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).

Gluten-Free Scandinavian Almond Cake with Rhubarb Compote

Gluten Free Scandinavian Almond Cake

I sometimes wonder what it was like to be her. Two feet on Norwegian soil, then one. And with the second step onto the gangway, a release, a launch into a new life.

My grandmother was about 40 years old when she packed up her life to immigrate to the United States with her husband and son in the spring of 1956.

Standing on the ship, she would have seen the verdant seven hills of Bergen rising high above the glistening waters as clean and pure as tears. The gentle sway of the ship at dock would have been subtle but perhaps just present enough to be a scapegoat for the tightening chest and quaking belly. Soon the ship would depart, sailing inch by inch, then mile by mile, memory by memory, from a country that had, until that day, always been home.

I think about that journey each spring as the anniversary rolls around. And yet, I can only imagine what that experience would have been like, only speculate at the emotions swirling in my grandmother’s heart as the ship sailed out of the fjord, the town and the hills disappearing from view as gradually yet surely as the sun setting below the horizon.

I got the phone call announcing Grandma’s death in 2009 as I was getting dressed to visit her to celebrate her birthday. That was the day I was going to ask her if we could start talking–really talking–about her life. I know there were stories there–firsthand accounts of living in Nazi-occupied Norway, heartbreaking memories of losing an infant son, the decision between a husband and wife settled well into their adult years to leave home and start fresh in a new country. I wish there were unknown journals and letters somewhere out there that I would happen upon someday, words scrolled in a handwriting I’ve since discovered that my own eerily resembles. The chances of that happening are slim. A generation is dying; one of her closest living relatives in Norway recently passed away. Memories exist in the minds of the few she left behind and in the photos bound in old-fashioned albums stored away.

Still, I think about that monumental move each spring. And as I do, I always reflect upon my grandmother, a woman I understood only so much during her lifetime but who fascinates, intrigues, and inspires me more and more all the time.

Rhubarb and Almond Cake Diptych

Gluten Free Scandinavian Almond Cake

One of the qualities that stands out most when I think about Grandma Agny was her hospitality, something I strive to emulate. That takes many forms for me, from hosting dinners to taking dietary restrictions into consideration when baking for an event. So many people avoid gluten that I’ve found it helpful to have a go-to cake recipe that I can bring just about anywhere.

This cake–adapted from the blackberry, almond, and cardamom cake in Signe Johansen’s Scandilicious: Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking–incorporates the distinctly Nordic flavors of almond and cardamom into its rich, moist, and pleasantly toothsome texture. I shared a version of it on the blog a while back, but have simplified it and adapted the ingredients for standard measurements rather than metric. The cake pairs wonderfully with a Scandinavian rhubarb compote loosely adapted from The Scandinavian Kitchen by Camilla Plum. Plum recommends cooking the compote in the oven rather than on the stovetop, a process that helps protect the appearance of the rhubarb’s structure, even as it melts into shreds; the stirring in stovetop cooking breaks apart and mixes the rhubarb, yielding a much different result.

Almond Cake with Rhubarb Compote Diptych

Scandinavian Rhubarb Compote

Gluten-Free Scandinavian Almond Cake with Rhubarb Compote

For the compote:
5 medium stalks rhubarb
1/3 cup sugar

For the cake:
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 medium eggs
2 1/2 cups almond meal*
2 teaspoons gluten-free baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt
Gluten-free powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut rhubarb stalks into 2-inch lengths and arrange in a baking dish that can roughly hold them in one layer. Sprinkle sugar over the top. Cover dish with a sheet of foil and bake for 10 minutes. Peel back the foil and carefully turn over the rhubarb pieces. Bake for an additional 5 to 10 minutes until the rhubarb is cooked through. Carefully lift the cooked rhubarb with a wide spatula or spoon and transfer to a serving dish. Cool. The compote can be made up to a couple of days in advance if you’d like.

To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a round 9-inch springform cake pan. Cream butter, sugar, and vanilla, then add eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly between each addition.

