Norwegian Christmas Cookies: Pepperkaker

Pepperkaker

(This is the third post in my series on the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies. I’ve shared recipes for krumkaker and Berlinerkranser so far, and I’ll be posting more delicious recipes in the weeks to come. Please follow along! Sign up for my newsletter and like my page on Facebook so you don’t miss a post!)

I returned home the other day and was surprised by the warmth and smell that greeted me. Cinnamon and cardamom, clove and ginger. Warm butter and sugar. The scents of baking. Earlier in the day I had made pepperkaker, but I hadn’t noticed just how fragrant the cookies were until I left for a while and then returned. This is what I want my home to smell like all season long.

This time of year I think a lot about the experiences of the holidays. I think about the senses, how the music we listen to and the decorations surrounding us impact our experience. I keep things pretty simple, all in all. But there are touches that can make all the difference. That’s why I’ll be putting a pot of gløgg on the stove whenever we’re expecting guests and churning out buttery and spiced cookies as often as I can. No matter how much or how little I manage to decorate the house for Christmas, the aromas and warmth pouring out of the kitchen will convey a sense of the season, one that’s inviting and welcoming, one that hopefully hints at the hospitality of my mom and grandmothers, whom I hope to emulate.

Pepperkaker Diptych

Pepperkaker

There’s a lot of talk out there right now about hygge, that Scandinavian word that somehow encapsulates big ideas of coziness, community, and a sense of well-being in an economical five words. I’ve been striving to embrace that lifestyle, or state of being, for a while now.

This time of the year it’s easy to feel the darkness. My friend Dianna posted a photo on Instagram today of her morning coffee, a candlelit scene capturing the available light while it lasts. She lives in Tromsø, a Norwegian city above the Arctic circle, where the sun will make its final appearance next week, not to return until January.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we never truly say goodbye to the sun, though it’s often shielded by veils of cloud and fog; for those working office hours, the sun may have set by the time one heads home from work. We feel the darkness too. Yet for all that’s missing during the late autumn and the winter months, there is much to celebrate, much to embrace during this time. The darkness doesn’t have to be something to dread. Rather it can be an excuse–an opportunity–to pull out all the stops and get as cozy as can be. Baking cookies is one way to do so.

I’ve been writing about the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies, here on Outside Oslo in recent weeks, and today I’m sharing my recipe for pepperkaker, crisp, richly-spiced cookies that are similar to gingersnaps. Out of all the Norwegian Christmas cookies I’ve made, these might be the most fun. Anytime you can roll out dough and cut it into any number of shapes, it’s going to be a good day.

Pepperkaker Diptych

Pepperkaker are unfussy and forgiving, easy to make with the family. Once the dough comes together and rests in the refrigerator overnight, you’ll be ready to bake cookies at a moment’s notice, anytime you have little hands who want to help with rolling and shaping cookies.

That’s part of what’s so special about this time of year. For me, it’s not about the cookies themselves. The cookies are the excuse for spending quality time with people, for building relationships and extending hospitality. I can’t separate my memories of the holiday season from the cookies that my grandmothers served while I was growing up, and then the regular baking sessions that I shared with Mom and Grandma Adeline in recent years when my grandmother was well enough. There’s a glow in all those memories, one created by time spent with dear ones. There’s a saying—supposedly a Norwegian proverb—that goes like this: Cookies are baked with butter and love. Based on my own experiences, I can say without a doubt that this is true.

Pepperkaker

Pepperkaker (A Norwegian Gingerbread)
I analyzed many recipes for pepperkaker (spelled pepparkakor in Swedish) while creating the one I’m sharing with you today. The spices vary considerably, most notably the use of black pepper. People have different opinions on its presence, and I omit it. Recipes generally include both cinnamon and cloves, and often ginger. An addition that I use, that I don’t always see, is cardamom—freshly-ground, of course. Another thing to note is the syrup. I use golden syrup—specifically Lyle’s, which I can easily get at the grocery stores around here. It wouldn’t be as authentic to use molasses or honey, although there are recipes that use such alternatives with good results (my mother-in-law uses molasses, and her pepperkaker are fantastic). If you can get your hands on golden syrup, you’ll find that it produces a rich sweetness that accents the spices without being cloying or tasting flat.

