Easy, Elegant Shrimp Smørrebrød

Shrimp Smørrebrød Vertical

The art of the Scandinavian smørrebrød reflects something of abundance. Not gluttony, but rather a sense of appreciating the fullness of life’s blessings no matter the times, circumstances, or resources.

Cook simply, with creativity, quality ingredients, and love, and you’ll produce something elegant and you’ll be proud to bring to the table.

I’ve been thinking for several months about how the food of Scandinavia has long demonstrated elegance and hospitality even in tough times. Interviewing a cookbook author recently for an article confirmed that when she mentioned the food that Scandinavians would eat in time of poverty. The lesson I’m learning to distill from this: Cook simply, with creativity, quality ingredients, and love, and you’ll produce something elegant and you’ll be proud to bring to the table. And speaking of that table, dressing it with your finest linens and dishes can also elevate the experience.

This all brings me back to smørrebrød, or the open sandwiches that are popular in the Scandinavian countries. The word smørrebrød is so lively, conjuring up images of smearing soft, rich butter generously and evenly over a slice of bread. From there any number of toppings can be added, with shrimp, smoked salmon, and roast beef being some of the most well-known.

Assembling Shrimp Smørrebrød

Garnishing Shrimp Smørrebrød

…the sandwich takes on a civilized air and encourages the diner to slow down and enjoy the meal, to be in the moment with one’s company and to savor the food.

Though the smørrebrød pictured here appear simple–merely buttered bread topped with vivid green lettuce, a pile of shrimp, creme fraiche, cucumber, and lemon–the results are satisfying in a way that an ordinary sandwich, hastily thrown together and squished flat for transport to be eaten at work or on the go, isn’t. There’s an art to building smørrebrød, with rules for how they must be assembled, the care in presentation, and which type of bread must accompany a certain type of topping. Eaten with a fork and knife rather than held between one’s hands, the sandwich takes on a civilized air and encourages the diner to slow down and enjoy the meal, to be in the moment with one’s company and to savor the food.

Shrimp Smørrebrød Assembled

Going back to the idea of abundance for a moment, take a look at these sandwiches. Piled high with generous amounts of shrimp, they need only one slice of bread. Paired with a couple other varieties, they make a full, satisfying meal. And to think that they often require no cooking–just creativity, quality ingredients, and love.

Shrimp Smørrebrød with Lemon and Cucumber
This recipe is adapted from an NPR story, which itself is worth a read.  

2 slices hearty bread
1-2 tablespoons softened butter
2-4 leaves of lettuce
6 ounces shrimp
4 tablespoons creme fraiche
2 lemon slices
2 cucumber slices
1 sprig of dill

Smear the butter evenly over the bread, taking care to thinly and evenly cover the surface all the way to the ends. Cover fully with lettuce, then divide the shrimp between the two sandwiches, arranging them in neat piles in the center of the lettuce. Top each with a dollop of creme fraiche, and arrange a slice of lemon and cucumber on top. Garnish with dill.

Serves 2.

Shrimp Smørrebrød Horizontal

Danish Blue Cheese Salad

Danish Blue Cheese Salad Vertical

To paint with light–that is what photographers do.

That idea, a way to reshape the way I look at the world, is the one nugget that’s stayed with me all these years since I was first studying photography.

Fast forward from the late 1990s to the present, I’ve been switching from film to digital this year as I relearn the art of SLR photography. Although technology has evolved, film has become a niche, and time has clouded much of what I learned back then, one thing is still the same: the science of light and the way it wraps around an object, enveloping it with its invisible yet transformative qualities.

Radishes and Salad

Armed with a new DSLR camera and taking workshops here and there, my eyes are being reopened to the beauty of the world around me–in particular, the beauty of food.

Just take a look at a bunch of radishes, their magenta skin glowing and contrasting with the green leaves. Exact opposites on the color wheel. Nature. Art.

Radishes on Plate Vertical

When food is this pretty in its raw, whole form, it deserves to retain its dignity when integrated into a dish.

That’s one of the things I love about this Danish blue cheese salad. Isn’t it pretty? On a bed of curly lettuce, thinly-sliced cucumbers and radishes nestle together with sliced cherry tomatoes, a trace of shaved onion, fresh dill, and crumbled blue cheese. It’s so simple there’s almost nothing to it. The dressing–oil and vinegar accented with a little mustard, salt, and sugar–highlights the salad’s flavors without drawing attention to itself.

Crisp, fresh, summery. No one ingredient dominant, except perhaps the blue cheese with its pungent pop of flavor. Just right.

Of course, presentation is important–ingredients this beautiful want to be dressed up, allowed to shine.

