Cardamom-scented Fastelavnsboller (Semlor) with almond and cream

Fastelavnsboller

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the scent of cardamom filling the house when baking boller. These plump Norwegian buns with the slightest touch of sweetness need nothing–aside from perhaps a smear of butter—to make them a treat any time of the year. But during Shrovetide of Fastelavn, the time leading up to Lent, these fluffy buns get stuffed with rich almond filling and clouds of whipped cream, transforming them into the over-the-top delicacies known as Fastelavnsboller in Norway and Semlor in Sweden. I’m sharing my recipe over at The Norwegian American this week–find the recipe here!

Fastelavnsboller

Fastelavnsboller

Fastelavnsboller

Fastelavnsboller

Norwegian Christmas Cookies: Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

I never tire of seeing the variety of cakes and cookies in the Scandinavian tradition. With little more than butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, and often a scattering of spices, we can create an extensive assortment of treats. Sometimes elegant and elaborate, often simple, the recipes of my heritage have helped me to understand more about where my family came from, as well as those who came before me.

I’ve been writing about the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies, in recent weeks, and today I’m sharing my family recipe for sandbakkelse, or sandkaker, those iconic tart-shaped cookies that many Scandinavians and Scandinavian-Americans love so much.

Flavored with almond, sandbakkelse (I’ll use this name throughout my post, as that’s what my family knows them as, although they’re just as commonly called sandkaker) can be served plain as a cookie, or they can be filled. They’re delicate and crisp, and honestly they’re so good that they don’t require a filling.

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

Sandbakkelse are formed by carefully pressing dough into little tins until they’re as thin as can be while still holding together when baked. It can be a tedious process, I suspect, if done alone. But when made in the company of loved ones, perhaps while sipping a glass of wine and nibbling on something savory, it’s a wonderful way to connect, to spend time together and create memories.

It’s hardly about the cookies, is it? For me, at least, the cookies have been the excuse for gatherings, a reason to get together in the kitchen and bake with those who are dear. Mom, Grandma, and I began our regular baking sessions quite a number of years ago. We’d get together throughout the year, as often as once a week in the months leading up to Christmas. Grandma wanted to teach us how to make the treats that our family had loved throughout the years, including lefse, krumkaker, and these sandbakkelse.

We haven’t been able to bake together in recent years, Grandma isn’t well enough. But last week, we all gathered around the table again. Though my grandmother–the woman who taught me to make sandbakkelse–couldn’t actually make the cookies, it meant so much to have her there with us, supervising and giving her approval on the ones that looked just right.

I’ve shared this recipe before, in an old, old blog post and in other publications, but it wouldn’t be a proper syv slags kaker series if I didn’t share it again. In a 1992 survey in Aftenposten of people’s favorite Norwegian Christmas cookies, sandbakkelse/sandkaker made it into the top seven, along with smultringer and hjortetakk (these two tied for first place), krumkaker, sirupsnipper, berlinerkranser, goro, and fattigman. For many people–myself included–these are one of the most delicious treats of the Christmas season.

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

My Grandma’s Sandbakkelse / Sandkaker
While it’s very typical to make these cookies with ground almonds, some families–mine included–use almond flavoring instead. It’s difficult to mimic the flavor of real almonds, and extract can be overpowering if overdone. However, the flavoring is used sparingly in this recipe and is accented with vanilla extract. The result is delicate and fragrant, a real treat. Sandbakkel tins are available in Scandinavian supply stores and you should be able to find them easily online. My favorites are the ones handed down from generation to generation in my family, but any should work just fine. 

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt

Cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and almond extracts and stir until combined. Add flour and salt and mix until incorporated and the dough comes together. Gather the dough together, flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least 15 minutes.

Now comes the fun part: shaping the cookies. To start, pinch off a little dough and roll into a ball about 3/4 of an inch in diameter. Place into the center of the mold, using your thumbs to flatten the dough into the mold. Rotating the mold as you go, work the dough out from the center of the mold and up the sides. You’ll want the dough on the bottom to be as thin as it can be while still holding up when baked. As you work, take special care at the ridge where the bottom connects to the side. Dough tends to collect here, and it’s easy to let this part be too thick. Delicately continue to work the dough from this ring up the sides. Using your hand, scrape off the excess dough from the top of the mold, and set aside while you form the rest of the cookies.

When it’s time to bake, arrange them on a cookie sheet (if you’re using different shapes of tins, try to keep the like tins together in a batch so they cook evenly) and place in an oven preheated to 375 degrees. Watch closely as the cookies bake, as they quickly go from done to overdone. When they’re just starting to take on a slightly golden hue, remove from the oven and take the molds off the cookie sheet to cool.