2/3 cup butter (I use salted)
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup golden syrup
1/4 cup cream
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly-ground cardamom
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda

In a medium saucepan, mix the butter, sugar, and golden syrup over medium-low heat until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves. Cool a few minutes, then stir in the cream and the spices.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and the baking soda. Add the butter mixture and stir until the ingredients are incorporated and a dough comes together. Divide into two pieces and wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

When it’s time to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper–you’ll be baking one sheet at a time, but this way you can keep rolling out and shaping cookies while one tray bakes. On a very-lightly floured surface, roll out a little of the dough very thin, about 1/8-inch thick. (Keep the other portions chilled—you want the dough you’re working with to always be cold.)

Cut the dough into the shapes of your choice and transfer to the baking sheets. Bake one tray at a time for 5-7 minutes, until the edges are barely starting to turn color. Remove from the oven and cool on the baking sheet.

Store in an airtight container.

Embracing hygge with gløgg (Scandinavian Mulled Wine)

Gløgg

A pot of spiced wine simmering on the stove, releasing its fragrant spices into the air. The flickering glow of candles, a crackling fireplace. It’s hard to imagine a more cozy setting in which to celebrate the holiday season or perhaps to welcome friends in from the cold. This is, for me, the easiest time of year to actively practice the art of hospitality that I grew up experiencing from the Norwegians in my life. these days, one of my favorite ways to do it is with a pot of gløgg.

Essentially a mulled wine, gløgg—spelled glögg in Swedish—conjures up that Scandinavian idea of hygge, or coziness, that Americans are beginning to catch on to. Even an ordinary bottle of red wine becomes something special when it’s combined with warm spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. Add a bit of orange peel, a generous pour of aquavit, a dash of sugar, and a handful of almonds and raisins, and you have a drink that’s as festive as can be.

Gløgg Spices

Gløgg

I have been wondering lately if the antidote to the hustle and bustle of the holiday season might be found in a handful of Scandinavian recipes. What if, by creaming sticks of butter into sugar to make cookies and mixing up pots of spiced wine, we could somehow infuse the essence of hygge into our own lives? That’s certainly what I’m trying to do.

Hygge—the Danish term for a cozy, warm lifestyle and an emphasis on wellbeing—is embraced throughout Scandinavia, and it seems like it might be just what we need to dampen the stress and frenzy that so often accompany the holiday season.

We can hygge with the typical cozy things like warm, fuzzy blankets and fragrant candles glowing on shelves. We can pull on our softest sweaters and cradle portable mugs of steaming beverages between mitten-covered hands, then tuck into buttery cookies upon returning indoors. But we’d be missing the point if we didn’t pair it with community and relationship, those parts of life that are so essential.

Gløgg

Gløgg

This holiday season it’s a goal of mine to pour a bottle of wine into spice-infused aquavit anytime I’m anticipating visitors. I have the wine already purchased, the spices waiting in the pantry. Gløgg is simple to prepare, only requiring a little bit of advance planning. And the result? Well, who wouldn’t feel instantly welcomed when walking into a warm home filled with the aromas of wine and spices? Paired with the company of good friends and loved ones, this is as hygge as it gets.

Gløgg

Gløgg (Scandinavian Mulled Wine)
There are multiple ways to make gløgg. Around here, we steep the spices in the aquavit, ideally overnight. But on the occasions when we don’t plan ahead, we simply let the spices mingle in the aquavit over a low heat for a couple of hours, keeping the pot covered to minimize evaporation. I first shared my recipe for gløgg in The Norwegian American a year ago. Each time we make it, we do it a little differently, but the idea is the same. If you don’t have aquavit, go ahead and use vodka or even whiskey. I’ve added dried figs to the traditional mix of raisins and almonds, a tip I learned from Anna Brones, coauthor of Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, at a baking class last year. No matter how you make it, be sure to enjoy the company. Oh, and if your guests are new to gløgg, be sure to warn them that it’s stronger than it tastes. Taking care of them in this way is just another way to extend your hospitality.

