozy, warm lifestyle, like koselig in Norwegian and mysig in Swedish—seems like it might be just the antidote we need for the cold and darkness in the seasons ahead. And that’s where these cinnamon rolls come in.

Fragrant with the warm aromas of cinnamon, freshly-ground cardamom, and hot, buttery yeasted dough, these buns would be perfect to serve for fika, another Scandinavian concept that I think it’s time Americans adopt. The very definition of fika—the Swedish word for a social coffee break—invokes savoring coffee and baked treats in the company of friends. While cozy can look a lot of different ways, from plush blankets and flickering candlelight to thick sweaters and scarves, we’d do well to consider community an integral part of it. When you start with a warm, spiced bun, it really can’t be too hard.

Scandinavian Cinnamon Rolls

Scandinavian Cinnamon Rolls

Variations of these buns are popular in Scandinavia and rightfully so. There are the kanelsnurrer, or Norwegian cinnamon twists, and also kanelbullar, or Swedish cinnamon buns. (October 4 is the treat’s official day in Sweden.) Sometimes they’re called knots. Whatever name you use, they seem—at least to me—an edible version of hygge.

In this recipe, we’re starting with a sweet cardamom-scented dough and using that to blanket a rich, fragrant spice filling. Recipes vary quite a bit and can be as simple as butter, sugar and spice, or include a bit of almond paste or marzipan. Some recipes don’t use any filling at all.

While they’re commonly made with cinnamon, Scandi Kitchen features a vanilla and cardamom variety. Signe Johansen, author of Scandilicious Baking adds a little crème fraiche to the filling. She also suggests making the dough the night before to let it ferment a little for flavor and texture. I’ve become a big fan of freshly-ground cardamom and use it in both the dough and filling in my cinnamon buns. After doing the hard work of grinding it in a mortar and pestle (and subsequently sneezing at least 10 times in the span of a half an hour) earlier this year, I finally broke down and bought a spice grinder. I use it exclusively for cardamom, and treat it almost like my cardamom spice bottle, storing cardamom seeds in it. Each time I use it, the spice releases an aroma that make me think of my grandfather’s old cologne, warm and intense, complex, yet soft.

In these last weeks of summer, as one season begins to topple into the next, I’m planning ways to make this the coziest autumn yet. With these cinnamon buns releasing their spiced fragrance throughout the house, I don’t think it’s going to be too hard.

Scandinavian Cinnamon Rolls

Scandinavian Cinnamon Buns

For the dough:

5 tablespoons butter (salted)
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
3 cups flour, plus more if necessary
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons freshly-ground cardamom
1 large egg, room temperature, lightly beaten

For the filling:

6 tablespoons butter (salted), room temperature
3 tablepsoons packed brown sugar
3 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons freshly ground cardamom
Scandinavian pearl sugar

To make the dough: In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter then pour in the milk and let it scald. Remove from heat and cool until it’s warm to the touch. Pour into a large mixing bowl and sprinkle the yeast over the milk. Give it a quick stir, then let it sit until it starts to bubble.

Meanwhile, in a separate bowl whisk together the flour, sugar, and cardamom. When the yeast has started to bubble, gradually stir in the flour mixture, and then the beaten egg. Turn the dough onto a lightly-floured surface and knead for five minutes or so, until the dough comes together and you can see little pockets of air if you cut into it. The dough should be somewhat sticky, and a bench scraper can help if it sticks to the counter, but add more flour as needed. Transfer to a large bowl, cover with a damp tea towel, and let rise until doubled, about one hour.

Meanwhile, make the filling by mixing the butter, sugar, and spices either with a mixer or with a fork until combined and smooth.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface until it’s a rectangle roughly 16-by-20 inches. Spread the filling over it, reaching all the way to the ends, then fold the dough toward you, lengthwise, making a long, skinny rectangle about 8-by-20 inches. Cut the dough into 16 strips. Form each into knots by twisting the ends in opposite directions a couple of times, then rolling them around your finger a couple of times and tucking in the ends. Place on baking trays that are either greased or lined with parchment paper. Cover with damp tea towels and let rise another 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sprinkle the tops with pearl sugar, then bake for 10-12 minutes. For an extra special treat, enjoy while they’re still warm and release their spiced aroma when you bite in.

