Cardamom-Almond Custard with Blueberries
Chocolate Cake with Lingonberry Cream
Smoked Mackerel and Dill Spread
Scandinavian Cooking Class in Olympia, WA, July 14

Norwegian Coffee Treats: A Class at Nordic Heritage Museum

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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.

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 Photos courtesy of Jeremy Ehrlich / Nordic Heritage Museum

Starting Again, with Pickled Beets

Scandinavian Pickled BeetsTime goes quickly here, sometimes too quickly. I know it’s something we all experience, the subject of small talk and of catching up with old acquaintances at big events, but it’s true. The time really does fly. As I sit here at my desk on this 14th of January, the sun forces its way through the shades, reminding me that it’s a new year, that winter will soon give way to spring, that though the calendar might point to a season of stillness, new life–from the maple trees outside my home to the bulbs nestled in soil–is getting ready to burst forth in full bloom. It’s hard to believe that it’s already mid-January, that I have been sick–cold after cold and now bronchitis–for over a month. Has it really been almost a year since Grandma suffered her strokes? Almost a year since I drove my toddler son to the hospital to visit his great-grandma one blindingly sunny winter day after another? Soon it will have been a year since we gathered at the rehabilitation center for the makeshift 95th birthday party my dear Grandma couldn’t even comprehend.

I’ve shied away from this space lately for a variety of reasons: a sense of perfectionism that’s creeping in due to my other forms of writing; being uninspired by the formula that food blogs are falling prey to, getting duller and duller even as their photos and graphics get shinier and shinier (tell me, please, that you know what I mean?); and being in a season of life that I want to write about but find too personal to approach quite yet in such an informal place as a blog.

But I miss it, too, miss the way it feels to have a place to write quickly and without the gloss of perfection that some other forms of writing require. While there’s a permanence to blogs–content lives out there unless deleted–one post is replaced by another and then another in a fleeting way, almost like a journal entry that gets buried deeper and deeper into a collection of notebooks that the keeper fills and collects just in case there might be a time, somewhere down the road, when she might want to remember.

For a long time I’ve wrestled with the purpose of this blog. Sure, it’s a Nordic food blog, and its food sticks to that theme for the most part. But who is it for? Am I trying to create content for the reader? Or for myself? Maybe it’s just weariness from a seemingly-endless illness talking (right now my ribcage hurts each time I take a deep breath or dare to cough), but I think I want to care less and write more. There was a time when I didn’t believe in writer’s block. I was a journalist, writing story after story, day after day, focusing my brain on the words at hand even as scanners scratched and top-of-the-hour headlines blared on the competing networks. Deadlines didn’t wait for inspiration. Writer’s block was a luxury I couldn’t afford. These days–though I’m beginning to step up my freelance writing and other projects again–I have more of that luxury. And I’m afraid I’m giving in to it too often. Oh, I don’t feel like writing today. I can wait until tomorrow. Or this one (if you’re a writer, too, I’m sure you know it too): I should clear my desk. Or better yet embark on a massive organizing spree before I start writing! Yeah, the writing life can be full of excuses.

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions or strict goal-setting. I find those too restrictive. But I do like to have intentions and a system to make them happen. So I’m not promising to blog here on any sort of predictable schedule. But I do want to do it more frequently. There will be recipes, sure, because that’s what a food blog is all about. But I’m going to care less about the format, the glossy veneer, the oneupmanship that’s so common, and care more about the practice, the experience of getting those words to flow more freely, and getting comfortable again with sharing those words online rather than obsessively editing myself.

And so I’m starting again today, with pickled beets.

Scandinavian Pickled Beets

Scandinavian Pickled Beets with Star Anise
After baking a bunch of cookies (krumkaker, pepperkaker, sirupsnipper and more) while at home, sick, over the Christmas season, it seems appropriate to trade sweet for savory today on the blog. Pickled beets are a classic Scandinavian condiment, something to serve with everything from the Swedish hash pytt i panna to sjömans biff, or sailor’s beef stew. Though coming from no single source, this recipe takes cues from The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trine Hahnemann, a 1964 recipe found on Epicurious.com, and An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler; the addition of star anise comes from Hahnemann, a Danish chef.

3-4 medium beets
2 cups distilled white vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoons pepper
1 star anise

To cook the beets, I like to use Tamar Adler’s method from An Everlasting Meal: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Arrange the beets snugly in a shallow pan, she instructs, then with the water running and the pan tipped to the side, wash the beets under its stream, leaving a little of the water pooled in the pan once it runs clear. Cover the pan tightly with foil, then roast until the beets are cooked through, about 40 minutes for medium-sized beets. Adler’s method steams the beets and allows the skins to be easily rubbed off once the beets are cooled. After rubbing off the skins, cut the beets into quarter-inch slices and place in a shallow, heat-safe dish.