1 1/2 cups aquavit (or vodka or whiskey)
1/2 cup raisins
8 dried figs, quartered
3 cinnamon sticks
10 green cardamom pods
2 teaspoons whole cloves
1 star anise
2-inch piece of orange peel
1 (750 ml) bottle red wine, such as cabernet sauvignon
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup blanched almonds

The day before you’re going to serve the gløgg, pour aquavit into a jar along with raisins, figs, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, cloves, star anise, and orange peel. Cover and let steep overnight, swirling it occasionally. After about 12 hours, strain the mixture, reserving the spices and fruit. You can make it ahead up to this point or proceed immediately to the next steps (in which case you need not strain the aquavit).

When ready to heat the gløgg, combine the spice-infused aquavit, wine, sugar, and the reserved spices and raisins in a medium saucepan with the almonds over low heat. Cover and let it slowly warm up for about half an hour or so, stirring occasionally and giving it a taste now and then to check the flavors. (There’s a moment, which is somewhat magical, in which the gløgg goes from good to amazing—it’s hard to describe until you’ve tasted it, but once you have you’ll know what I mean.) Be patient and keep a gentle heat—you don’t want it to boil, or even really simmer . When the gløgg is hot and the flavors have developed to your liking, ladle the gløgg into mugs, ideally something clear and heatproof, adding raisins, figs, and almonds to each. Garnish with a cinnamon stick and slice of orange, if you wish.

Note: The longer the spices stay in the gløgg, the stronger they will become. If you’re going to keep the gløgg on the stove for a while, you might want to remove the cloves, and maybe the cardamom and orange peel too, when it develops its proper flavor. If you have leftovers, strain into a jar, reserving the raisins figs and almonds. Reheat on the stove, with the reserved raisins, figs, and almonds, when ready to serve again.

Serves six.

Gløgg

Norwegian Christmas Baking: Krumkaker

Krumkaker

(This is the first post in my new series on the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies. Please follow along! Sign up for my newsletter and like my page on Facebook so you don’t miss a post!)

I still remember what it was like, cupping my hand under my mouth to catch the crumbs. Biting into a krumkake at my grandparents’ house at Christmastime, I knew that the cookie would inevitably shatter. I just had to be ready to contain the pieces to a moderate mess.

The cone-shaped cookies, as golden as my locks of wavy hair, were a staple on both sides of my family. Somehow, perhaps due to years of practice, both of my grandmothers managed to make countless krumkaker, each one consistent in color and shape, nestled safely in round tins ready for visitors.

Krumkaker

Krumkaker

Biting into the delicate cookies was always a delight, one that was as expected as the garland of Norwegian flags strung around my grandparents’ tree and the riskrem (rice cream) these dear people served after a traditional Norwegian celebration meal of roast pork, spiced medisterkaker meatballs, the sour cabbage known as surkål, and a variety of vegetables simply prepared.

I came upon my late grandmother Agny’s krumaker recipe by accident a while back. It was nestled among recipe clippings and cards that my other grandma had given to me when she downsized to a retirement community. I’m thankful that Grandma Agny shared her recipe with Grandma Adeline. Written in her elegant handwriting on a scrap of blue paper, with a personal note saying “good luck,” it’s a treasure of mine—one of only three recipes of hers that I have. Had she not been generous enough to share it, I never would have gotten it.

A few days ago I heated my krumkaker iron—an electric model that makes two cookies at a time—and whipped up the batter, following Grandma Agny’s recipe for the most part, with a few tweaks. I added water, a little at a time, until the batter was just barely thicker than heavy cream. Pouring a teaspoonful into the center of each decorative circle, I closed the iron and hoped for the best.

The first couple of cookies, waffles, or pancakes are always sacrificial, as far as I’m concerned. It takes a few tries to get the temperature and the timing just right. Krumkaker pose an extra challenge because they are rolled around a cone while still hot—let them cool too much and they become too brittle to work with. But before I knew it, I had amassed two platefuls of beautiful krumkaker, much like the ones I had grown up eating.