Danish Blue Cheese Salad Horizontal

In some regards, photography has been reminding me about how lucky we are to have access to so much good food. Quality, whole ingredients–radishes, tomatoes, artichokes, you name it–possess a special beauty that their canned and frozen counterparts lack. As I’ve been studying photography and applying what I’m learning to my own work, I’ve been reflecting on the luxury that living in Seattle provides; as I mentioned the other day, the city has a multitude of farmers markets, some of which operate year-round, and it’s no problem to find grocery stores stocking quality, whole, organic items. Eating well is easy.

Circling back to the idea of painting with light, consider that the next time you sit down to eat something fresh. Look at the reflections and shadows, the range of colors and textures, and how they all work together to create something beautiful. See if taking the visual nature of food into account doesn’t somehow elevate its taste. It sure does for me.

Lettuce and Salad Closeup

Danish Blue Cheese Salad
Adapting a recipe from Scandinavian Feasts by Beatrice Ojakangas, I added dill and tomatoes, giving it an extra special summery touch. I resisted the urge to swap the canola oil and white wine vinegar with more special versions; I’m glad I did, as the resulting salad is just right. 

1 head curly green lettuce
1 small bunch radishes
1 2-inch length of cucumber
1/2 sweet onion
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes
1 small bunch fresh dill
1/4 cup crumbled Danish blue cheese (or other blue cheese of your choice; I used Stilton)
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons canola oil
Freshly-ground black pepper (optional)

Prepare the salad ingredients and place them in individual prep bowls: Wash and dry the lettuce then tear roughly into pieces; thinly slice radishes, cucumbers, and onion with a mandoline; cut tomatoes in half; and roughly chop dill.

To make the dressing, combine vinegar, mustard, salt, and sugar in a small bowl. Slowly pour the oil into the vinegar while whisking, allowing the ingredients to combine.

Assemble the salads by dividing the lettuce between six plates and topping with radish and cucumber slices. Place a little sliced onion on the top of each salad, then arrange tomato halves around. Scatter blue cheese and dill over each salad. Just before serving, spoon the dressing over each salad. Top with a little freshly-ground black pepper if desired.

Serves 6.

Danish Vanilla Cookies and the Search for a Lost Recipe

Danish Vanilla Cookies on Parchment

When I gave a speech about connecting heritage and food to a group of Norwegian women last spring, one of them said that she wished her 20-something-year-old son would take an interest in Scandinavian cooking like I have. Obviously an important part of her life, the food of her heritage hasn’t yet become a connecting point between the generations. I wish I had a solution for her, a way for her to convince her son to take notice of the richness and memories woven into old recipes and the food served to generations of family members. Until that happens though, I hope the woman makes a point to collect and gather her family’s recipes, writing down memories and stories as she goes.

I certainly don’t expect everyone to get as giddy as I do about handwritten recipes and boxes of notecards with ingredient lists in elegant penmanship. But I do know that food is one of the easiest ways to bring people together and prompt connection. It’s a way to carry on traditions and to conjure up memories.

I’ve written before about how I have only a few recipes from my late grandmother Agny. Most were lost after she died. The few I have come from old church cookbooks and my other grandma’s collection of recipes. One of my great regrets is that I didn’t join Grandma Agny in the kitchen and bake with her, listening as the process coaxed out stories of life in Norway. It’s a tradition I share with Grandma Adeline and my mom, and one I feel so privileged to get to enjoy.

Danish Vanilla Cookies in Process

Danish Vanilla Cookies Cooling OffFor the last couple of years I’ve been trying to recreate some old cookies that Grandma Agny used to make. Sweet and buttery, with a pleasant, toothsome crunch, the cookies were a staple at Christmastime. All I know is that they were a traditional type of Scandinavian cookie that Grandma shaped in an unconventional way. Formed into parallelograms with horizontal lines pressed into them with the tines of a fork, they were delicate and pretty, and Grandma served them with pride.

Many of you have offered ideas for what those cookies could have been, and I’ve been following your leads and baking through recipes in my Scandinavian cookbooks. I’ve come close at times, but I’m not there yet.

The fun part of the process is discovering cookies that I’ve never made before, including these Danish vanilla cookies. With an easy dough made little more than the normal butter, sugar, flour, egg, and baking powder, they’re flavored generously with vanilla, which lends a rich quality to them that pairs perfectly with a glass of milk. Think sugar cookies with an extra punch of flavor.

