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.

Nordic Whipped Porridge & The Writing Life

Whipped Porridge

We find our own way, sometimes.

I started my career on the serious journalism track, my days played out to the soundtrack of police scanners and competing top-of-the-hour headlines.

“You have to love news,” the golden-haired anchor told me over coffees outside a cafe not far from the TV station one day. She had once been where I was, a beginning journalist, and she was there to share her knowledge.

Of course I love news, I told myself, wanting to believe that my drive–which would soon motivate me enough to flip my schedule upside down for work–was enough to count. But in reality, the truth that I didn’t want to acknowledge was that I didn’t understand what she meant. How could anyone love car wrecks and politics?

I went on to spend several years working nights, writing and producing for the morning newscast. Until 2007, when I realized it was time for a change. Waking up to a full life after leaving the newsroom for the real world, I soon discovered a different pace. Daylight was for living, darkness for sleep. Resolute in my quest to find a 9-to-5 job that would put me on the same shift as my husband (we had spent the first two years of our marriage on opposite schedules, but that’s another story), I found myself working for a great theatre in the neighborhood next door while building a clip file of freelance articles. And then in 2009 I started this blog.

Whipped Porridge

Whipped Porridge Diptych with Coconut

Scandinavian food is as normal to me as hot dogs and burgers. Though I’ve grown up in the Seattle area, I’m the daughter of a Norwegian immigrant, and because of the Nordics’ tendencies to settle in tight-knit communities, I managed to be born entirely of Norwegian blood. But it’s one thing to know something intrinsically, another to understand and be able to describe it. While I was eating spiced medisterkaker sausages and surkål (very loosely a Norwegian sauerkraut) at holiday meals and tucking into tins of any number of Scandinavian Christmas cookies throughout my childhood, I was obliviously and blissfully taking part in traditions that generations on both sides of my family had brought with them from Norway to Seattle, from Norway to small-town North Dakota. When Grandma Agny died in 2009, I found myself taking it to the next level, seeking out Scandinavian cookbooks as a way to soothe my grieving heart. It didn’t take long for me to discover a cuisine much more varied than the flavors of pickled herring, dill, salmon, and almond that I had long associated with Scandinavia.

Over the years, I’ve traded breaking news for baked goods, and I couldn’t be happier. Today I’m a food writer specializing in Nordic cooking, and I love learning about dishes and desserts from each of the Nordic countries and sharing them with others. (I make a distinction between “Scandinavian” and “Nordic,” the former made up of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and the latter including Iceland and Finland.)

Whipped Porridge Whipped Porridge Diptych with Cream

When I started my career cocooned in the newsroom in the early morning hours, I didn’t know what lay ahead. I didn’t know that I would end up trading the conventional 40-plus hour week for the freelance life. I knew I would eventually have a family, but I was unsure of how I’d be able to realize my career dreams while giving my future kids the experience my mother had given me as a stay-at-home mom, something I had always been thankful for. With my youngest currently a baby, I’m still figuring out the logistics. But I’m getting there, slowly but surely, embracing motherhood to the fullest while finding room in my life for the writing that’s always been there, in some form or another, the writing that must always be there. I’m getting the hang of it again.

Yes, we find our own way, sometimes. As much as I’ve always wanted to have the perfect plan, to know what comes next, to map it all out, I’ve also discovered that sometimes what lies ahead looks even better than what I could have imagined.

Whipped Porridge

Grape Nordic Whipped Porridge with Coconut and Honey
Whipped porridge, also known as air porridge, is one of those Nordic dishes that I’ve only recently discovered. But I think I might be hooked. Open to any number of variations, it’s fluffy and light, nothing like the oatmeal-type dish I had always associated with “porridge.” In a nutshell, you cook farina in water with a bit of berries or juice until it thickens, then let it cool and whip it until it fluffs up into a pale cloud. Traditionally made with tart lingonberries and just a touch of sugar, you can substitute just about any sort of berry or fruit juice. My version is lightly flavored with grape juice. It’s simple and subtle on its own but really becomes something special when drizzled with honey and cream and given a light dusting of coconut. Go ahead–give it a try.