Place vinegar in a medium-sized pot along with sugar, salt, pepper, and star anise. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Pour over the beets. Let cool, the refrigerate overnight before serving.

For the sake of transparency I should let you know that I’ve received review copies of some of Hahnemann’s books. I love them, regardless, and they hold prime spots in my Nordic cookbook collection.

Scandinavian Pickled Beets

Norwegian Baking Class in Seattle, January 24

Norwegian Heart Waffles Horizontal

In a few hours the clock will strike midnight and Christmas Eve will be upon us. There are a few more gifts to wrap–plus my husband and I just decided a few hours ago to host Christmas dinner at our house–but all is calm, all is bright. Before setting into planning mode, I wanted to take a little time to share an announcement with you.

On January 24, I’m teaching another baking class at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, and this time the menu features heart-shaped waffles (vaffler), prince cake (fyrstekake), and sandbakkels. If you’re in the Seattle area, I hope you’ll consider joining me as we kick off the museum’s 5-part series on coffee treats from each of the Nordic countries!

Vaffler, fyrstekake, and sandbakkels are three of my all-time favorite Norwegian treats, and I have special connections to and memories of each. My grandmother taught me to make the sandbakkels and vaffler, and I grew up eating fyrstekake frequently. It will be a delicious day.

You can learn more about the series on the Nordic Heritage Museum’s website, and you can register for any or all of the classes online here. This might be just the last-minute Christmas gift for someone in the Seattle area who loves Nordic food!

Sandbakkels

Fyrstekake Slice on Plate with Crumbs

Easy Holiday Appetizer: Gravlax

Gravlax Finished

Oh friends, how does one even start after having been silent for so long? Life is full in the real world, even if it seems quiet in the virtual one. I’ll get to the gravlax you see here in the photos soon enough, but first I just need to reflect a little out loud, to cast some light on the events happening between the lines of this blog.

I think 2014 will go down in my memory as a year of heartache and blessings. There’s tension as those two intermingle, so close and simultaneous. I’ve only alluded to it on the blog until now, but early in the year my dear grandma suffered a stroke and it’s been a long road of recovery. She’s closer to 100 than most people will ever be and she knows her time is coming. She’s ready. But still. Still.

During Grandma’s first stages of recovery at the hospital and then at a rehabilitation center, I was pregnant and getting ready to welcome my daughter into the family, all the while preparing my son for his new role as a big brother and helping him to create space his his heart and home for a new little one. Grandma hung on long enough to meet my daughter–who’s named in part for her–and hold that little baby in her frail, thinning arms. Now, each time I take my son and my daughter to visit Grandma, I know that it’s significant. There might be another time–maybe years’ worth, I don’t know. But it also might be the last.

These events have been the defining parts of this past year. Writing has helped me to process the emotions swelling in my heart–so, yes, I have been writing even if things have been pretty quiet around here–but it’s been too personal to publish on such an immediate, informal format as a blog. There’s a story there, many stories. I’ll share them someday. But in the meantime I’ve been working them out, creating a narrative around my experiences, and trying to just embrace and enjoy life and to savor the moments big and small. Tuesday night was one of them.

Book Club Holiday Party

As a dozen friends gathered in my kitchen for our book club holiday party, I didn’t have any idea I’d be sitting down over the next days to write about it. I took some photos of the food with my phone for the purpose of posting them on Instagram, but I didn’t plan on sharing a recipe or any sort of story here on the blog. But a comment one of you left on Facebook the other day prompted me to write again. And a fellow blogger at book club reminded me how much fun this can be.

So today I’m writing about gravlax, with photos taken with iPhones for the purpose of social media. Salmon, salt, sugar, dill–that’s it. Our book club is all about food. Italian for Under the Tuscan Sun, French for On Rue Tatin and The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. There have been Caribbean dishes (An Embarrassment of Mangoes), Indian (The Hundred-Foot Journey), Chinese (The Fortune Cookie Chronicles), and pizza (Delancey). I work in a little bit of a Scandinavian touch whenever I can, so for our holiday party this week I served gravlax.

Gravlax in Salt "Snow"As with any traditional recipe, there are plenty of variations out there for gravlax, ranging from the simplest list of ingredients to ones that get fancy with fruits, vegetables, spices, and spirits that lend varying essences and hues to the salmon. I’m sure that orange, horseradish, aquavit, and beetroot–all things that I’ve spotted in recipes–yield excellent results, but I like my gravlax pure, the flavor of the salmon concentrated and accented only with a hint of dill.