Allow the cookies to cool for a while, and then carefully remove from the tins. This is done by inverting the molds onto your work surface and giving a little tap. The cookies should pop right out.

Yield: About 5 dozen cookies, depending on size of tins.

Sandkaker / Sandbakkelse

Norwegian Christmas Cookies: Pepperkaker

Pepperkaker

I returned home the other day and was surprised by the warmth and smell that greeted me. Cinnamon and cardamom, clove and ginger. Warm butter and sugar. The scents of baking. Earlier in the day I had made pepperkaker, but I hadn’t noticed just how fragrant the cookies were until I left for a while and then returned. This is what I want my home to smell like all season long.

This time of year I think a lot about the experiences of the holidays. I think about the senses, how the music we listen to and the decorations surrounding us impact our experience. I keep things pretty simple, all in all. But there are touches that can make all the difference. That’s why I’ll be putting a pot of gløgg on the stove whenever we’re expecting guests and churning out buttery and spiced cookies as often as I can. No matter how much or how little I manage to decorate the house for Christmas, the aromas and warmth pouring out of the kitchen will convey a sense of the season, one that’s inviting and welcoming, one that hopefully hints at the hospitality of my mom and grandmothers, whom I hope to emulate.

Pepperkaker Diptych

Pepperkaker

There’s a lot of talk out there right now about hygge, that Scandinavian word that somehow encapsulates big ideas of coziness, community, and a sense of well-being in an economical five words. I’ve been striving to embrace that lifestyle, or state of being, for a while now.

This time of the year it’s easy to feel the darkness. My friend Dianna posted a photo on Instagram today of her morning coffee, a candlelit scene capturing the available light while it lasts. She lives in Tromsø, a Norwegian city above the Arctic circle, where the sun will make its final appearance next week, not to return until January.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we never truly say goodbye to the sun, though it’s often shielded by veils of cloud and fog; for those working office hours, the sun may have set by the time one heads home from work. We feel the darkness too. Yet for all that’s missing during the late autumn and the winter months, there is much to celebrate, much to embrace during this time. The darkness doesn’t have to be something to dread. Rather it can be an excuse–an opportunity–to pull out all the stops and get as cozy as can be. Baking cookies is one way to do so.

I’ve been writing about the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies, here on Outside Oslo in recent weeks, and today I’m sharing my recipe for pepperkaker, crisp, richly-spiced cookies that are similar to gingersnaps. Out of all the Norwegian Christmas cookies I’ve made, these might be the most fun. Anytime you can roll out dough and cut it into any number of shapes, it’s going to be a good day.

Pepperkaker Diptych

Pepperkaker are unfussy and forgiving, easy to make with the family. Once the dough comes together and rests in the refrigerator overnight, you’ll be ready to bake cookies at a moment’s notice, anytime you have little hands who want to help with rolling and shaping cookies.

That’s part of what’s so special about this time of year. For me, it’s not about the cookies themselves. The cookies are the excuse for spending quality time with people, for building relationships and extending hospitality. I can’t separate my memories of the holiday season from the cookies that my grandmothers served while I was growing up, and then the regular baking sessions that I shared with Mom and Grandma Adeline in recent years when my grandmother was well enough. There’s a glow in all those memories, one created by time spent with dear ones. There’s a saying—supposedly a Norwegian proverb—that goes like this: Cookies are baked with butter and love. Based on my own experiences, I can say without a doubt that this is true.

Pepperkaker

Pepperkaker (A Norwegian Gingerbread)
I analyzed many recipes for pepperkaker (spelled pepparkakor in Swedish) while creating the one I’m sharing with you today. The spices vary considerably, most notably the use of black pepper. People have different opinions on its presence, and I omit it. Recipes generally include both cinnamon and cloves, and often ginger. An addition that I use, that I don’t always see, is cardamom—freshly-ground, of course. Another thing to note is the syrup. I use golden syrup—specifically Lyle’s, which I can easily get at the grocery stores around here. It wouldn’t be as authentic to use molasses or honey, although there are recipes that use such alternatives with good results (my mother-in-law uses molasses, and her pepperkaker are fantastic). If you can get your hands on golden syrup, you’ll find that it produces a rich sweetness that accents the spices without being cloying or tasting flat.