Krumkaker

Krumkaker

Krumkaker are among the syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of cookies, that are a must at Christmastime for Norwegians. And they’re certainly a favorite type. Back in 1992, Aftenposten—Norway’s largest daily paper—surveyed people and compiled a list of the most popular varieties.

Krumkaker were on the list, along with smultringer and hjortetakk (these two tied for first place), sandkaker, sirupsnipper, berlinerkranser, goro, and fattigman.

The syv slags kaker fall into three categories: baked, fried, or cooked on special irons or griddles. The krumkaker fall into the latter and are the oldest of these cookies, along with goro. They go back to at least the 1700s, writes Kathleen Stokker in Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land, and the blacksmiths who made them would integrate their initials into the pattern. In Norway, the design might differ depending on the area or the family. With ties to waffles, another treat made on an iron, the roots of these cookies go back at least a thousand years.

Krumkaker

Krumkaker

As a child, I incorrectly associated the word krumkake with “crumb cookie,” an appropriate name for my experience with them. I have since learned that krum actually means curvature and reflects the cookies’ signature cone shape. As with any number of traditional cookies, variations abound. Some people flavor them with vanilla, others with cardamom. Some shape them into cones, others into cigars or bowls. While I grew up eating krumkaker plain, as many people do, they’re also often served with fillings such as whipped cream and berries or perhaps multekrem (cloudberry cream) or trollkrem (whipped lingonberries with egg whites).

As I baked the season’s first batch of krumkaker with my kids the other day, I watched with anticipation as they tasted them. I, of course, knew the cookies would break apart. I wanted to catch their surprise and then reassure them quickly that it was okay—to let that know that this is among the pleasures of eating these very old, very beloved cookies.

KrumkakerKrumkaker
Today’s bakers have a choice: stovetop or electric irons. There are benefits to either type, with tradition and romance associated with the former and convenience, speed, and ease of cleanup with the latter. I personally use a dual-krumkaker electric iron that Grandma Adeline gave me years ago. Whichever model you choose, they’re available at many cookware and Scandinavian shops, as well as online. Don’t forget to pick up a couple of cone rollers, too. There are some beautiful, handcarved ones out there, which would make lovely Christmas gifts. As for technique, yours will vary a bit depending on your preferences and your iron. Please see a variety of tips following the recipe.

1 ¼ sticks of butter (10 tablespoons) (I use salted)
1 teaspoon freshly-ground cardamom seeds
3 eggs
¾ cup sugar
1 cup flour
Up to 1/2 cup cold water, or as needed to thin batter to the right consistency

In a small pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Remove from the heat, stir in the cardamom, and let cool a bit.

Beat eggs and sugar together until light and fluffy. Mix in the cooled butter, then stir in the flour until the batter is smooth. Mix in cold water, a little at a time as needed, to thin the batter almost to the consistency of thick, heavy cream—it should pour well but still coat the spoon.

Heat your krumkaker iron and lightly grease it. To bake the cookies, drop a teaspoonful of batter into the center of the iron. Bake until both sides are golden—this takes about a minute on my iron. To remove, slip a metal spatula—some people use the tip of a blunt knife—under the cookie and slide it off, then immediately roll onto a cone and set aside to cool.

Transfer to an airtight tin shortly after they’ve cooled, or serve immediately. They can also be frozen.

Tips:

While everyone’s technique, timing, and workflow will differ, I like to slide the cookies off the iron onto a piece of parchment paper and immediately put more batter on the iron; by this time my krumkaker have cooled just enough to be workable (though still hot), but not so much that they become brittle. By the time they’ve set enough to transfer off the cone rollers and retain their shape, the next batch are just about ready to remove and roll.

Be patient and give yourself plenty of grace. It takes a little while to get the hang of the timing and rolling. Some krumkaker won’t turn out just right, but that’s okay—part of the fun is sampling while you go, and the imperfect cookies provide a great excuse to do so.

