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).

Fluffy Sweet Omelet in The Norwegian American

Norwegian Fluffy Sweet Omelet

The holiday of the moment may be Valentine’s Day, but I’m popping in here for a moment to let you know that this Sunday is also Norwegian Mother’s Day. If you’re not already marking the occasion, why not surprise the mothers in your life by doing something special for them? I have just the recipe to help you out. This Norwegian Fluffy Sweet Omelet is an old-school and comforting, just the thing to serve for brunch. Head on over to The Norwegian American to read my latest story and get the recipe!

Norwegian Fluffy Sweet Omelet

Cardamom-scented Fastelavnsboller and other recently-published recipes

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A few weeks ago I pounded so much cardamom in the mortar and pestle that I must have sneezed about ten times in the half hour that followed, whispers of the spice hovering around me and clinging to my hair. I briefly worried that I might develop an allergy to this favorite Nordic flavor. (I’ve since bought myself a spice grinder.) In the weeks that have followed, I’ve managed to maintain a sense of hygge or koselig in my home with little more than the aroma of freshly-baked boller, sweet cardamom buns. I’m still working on recreating my grandma’s boller recipe, which many of you have been waiting for with anticipation, but I trust that these Fastelavnsboller will tide you over in the meantime.

Sweet cardamom-scented buns bursting with rich almond paste and a cloud of whipped cream, Fastelavnsboller are the Norwegian symbol that Lent is approaching–and spring along with it. (Those of you with Swedish backgrounds will know them as semlor.) Head on over to the Norwegian American Weekly for the story and the recipe.

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While I’m at it, let me point you to some of the other recipes I’ve featured in the NAW in recent months: Scandinavian pickled beets with star anise, my signature recipe for gløgg/glögg, lingonberry swirl brownies, author J. Ryan Stradal’s family recipe for potato patties, Viking Soul Food’s pickled eggs with black pepper mayonnaise and caviar, Bergen fish soup, and grilled salmon with lemon-horseradish cream. You’ll find many more great Scandinavian recipes over there, too, from the talented writers I’m so happy to have as part of my team.

To wrap up a bit of housekeeping, I’d also love to share with you my recent cover story for Edible Seattle, “Norwegian Christmas Cookies: a tradition of butter, time, and love.” The recipe was only in print until a few weeks ago, but now that it’s available online too, I hope you’ll file the article–and its accompanying recipes for serinakaker, sirupsnipper, and Berlinerkranser–away for next Christmas.

Thanks to all of you who share this passion for using food to connect with our heritage–no matter where we’re from, Norway or otherwise–and those we love. I always enjoy hearing from you, whether it’s to share your experience with one of my recipes or a story about one of your own favorite recipes and how it’s touched your life in some way. You can keep in touch here, and on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. I especially hope you’ll sign up for my new Scandinavian food newsletter.

Until next time,

Daytona

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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.

Cardamom-Almond Custard with Blueberries

Cardamom Almond Custard with Blueberries

They were just photos of landscapes. Muscular earth covered in green. A pair of cantilever bridges rising and falling, meandering through a snowy fishing village. Placid fjords reflecting their surroundings as they swallowed the light into their depths. Yet the photos almost brought tears to my eyes as I scrolled through an online acquaintance’s Facebook page the other day. Sunsets filled the skies with an otherworldly glow and as I looked at an image of the amber light bending around the mountains–the last light of day for the homes tucked along the shore–I felt a longing I’m still trying to process. It’s as though part of my heart resides in Norway, the country that my family left nearly 60 years ago.

When I visited Norway for the first time in 2008, something happened that I didn’t expect. Immediately I was struck with a sense of home, like I belonged there. I mentioned this to a friend at lunch recently, my story filled with apologies in case it sounded trite. She understood. And as time goes on I think I’m beginning to understand it more too. Norway is, in a way, home. It was home to my father for the first 11 years of his life. It was home to my grandparents, great grandparents, and countless other generations from both sides of my family tree. I’ve felt for so long that maybe I don’t deserve to claim the heritage. I’ve questioned whether I am “Norwegian enough,” despite being Norwegian 100 percent. I never traveled to Norway as a child, and only finally visited at the age of 26. I don’t speak the language (though I’m trying to learn). I don’t know any of my relatives in Norway, the few still remaining. My family is trying to connect with them but we’ve gotten news of one death and then another, making it feel like they’re drifting farther and farther out of reach.