Lemon-Flecked Norwegian Sunshine Cake (Solskinnskake)

Norwegian Sunshine Cake (Solskinnskake)

My earliest memory is of the sun shining diagonally through the eastern-facing window of my nursery room. The door swings open as my mom steps through. I see it all through crib-slat lines, the geometric triangles of light and the vertical pillars of infant security.

We crave the sun, the light that draws us up and out of the winter into the newness of spring. We create rituals of warmth and coziness to carry us through the dark months and the cold. The Danish idea of hygge and Norwegian koselig have bolstered many through the heaviness of those times. But now the sun shines a little more brightly, stays out later in the day. Plants break through thawing ground and leaves unfurl from dormant trees.

Living in Seattle, a city dripping with a reputation for rain, I find myself turning toward the sun this time of year, feeling a thrill at the sight of newly-blooming flowers and saying a silent thank you to the birds for singing their joyful songs of the season. Even the air feels lighter, the cold winter winds transforming into a delicate breeze.

The Norwegians have a cake named after the sun. Solskinnskake, or sunshine cake, seems to celebrate the essence of spring. The texture itself is even lighter than the typical Scandinavian cakes that I love so much, a butter-less sponge cake that bounces back after the fork cuts through. The flavor itself–the essence of lemon–hints at a time of warmth.

Norwegian Sunshine Cake (Solskinnskake)

Norwegian Sunshine Cake (Solskinnskake)

I have yet to experience the mørketid, the time in winter when the sun never rises above the horizon north of a certain latitude, but I have soaked up the extended sunlight at the peak of summer in Norway, and I’ve seen how the sun enlivens the population. It only makes sense that there should be a cake named after the sun.

I found the recipe for this cake in a Scandinavian cookbook from the 1960s. I’ve written so many times about how the food of Norway has helped me to connect with my heritage and better understand those dear people who came before me, people who left house and home and country in search of a new life in America. We’re coming up on 60 years in American this spring, and though I was born and raised in the Seattle area, I feel more and more like there’s a bit of Norway still beating in my heart.

I’ll keep baking cakes and working my way through the ever-growing collection of Scandinavian cookbooks I’m accumulating. The recipes each tell a story, and they’re providing a concrete way to keep the heritage and its traditions alive for the next generation. Just as my earliest memory involves the sun and the welcomed and loving presence of my mother, I can’t help but wonder–and perhaps even hope–that the coziness of our kitchen becomes the setting of some of my children’s earliest and sweetest memories.

Norwegian Sunshine Cake (Solskinnskake)

Lemon-Flecked Norwegian Sunshine Cake (Solskinnskake)
Adapted from The Complete Scandinavian Cookbook by Alice B. Johnson (1964)

For the cake:
6 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 cup cake flour, sifted

For the icing:
1 ¼ cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons whipping cream
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Grated lemon zest for garnish, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9-inch springform pan. Beat the egg whites in a large bowl for a minute or so until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and salt and continue to beat until stiff. Add the sugar, then beat until stiff again.

In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks. Add the whites, lemon zest, and lemon juice and carefully fold in. Fold in the flour just until incorporated, then pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Set on a wire rack to cool, then run a knife along the perimeter and remove from the pan.

While the cake cools, make the icing. In a medium bowl, whisk the powdered sugar with the cream and lemon juice until smooth. Spread the icing on the cake and serve. Garnish with a little more lemon zest, for color, if you’d like.

Serves 8

Norwegian Success Tart (Suksessterte)

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I started something new this year: a Scandinavian food newsletter featuring recipes and inspiration that you won’t necessarily find on my blog or anywhere else. The last edition went out a few weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about this cake, Norwegian Success Tart (Suksessterte). It seems a shame to have you miss out on it if you weren’t signed up for the newsletter in time, so today I’m sharing some outtakes from my photo shoot along with a link to the archived newsletter where you can find the recipe.

