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

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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.

Scandi-Style Salmon Burger in the Norwegian American Weekly

Scandi-Style Salmon Burger

A taste for the sea must run in my blood. Wild salmon grilled, cured, or smoked; oily silver-blue mackerel salted and grilled; humble cod, elegant with its understated opaque white flakes–these are foods my kitchen knows well. Most of the time I prefer fish cooked simply, brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt to accent the taste of its native waters. But every once in a while a recipe or idea comes along that warrants playing. Such is the case with the Scandi-style salmon burger I’m sharing today in the latest issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. This recipe is packed with the traditional Nordic flavors of salmon, dill, and rye, and its open format is a nod to the traditional Scandinavian smørbrød. Bright and flavorful, it’s a perfect transitional weather meal as we eagerly await the arrival of spring. Head over to the Norwegian American Weekly for the recipe.

Scandi-Style Salmon Burger Scandi-Style Salmon Burger

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).

Swedish Sailor’s Stew (Sjömansbiff)

Sjomansbiff

If I could live in the pages of a Scandinavian cookbook, I might. Photographs of snow-kissed mountains and reflective fjords as dark as their chilly depths draw me in, and the food beckons as invitingly as the dinner bell my grandmother would ring when it was time to come to the table.

Some people daydream of sundrenched beaches while others find beauty in the mørketid. I’ve yet to experience a time and place in which the sun never or barely rises above the horizon, but it’s in my family’s blood. Scandinavians celebrate the darkness and embrace the cold. These inevitable parts of the season are merely what support the cozy atmosphere and active lifestyle they crave. (Think cozy, candlelit evenings and brisk jaunts on skis.)

The recipe I’m sharing with you today would warm one up even on the coldest of days. Called sjömansbiff, or seaman’s/sailor’s beef stew, it’s the sort of fare that I can imagine sustaining and nourishing countless Nordic sailors through grueling days battered by frozen winds.

Sjomansbiff

Sjomansbiff

The dish is the sort that fills you up and leaves you extremely satisfied. I haven’t seen as much of this dish as I’d expect (I first learned about a version of it in Trine Hahnemann’s The Scandinavian Cookbook from 2008 but have mostly seen it in the older, more traditional cookbooks I’ve collected; The Art of Scandinavian Cooking by Nika Standen Hazelton, from 1965, calls it a popular Scandinavian dish that is great for informal buffet entertaining). Sjömansbiff is a hearty Swedish stew made with beef, onions, and potatoes that have nearly melted into themselves. Served with some punchy condiments like pickled beets and whole-grain mustard, it’s a great mix of flavors and colors, and perfect for winter.

This is the sort of meal that complements the stunning landscapes and dramatic skies that illustrate some of the most authentic Nordic cookbooks. I think it’s time for it to have a comeback.

Sjomansbiff

Sjömansbiff
Some of the older or perhaps most traditional of the recipes I’ve encountered call for thin slices of beef, maybe pounded flat. I’ve taken cues from more modern recipes and used cubes of meat instead. Even with the traditional layered assembly, this approach is a bit more approachable while preserving the integrity of this very classic Scandinavian dish. This recipe comes from no single source, but rather embraces elements from The Art of Scandinavian Cooking by Nika Hazelton (republished in the 1980s as Classic Scandinavian Cooking); The Scandinavian Cookbook by Anna Mosesson, Janet Laurence, and Judith Dern; The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trine Hahnemann; and this recipe from The Boston Globe.

3 pounds chuck or round beef roast
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1/3 cup flour
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons butter
3 large thinly sliced onions
6 bay leaves
12 ounces ale (a Belgian-style beer is good here)
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and sliced
3 sprigs thyme
Pickled beets, for serving (I have a recipe, if you need one)
Whole-grain mustard, for serving

Cut beef into 1- or 1 1/2-inch pieces. Toss with salt, pepper, and flour. Heat olive oil and butter in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the beef, working in batches in order to not overcrowd them, and brown until they’re deeply golden, a few minutes on each side. Remove and set aside.