But then a few photos stir up something deep inside me and I push all those doubts aside. When Grandma Agny died without warning almost six years ago, I dove into our shared heritage as a way to cope, to try to feel closer to her, even though I knew I couldn’t bring her back. Month after month, year after year, recipe after recipe, I’ve been working to understand more, to discover for myself this country that she knew so well. When my grandparents and father packed up their belongings and sailed to the United States in 1956, they were making a move that would shift the course of the family. We would, from that point, be Americans. But when I look back at my childhood, I see how my grandmother worked to keep the heritage and the traditions alive–through her hospitality and her food, the way she decorated her house, and even settling in Ballard, a neighborhood in Seattle with deep Scandinavian ties. She was giving me a gift, a starting place. I wouldn’t understand it until I became older and decided to take an interest in all of it myself. But when I was ready, there it was, infused in my memories, embedded in my heart.

Cardamom Almond Custard with Blueberries

Cardamom Almond Custard with Blueberries

Cardamom-Almond Custard with Blueberries

Grandma Agny had a flair for simple elegance. She spread her table with creamy fine linens and china when my parents and I came to eat, the napkins folded into fans. The food she served was steeped in the traditions of her native Norway, from the spiced medisterkaker meatballs and tart surkål that I loved so much to the rice pudding folded into a mound of fluffy whipped cream and drizzled with a deep magenta raspberry sauce. Norwegians have a number of rich, creamy desserts, and I’ve been noticing a theme of them in some of the Norwegian recipes I’ve been baking this spring. When I made the fillings for bløkake and Kvæfjordkake (also known as verdensbestekake, or world’s best cake), I found myself stopping at the fridge with a spoon repeatedly to sample the sweet, rich smooth creams and custards. This recipe takes the idea of those fillings and makes it into a dessert all its own. It’s inspired by the eggekrem in Ekte Norsk Mat by Astrid Karlsen Scott with cues from the no-bake custard in Bakeless Sweets by Faith Durand to make it more of a dessert and less of a filling. I’ve added almond and cardamom–two of my favorite Norwegian flavors–and finally topped it with luscious blueberries.

For the custard:
2 cups whipping cream
1/3 cup sugar
¾ teaspoon ground cardamom
6 egg yolks
1 ½ tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon almond extract

Blueberries:
3 cups frozen blueberries
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon potato starch flour
1 tablespoon water
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Start by preparing a shallow pool of ice water in a container large enough to hold a heatproof bowl. You’ll use this to cool the custard at the end.

To make the custard, combine milk, sugar, and ground cardamom in a saucepan over medium heat, whisking to combine. Continuing to whisk, bring the milk almost to a simmer, then remove from heat.

In a mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks, cornstarch, and salt, and mix until smooth. You can use a stand mixer here, or simply a bowl and whisk. Pour the milk into the eggs while mixing on low speed. Once smooth, pour back into the saucepan. Whisking constantly, bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil two minutes, continuing to whisk, until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in almond extract.

Strain the custard into a heatproof bowl set in the pool of ice water. Give the custard a good stir until it reaches a smooth, uniform consistency. Divide between four individual serving dishes and chill for several hours.

Shortly before you’re ready to serve the custard, give the frozen berries a quick rinse and drain. Place them in a medium saucepan with the sugar over medium heat. Stir occasionally and gently until the liquid from the berries comes to a boil, about three minutes. While the blueberries are heating, dissolve potato starch flour in a tablespoon of water. Add to the blueberries in a steady stream, stirring constantly. The liquid will immediately start to thicken and a sauce will form. After about a minute, when the liquid has thickened slightly, remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Keep warm.

When ready to serve, spoon the blueberries over each custard.

Serves 4.