2/3 cup butter (I use salted)
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup golden syrup
1/4 cup cream
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly-ground cardamom
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda

In a medium saucepan, mix the butter, sugar, and golden syrup over medium-low heat until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves. Cool a few minutes, then stir in the cream and the spices.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and the baking soda. Add the butter mixture and stir until the ingredients are incorporated and a dough comes together. Divide into two pieces and wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

When it’s time to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper–you’ll be baking one sheet at a time, but this way you can keep rolling out and shaping cookies while one tray bakes. On a very-lightly floured surface, roll out a little of the dough very thin, about 1/8-inch thick. (Keep the other portions chilled—you want the dough you’re working with to always be cold.)

Cut the dough into the shapes of your choice and transfer to the baking sheets. Bake one tray at a time for 5-7 minutes, until the edges are barely starting to turn color. Remove from the oven and cool on the baking sheet.

Store in an airtight container.

My Favorite Kladdkaka (Swedish Fudgy Chocolate Cake)

Kladdkaka

Life is full of reasons to celebrate, I’m convinced of that. It’s so easy to get caught up in the movement and the swiftness of the everyday. Sometimes—as a friend put it the other day—the monotony. But I’m trying to slow down, to protect the white spaces in my schedule, to factor in time to train myself to notice.

The brush strokes in the blue-yellow autumn sunset. An efficient spider building its tightrope home outside the dining room window. The stunning transformations as summer unfolds with sunflowers and berries for a while before giving way to pumpkins and cascades of fiery leaves. Nature itself is enough to awaken awe. Even more so are our friends.

As I watch my children form their first friendships, I’m reminded of the value of my own. I don’t take any of them for granted. It’s hard to write about friendship without sounding trite, but there’s rejuvenation and refreshment to be found in a heart-to-heart conversation with someone who accepts and loves you for who you are. (Sarah, that’s you.) There’s support and nourishment, too, from the dear ones who provide a steady flow of hot meals in the weeks after a baby is born. (Too many of you to list!) There are the prayers, the notes sent handwritten and stamped, the phone calls to wish a happy birthday in the time of social media’s rapid, generic greetings.

This kladdkaka, then, is for all of my friends.

Kladdkaka

I’ll always associate this Swedish chocolate cake with Rachel, for whom I baked it in the depths of winter this past year. It was a week of recipe development for me, and I made the chocolate cake four times. The one that turned out the best was the one I brought to Rachel’s house when she hosted us for dinner. I was uncertain whether I had baked it long enough or how it was going to turn out. But I was confident enough in our friendship to know that I didn’t have to stress about perfection. I knew that Rachel is an eager cook, like me, who likes to experiment in the kitchen. She’d either celebrate or commiserate. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: When you bake with love, that’s when things turn out just right, when things become beautiful.

After dinner, when the cake—which had still been hot from the oven when I left my house earlier that evening—had cooled and set, we dug in. The knife slid in with ease and I pulled out a thin wedge baked just right, the chocolate still glistening with kladdkaka’s signature sheen but sturdy enough to transfer to a plate.

Kladdkaka - DSC_3499

The beauty of this cake is its underbaked perfection. Similar to flourless chocolate cakes and molten “lava” cakes, it’s both dense and gooey inside. But it retains a light quality, too, in contrast to flourless cakes. I’ve heard it likened to brownies, but I don’t agree with that comparison; if kladdkaka resembles those, then it’s overbaked.

Kladdkaka—often translated to gooey chocolate cake—is the most searched-for recipes online in Sweden, as I learned from Magnus Nilsson, two star chef of Sweden’s celebrated restaurant Fäviken, when he spoke at the Nordic Culinary Conference in Seattle last spring. The origins go back only as far as the 1970s, yet it’s become a national favorite. I can see why.

The cake in its simplest form only requires a handful of ingredients. The technique is rather simple too. By and large, kladdkaka recipes call for cocoa powder, but I’m pretty sure that once you’ve tried it this way, with bars of bittersweet chocolate, you won’t be going back. I started making the cake this way a few years ago, following a recipe in Signe Johansen’s mouthwatering book, Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking… Scandilicious. While I’ve given cocoa powder a try once since, I just can’t break away from the incredibly moist and silky results of a good quality chocolate bar. Signe’s approach is definitely a winner (she adds whiskey to her Bergen fish soup, too, which sounds daring until you taste it and realize that it respectfully transforms the traditional soup). I played with the recipe, switching things up a bit each time, until I came to my ultimate kladdkaka recipe. While this one now bears only an echo of hers, Signe is a master of Scandinavian baking, and I’d like to believe she’d give her stamp of approval.