Some years ago when I was first learning to make krumkaker, I asked my surviving grandmother, Adeline, how to roll the cookies onto the cones without burning my fingers. “You just have to do it,” she said. Not satisfied that making krumkaker should have to hurt, I posted a question on Facebook a year ago, asking readers for tips. While some people echoed my grandmother’s thoughts, that you just have to deal with it (“Asbestos hands that’s all,” wrote one person), readers posted a variety of tips that I want to share with you here:

Some people use rollers from Norway that have a clip attached, which allows you to slide the krumkaker off the iron and roll it in one step with minimal contact with the hot cookie. Others use gloves, even the cotton ones available at the drugstore—just make sure you’re using food-safe materials. Others use a dishcloth or parchment paper as a shield for the hands while rolling. Another great tip I learned from one reader is to keep a small glass of ice water nearby—that way you can cool your fingers immediately after rolling the krumkaker.

Krumkaker

A Vintage Norwegian Cod Dinner: Prince Fish with Asparagus and Wilted Cabbage with Bacon and Dill

Norwegian Prince Fish - DSC_3258

The book smells of old cabin wood, dusty, stale, with a hint of cedar. Printed back in the 1960s, it’s more than a half century old, in pristine condition apart from the torn corners of the jacket. Flipping through the unmarked, thick creamy pages and the still-crisp yet rustic deckle edge, I can’t help but wonder if had been forgotten on a bookshelf decades ago.

AsparagusAndCookbookDiptych

Norwegian Cabbage and Bacon - DSC_3243

I love old cookbooks, and have collected many Scandinavian and Nordic ones throughout the years. They offer clues to another time, often in subtle ways, and I can’t help but wonder how these might provide clues into what life must have been like for past generations of my family. I found my copy of The Complete Scandinavian Cookbook by Alice B. Johnson at Powell’s Books in Portland a while back. Nestled among Scandinavian and Nordic cookbooks both old and new in the high, crowded shelves, it made its way to mine, where I had all but forgotten again until this spring. With recipes grouped by country, it made it easy for me to go straight to the section on Norway and draft a menu for a vintage Norwegian dinner featuring one of the country’s most beloved fish: cod.

Norwegian Prince Fish - DSC_3257

Gently poached and then dressed in a creamy white sauce accented with a hint of mustard, the cod is simple yet flavorful. Vibrant asparagus gives the otherwise pale dish a splash of color. I served it alongside a dish of wilted cabbage with pieces of crunchy bacon and flecks of fresh dill.

I’ve preserved the essence of both recipes but have tweaked them a bit to reflect my tastes–primarily with the addition of a little mustard in the white sauce, a touch that livens it up and makes it something I can’t get enough of. There’s something deliciously old-school about both of these recipes. They’re neither new nor inventive, rather traditional and just the things to trigger nostalgia in each and every bite.

Asparagus - DSC_3230

Norwegian “Prince Fish” with Asparagus and White Sauce (Prinsefisk)
This recipe and the following are both adapted from The Complete Scandinavian cookbook by Alice B. Johnson (1964).

For the fish:
Approximately 1.5 pounds of cod fillets, skin and bones removed
Salt and pepper

For the Asparagus:
1 bunch fresh asparagus
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt

For the sauce:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup whole grain mustard
1/8 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Pat cod dry and season with salt and pepper, then set aside.

Place asparagus spears in a baking dish and toss with olive oil and salt, then roast until tender, 10-15 minutes depending on thickness. Cover and keep warm.

While the asparagus roasts, place the cod in a large pan in a single water and pour water around to just cover. Gently poach until just cooked through. Reserve a cup or so of the water and drain, covering the cod to keep it warm.

To make the sauce, melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Stirring constantly, add flour until it seizes up, then gradually pour in the milk while continuing to stir until it thickens a bit. Pour in the whipping cream and add mustard and salt, continuing to stir until it starts to reach a boil. Taste and adjust the salt as needed. If you need to loosen it up a bit, add a little of the reserved water, starting with a tablespoon or two, until it reaches the desired consistency.

Arrange the asparagus on a platter. Place the cod on top, then generously pour over the sauce. Boiled potatoes would be a perfect accompaniment.