Cardamom Almond Custard with Blueberries

Norwegian Coffee Treats: A Class at Nordic Heritage Museum

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When we bake with love, that’s when beauty comes into our creations, I told a sold-out crowd of students at the Nordic Heritage Museum on a recent Saturday. They were there to learn how to make a variety of Norwegian coffee treats, each one of the recipes beautiful or intricate in its own right. My objective in teaching is for students to leave a class with the confidence and ability to recreate the dishes at home. Teaching the steps of a recipe is only part of the equation. One of the most important parts, I believe, is the heart.

But until that Saturday in January, I hadn’t been able to fully articulate what makes a recipe work. Butter, sugar, flour, eggs–I had been playing around with that mix of ingredients in the weeks leading up to the class, making heart-shaped waffles (vaffler), prince cake (fyrstekake), and sandbakkels. I had studied how a handful of simple ingredients could yield such dramatically different results with just a few variations of ingredients.

In class I kept encouraging the students to just give it a try. Just put the batter in the waffle iron and practice–you’ll soon get a feel for how much to spoon in and how long to cook the waffle. Just make sandbakkel after sandbakkel, getting used to the feeling of pressing the dough into the crevices of the little tins until it’s as thin as you think it can be. Then when it was time to talk about the fyrstekake–an almond cake with a shortbread crust baked in a tart pan–I assured everyone that it really is easy.

Don’t stress out, I told students time and time again as they oohed and ahhed over the cake. Baking isn’t fun if you do. When it comes to crafting the crisscross or lattice topping that gives the fyrstekake a hint of elegance, you can get frustrated when the soft dough warms up too much and sticks to your work surface as you cut it into strips. Or you can roll with it, doing the best you can, and putting your heart into what you’re doing. Nothing about Norwegian cooking is fussy, as far as I’m concerned. Even the beautiful fyrstekake allows for grace, the filling puffing up into the top layer and rounding out the rough edges.

When you bake with love, that impacts the way you approach the food. It works its way into each cup of flour measured, the care taken in beating sugar into eggs, the way the dough is manipulated into something of beauty. I’m as much of a perfectionist as the next person–it was my downfall as a child trying to strike a balance between booksmart and just being a kid–but when it comes to baking, I do it because I love it, because I love people. I do it because I love watching how a few simple ingredients can be transformed into something that feeds and nourishes others–their stomaches and their souls. Sure, care and precision are important. But love is essential.

Thanks to each of you who attended the class last month–it was a joy to teach you to make some of my favorite Norwegian treats. I enjoyed meeting each and every one of you, and I hope I inspired you to work some of these recipes into your own homes.

If you’re in the Seattle area and interested in learning more about Nordic baking, be sure to check out the rest of the Nordic Heritage Museum’s coffee treats series. I kicked it off last month with Norwegian coffee treats, and the museum continues with recipes from the other Nordic countries in the months to come.

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 Photos courtesy of Jeremy Ehrlich / Nordic Heritage Museum

Easy Holiday Appetizer: Gravlax

Gravlax Finished

Oh friends, how does one even start after having been silent for so long? Life is full in the real world, even if it seems quiet in the virtual one. I’ll get to the gravlax you see here in the photos soon enough, but first I just need to reflect a little out loud, to cast some light on the events happening between the lines of this blog.

I think 2014 will go down in my memory as a year of heartache and blessings. There’s tension as those two intermingle, so close and simultaneous. I’ve only alluded to it on the blog until now, but early in the year my dear grandma suffered a stroke and it’s been a long road of recovery. She’s closer to 100 than most people will ever be and she knows her time is coming. She’s ready. But still. Still.

During Grandma’s first stages of recovery at the hospital and then at a rehabilitation center, I was pregnant and getting ready to welcome my daughter into the family, all the while preparing my son for his new role as a big brother and helping him to create space his his heart and home for a new little one. Grandma hung on long enough to meet my daughter–who’s named in part for her–and hold that little baby in her frail, thinning arms. Now, each time I take my son and my daughter to visit Grandma, I know that it’s significant. There might be another time–maybe years’ worth, I don’t know. But it also might be the last.

