Norwegian Success Tart (Suksessterte)

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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

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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).

News from the Norwegian American Weekly (plus Kaffefromasj)

Kaffefromasj

We’ll get to the dessert in a moment. But first I can’t wait to announce that I’m the new food editor for the Norwegian American Weekly! Starting this week, I’ll be shaping the paper’s Taste of Norway section, sharing everything from traditional recipes and stories about the connection between food and heritage to interviews with chefs and features on modern Nordic cooking.

I’ve been contributing to the publication for a few years, and it’s exciting to now be able to take on this role. The paper has some great existing writers, and I’m also seeking new contributors. I’m looking forward to seeing the coverage unfold. But first, I’m settling in with kaffefromasj–basically a Norwegian coffee mousse. It’s no surprise that Norwegians–well, almost all Nordics–love their coffee, and this recipe celebrates that bold, bitter flavor with a creamy, not-too-sweet dessert.

Head over to the Norwegian American Weekly’s website (it’s subscription-based; subscribe here) for my first article as editor–and the recipe for kaffefromasj!

Kaffefromasj

Norwegian Coffee Mousse (Kaffefromasj)
Visit the Norwegian American Weekly’s websit for the recipe

Kaffefromasj

 

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)

Happy Marriage Cake

photo I posted on Instagram and Facebook the other day got people talking. I’m not sure if it was the image of a tart with plump mounds of golden-brown buttery dough or the idea that this particular dessert married rhubarb, cardamom, and oats in one pan. But after all the response I got, I think I need to share the recipe right away.

What you see here is Hjónabandssaela, which translates to marital bliss. Or, as this dessert is commonly called in English, Happy Marriage Cake. I first learned how to make this traditional Icelandic dessert at the Nordic Heritage Museum last month–they’re in the middle of their coffee treats series, featuring recipes from each of the five Nordic countries; I taught the Norwegian class back in January–and this week I came up with my own version.

Happy Marriage Cake

Happy Marriage Cake

Hjónabandssaela can be made as a cake or as bars. This recipe is more bar-meets-tart, with a rich, crumbly yet buttery oat crust and simple, not-too-sweet rhubarb jam that almost melts into it.

All around, cherry blossoms and daffodils are blooming. The sun has prevailed over the rain in the local forecast this week, and where I live, it’s definitely spring (though we have two calendar days to go before it’s official). This time of year, it seems like everyone gets excited about the rhubarb popping up in markets and getting ready to harvest in gardens. With its vivid magenta stalks, it demands attention and is as good of a predictor of the season as the groundhog. I’m not sure why this particular dessert is called Happy Marriage Cake, but it seems like a great way to celebrate the start of spring.

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Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake
A number of recipes call for quick oatmeal. I wanted to use whole rolled oats so took a cue from Sarah of The Sugar Hit and gave them a quick whirl in the food processor before adding the rest of the crust ingredients.

Rhubarb Jam:
1 pound rhubarb, sliced 1/2-inch thick (fresh or frozen)
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Crust:
1 1/2 cups whole rolled oats
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 sticks (salted) butter, softened and cut into a few pieces
1 egg
Whipped cream, for serving

Start by making the jam. Combine rhubarb, sugar, and vanilla extract in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Simmer, stirring frequently, until the rhubarb releases its juices and breaks down considerably into a spreadable consistency, 20-30 minutes. (Some texture is okay.)

While the jam is cooking, start working on the crust. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter or spray a 10-inch cake or tart pan, ideally with a removable base.

Place oats in a food processor and give a few quick whirls to break them up slightly–holding the button down to the count of two a few times should do. Add flour, sugars, cardamom, and baking soda, and pulse again to mix. Add the butter and process some more, removing the lid and pushing down the butter into the rest of the dough a few times if necessary. Crack in the egg and mix just to combine.

Spoon about three-quarters of the dough into the prepared pan. Using your hands, press it evenly across the bottom and slightly up the sides, taking care to not let the bottom of the rim get too thick.

Spread the jam evenly across the crust. Use the rest of the dough as a topping, breaking it into clumps to scatter across the top.

Bake until the curst turns golden brown, about 25 minutes. Cool in the pan, then serve with whipped cream.

Makes one 10-inch cake.

Happy Marriage Cake

Ashley Rodriguez’s Apple Cake from “Date Night In”

Ashley's Apple Cake

Let’s get one thing out of the way. I’m sharing today’s recipe purely out of my enthusiasm for a new cookbook, one that I tested recipes for a while back: Date Night In: More than 120 Recipes to Nourish Your RelationshipMaybe you’ve seen it? Author Ashley Rodriguez is a friend of a friend and creator of the award-winning blog NotWithoutSalt.com. I tested many of the recipes while pregnant and without much of an appetite. Yet she surprised me with enticing recipes and complex, appealing flavors just about every time.