Gravlax is, by definition, cured salmon. It’s typically a Nordic preparation, and the parts of the word–grav for pit or grave, lax or laks for salmon–hint at the days of preserving fish by burying it in the ground.

Gravlax Cure

My husband and I use Mark Bittman’s recipe as our base. We read about in the New York Times some years ago and have always had great results. In a nutshell, we take a fillet of frozen salmon (frozen to kill the parasites), then defrost it, cover it with a thick blanket of sugar, salt, and chopped fresh dill. We generally leave it out in a cool spot for a few hours, then refrigerate it for about 24 to 36 hours before rinsing off the salt mix and slicing the salmon thinly. For the specific recipe, I’m going to point you to Bittman’s article (it includes several recipes–we use The Minimalist’s Gravlax). Making gravlax is so simple, but perhaps because of that, I find it helpful to refer to Bittman’s guidance. It’s about using good fish, understanding the process, and not getting intimidated by something that just looks fancy.

For serving gravlax, it’s as easy as lemon wedges, mustard sauce (such as this one from Ina Garten), capers, maybe some chopped red onion, and crackers or crispbread of some sort.

Gravlax-Platter

It’s been one of my goals this holiday season to keep our schedule light, the to-do list to a minimum. It’s far too easy to become swept up in the bustle and busyness of this time of year, and perhaps because of the time in life, I’m just trying to minimize as much stress as possible. But my book club holiday party was one of the events that I happily did write down–in pen–in my calendar. And gravlax was something special I could serve my friends–while being simple and easy to make at the same time. If you’re still looking for the perfect appetizer for a holiday party, go ahead and give it a try. With just a little planning ahead, you’ll find yourself with a gorgeous, delicious dish that took almost no hands-on time to prepare.

Thanks, E, for the photo of the gravlax platter.

Note: This fall I attended a couple of sessions at IFBC, the International Food Bloggers Conference, in Seattle. The organizers offered steep discounts to bloggers for writing about the conference, so you’ll be noticing a few posts that showcase what I learned. For this one, I’m taking cues from Shauna James Ahern‘s session on professional recipe development. She emphasized authenticity and living a full, rich life–plus not worrying about using iPhone cameras for food blog photography. Thanks, Shauna. That’s exactly what I’m doing here. If I had had to pull out the DSLR for this post, it never would have happened.

New Potatoes and Chanterelles with Lemon and Dill

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As a Seattle-born Norwegian-American, a woman once removed from the country of her father, my way back to my heritage has been through its food. I’ve always loved being Norwegian. Dressing up in a child-sized bunad for Syttende Mai parades in the Scandinavian-rich neighborhood of Ballard, eating the traditional feasts my grandparents would serve us on holidays, listening to the heavy and melodic accent that wove its way through my relatives’ speech–this was my upbringing and I loved it. But there’s a difference between the cultures in which we’re raised as children and the ones that we embrace as adults. I grew out of the black and red bunad. My paternal grandparents aged and passed on. The adults who kept their heritage alive so vibrantly and shared it with me faded into memory. The culture was no longer handed to me and it started to become peripheral.

Grandma Agny’s death five years ago was a big turning point for me. I think I’ve mentioned before that I was going to ask her to start telling me her stories the day I got the phone call saying she had died. Grandma had been a young woman during the German occupation. She had a baby during the war, and she later uprooted her family and moved them to the United States. During my first trip to Norway in 2008, I became intrigued about her life–and the corresponding Norwegian history–and I wanted to know more. But I waited too long. Grandma’s death left me feeling a profound sense of loss, and in response I found myself seeking out elements of my heritage.

And that’s where the food comes in.

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I still remember scanning the spines of books at Barnes and Noble shortly after Grandma’s death. I had come up with the idea of looking for Scandinavian cookbooks, as though the food between their pages might provide some comfort or solace. I found just a couple: Aquavit and the New Scandinavian Cuisine by Marcus Samuelsson and The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas. My journalistic tendency to research things in detail came into play and I started seeking out as many Scandinavian cookbooks as I could find. Nordic cooking wasn’t as much of a trend in the U.S. then as it is now, and it took a little digging. But I wanted to know more, to understand more. And it was becoming clear to me that the way in was going to be through the food.

As I explored my Norwegian heritage, I started Outside Oslo as a way to document what I was discovering. Although Scandinavian food had always been in my family’s repertoire while I was growing up, I was discovering it for myself. I was finally starting to get a sense of its origins, a sense of place. In the process, I was also beginning to understand my late grandmother more deeply.