These events have been the defining parts of this past year. Writing has helped me to process the emotions swelling in my heart–so, yes, I have been writing even if things have been pretty quiet around here–but it’s been too personal to publish on such an immediate, informal format as a blog. There’s a story there, many stories. I’ll share them someday. But in the meantime I’ve been working them out, creating a narrative around my experiences, and trying to just embrace and enjoy life and to savor the moments big and small. Tuesday night was one of them.

Book Club Holiday Party

As a dozen friends gathered in my kitchen for our book club holiday party, I didn’t have any idea I’d be sitting down over the next days to write about it. I took some photos of the food with my phone for the purpose of posting them on Instagram, but I didn’t plan on sharing a recipe or any sort of story here on the blog. But a comment one of you left on Facebook the other day prompted me to write again. And a fellow blogger at book club reminded me how much fun this can be.

So today I’m writing about gravlax, with photos taken with iPhones for the purpose of social media. Salmon, salt, sugar, dill–that’s it. Our book club is all about food. Italian for Under the Tuscan Sun, French for On Rue Tatin and The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. There have been Caribbean dishes (An Embarrassment of Mangoes), Indian (The Hundred-Foot Journey), Chinese (The Fortune Cookie Chronicles), and pizza (Delancey). I work in a little bit of a Scandinavian touch whenever I can, so for our holiday party this week I served gravlax.

Gravlax in Salt "Snow"As with any traditional recipe, there are plenty of variations out there for gravlax, ranging from the simplest list of ingredients to ones that get fancy with fruits, vegetables, spices, and spirits that lend varying essences and hues to the salmon. I’m sure that orange, horseradish, aquavit, and beetroot–all things that I’ve spotted in recipes–yield excellent results, but I like my gravlax pure, the flavor of the salmon concentrated and accented only with a hint of dill.

Gravlax is, by definition, cured salmon. It’s typically a Nordic preparation, and the parts of the word–grav for pit or grave, lax or laks for salmon–hint at the days of preserving fish by burying it in the ground.

Gravlax Cure

My husband and I use Mark Bittman’s recipe as our base. We read about in the New York Times some years ago and have always had great results. In a nutshell, we take a fillet of frozen salmon (frozen to kill the parasites), then defrost it, cover it with a thick blanket of sugar, salt, and chopped fresh dill. We generally leave it out in a cool spot for a few hours, then refrigerate it for about 24 to 36 hours before rinsing off the salt mix and slicing the salmon thinly. For the specific recipe, I’m going to point you to Bittman’s article (it includes several recipes–we use The Minimalist’s Gravlax). Making gravlax is so simple, but perhaps because of that, I find it helpful to refer to Bittman’s guidance. It’s about using good fish, understanding the process, and not getting intimidated by something that just looks fancy.

For serving gravlax, it’s as easy as lemon wedges, mustard sauce (such as this one from Ina Garten), capers, maybe some chopped red onion, and crackers or crispbread of some sort.

Gravlax-Platter

It’s been one of my goals this holiday season to keep our schedule light, the to-do list to a minimum. It’s far too easy to become swept up in the bustle and busyness of this time of year, and perhaps because of the time in life, I’m just trying to minimize as much stress as possible. But my book club holiday party was one of the events that I happily did write down–in pen–in my calendar. And gravlax was something special I could serve my friends–while being simple and easy to make at the same time. If you’re still looking for the perfect appetizer for a holiday party, go ahead and give it a try. With just a little planning ahead, you’ll find yourself with a gorgeous, delicious dish that took almost no hands-on time to prepare.

Thanks, E, for the photo of the gravlax platter.

Note: This fall I attended a couple of sessions at IFBC, the International Food Bloggers Conference, in Seattle. The organizers offered steep discounts to bloggers for writing about the conference, so you’ll be noticing a few posts that showcase what I learned. For this one, I’m taking cues from Shauna James Ahern‘s session on professional recipe development. She emphasized authenticity and living a full, rich life–plus not worrying about using iPhone cameras for food blog photography. Thanks, Shauna. That’s exactly what I’m doing here. If I had had to pull out the DSLR for this post, it never would have happened.