Whisk the almond meal, baking powder, cardamom, and salt in a medium bowl, then fold into the batter.

Pour into the pan, spreading the top evenly with a spatula. Bake for 30-40 minutes; you’ll know it’s done when the top has turned golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Set the pan on a wire rack and cool.

Remove the cooled cake from the pan and sift powdered sugar over the top. Serve with the compote.

Makes 1 9-inch cake.

*The original recipe calls for 250 grams ground almonds. I like the precision of metric measurements but understand that not everyone uses a kitchen scale. Since the weight of the almond meal with vary depending on how much you pack it, pour it into the measuring cup and let it settle, but do not pack it in.

Family Classics: Norwegian Waffles

Norwegian Vaffler

I believe that food is a connector. Both to the people we love and to our heritage. I began writing about Scandinavian food in 2009 a couple of months after Grandma Agny passed away; the grief had struck me in ways deeper than I could have expected, and I found myself seeking out elements of our shared Norwegian heritage as a way to feel closer to her memory. Food was the winner.

As I read Beatrice Ojakangas’ The Great Scandinavian Baking Book and Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit–the two titles that began my collection of Scandinavian cookbooks–I began to understand my grandmother and our Norwegian heritage in new, illuminating ways. Outside Oslo became a place where I could share what was on my mind and what I was discovering as I cooked and baked my way through Scandinavian recipes.

Earlier this week I had the privilege of speaking at a Daughters of Norway meeting in Seattle about how we can use food to share our heritage with people we care about–both in the present and as we think about ways to preserve it for the future. Whey they invited me to come and speak at their May meeting, I was both honored and nervous. I would be speaking to women who knew just as much–perhaps more–about the cuisine than I do, and I wanted to both inform and inspire them. What it came down to was speaking from the heart.

Daytona Strong Speaker

On that special evening, I shared how I became interested in Norwegian cuisine, and the important roles it has played in my life from childhood and into the present. I discussed the value of creating memories with loved ones, sharing stories and family history, and handing down recipes and the associations that go along with them. Speaking from my own experience, I shared ways to preserve family history and recipes through tools such as blogging and making a family cookbook.

Norwegian Heart Waffles HorizontalAs I bake regularly with Grandma Adeline and my mom, we create memories as we spend time together in the kitchen, sampling bites of whatever we’re making and often enjoying a meal. In these baking sessions, something often triggers memories for Grandma, and she’ll share stories from her youth in North Dakota, her experiences cooking for and managing restaurants, and bits of family history. These baking days bring forth parts of my family history and my heritage that I might otherwise never have learned.

As I did with the women of Daughters of Norway, I would like to encourage you to find ways to share such experiences with your relatives, whether they’re older generations or younger. Food has an amazing way of connecting people, and so much of a time and place can be wrapped up in one single recipe.

Norwegian Waffles Vertical

If you do decide to write a family cookbook, let me share with you one of the recommendations a source gave me when I interviewed her for an article on the topic for Costco Connection magazine: Don’t worry about including the most impressive recipes. The goal, rather, should be including the ones with meaning, the ones that have fond memories and stories written between the lines.

For me, one of those recipes is for Norwegian waffles. I suspect every Norwegian family has its own version of this traditional dish; some use sour cream, others use buttermilk. Some people eat them with lingonberry preserves, others with geitost (brown goat cheese) or some sort of nut spread. But they’re typically made with a waffle iron that creates little heart-shaped waffles that look pretty on a platter and speak to the love that invariably goes into making them. This particular recipe goes back generations, at least to my great-grandmother Josephine. Making them with Grandma Adeline a week and a half ago, we carried on a family tradition, imbuing generations of past memories with our own and connecting the past with the present. And that, my friends, is a very special gift.

Norwegian Heart Waffles VerticalGreat-Grandma Josephine’s Norwegian Waffles (Vaffler)

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup milk
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Beat eggs in a separate bowl, then add to the butter and beat until smooth. Mix in buttermilk and milk. Sift together flour, baking powder, and baking soda and mix into the batter to combine.

Baking using a heart-shaped waffle maker.

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