Things look a lot different now, five years later. My grandparents’ generation is fading fast, but the opportunity I lost when Grandma Agny died is not entirely gone. I will never get her back, but I’m learning more about my family and its history as my father helps me fill in the gaps. I’ve heard stories of my other grandmother’s life and created countless sweet memories with her as she’s taught me how to make sandbakkels, lefse, krumkaker, and other Scandinavian treats. And now it’s my turn to share the heritage that my grandparents so graciously shared with me. As I’ve studied Nordic food and worked it into what I cook at home, I know that the culture that my family brought with them to America will continue to live on. I have two kids of my own now, and they will grow up knowing the pleasure of eating pannekaker for an occasional dinner, the taste of sweet heart-shaped vaffler served with gjetost (Norwegian brown goat cheese), and all the warmth and love that surround meals shared together at the table.

I never expected five years ago, in the darkest days of grief, that such richness was in store. But Grandma Agny had given me a gift by keeping her heritage alive and sharing it with me through all those Syttende Mai parades, traditional Norwegian meals, and with her generous heart.

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Today I’m still cooking my way through various Nordic recipes, sometimes returning to family classics, other times trying something new. Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking with Andreas Viestad was one of the early books I discovered, and to this day it is one of my favorites. (I wrote a review a couple of years ago; despite receiving a copy from the publisher, I can say genuinely that this is an excellent book.) I had found it at the library while researching Scandinavian food, and this dish–chanterelles and potatoes with lemon and dill–was one of the first recipes I featured on the blog. I made it this week for my parents and was reminded of how just a few simple ingredients can be so satisfying: just new potatoes and chanterelles, flavored intensely with lemon, garlic, and dill. The season for chanterelles is fleeting, but if you can still find some, I hope you’ll give this recipe a try.

New Potatoes and Chanterelles with Lemon and Dill
Adapted from Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking with Andreas Viestad

2 pounds new potatoes
½ pound (or more) chanterelle mushrooms
3 tablespoons butter
3 garlic cloves, pressed
Salt
Small handful of fresh dill, coarsely chopped, plus a few sprigs for garnish
Small handful of flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
Lemon

Cook the potatoes in a pot of salted boiling water until tender, then drain. While the potatoes are cooking, trim the mushrooms and cut them lengthwise into halves or quarters, depending on their size. I like to keep them as large as possible, so I halve most of them, only quartering the really thick ones to make their size even with the rest. Melt the butter in a large skillet and add the mushrooms, stirring from time to time, until tender. Add garlic and a dash of salt, then cook for another moment just to take the edge of the garlic’s flavor. Add the mushrooms to the potatoes, making sure to spoon up all the flavorful butter from the pan. Add the dill and parsley, along with the juice of one lemon, and stir to combine. Add a little more salt if necessary, then transfer to a dish, garnish with dill sprigs, and serve.

Serves 4-6

Swedish Mazarin Torte with Nectarines (Mazarintårta)

Mazarin Torte with Nectarines IMG_9537

A spider web hangs below the eaves, suspended from various points along a string of patio lights. I can see it glistening in the sun outside my window as I write, trembling in the gentle breeze. Autumn has long been one of my favorite seasons, and this one might go down in my memory as one of the best.

As I creaked my way to the kitchen this morning to start making breakfast, the light of dawn eased me into wakefulness, diffused by a blanket of steel blue fog. By the time the coffee, hot and black, and a steamy shower had loosened up my tight muscles and it was time to leave the house, it was warm enough to head outside with just a light sweater. Now this afternoon the sun shines brightly, reflecting on all those vibrant multicolored leaves. Though the sun sets much earlier now, it’s as though summer won’t quite let us forget the long, radiant days of the months before.

It reminds me of my honeymoon, nine long-short years ago. Married on a clear, sunny day in late September, we boarded a plane headed to Rome the next morning and spent the following days in sun-drenched bliss as we sailed along the Mediterranean. It was autumn, but we never would have known it by the golden glow and warm kiss embracing all our surroundings.

This past week we’ve roasted hot dogs outside, made a cobbler with late-season peaches fresh from the farmer’s market, and baked nectarines into an almond torte. It baffles me that we’re still doing these things in October, a time I typically associate with simmering stews and fragrant braises. The cold will come soon, and with it darker days and the countdown to winter. But in the meantime I’m soaking in all the senses of this transition between seasons.