Serves 4.

Wilted Cabbage with Fresh Dill and Bacon (Kål med Dill og Flesk)
A study in contrasts, the softness of the cabbage–which has yielded to the heat–gets livened up with crunchy bacon and the herby flavor of fresh dill. Do be careful with the amount of salt–you may need more or less depending on the saltiness of the bacon.

1 large head cabbage
4 slices bacon (I used uncured applewood-smoked bacon)
1 leek, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
A handful of chopped dill, plus more for garnish
Approximately 1/2 teaspoon salt (see note above)
Freshly-ground pepper, to taste

Slice the cabbage into 1-inch strips, discarding the core.

In a large pan, fry the bacon over medium-high heat until crisp, then remove to a paper towel-lined plate and pour off all but a tablespoon of the fat. Add the sliced leek to the fat and cook over medium heat until lightly browned, about a minute or so. Add the cabbage, and scatter over the dill and the salt and pepper. Add about 1/2 cup water and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer until the cabbage is tender, stirring it occasionally and adding additional water as necessary. Place in a serving dish and crumble the bacon over the top. Garnish with extra dill.

Serves 4.

CabbageAndBaconDiptych

Kvæfjordkake: Norway’s National Cake

Kvæfjordkake

If you’ve ever eaten a slice of Kvæfjordkake, you probably know that the cake pretty much speaks for itself. With its layers of buttery cake, delicate meringue, silky vanilla cream, and chopped almonds, it’s rich yet light, each bite almost like a cloud. Commonly known as verdens beste kake, or world’s best cake, it’s been named Norway’s National Cake, and it has a worldwide following along with official ambassadors. I had the opportunity to interview the cake’s U.S. ambassador, Mari-Ann Kind Jackson, recently and am sharing the story in the latest issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. Kvæfjordkake is a popular cake to serve on Syttende Mai–Norwegian Constitution Day–and if you’re looking for something celebratory to serve on May 17, let me point you over to my article, which features the recipe Jackson provided me. Also be sure to sign up for my newsletter for monthly Scandinavian food inspiration!

Kvæfjordkake

Kvæfjordkake

Kvæfjordkake

Click here for the recipe in the Norwegian American Weekly

Lemon-Flecked Norwegian Sunshine Cake (Solskinnskake)

Norwegian Sunshine Cake (Solskinnskake)

My earliest memory is of the sun shining diagonally through the eastern-facing window of my nursery room. The door swings open as my mom steps through. I see it all through crib-slat lines, the geometric triangles of light and the vertical pillars of infant security.

We crave the sun, the light that draws us up and out of the winter into the newness of spring. We create rituals of warmth and coziness to carry us through the dark months and the cold. The Danish idea of hygge and Norwegian koselig have bolstered many through the heaviness of those times. But now the sun shines a little more brightly, stays out later in the day. Plants break through thawing ground and leaves unfurl from dormant trees.

Living in Seattle, a city dripping with a reputation for rain, I find myself turning toward the sun this time of year, feeling a thrill at the sight of newly-blooming flowers and saying a silent thank you to the birds for singing their joyful songs of the season. Even the air feels lighter, the cold winter winds transforming into a delicate breeze.

The Norwegians have a cake named after the sun. Solskinnskake, or sunshine cake, seems to celebrate the essence of spring. The texture itself is even lighter than the typical Scandinavian cakes that I love so much, a butter-less sponge cake that bounces back after the fork cuts through. The flavor itself–the essence of lemon–hints at a time of warmth.

Norwegian Sunshine Cake (Solskinnskake)

Norwegian Sunshine Cake (Solskinnskake)

I have yet to experience the mørketid, the time in winter when the sun never rises above the horizon north of a certain latitude, but I have soaked up the extended sunlight at the peak of summer in Norway, and I’ve seen how the sun enlivens the population. It only makes sense that there should be a cake named after the sun.

I found the recipe for this cake in a Scandinavian cookbook from the 1960s. I’ve written so many times about how the food of Norway has helped me to connect with my heritage and better understand those dear people who came before me, people who left house and home and country in search of a new life in America. We’re coming up on 60 years in American this spring, and though I was born and raised in the Seattle area, I feel more and more like there’s a bit of Norway still beating in my heart.