Norwegian Apple Cake (Eplekake)

Norwegian Apple Cake

She greeted me at the door with baby in arms, a sweet little boy wearing blue and white striped knits. My own baby was dressed similarly, except for the pink. This is the season we are in, a time of babies. I can hardly believe how many of my friends are having children this year.

Christy’s son is mere weeks old, yet she invited me over today for Swedish aggkaka, a soufflé-like dish that’s reminiscent of a Dutch baby pancake but much thicker and richer. As I settled in on the sofa with my daughter, Christy slipped the pan into the oven to bake while we caught up. Effortless. At least that’s how she made it look. In reality, I know how much juggling that it takes to simply butter a slice of toast while caring for a baby. So it always amazes me to see mothers adjust so well to their new roles. I feel especially blessed when they shower me with their hospitality, knowing the effort that it takes.

Today the weather was damp, the clouds ringing out their moisture onto the city. It’s too early in the season for it to really be cold, but the steel gray sky and rain called for something cozy. The aggkaka is a recipe that Christy has been making since childhood, a family classic you could say. She wanted to serve me something comforting, food from the heart.

The following hours were met with plenty of the challenges of parenthood: tired meltdowns and naptime protests, diaper failure and emergency loads of laundry. But honestly, despite being a bit sleep deprived and therefore more prone to stress, I’m feeling calm. Unshaken. Bolstered up by the warmth and company of a good friend.

Norwegian Apple Cake

Norwegian Apple Cake (Eplekake)
Christy sent me on my way today with apples and nectarines she had purchased at a fruit stand while coming home from a road trip last weekend. With this cake in mind, I got to work as soon as I could, prepping the cake in stages as I took care of the above-mentioned challenges. This recipe, adapted from Authentic Norwegian Cooking by Astrid Karlsen Scott, called for Granny Smith apples, but I used a combination, including the ones from Christy. Scott instructs readers to mix the flour, baking powder, and butter as for pie crust. I opted to use a food processor for its ease, but you can certainly just do as Scott suggests if you prefer.

2-3 large apples
Lemon juice
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup salted butter, cold, plus more for pan
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla sugar*

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter an 8-inch springform pan. Peel and core the apples and cut them each into 16 wedges. Toss in a bowl with a little lemon juice to prevent them from discoloring, and set aside.

Cut butter into dice and place in a food processor with flour and butter. Pulse until you have pea-sized bits of butter scattered throughout the flour. Add the eggs, sugar, and vanilla sugar and continue to process until the dough comes together.

Divide the dough in two, with one portion slightly bigger than the other. Press the bigger portion into the bottom of the pan, working it evenly across the bottom and about an inch and a half up the sides. (The dough will be sticky, but dampening your hands throughout the process will make it easier.)

Arrange the apple slices in a circular pattern around the bottom of the pan. Working the remaining dough between your two hands, once again dampened, roughly shape it into a disc big enough to cover the apples. If it breaks apart, just place the pieces over the apples and gently press them back together.

Bake for 40 to 50 minutes. Cool on a baking rack, then remove from the pan.

*Scandinavian vanilla sugar is available at Scandinavian stores such as Scandinavian Specialties in Seattle. If you do a lot of Norwegian or Swedish baking, it’s a good ingredient to have on hand, but if you don’t have access to it, you can substitute a little vanilla extract. The results won’t be identical, but it will work.

Norwegian Apple Cake

Note: This past weekend I attended a couple of sessions at IFBC, the International Food Bloggers Conference, in Seattle. The organizers offered steep discounts to bloggers for writing about the conference, so you’ll be noticing a few posts that showcase what I learned. This post demonstrates a lesson taught during a food writing session with Dianne Jacob, author of Will Write For Food: Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir, and More. One of my favorite tips was to provide context for the food we’re eating. It’s something that I always try to do (as I wrote about earlier this year), but it’s a good reminder. If you happen to be a writer, try it out in your own work: Think about what you’re eating and pay attention to the circumstances, who you’re with, and where you are. 

Disclosure: I received a copy of Authentic Norwegian Food from the publisher.

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