Mazarin Torte with Nectarines IMG_9531

Mazarin Torte with Nectarines
The classic Swedish Mazarintårta combines a shortbread crust with a luscious alnond filling. Somewhere along the line this recipe has roots in Beatrice Ojakangas’ The Great Scandinavian Baking Book, which is–as its title boasts–a great book. It’s one of the first Scandinavian cookbooks I bought back when my grandmother Agny died and I was trying to soothe my aching heart by clinging to our shared heritage. I wrote about Ojakangas’ mazarin torte a few years ago, but I’ve since shaken it up quite a bit, simplifying the preparation and adding fresh fruit. I hope you like the results.

Crust
3/4 cup unsalted butter
4 tablespoons powdered sugar
2 egg yolks
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup almond meal/flour

Filling
2 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup cup almond meal/flour
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 nectarines, peeled and cut into eights
Powdered sugar, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare the crust by creaming the butter and sugar, then adding the egg yolks and beating until light. Add flour, salt, and almond meal and mix until stiff. Press the dough into a 10- or 11-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, using your hands to create an even later across the bottom and up the sides. Set aside.

To make the filling, beat the eggs and sugar so they become light, then beat in the butter, almond meal, and almond extract. Pour the filling into the crust.

Arrange the nectarine wedges in a circular pattern on top of the filling. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until golden. Cool, then remove from the pan. Finish with a dusting of powdered sugar if you’d like.

Makes 1 torte.

Mazarin Torte with Nectarines IMG_9548

 

Note: Last month I attended a couple of sessions at IFBC, the International Food Bloggers Conference, in Seattle. The organizers offered steep discounts to bloggers for writing about the conference, so you’ll be noticing a few posts that showcase what I learned. For this one, I’d like to thank Shauna James Ahern for her session on professional recipe development. Authenticity is key, she said. Plus, creating recipes that work can be a long, tedious process, but the reward comes when a reader tries a recipe and it works. She’s right. I’ve been hearing from some of you lately about your success with the recipes here on the blog, and I have to say that each time you write, I get a little spring in my step.

The focus of this blog–the connection between food, family, and heritage–is very dear to me. I created the blog five years ago as a way to share my experiences as I explored my Norwegian heritage. My grandmother had just died and I was finding comfort in all things Scandinavian. Through this blog I have discovered a community of people who also share a love of Nordic food, and I’ve seen how food can bring people together. Occasionally the recipes are my own, but more often–as is the case with this Mazarin torte–they’re inspired by or adapted from other Scandinavian cooks. I might give them my own touch, as with the nectarines in this torte, or I’ll add my own experiences to the instructions, but often I’m simply another step in a long line of cooks sharing the coziness and hospitality of Scandinavian food with the world. I had no idea when I started this blog that I would find such richness in exploring a cuisine I had grown up eating but had seldom cooked. It’s been a gift to me, and I hope that the authenticity is apparent. I hope, too, that the recipes and stories here provide warmth and fond memories for you as they do for me.

Norwegian Apple Cake (Eplekake)

Norwegian Apple Cake

She greeted me at the door with baby in arms, a sweet little boy wearing blue and white striped knits. My own baby was dressed similarly, except for the pink. This is the season we are in, a time of babies. I can hardly believe how many of my friends are having children this year.

Christy’s son is mere weeks old, yet she invited me over today for Swedish aggkaka, a soufflé-like dish that’s reminiscent of a Dutch baby pancake but much thicker and richer. As I settled in on the sofa with my daughter, Christy slipped the pan into the oven to bake while we caught up. Effortless. At least that’s how she made it look. In reality, I know how much juggling that it takes to simply butter a slice of toast while caring for a baby. So it always amazes me to see mothers adjust so well to their new roles. I feel especially blessed when they shower me with their hospitality, knowing the effort that it takes.

Today the weather was damp, the clouds ringing out their moisture onto the city. It’s too early in the season for it to really be cold, but the steel gray sky and rain called for something cozy. The aggkaka is a recipe that Christy has been making since childhood, a family classic you could say. She wanted to serve me something comforting, food from the heart.

The following hours were met with plenty of the challenges of parenthood: tired meltdowns and naptime protests, diaper failure and emergency loads of laundry. But honestly, despite being a bit sleep deprived and therefore more prone to stress, I’m feeling calm. Unshaken. Bolstered up by the warmth and company of a good friend.

Norwegian Apple Cake

Norwegian Apple Cake (Eplekake)
Christy sent me on my way today with apples and nectarines she had purchased at a fruit stand while coming home from a road trip last weekend. With this cake in mind, I got to work as soon as I could, prepping the cake in stages as I took care of the above-mentioned challenges. This recipe, adapted from Authentic Norwegian Cooking by Astrid Karlsen Scott, called for Granny Smith apples, but I used a combination, including the ones from Christy. Scott instructs readers to mix the flour, baking powder, and butter as for pie crust. I opted to use a food processor for its ease, but you can certainly just do as Scott suggests if you prefer.