Using the same pan, lower heat to medium and cook the onions with the bay leaves until golden and soft, about 20 minutes, stirring frequently and scraping up the brown bits as you go. Reglaze with the beer and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly butter a 2 1/2-quart casserole with lid (cast-iron works great here). Layer a third of the potatoes on the bottom, followed by half of the meat and half of the onions (separated from the beer with a slotted spoon), another third of the potatoes, the remaining meat, onions, and finally the rest of the potatoes. Nestle 3 sprigs thyme throughout.

Pour the reserved beer over the layers. Cover and place in the oven until the meat and vegetables are cooked and tender, 3 to 3 1/2 hours, giving it a gentle stir from time to time. (They should almost melt into themselves when you take a bite.)

Serve with pickled beets and whole-grain mustard, removing the thyme sprigs. Scandinavian cucumber salad and knäckebröd/knekkebrød would be very typical and pleasing accompaniments.

Serves 6-8.

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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Biff à la Lindström

Biff Lindström

It occurred to me the other day as I set to work in the kitchen making an early dinner that the days are getting longer. Though afternoon, it was still light enough to snap some photos of the food, with hopes that the biff à la Lindström (piquant little Swedish meat patties) I was making for my family might be as appetizing to you as they were to me.

Some days it feels like we’re trudging on through the grey days and the dampness that forces its way through our clothes and skin down to the bones. While the darkness and the cold are nothing like the polar nights that my friend Dianna who lives in Tromsø has been experiencing, and while I do in fact love the winter and the coziness that it inspires, it can take some effort to break out of the weather-inspired lull and celebrate the season’s merits instead.

I read a recent story about how people in northern Norway cope with the darkness of winter. While sunlight is important for one’s physical and mental health, there are months in which the sun never rises above the horizon there—and yet people thrive. A Stanford University PhD student on a Fulbright scholarship in Tromsø discovered that seasonal depression wasn’t as common as one might expect. She found that people there celebrate the winter. They find ways to enjoy it, such as skiing. They take in the physical beauty around them, and they embrace all those wonderfully cozy elements of winter, such as curling up with a fuzzy blanket and filling the house with the warm glow of candlelight. The takeaway from the story was that shifting the way we think about winter might really help.

I’ve been trying to do that, from leaving a bunch of candles scattered throughout the house after Christmas to frequently baking treats like cardamom boller that fill my home with the warm, cozy aromas of yeast and spice (being a food writer engaged in frequent recipe testing helps with this). Soon enough spring will arrive and we’ll stash away our cold-weather gear until the next winter. We’ll miss the fireplace and the comforting feeling of knits and wool grazing against our necks and skin. It’s going to come soon—sooner perhaps than I would like—as evidenced by the lighter afternoons. Thankfully I have these little meat patties to help remind me to embrace it while it’s here.

Biff Lindström

People in Scandinavia have been enjoying biff à la Lindström for potentially over 150 years, making it a true classic. There are a couple of stories about its origins, one being that Captain Henrik Lindstrom allegedly brought the dish from Russia to Sweden in May 1862 when he introduced it at Hotel Witt in Kalmar. Another story involves Norwegian chef and polar expeditioner Adolf Henrik Lindstrøm, who was involved in three famous Norwegian polar expeditions.

Whoever said that Scandinavian food is bland must not be acquainted with biff à la Lindström. The distinctive flavors are pickled beets and capers, which are bold and present enough to be interesting but without overpowering the overall meal. It’s commonly eaten for lunch; Danish chef Trine Hahnemann, author of The Scandinavian Cookbook, writes that these piquant little meat patties—which are sometimes topped with a fried egg—are also great as a hangover cure.

As with any classic recipe, variations for biff à la Lindström abound. It’s often made with mashed potatoes, though cookbook author Beatrice Ojakangas swaps breadcrumbs for the potatoes in Scandinavian Feasts, and Hahnemann doesn’t use either. Recipes sometimes include a liquid of some kind—heavy cream, or perhaps even the liquid from pickled beets—but this recipe shouldn’t need it. I researched a number of recipes to come to this one, and I trust you’ll be pleased with the results. It’s delicious alongside a simple green salad, or perhaps some new potatoes that have been boiled, smashed, and then roasted with olive oil and salt.