The ease of this cake makes it perfect for celebrations of all kinds. I’ve served it at book club, and at a dear friend’s bridal shower. It comes together quickly and requires less than 15 minutes to bake. Plus, it has a reputation for freezing well.

As I’m trying to live life looking for things to celebrate, I’m glad to have this cake recipe in my repertoire. I’m sure you will be too.

Kladdkaka - DSC_3513

Kladdkaka (Swedish Fudgy Chocolate Cake)
The magic in this cake is in the timing. There’s no real way to guarantee that your timing is perfect until the cake has cooled and you’ve gone ahead and cut yourself a slice, as I did when I brought it to Rachel’s home last winter. Go for the 14 minutes indicated the first time around. Make a note if you need to give it a minute or two more or less the next time. When you know how much time it needs in your particular oven, you’ll have a deceptively easy cake recipe that’s bound to become a favorite.

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used 60% cacao)
2 sticks unsalted butter
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1 cup sugar
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Powdered sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Grease a 9-inch springform pan.

Roughly chop the chocolate, using either a sharp knife or a food processor.

In a deep saucepan, 3-quart or larger, melt the butter over medium heat. Remove from heat and add the chocolate, stirring until melted. Stir in the espresso powder and vanilla extract. Set aside to cool to lukewarm.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until frothy, then stir in the melted chocolate and butter. In another bowl, give the flour and baking powder a quick whisk to combine, then gently fold in to the batter until incorporated. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 14 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack. Remove from pan and dust with powdered sugar. Serve with mounds of sweetened whipped cream and fresh berries or a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Serves 12.

A Perfected Scandinavian Swirled Tiger Cake

swedish-tiger-cake-dsc_3615

I’ve lost track of all the butter and sugar.

I started writing about Scandinavian food seven years ago last month. I have no idea how many sticks of butter and cups of sugar I’ve whipped into cakes and cookies since then, but I’ve come to the conclusion that Scandinavian sweets are among the world’s best.

At the beginning, I would flip through The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas—one of the first Scandinavian cookbooks I bought—like a student. Almond, butter, sugar, and spices appeared time and time in the ingredient lists. I wanted to bake nearly everything.

Though I had grown up eating Scandinavian sweets and knew many of them by taste, I was new to baking most of them. These days, I’ve switched my focus to creating my own recipes, taking classic or traditional desserts and creating versions that are as delicious as possible while retaining authenticity.

That’s where this tiger cake comes in.

swedish-tiger-cake-dsc_3619

swedish-tiger-cake-dsc_3624

I first made a tiger cake last spring while baking from one of my favorite Nordic cookbooks. The result, however, was lacking. Sure, it was good, but if I’m going to eat cake, I want it to be worth every calorie and grain of sugar.

I got to work, boosting the intensity of the chocolate flavor and making the variations in color less marbled and more like stripes—the Scandinavians call it tiger cake, after all. This cake has become a new favorite of mine, and I hope you enjoy it just as much.

Swedish Tiger Cake

Scandinavian Swirled Tiger Cake
The marbled cake can be found throughout the Nordic countries. Baked in a loaf pan or a Bundt pan, it reveals swirls of chocolate and vanilla or citrus-flavored cake when sliced. Marble cakes are hardly unique to the Nordic countries. We know them well in America, where they go back at least to the 19th century. German immigrants have been attributed as bringing them here prior to the Civil War (What’s Cooking in America).

2 sticks butter (salted), room temperature
1 ¼ cups sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ¼ cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons natural, unsweetened cocoa powder
2 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped (I used semi-sweet)
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
1/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour a loaf pan (9x5x3).

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well between each addition. Stir in vanilla extract. Sift together flour and baking powder and add to the batter, stirring to incorporate. Set aside two thirds of the batter and set aside.

In the remaining third of the batter, mix in the cocoa powder, chopped chocolate, espresso powder, and milk.

Spoon about a quarter cup of the plain batter into the bottom of the loaf pan, spreading it out slightly with a spatula. Add a spoonful of the chocolate batter in the center. Repeat, alternating the layers, until all the batter is gone.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out mostly clean, approximately one hour. Let cool on a wire rack.

Makes 1 loaf cake.

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

Bløtkake - DSC_3086

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.

Bløtkake - DSC_3093

Bløtkake - DSC_3100

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)

Sviskegrøt - DSC_2869

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.

Sviskegrøt - DSC_2862

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.

Sviskegrøt - DSC_2881

 

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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).

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