Norwegian success tart, also known as success cake, is one of those desserts that catch you by surprise if you haven’t tasted it before. The bright yellow custard hints at a lemon flavor, but what you get instead is a rich almond cake topped with luscious buttery cream and a garnish of chocolate (typically you’d use less than I did on this particular cake, but I couldn’t help myself with those delicate little wisps of chocolate).

Here’s where you can find the recipe and read the rest of the newsletter. And of course if you’re not already following along, I hope you’ll join. I’m planning to send out a newsletter roughly once a month. Click here to sign up!

Success Tart Diptych

Success Tart

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Norwegian Bløtkake with Strawberries and Cream

Bløtkake

When it comes to cake, I know two things for sure: A mediocre one is barely worth eating, and Scandinavia–especially Norway–boasts some of the best in the world. Take the classic Norwegian birthday and celebration cake, bløtkake–which translates roughly to wet cake–for example. Layers of delicate sponge soak up rich creamy filling. The very essence of fresh strawberries permeates the whole thing and infuses every bite. It’s hard to imagine a cake much more perfect than this.

Bløtkake Diptych

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My introduction to Scandinavian baking started with The Great Scandinavian Baking Bookan understated yet elegant paperback reprint of the 1988 book by Beatrice Ojakangas. I had found the book on the shelf of Barnes & Noble in the days after Grandma Agny’s death, when I was chasing after something, anything, to help me grieve. Illustrated minimally, with hundreds of pages of recipes for cakes, cookies, breads, pastries, and pies–including their cultural context–the book beckoned me to spend plenty of time thumbing through the pages, trying to decide which recipes to try. Almond-packed cakes and tortes like Norwegian fyrstekake and Swedish Mazarintårta. A Swedish sandkaka scented richly with brandy. The almond- and caramel-topped Tosca cake. And of course, Norwegian bløtkake.

Today there’s a deep crease, a break really, in the binding between pages 196 and 197, where I had the book propped opened for an extended period of time in a cookbook stand. The note I jotted by the recipe–fyrstekakereads, “Sept. 2009–Good, but I’d like more almond flavor.” I had no idea back then that I was beginning something, a passion for Scandinavian food and baking.

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I’ve made bløtkake several times, trying out different recipes and trying to achieve the perfect version, the one I can call my signature. I have so many notes on this cake, so many recipes that I’m analyzing and comparing. But today I’m sharing a classic, the one I began with. This recipe is adapted from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book, that lovely cookbook that got me started on all of this butter-creaming and sugar-and-egg beating. If you want a classic bløtkake, one that’s tried and true and sure to please, you’ve got it here. The sponge itself is rather delicate and almost bland, but worry not–it is an ideal canvas for the rich flavors that it will absorb. By the time the cake is ready to serve, each component–the cake, the custard, the strawberry jam, the fresh berries, and the whipped cream–will do its part to create a cake that’s at once rich yet delicate, unpretentious yet celebratory. This cake is definitely worth eating.

Bløtkake Slices Diptych

Bløtkake - DSC_3077

Norwegian Bløtkake with Strawberries and Cream
One of the great things about making bløtkake for a celebration is that it can be made ahead of time and refrigerated until you’re ready to serve it. In fact, Astrid Karlsen Scott writes in Authentic Norwegian Cooking that cream cakes like this reach their peak of flavor if refrigerated for up to 24 hours. Just wait until right before your event to spread it with whipped cream.

For the cake:
6 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

For the filling:
3 egg yolks
1 cup whipping cream
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup strawberry jam
1/2 pint fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced, plus more for garnish

For the topping:
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9-inch round springform cake pans.

In a large mixing bowl, beat egg whites until fluffy, then gradually add the sugar, continuing to beat until stiff. In one medium bowl, beat the egg yolks. In another, sift the flour and baking powder together. Gently fold the beaten yolks and the flour into the egg whites until the yellow swirls and any clumps of flour disappear. Pour the batter into the two pans, then bake until the centers spring back when you touch them, about 30 minutes. Cool in pans.

For the filling, in a small saucepan cook egg yolks, whipping cream, milk, butter, cornstarch, and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the custard thickens. Do not allow it to boil. Set aside to cool. Stir in the vanilla extract.