2-3 large apples
Lemon juice
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup salted butter, cold, plus more for pan
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla sugar*

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter an 8-inch springform pan. Peel and core the apples and cut them each into 16 wedges. Toss in a bowl with a little lemon juice to prevent them from discoloring, and set aside.

Cut butter into dice and place in a food processor with flour and butter. Pulse until you have pea-sized bits of butter scattered throughout the flour. Add the eggs, sugar, and vanilla sugar and continue to process until the dough comes together.

Divide the dough in two, with one portion slightly bigger than the other. Press the bigger portion into the bottom of the pan, working it evenly across the bottom and about an inch and a half up the sides. (The dough will be sticky, but dampening your hands throughout the process will make it easier.)

Arrange the apple slices in a circular pattern around the bottom of the pan. Working the remaining dough between your two hands, once again dampened, roughly shape it into a disc big enough to cover the apples. If it breaks apart, just place the pieces over the apples and gently press them back together.

Bake for 40 to 50 minutes. Cool on a baking rack, then remove from the pan.

*Scandinavian vanilla sugar is available at Scandinavian stores such as Scandinavian Specialties in Seattle. If you do a lot of Norwegian or Swedish baking, it’s a good ingredient to have on hand, but if you don’t have access to it, you can substitute a little vanilla extract. The results won’t be identical, but it will work.

Norwegian Apple Cake

Note: This past weekend I attended a couple of sessions at IFBC, the International Food Bloggers Conference, in Seattle. The organizers offered steep discounts to bloggers for writing about the conference, so you’ll be noticing a few posts that showcase what I learned. This post demonstrates a lesson taught during a food writing session with Dianne Jacob, author of Will Write For Food: Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir, and More. One of my favorite tips was to provide context for the food we’re eating. It’s something that I always try to do (as I wrote about earlier this year), but it’s a good reminder. If you happen to be a writer, try it out in your own work: Think about what you’re eating and pay attention to the circumstances, who you’re with, and where you are. 

Disclosure: I received a copy of Authentic Norwegian Food from the publisher.

Norwegian Bacalao Stew

Norwegian Bacalao Stew

The end of June, beginning of July. The calendar marks the month but also the moment. It was just about this time, when one month rolled into the next, when I stepped foot in Norway for the first time.

“We’ll go to Norway together some day,” my grandfather said when I was growing up. It was an ideal, a good intention and a comforting one I think, to look ahead to some time in the future when he would return to his homeland decades after leaving–he along with my grandma, my parents, and me. But he never did go back.

I grew up steeped in the traditions of my Norwegian heritage but it would be years before I would visit Norway. When I finally did, exploring the city where my father was born and passing by his hometown on the train on the way from the airport into the city, I felt at home, right where I wanted to be.

The country calls to me. It might sound strange, but there’s a part of my heart that’s there. I see photos of the fjords and the craggy green hills, the weathered red barns and slowly-setting summer sun and I yearn to go back. I know the country, but at the same time I don’t. I know its essence even though I’d need a map to navigate its streets.

Norwegian Bacalao Stew

During that visit in the summer of 2008, I met my husband’s Norwegian relatives. A couple of them had flown to Seattle for our wedding a few years before, but I still had yet to meet the others. After eating meals and drinking aquavit with them in their part of the world, I had the chance to return the hospitality for one of the cousins last week. As far as dinners go, these were pretty spontaneous and we served what we had, echoes of the Scandinavian-inspired Midsummer dinner just days before. So as we sat around my kitchen table that first night, eating grilled steak accompanied by dill-speckled potatoes and sliced cucumbers bathed in a creamy dressing–and we happened to have a bar of Scandinavian chocolate in its distinct yellow wrapping on the counter–my husband noted how we were unintentionally giving this Norwegian cousin a little taste of home, far away from home.

Norwegian Bacalao StewBut back to Norway, Bergen to be specific. It was uncharacteristically hot those days we were there. Temperatures in the 80s, 90s perhaps. It being the peak of summer, the sun hovered above the horizon well into the night, casting a golden glow on the multicolored Hanseatic wharf and illuminating the waters spilling in from the North Sea.