I’ll keep baking cakes and working my way through the ever-growing collection of Scandinavian cookbooks I’m accumulating. The recipes each tell a story, and they’re providing a concrete way to keep the heritage and its traditions alive for the next generation. Just as my earliest memory involves the sun and the welcomed and loving presence of my mother, I can’t help but wonder–and perhaps even hope–that the coziness of our kitchen becomes the setting of some of my children’s earliest and sweetest memories.

Norwegian Sunshine Cake (Solskinnskake)

Lemon-Flecked Norwegian Sunshine Cake (Solskinnskake)
Adapted from The Complete Scandinavian Cookbook by Alice B. Johnson (1964)

For the cake:
6 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 cup cake flour, sifted

For the icing:
1 ¼ cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons whipping cream
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Grated lemon zest for garnish, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9-inch springform pan. Beat the egg whites in a large bowl for a minute or so until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and salt and continue to beat until stiff. Add the sugar, then beat until stiff again.

In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks. Add the whites, lemon zest, and lemon juice and carefully fold in. Fold in the flour just until incorporated, then pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Set on a wire rack to cool, then run a knife along the perimeter and remove from the pan.

While the cake cools, make the icing. In a medium bowl, whisk the powdered sugar with the cream and lemon juice until smooth. Spread the icing on the cake and serve. Garnish with a little more lemon zest, for color, if you’d like.

Serves 8

Norwegian Success Tart (Suksessterte)

Success Tart - DSC_2767

I started something new this year: a Scandinavian food newsletter featuring recipes and inspiration that you won’t necessarily find on my blog or anywhere else. The last edition went out a few weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about this cake, Norwegian Success Tart (Suksessterte). It seems a shame to have you miss out on it if you weren’t signed up for the newsletter in time, so today I’m sharing some outtakes from my photo shoot along with a link to the archived newsletter where you can find the recipe.

Norwegian success tart, also known as success cake, is one of those desserts that catch you by surprise if you haven’t tasted it before. The bright yellow custard hints at a lemon flavor, but what you get instead is a rich almond cake topped with luscious buttery cream and a garnish of chocolate (typically you’d use less than I did on this particular cake, but I couldn’t help myself with those delicate little wisps of chocolate).

Here’s where you can find the recipe and read the rest of the newsletter. And of course if you’re not already following along, I hope you’ll join. I’m planning to send out a newsletter roughly once a month. Click here to sign up!

Success Tart Diptych

Success Tart

Success Tart - DSC_2797

Norwegian Rømmegrøt (Sour Cream Porridge)

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My bookshelves sag with stories—literature in the form of recipes, memories formed between batter-spattered handwritten lines. I’ve said for a long time that I care so much about Scandinavian food because of the people. My grandparents loved me with medisterkaker med surkål and fresh berries dressed in the fine silk of cream. They shared the family’s heritage with bowls full of riskrem drizzled with vibrant raspberry sauces and paper-thin potato lefse spread with butter and a dusting of sugar.

I started exploring Norwegian recipes as a way to grieve after my grandmother Agny died. Throughout the years, as I baked my way through Scandinavian cookbooks and coordinated frequent baking sessions with my mom and Grandma Adeline, I understood more deeply that food is so much more than sustenance and pleasure. It is about love. Reading about rømmegrøt recently, I realized that this old-fashioned Norwegian sour cream porridge is the perfect food to illustrate this idea.

Rømmegrøt Diptych

Rømmegrøt is the type of food that in old times you might bring to a new mother, to nourish her body after she gave birth. Ingrid Espelid Hovig writes in The Best of Norwegian Traditional Cuisine that you also might serve it to celebrate the harvest or to feed your neighbors who helped out at busy times. You might eat it at weddings and funerals, those events that would bring you and your community together to either celebrate or to grieve. The composition itself, a thick, rich cream porridge, would be the sort to nourish the body and nurture the soul—especially when served with its traditional accompaniments of cured meats and salted fish. These days the thought of something so rich often makes people worry about calories and fat, an enemy of the waistline, but I think that’s missing the point. This is celebration food, food with history, food that would bring people together and provide a way to show love.