As I took my first bite, still warm from the oven, I analyzed the flavor, comparing it against the cookies I have filed away in my memory from so long ago. Not quite. These cookies are too crisp, too. I’m encouraged, though: I have a new recipe that I’ll be sure to make again and again, and thanks to the suggestions that some of you have left on my Facebook page since I asked for ideas yesterday, I have plenty of direction for where to take my search next.

Danish Vanilla Cookies with MilkDanish Vanilla Cookies (Vaniljesmåkager)
Adapted (barely) from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas

1 cup salted butter, at room temeperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Powdered sugar, for decoration

Cream butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl until smooth, then add egg and continue beating until the batter is light. Mix in the vanilla extract. Stir together flour and baking powder in a separate bowl, then add to the batter, mixing until all the ingredients combine and form a stiff dough.

Turn out the dough onto a work surface and knead briefly, further incorporating the ingredients without overworking them, then separate the dough into two portions and roll each into a log two inches in diameter. Wrap the logs in waxed paper and foil and chill in the refrigerator.

At this point you can either wait an hour or so, until the dough is chilled through, or you can wait and just keep the dough in the fridge until you’re in need of some freshly-baked cookies. According to the original recipe, the dough will keep for up to two weeks.

When you’re ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Slice the chilled logs into rounds about 1/8-inch thick and place on the prepared baking sheets about an inch apart. Bake in the top third of the oven for about ten minutes, until the tops begin to turn golden around the edges. Allow to cool slightly, then dust with powdered sugar.

Yields about 30 cookies.

Part of the WanderFood Wednesday Recipe Swap

Danish Blackberry-Lemon Slices

Danish Vienna Fingers Horizontal

They say that good friends listen. And if that’s the case, then I’m lucky to have Rika as a friend. I arrived at her house on Monday with a plate of cookies I had made over the weekend. As we sat sipping a latte and tea out of the largest mugs I’ve ever seen, she asked me about my cookies.

These are Danish Vienna fingers, I explained. And these are Finnish Aunt Hanna cookies, though I don’t know why they’re called that. And these are Norwegian brown butter cookies.

Finnish Aunt Hanna's Cookies

Though I’m paraphrasing here, you get the point; I was telling her what the cookies were called, as briefly as possible so as not to bore her with details about my baking exploits. But then can you guess what happened next? She asked questions to draw me out. She wanted to know about my cookies–really know about them. How are they made? What makes each what they are?

Now that, friends, is a good friend. But what’s even more amazing is that if the same logic holds true for this blog, then you are good friends too. You listen even as I I ramble about food-related childhood memories or giddily tell you about my recent visit to Tartine.

Norwegian Brown Butter Cookies

And with that, since I mentioned the cookies I brought to Rika’s house, let me tell you a little more about one of the varieties, the jam-filled ones pictured at the beginning of this post. Something about these cookies just tastes decadent. They’re pretty, but not ornate. The lemon really comes through, giving a lovely bright contrast to the deep richness of the blackberry jam. Although I’m sure it would undo anything traditional about these cookies, I can imagine all sorts of flavor combinations–lime and blueberry, orange zest and marmalade with an almond glaze, chocolate cookies with raspberry preserves, and the list goes on.

Since we’re talking about friendship and cookies, let me take the opportunity to say thank you for being here. Thank you for checking out what’s on this blog and coming back again and again. Each time you leave a comment and let me know that somehow something I’ve said has resonated with you, it makes my day. I wish I could share some of these cookies with you.

Danish Vienna Fingers

Danish Blackberry-Lemon Slices (or Danish Vienna Fingers / Wienerstänger)
These cookies are adapted, barely, from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas, which is one of the first Scandinavian cookbooks I purchased and still one of my favorites. Traditional and authentic, each recipe I’ve tried has been a success, and the author does a great job putting the recipes in context of the cuisines from which they come.

2/3 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup blackberry jam
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice

To make the dough, cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and then beat in the egg until the mixture lightens. Add the lemon peel, flour, and baking powder, and beat until a dough forms, then chill the dough for about 30 minutes (this is a great time to clean up the kitchen if you, like me, are trying to get into the practice of cleaning while you go).

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide it into quarters, rolling each section into a 15-inch log and placing at least two inches apart on baking sheets. Using a long, flat object such as a knife or ruler, press down gently down the center of each log, creating a lengthwise groove (you’ll fill it soon with jam).

Bake the logs for 10 minutes, then remove and spoon the jam down the groove. Return to the oven and bake for about 10 more minutes, until the logs’ edges turn a pale golden color.

To make the icing, mix together the powdered sugar and lemon juice with a little bit of water. When you remove the cookies from the oven, let them cool a little and then drizzle them with the icing and cut the cookies diagonally into 3/4-inch cookies while still warm.

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