On one of those days we ate bacalao stew, the salt cod bathed in rich tomato broth and nestled amongst the broken tomatoes and chunks of potatoes. Food often serves as a link to memories, so when I recreated that stew recently I thought back on those sun-drenched days, remembering the afternoons spent exploring Bergen. I loved that city, loved walking along the cobbled ground and peering down windy narrow streets. There I savored eating a traditional, rustic dish of red deer in a tiny restaurant, washing it down with bracing dill aquavit as clear as the purest water in the fjords. I got to know another cousin a little as we shared beers and tapas, and I sampled smoked whale from the outdoor fish market at his suggestion.

During those days, my husband and I walked and ate, talked and visited. It felt relaxed but it was brief; in an instant it was time to return home and let the memories settle deep into my heart.

Norwegian Bacalao Stew

Norwegian Bacalao Stew
Andreas Viestad says his recipe from Kitchen of Light–which I’ve adapted here–is the classic Western Norwegian interpretation of bacalao. Aside from a little advance planning to soak the salt cod, this recipe comes together easily enough to make on a weeknight. Be sure to have plenty of crusty bread on hand for sopping up the flavorful juices. It’s even better the next day.

1-1 1/2 pounds salt cod
2 medium russet potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 large yellow onions, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 (14 1/2-ounce) cans chopped tomatoes, with juices
1 pound roasted red bell peppers, cut into 1/2-inch slices
4-6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 dried hot red chiles, chopped and seeded
10 black peppercorns
1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil

Thoroughly rinse the salt cod and place in a large container of water to soak for 24 to 36 hours, changing the water at least twice. Drain and cut the fish into 2-inch pieces and set aside.

Place a large pot on the stove and arrange the potatoes on the bottom, followed by the onions and then the cod. Next scatter the tomatoes on top, followed by the roasted peppers. Add the garlic, bay leaves, two thirds of the parsley, chiles, and peppercorns, gently working these down into the other ingredients by about an inch, taking care not to disrupt the layering. Pour the olive oil all over the top and turn on the heat.

Simmer gently for 30 minutes, shaking the pot every once in a while. Adjust the heat down if necessary and continue to cook for another 45 minutes, still shaking it every once in a while (avoid stirring the stew at any point).

Divide the stew between six bowls, arranging each of the ingredients in every bowl. Garnish with the remaining parsley. Serve with a bowl of sea salt on the side so everyone can adjust the seasoning to their tastes.

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart

The doorbell rings a little before 7 p.m. on a Tuesday evening each month. By now I know exactly who it is, which friend is always punctual and comes bearing a couple of bottles of wine with the food she’s brought to share. As we catch up on what’s taken place in each other’s lives over the past month, there’s a knock and then another knock as more friends trickle in, gradually filing my kitchen.

Conversation takes place as easily as wine flows. That is one of the things I love most about this group. A little over a year and a half ago I got a crazy little idea in my head and began to wonder if I might know enough people who would want to join me for a food-based book club. Now, 17 books and “Foodie Lit Book Club” dinners later, there are roughly a dozen members–some I knew previously and some I’ve met because friends have invited their friends. We’re from different walks of life and most of us would never have met had it not been for the common interests of eating and reading about food.

There’s nothing pretentious here, no need to impress. But we eat exceedingly well. We cook from the recipes in the book we’re reading–or bring something inspired by it–and so many times we’re trying something new for the first time. We’ve experimented with pizza toppings, experienced dried dates given a new dimension with olive oil and sea salt, analyzed what made a particular polenta recipe fail, and how to take an already-good shortbread recipe to the next level. We’ve proven that no matter the menu or the skill of the cook, just gathering over a meal is a sure way to connect on a meaningful level and nurture relationships.

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart

I served this particular recipe, a Norwegian cheese and onion pie, at a recent book club. It had nothing to do with the book we were reading–The Language of Baklava–unless you consider that author Diana Abu-Jaber’s family immigrant story has parallels with my own family’s transition to a new country. But I was working on adapting a recipe from the Scandinavian cookbook Kitchen of Light for my own preferences and decided to test it out on these friends.

Made with cheese such as Norwegian Jarlsberg, plenty of thick red onion slices, and my addition of sliced mushrooms, it’s a substantial appetizer that would pair well with a glass of chilled white wine on a hot day, the condensation forming on the outside of the glass in the summer heat. Jarlsberg tastes great with the onion, but in a pinch, sharp white cheddar works too. Viestad also says Gouda, Parmesan, or Gruyere are options.

Norwegian Cheese, Onion, and Mushroom Tart
Adapted from the Onion Pie with Jarlsberg and Thyme from Kitchen of Light by Andreas Viestad

3 tablespoons butter, divided
2 red onions, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
Freshly-ground black pepper
2 whole cloves
Leaves from 2-3 sprigs fresh oregano, divided
8 ounces sliced cremini mushrooms
1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted if frozen
2 cups shredded cheese such as Jarlsberg, divided

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and lower the heat to medium-low. Sprinkle garlic, bay leaf, a few grinds of pepper, cloves, and leaves from 1 sprig of oregano over the pan. Cook 10 minutes, then carefully flip the onion slices, taking care to leave them intact. Cook another 10 minutes, until they’re softened but before they turn brown.