Rømmegrøt (rømme translates to sour cream, and grøt to porridge) is pretty simple, really—it’s mostly sour cream, milk, and flour. But I found myself overwhelmed and honestly a bit intimidated as I set out to make it. Being so tied to tradition–it’s said to be one of Norway’s oldest dishes–I wanted to represent it well. But I quickly discovered that true rømmegrøt is difficult to make in the United States as our sour cream is much different than that in Norway, containing much less fat than needed, and also containing stabilizers that prevent the fat from leaching out, which is an important part of the dishAs I made an initial batch, experimenting with conventional sour cream and pouring over additional melted butter at the end to serve, and then trying it again with homemade sour cream, I began to wonder if this might be something best left to hands-on instruction, a recipe passed down by one generation teaching the next.

Though my relatives made rømmegrøt back in the day and my mom remembers eating her grandmothers’ as a little girl in North Dakota, the porridge had disappeared from the family’s repertoire by the time I was born. It wasn’t passed down by my dad or paternal grandparents–who were all born in Norway–either. I was an adult the first time I tasted it, so it should make sense, then, that I was a bit intimidated to try making it. But I did. Food has been my way of learning about my heritage, about the people who came before me and the place where we have our roots. Rømmegrøt is a big part of that. The taste of the porridge, warm from the pot, is of nurturing cream, thick with comfort. I can almost imagine the nursing mothers feeling its nourishment spread through their bodies, almost hear the guests who’ve come to celebrate a wedding. Yes, my bookshelves sag with stories. Even if rømmegrøt has not been part of my own story until now, it has a history I’m so glad to have learned.

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Norwegian Rømmegrøt (Sour Cream Porridge)
The recipe I’m sharing with you today comes from the Sons of Norway online recipe collection. After reading many versions, I figured that if I’m going to traditional, that’s as good of a source as any. I’m sticking to the recipe pretty closely here, sharing what I experienced in the process. Considering how rich it is, this recipe can serve a lot of people. Cookbook author Signe Johansen writes in Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking: Scandilicious that rømmegrøt freezes well; if you have extra and wish to do this, just reheat using a little extra milk or water after defrosting, she instructs. Also, be prepared to stir relentlessly to minimize lumps. I’d love to hear how you make rømmegrøt too!

1 cup heavy whipping cream (at least 35%)
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 ¼ cups flour
5 cups whole milk
¾ teaspoon salt
Sugar, for serving
Cinnamon, for serving
Melted butter, for serving (optional)

To make the sour cream, in a medium saucepan, warm cream until it’s about body temperature. Pour in the buttermilk, give it a quick stir, and let it sit in the pot until it thickens, which should take at least 8 hours. I probably let mine sit 10 hours or so.

When you’re ready to make the rømmegrøt, bring the sour cream to a simmer, covered, in the same pan. Meanwhile, in another pot heat the milk so it will be ready to bring to a boil when you need it. After 15 minutes of simmering the sour cream, sift about a third of the flour over the cream, stirring constantly as you add the flour. Simmer for a few more minutes, until the fat has separated and you can skim or pour it off. Reserve the fat. Bring the milk to a boil in its pot. Sift the remaining flour over the porridge, stirring constantly as you go. (At this point, the original recipe said to bring it to a boil, but neither time I’ve made it—according to this recipe or another—was the porridge liquid enough to do so.) With the pot over heat, add milk a little at a time, stirring constantly, until you have the consistency you want. I used all the milk, knowing that the porridge thickens as it cools. Transfer the porridge to the larger milk pot if you need for space. Whisk vigorously until the lumps are gone, and continue to simmer for another ten minutes. Stir in the salt. To serve, divide the rømmegrøt between bowls. Add the reserved fat to each (I didn’t end up with much, so would probably add a bit of melted butter as needed), then dust with sugar and cinnamon.

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.

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).

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