I managed to whip these up for an early dinner yesterday before the sun had even begun to set. The patties came together quickly, a combination of little more than lean ground beef, bread crumbs, onion, capers, and pickled beets, leaving me plenty of afternoon light. We’re still in the heart of winter, but spring will be coming soon. It’s the perfect balance–enough time to savor the season while looking forward to the next one.

Biff Lindström

Biff à la Lindström

1 pound lean ground beef
½ medium onion, finely chopped
¼ cup fine, dry bread crumbs
1 extra-large egg
½ cup chopped pickled beets, plus more for garnish (try mine, if you’d like)
2 Tablespoons capers, finely chopped
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon salt
a few grinds of freshly-ground black pepper
1-2 Tablespoons butter
Whole grain mustard, for serving (optional)

In a large mixing bowl, stir together beef, onion, and bread crumbs (I used my stand mixer for quick, thorough, yet minimal mixing). Add the egg, picked beets, capers, and Worcestershire, along with salt and pepper, and mix to combine well.

Using your hands, shape the meat into 8 patties, creating a little indentation in the middle of each one with your thumb to help cook them evenly.

In a large skillet, heat butter over medium heat. Add the patties, in two batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding, and cook, flipping once, until each side is a rich golden brown and the center is cooked as you’d like.

Garnish with additional pickled beets and a spoonful of mustard on the side for serving, if you’d like. Serve alongside small boiled potatoes and something green—a salad of baby arugula, simply dressed, is nice.

Serves 4.

Nordic Roasted Cauliflower Soup (Blomkålsuppe) with Brown Butter and Cardamom

Nordic Roasted Cauliflower Soup

The house feels bare this week. Freshly cleared of Christmas decorations, the rooms seem more spacious, cavernous even, as the furniture and ordinary décor settle back into their normal positions and I adjust to the amount of physical space that the Christmas tree and festive ornaments had swelled to fill.

January has always seemed to me a month of quiet, pale in contrast to the luster of the holidays. I am trying to learn how to recast it as something different, a month in which I celebrate the space while creatively considering ways to preserve the warmth and the feeling of hygge or koselig that December so naturally fosters. That might mean soft blankets draped on seating areas throughout the house, ready for impromptu snuggles, or perhaps remembering to light the candles I’ve purposefully left scattered on shelves and windowsills. And of course there should be soup.

Having been out of town for half of the month of November and sick for much of the month of December, I’m still trying to get back into routines, especially in the kitchen. Breakfast and lunch are always easy; these early meals almost always seem to take care of themselves with items that are regularly on hand—milk, eggs, bread, peanut butter, jam, cheese, fruit, and the like. But dinner is another story. As much of the recipe testing and development that I’m doing doesn’t translate to a well-balanced dinner (we need much more than cardamom boller and various Scandinavian sweets in our diet), dinnertime rolls around and even though I may have spent plenty of time in the kitchen that day, I don’t exactly have much of nutritional value to show for it.

That is perhaps reason enough to embrace soup. Scandinavian cooking is full of them, from creamy yet light Bergen fish soup to hearty yellow pea soup that clings to the spoon, meaning I can call it “work” and still feed my family something nutritious. This week’s choice was blomkålsuppe, a classic throughout the Scandinavian countries.

Juniper and Caraway

Cauliflower

With an almost-embarrassing level of access to a wealth of produce at local grocery stores year-round, I have to admit that I’ve long thought of cauliflower as an ordinary, everyday vegetable. It turns out I was wrong.

“Cauliflower has always been considered a fine thing, even by the rich,” writes Danish cook Camilla Plum in her book The Scandinavian Kitchen.

With its pale color and plentiful florets, cauliflower was a vegetable to be praised and celebrated. Its origins go back to the Middle Ages when, according to Plum, it was a cabbage chosen for its enlarged flowers. It had spread to Northern Europe by the 17th century.

Just the thought of cauliflower brings sweet memories to the minds of Scandinavians. Norwegian cookbook author Astrid Karlsen Scott writes with nostalgia in Authentic Norwegian Cooking about how she remembers the feeling of summer breezes rustling the kitchen curtains while her mother simmered cauliflower soup. Magnus Nilsson, chef of the celebrated Fäviken in Sweden writes in The Nordic Cookbook about the pleasures of steaming a head of cauliflower straight from the garden, perhaps served with salted butter and lemon for dipping. Reading his words I can’t help but picture that garden and taste the sun and the Nordic air absorbed into the cauliflower’s very cells.