2 cups water
1 cup grape juice
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup farina
Cream, for serving
Honey, for serving
Unsweetened coconut flakes, for serving

Bring water and grape juice to a boil over high heat in a medium saucepan with a pinch of salt. Pour in the farina at a steady pace, whisking constantly. Lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes until thickened, then remove from heat and allow to cool. Transfer to a mixing bowl and whip until fluffy, ideally using a stand mixer. Serve with cream, honey, and coconut.

Serves 4.

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

Getting to the Heart of Food Writing (and a Swedish Currant Cake)

Swedish Currant Cake

There’s a secret that food writers keep. We don’t mean to, of course, but when one’s beat is food, it’s easy for most of the media we use to reflect only a tiny facet of who we are. That secret is the varied nature of our lives–outside of the kitchen. Aside from the occasional clue found on our Instagram feeds or the other publications you might find our work in, you probably wouldn’t know a lot about us other than the fact that we read a lot of cookbooks, can use work as an excuse for baking after cake, and that we sometimes get a little sentimental and nostalgic about something as ephemeral as food.

I’ve been thinking, though, about how much more there is to each of us. In fact, food writing isn’t about the food at all to me. I could get all starry-eyed about that amazing meal I ate and fill up a blog post with overused words like “delicious” and “perfect” but chance are that would end up sounding shallow at best, disingenuous or pretentious at worst. Food is all about the people, the memories, the experiences–it’s about life.

It’s about the beachside crêpe stand down the square from the house where I stayed the summer I studied in Normandy–a little white truck luring passersby with the sweet aromas of melted butter and warm sugar carried on the ocean breeze–and how my awareness of the world and its many cultures expanded as I fumbled my way through my order in a foreign language. Then there’s the glow of early love I felt as I sat by the side of a street by the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome for lunch with my husband on our honeymoon. We ate slices of chewy, yeasty pizza by hand, savoring the balance of the delicate zucchini blossoms and assertive anchovies adorned with little more than olive oil and salt; eight years later we still stalk zucchini blossoms together at the farmers’ market each summer until we find them, just so we can attempt to recreate that pizza at home and keep that experience of early romance alive. It’s also about how deeply comforting a protein-fortified milkshake and peanut butter and jelly sandwich paired with Earl Grey tea in a paper cup tasted when I was recovering from an emergency cesarean delivery and how even the mention of stewed prunes takes me back to the first sweet but hazy days with my newborn in the hospital.

That’s a little bit of my story right there, all wrapped up in food. And none of it really is about food. The pizza and the crêpes sucrées and the milkshake from the hospital cafeteria mean nothing in and of themselves–they’re just things that someone made and that someone ate, sustenance that meets one of our biggest needs for survival. But when there’s a story associated with them, they become something more: an entry point into our memories and a framework by which to contemplate our pasts.

If you were to look at what I’ve been eating in the past couple of weeks, the number of quick café meals–a breakfast sandwich here; yogurt, milk, and a panini there; and an occasional blended strawberry and cream drink and double nonfat latte along the way–would help define this moment in time occupied with hospital visits. As my son and I have eaten our drive-through coffee shop meals in the car (which I try to avoid) and out of crinkly white paper to-go bags in a lobby, I’ve experienced guilt about abandoning the structure and nutritional quality that I’ve built around our daytime meals. But in a way, while I watch someone dear to me struggle with the debilitating effects of stroke and wonder whether her speech and comprehension will ever fully return, I am thankful for the steady, predictable schedule of mealtime, no matter the form or its contents–that rhythm, at least, is one thing still in my control.