Meanwhile, melt remaining tablespoon of butter in a skillet and saute the mushrooms over medium to medium-high heat until they’re cooked through but still have a toothsome bite, 4-5 minutes. (You can do this in a separate pan while the onions cook, or you can do what I do and reduce the amount of cleanup by using the same pan when the onions are done–just give it a quick wipe beforehand.)

The recipe can be made in advance until this point; just refrigerate the onions and mushrooms until shortly before you’re ready to assemble the tart, giving them a little time to come up to room temperature.

Roll out puff pastry into a 10×16-inch rectangle onto floured parchment paper. Trim away any rough edges. Transfer the parchment and pastry onto a baking sheet and prick the pastry all over with a fork, avoiding an inch-wide border. Bake for about 12 minutes, until it turns golden.

Sprinkle pastry with 1 cup shredded cheese, leaving a 1-inch border, then layer on the onion slices followed by the mushrooms. Scatter remaining cheese over the top and bake until the cheese is melted and glistening, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining oregano leaves and serve.

Serves 6.

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies with Sea Salt

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies

A wooden spoon and a simple recipe are all it takes to create a memory. “I want to help Mama bake cookies,” he says, coming inside and finding out I’m starting to bake. The butter is melting in the saucepan, the coconut measured. There’s really little else to do. And that’s perfect for this particular early-May evening.

I scoop up my little boy and position him on my hip, holding him up with one arm as I show him how the eggs change properties when beaten with sugar in our cobalt blue stand mixer. He’s too heavy to hold like this for long, but with the addition of a little vanilla extract, the components are soon ready to bring to the counter and mix.

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies

He stands at the counter on a stool eager to help. I begin to stir the butter and coconut into the rest of the ingredients and quickly give in, handing him the wooden spoon. He is big enough to try. I am as ready as I’ll ever be to relinquish control of the process. I watch, hoping for minimal spills, as his little hand clutches the wooden handle. I hold the saucepan still as he concentrates and maneuvers the spoon throughout the coconut, the handle just the right size for an easy grip.

I do the rest of the work, dropping little mounds of dough onto parchment-lined baking sheets while he watches. He is just like his mother and wants to sample the dough before it’s baked. I must be asking a lot, to make him wait until the cookies are done and we have finished our dinner. But soon enough, soon enough, we’re all back in the kitchen–mom, dad, and son–each eating a cookie before bed.

Scandinavian Coconut CookiesAs many excursions, activities, and adventures I’m tempted to fill our days with, I know that moments like these are special. While I teach and nurture healthy eating habits with my son every day, these occasional baking sessions allow us to connect, to take a little time to engage in an activity together and finally to savor the results of what we have made.

My childhood memories are full of moments like this, helping my mom cook and baking alongside my grandma as she indulged my curiosity when I’d find a recipe of interest.

A wooden spoon and an easy recipe. Yes, that’s all it takes to make a memory. May you make some of your own in the coming days too.

Scandinavian Coconut CookiesScandinavian Coconut Cookies with Sea Salt
I first wrote about these cookies–adapted from Aquavit: And the New Scandinavian Cuisine by Marcus Samuelsson–almost four years ago. But I love how quick and easy they are to make and decided to revisit them with the addition of sea salt from semiswede.com. I hope you enjoy making them as much as I do. (Update: Do not use large flake coconut or the bags of moist, sweetened coconut. The flakes should be fairly small and dry.)

2 1/2 cups unsweetened, medium grated or shredded coconut
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 eggs
3/4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon flaky sea salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Melt butter in a small saucepan, then remove from heat and stir in the coconut until well-coated.

Beat eggs in a separate bowl to combine the yolks and whites. Add sugar and continue to beat until light and fluffy. Stir in vanilla extract.

Stir the coconut into the eggs until combined. Drop batter by rounded teaspoons into mounds onto the parchment paper, giving almost an inch between cookie. Flatten slightly using the bottom of a glass or the back of a spoon. Stir the batter occasionally as you work to reincorporate the melted butter. Sprinkle each cookie with just a little sea salt; you want to add just a touch of flavor, otherwise they’ll be too salty. Bake until golden, 8 to 11 minutes depending on the size of the cookie.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

Scandinavian Coconut Cookies

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