When you’re ready to assemble the cake, slice each cake in half horizontally using a long serrated knife. Place one layer on a serving plate or cake stand and spread half of the custard over the top. Place another layer of cake over the custard, then top with the strawberry jam. Cover the jam with the sliced strawberries, working in a spiral from the outside in. Place another layer of cake over the strawberries, spread on the remaining custard, then top with the final layer of cake. (A note for next time: I tried spreading just half the strawberry jam over the second layer of cake and reserved the rest for the third layer, under the custard. I might add an additional quarter cup of strawberry jam to the first layer, under the custard, to add definition between the layers. Looking at these photos, you won’t even see the custard nestled between the bottom two–they just look like a single thicker layer.)

At this point, you can refrigerate the cake a day in advance, if you’d like. To finish the cake, whip the cream, sugar, and vanilla extract until stiff but still luscious and fluffy, then spread over the top and sides of the cake. Decorate with additional strawberries.

Serves 16.

Old-School Norwegian Prune Porridge (Sviskegrøt)

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I can’t help but feel like a detective or a historian when I go digging into traditional Scandinavian recipes, trying to find clues to help me understand my heritage and family history better. The way my story goes, my grandma–the one who left Norway 60 years ago this spring–died one summer day in 2009, just as I was going to ask her to start telling me her stories. I had had a lifetime to ask her questions–about life in Norway, what it was like to be a young woman during the occupation and resistance, about so many things. And just as I was getting ready to leave my house to visit her and ask if we could start talking, I got the phone call. I lost it all in an instant.

As I grieved, I poured myself into all things Norwegian, trying to track down a floral Norwegian perfume I had smelled as a preteen, scanning bookstore shelves for Scandinavian cookbooks, drinking aquavit at a storied old bar (longtime Seattleites may remember Ballard’s Copper Gate), and blinking back the tears while walking through an exhibit about Scandinavian immigration at the Nordic Heritage Museum. I knew I couldn’t bring her back, but I still couldn’t help trying to draw her close.

As time went on and the grief no longer seared my heart, I kept tracking down all the Scandinavian cookbooks that I could. Nordic home cooking hadn’t caught on in a mainstream sense yet, so most of what I could find were old, yellowing books at the library. But I grew my collection, book by book, and began the process of making my kitchen a Scandinavian one, like that of the dear woman I had lost. That is how I came to love Scandinavian food, and Norwegian food most of all.

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I vowed to make sure I wouldn’t lose out on a chance to hear my other grandmother’s stories, and so Grandma Adeline, Mom, and I began to bake with growing frequency, sometimes even weekly during the months leading up to Christmas each year. While I lost almost all of Grandma Agny’s recipes along with her stories, quite the opposite is true with Grandma Adeline’s, and I’m so thankful that I managed to learn some of the family classics–including lefse, vaffler, krumkaker, sandbakkels, and many others–before the strokes tangled her brain one night two years ago this month.

I’ve been writing a lot about my story and the stories of those people who have shaped my life throughout my 30-some years, but I haven’t shared much of that here, just in snippets and vignettes. One day I’ll hopefully share it in a bigger sense, the way that writers like to do. It is my dream to write books–ones infused with my own stories of Scandinavian hospitality, heritage, and food–to add to the shelves of books that have inspired me throughout the years.

Each time I buy a new Scandinavian cookbook (these days they’re being released with impressive speed), try a new recipe, or attempt to recreate one of the old dishes that Grandma Agny used to make, I learn a little more about where both sides of my family came from. When I walked out of the Oslo airport and breathed in the Norwegian air for the first time back in 2008, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of home, that though I had never actually been to Norway until then, the country was part of me, that in a way it was mine.

I’m never going to get my grandmother back. She is but a memory. But as my boss told me in those early days of grief, my grandmother is still here in a way, in my heart in my genes, and in a legacy of dreams that informs my life to this very day.

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About today’s recipe:

Mom told me a while back about a dessert that Grandma Agny made long ago. It involved stewed prunes and cream, I remembered her saying. I went down my typical line of research, digging through as many Scandinavian resources as I could. One day I thought I had it! Sviskegrøt, Norwegian prune porridge with vanilla cream! I later learned from my mom that I had the elements reversed: The dessert my mom was talking about was riskrem, Norwegian rice cream, which my grandmother had topped with stewed plums. I still need to try serving riskrem with plums in this manner (I’ve always used vibrant raspberry sauce, since that was Grandma’s typical accompaniment for riskrem), but in the meantime I am thankful to have discovered this wonderfully old-school Norwegian dessert.