Nordic Cauliflower Soup Diptych

Roasted Cauliflower Diptych

At its simplest, cauliflower soup might look like steamed cauliflower pureed with broth and swirled with cream, but it invites so much more. Some recipes call for steaming the cauliflower first, while others panfry or roast it. As for flavorings, one recipe includes Danish blue cheese, while another source says that in Denmark people sometimes add a shot of sherry. Andreas Viestad, host of New Scandinavian Cooking, adds dry white wine and a generous splash of aquavit in his recipe in Kitchen of Light, saying the traditional Scandinavian spirit adds a nice spiciness. He garnishes the soup with fresh chervil, a lovely, delicate, and feathery herb that’s as useful for its beauty as well as flavor. Nilsson writes that he likes to garnish his with bacon, chives, and a halved hard-boiled egg. While some recipes call for garnishing the soup with small prawns or shrimp, Danish chef Trine Hahnemann tops hers with grilled scallops in The Scandinavian Cookbook. Sunny at the blog Arctic Grub features a dairy-free version, optionally spiked with curry powder.

The version I’m featuring today gets its start with the cauliflower and juniper soup in The New Nordic: Recipes from a Scandinavian Kitchen, a beautiful new book by Simon Bajada. I’ve added cardamom, which I find gives a subtle warmth to cauliflower. Flecks of spice dot the soup, a whisper of the flavor infused in each bite. But rather than dominating the soup, the spices, you’ll find, are subtle and nuanced, lending a gentle warmth to a classic, comforting dish.

Soup is always cozy, warming the body while going down. Even when it’s too hot to eat immediately, the pleasure of holding a spoon to the lips and blowing off the soft rising swirls of steam hints at a slower pace, of savoring the moment. It’s a step, I think, toward preserving the warmth of the holidays even in the sparseness of the new season.

Nordic Roasted Cauliflower Soup

Nordic Roasted Cauliflower Soup (Blomkålsuppe) with Brown Butter and Cardamom
Adapted from the cauliflower and juniper soup in The New Nordic: Recipes from a Scandinavian Kitchen by Simon Bajada (Hardie Grant Books, 2015)

1 head cauliflower, leaves attached
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried juniper berries
½ teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 tablespoon canola or rapeseed oil
20 ounces chicken broth or stock
3 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup sour cream
Ground white pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rinse the cauliflower thoroughly, then snap off the thick outer leaves, leaving the small, tender ones attached. Using a sharp knife, cut off the stem, leaving a flat base on which the cauliflower can rest. Place the cauliflower on a baking sheet. Pour the oil over the cauliflower, using your hand to rub it in.

Using a mortar and pestle, smash together the salt, juniper, and cardamom, thoroughly crushing the herbs. Sprinkle it over the cauliflower in a generous, even layer (you may not need it all).

Slide the tray into the oven and roast for about 40 minutes, until a knife easily pierces the stem. (After 40 minutes, if the cauliflower is not tender yet, the original recipe suggests turning down the heat to 340 degrees to finish roasting—this took me an additional 15 minutes.) At this point, the cauliflower will be deep golden and richly fragrant, almost nutty.

When the cauliflower is still warm but cool enough to handle, cut it into rough florets, reserving the leaves, and place in a blender. Blend, gradually adding chicken broth, until as smooth as can be. You only want to add as much broth as necessary to make it a luscious, spoonable soup—it took me 15 ounces.

In a medium pot, melt butter over medium heat. Continue heating until the butter starts to brown. It will crackle and release an intoxicating aroma into the air. Carefully swirl the pan until the milk solids separate and the butter is golden brown. Promptly remove the pot to a cool burner to stop cooking, then pour the pureed cauliflower in, taking care as it will sputter dramatically when the cauliflower hits the hot butter. Stir in the sour cream. Taste and season with additional salt and white pepper if necessary.

Return the pot to medium heat and cook, continuing to stir occasionally, until the soup is heated through. Serve, garnishing with the leaves, which are now curled, warmly colored, and almost translucent.

Serves 4.

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

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