Swedish Currant Cake

And so we come to cake. Just as with that milkshake and those crêpes, there’s no inherent magic in a bunch of flour, sugar, butter, and currants baked together in a pan–unless you have something bigger to attach it to. Food blog guidelines would instruct me here to use evocative language that would entice you to want to drop everything and head to your kitchen right now to bake, but perhaps because of what I’m going through at the moment that seems beside the point–pointless even. For me, what this cake really represents is a gateway to a day I don’t want to forget, something a little ordinary, a little special, and full of sweetness in a time otherwise filled with grief and uncertainty.

This cake sat in my kitchen this morning, surrounded by toasted English muffins, sliced tomatoes, ham, artichoke hearts, avocados and bacon. As my husband made Hollandaise sauce and poached eggs, we mingled with a dozen or so friends, inviting them each to whip up a Bloody Mary and build their own eggs benedict. To have a houseful of people so early in the day is a rarity (late to bed, typically late to rise), but it was opening day of the Seattle Sounders FC season, and we wanted to mark the occasion well. In the blur of it all, I didn’t even think to snap a photo as a visual record of the morning. All I have are the photos of this cake, which I took yesterday.

From there we went to the game, a match against Sporting Kansas City, a game in which the 0-0 score glared down at the fans until after the 90th minute, in stoppage time, when the Sounders finally made a goal, winning the game with what felt like less than 30 seconds to go. I’m not a huge sports fan, but to be there with my husband and son, surrounded by tens of thousands of people cheering on a team in the rain–and erupting in applause as fireworks went off and the word “GOAL” flashed on the screen–that was something special, a memory I don’t want to forget.

And so there’s cake today, a dense, subtly-sweet one studded with almost three cups of dried currants, the type of cake you serve for brunch rather than a special occasion. One that would taste just as good toasted and spread with butter as any raisin-cinnamon toast. I’ll leave you with a recipe, should you want to give it a try. For me, it’s another way to remember something that has absolutely nothing to do with cake but has everything to do with friends and fellowship, brunch and soccer, and the bright hours of an otherwise challenging couple of weeks.

Swedish Currant Cake

Swedish Currant Cake
Adapted from Swedish Cakes and Cookies. As the original recipe recommends, plan on making this cake a couple of days before you plan on serving it. Just keep it covered and it will stay moist and get better with time.

2 3/4 cups dried currants
3/4 cup salted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
Zest of one lemon, grated
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon water, plus more hot water for rinsing currants

Preheat oven to 300 degrees and grease a tube pan. Rinse the currants briefly in hot water; drain well and set aside.

Beat butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, scraping down the sides occasionally, until light and fluffy. This will take a couple of minutes–don’t rush it. One at a time, add the eggs, mixing well before each addition.

Toss a tablespoon or two of the flour with the currants in a separate bowl. Add the rest of the flour–along with the cinnamon, lemon zest, and baking powder–to the batter and beat until mixed. Stir in almond extract, lemon juice, and a tablespoon of water until everything is incorporated, then fold in the currants.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean and the edges start to pull away from the sides. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for about five minutes, then loosen the cake from the sides of the pan with a knife, invert it onto a plate and remove the cake. Store covered.

My Original Lingonberry Recipes in Our Amazing Norway

Our Amazing Norway Lingonberry Article

As you probably know from reading Outside Oslo, I enjoy taking items frequently found in Norwegian and Scandinavian kitchens and coming up with new and original ways to use them. I had the opportunity recently to write an article about lingonberries for Our Amazing Norway, a magazine for expats in Norway. The story is complete with four original lingonberry recipes:

Cardamom-Scented Cauliflower Soup with Lingonberry and Dill

Black Tea Crème Brûlée with Lingonberry Preserves

Spiced Lingonberry Sauce for Ice Cream

Cucumber, Dill, and Lingonberry Smørrebrød

Check out Our Amazing Norway’s website to find out how get a copy. I have an article about another commonly-found item coming up in their next issue; I’ll be sure to tell you when it’s published. In the meantime, follow them on Facebook and Instagram!

Our Amazing Norway Cover and Lingonberry Article

Images provided by and used with permission from Our Amazing Norway.

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