After much research that pointed me to prune porridge in many variations, some with nuts, some accented with citrus, I decided to try it in its simplest form, prunes simmered with sweetened water and thickened with a bit of potato starch, adapting a recipe by the beloved Norwegian food writer and chef Ingrid Espelid Hovig. I couldn’t help adding a bit of cinnamon, as that’s the way I like my prunes, but aside from that, what you’ll find here is very traditional. The vanilla sauce is adapted from the Everyday Vanilla Sauce (vaniljesaus) in Astrid Karlsen Scott’s Authentic Norwegian Cooking.

Apparently prune porridge is becoming a thing of the past, “a dying dish in Norwegian cuisine,” writes Sunny Gandara of the blog Arctic Grub. But it’s deliciously retro, I think, and the porridge alone–even without the vanilla sauce–is worth keeping in your weekday repertoire, as it would be equally good for breakfast, perhaps spooned over yogurt (feel free to reduce the sugar if that’s how you plan on serving it).

Old-School Norwegian Prune Porridge with Vanilla Sauce (Sviskegrøt med Vaniljesaus)
Ingrid Espelid Hovig—from whom my recipe has its roots—recommends sprinkling sugar over the porridge to prevent it from forming a skin. I haven’t found that mine needs it, but you may want to keep that tip in mind.

Porridge:
6 ounces pitted prunes (look for unsweetened and unsulphured)
3 cups water
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1.5 Tablespoons potato starch*
½ cup cold water

Vanilla sauce:
1 cup milk
1 egg
1 teaspoon potato starch flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt (optional)
1 teaspoon Scandinavian vanilla sugar (vaniljesukker)** or vanilla extract

Start by making the vanilla sauce, as it will require time to chill. In a small saucepan, whisk together the milk, egg, potato starch flour, sugar, and salt over medium heat, almost to the point of boiling (you don’t want to actually let it boil, though). Stir in vanilla sugar or extract. Remove from heat and allow to cool, stirring occasionally. Chill for several hours.

To make the porridge, in a large pot, bring prunes, water, sugar, and cinnamon to a boil. Reduce heat and cook at a brisk simmer until the prunes are tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

In a small bowl, whisk potato starch with the cold water. Pour it into the prunes in a steady stream while stirring. Return to heat and boil for a minute, then set aside to cool slightly. Serve in bowls with the chilled vanilla sauce.

Serves 4.

* If you like your porridge a little thicker, go ahead and use 2.5 tablespoons potato starch. Keep it mind that the porridge continues to thicken as it cools.

** Scandinavian vanilla sugar (vaniljesukker) is commonly used instead of vanilla extract in classic baking. Different from the vanilla sugar you might make by storing a spent vanilla bean in a jar of granulated sugar, it has the texture of powdered sugar and is flavored with synthetic vanillin. Stores like Seattle’s Scandinavian Specialties stock it, but if you’d like to try making your own version with real vanilla, my friend Christy recently shared a recipe in the Norwegian American Weekly. Scroll past the recipe for butter almond cake (which is delicious, by the way) to find instructions for making your own hjemmelaget vaniljesukker (homemade vanilla sugar).

Fluffy Sweet Omelet in the Norwegian American Weekly

Norwegian Fluffy Sweet Omelet

The holiday of the moment may be Valentine’s Day, but I’m popping in here for a moment to let you know that this Sunday is also Norwegian Mother’s Day. If you’re not already marking the occasion, why not surprise the mothers in your life by doing something special for them? I have just the recipe to help you out. This Norwegian Fluffy Sweet Omelet is an old-school and comforting, just the thing to serve for brunch. Head on over to the Norwegian American Weekly to read my latest story and get the recipe!

Norwegian Fluffy Sweet Omelet

Cardamom-scented Fastelavnsboller and other recently-published recipes

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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.

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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

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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

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