So, with that said, let’s talk about apple cake. The recipe for this one comes from a wooden box that Ashley’s grandmother gave her. Don’t we all love finding gems in the form of recipe cards? That story alone was enough to make me want to give this recipe a try. On the surface, it’s a simple cake: butter, sugar, flour, and some spices–not much else–mixed with chunks of tart apples. But Ashley has a way of transforming something as ubiquitous as apple cake into something remarkable. With cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg–and a touch of salt, after all she named her blog after the James Beard quote, “Where would we be without salt?”–it’s one of the most flavorful and interesting apple cakes I’ve ever tasted (not to mention easy).

Ashley's Apple Cake

Enough about the cake for now–the recipe follows. We should talk about the book. Throughout the course of over 120 recipes, Ashley weaves in a love story. The premise is sweet: A young couple’s marriage starts to fall flat when life with three small children overshadows the romance that surrounded their early days–that is, until the wife starts cooking up special restaurant-worthy dinners to enjoy after they’ve tucked the kids into bed. Date nights–in. Ashley tells an honest, vulnerable, and refreshing love story in the form of 52 dates she created for her husband, Gabe. Organized by season, the recipes range from simple no-cook antipasti to enjoy on a hot summer evening to braises that benefit from hours in the oven.

Ashley's Apple Cake

The first menu I tested started with a pineapple rosarita: fresh rosemary muddled with pineapple and shaken with triple sec, tequila, and lime juice. Tart and refreshing, it whet the appetites while I assembled an avocado salad complete with generous handfuls of fresh herbs and pepitas. The main course came together in stages: chilaquiles layered with citrus-braised pork, roasted tomatillo salsa, gooey cheese, and an assortment of condiments including Ashley’s pickled red onions. If all that weren’t enough, we ended the meal with Mexican chocolate sorbet with red wine-poached cherries.

That menu was elaborate yet accessible. It would have been over the top to tackle on a single day, but Ashley instructed how to break down the steps over the course of a few days to make it doable for a date night. The whole idea is that it can be easy to create something special, a meal that’s elevated a bit from the regular weeknight dinner. The menus themselves are perfectly balanced, but the recipes stand alone as well: The BBQ pulled-pork sandwiches with apple and radicchio slaw are a regular in my kitchen. The bittersweet chocolate malted shakes are a crowd-pleaser. And I could eat the white salad with pomegranate–built from celeriac, apple, fennel, leek, and white cheddar–as a meal in and of itself.

Ashley starts by making me hungry. And by the time all is said and done, I’m totally satisfied.

Ashley's Apple Cake

Ashley Rodriguez’s Apple Cake from Date Night In
Ashley would have you serve the cake with maple cream. I’ve tried it with and without, and though I usually serve it alone, either way it’s delicious.

For the cake:
Unsalted butter, for the pan
1 1/2 cups / 210 g all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 cup / 150 g granulated sugar
3/4 cup / 180 ml mild-flavor oil, such as canola or walnut
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 medium-size tart apples, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Turbinado sugar (optional)
Maple cream (optional, recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare an 8-inch round cake pan (I use springform): Butter or spray it, line the bottom with parchment, and butter the parchment.

In a medium bowl, stir flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar. Whisk the oil, eggs, and vanilla in a separate bowl, then pour the wet ingredients into the dry. Tip the apples into the bowl, and fold all the ingredients together.

Pour the batter into the pan and and smooth the top with a spatula. Sprinkle on some turbinado sugar on top, if you wish. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the pan to finish cooling.

Ashley recommends wrapping the cake in plastic wrap and leaving on the counter overnight. It’s one of those cakes that benefits from a day of resting.

To make the maple cream, just whisk 1/2 cup crème fraîche and 1 tablespoon maple syrup together. It’s that easy.

Makes one 8-inch cake.

Ashley's Apple Cake

Nordic Whipped Porridge & The Writing Life

Whipped Porridge

We find our own way, sometimes.

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

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

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

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

Whipped Porridge

Whipped Porridge Diptych with Coconut

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

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

Whipped Porridge Whipped Porridge Diptych with Cream

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

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

Whipped Porridge

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

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

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

Serves 4.

In Print: Orange Pound Cake with Wine-Poached Strawberries and Mascarpone

Orange Pound Cake with Wine-Poached Strawberries and Mascarpone

If you follow along on Instagram, this image might look familiar. I offered the sneak peak a couple of months ago when developing a recipe for my latest article in Costco Connection magazine. That article–Beyond the Bun: A Camper’s Guide to Outdoor Cuisine–is now in print, and I want to take a moment to share it with you today. It’s all about how to break away from the typical camping fare of hot dogs and burgers and to eat as well as you would at home, with just a little extra preparation before the trip. You can find the article–along with my recipe for Orange Pound Cake with Wine-Poached Strawberries and Mascarpone–in the May 2014 issue of Costco Connection. Enjoy!

Creamy Cucumber Salad with Yogurt and Spice

Creamy Cucumber Salad with Yogurt and Spice

There is a rolling continuum of the ingredients I cook with throughout the year, mounds of rhubarb in late spring toppling into the berries of summer, mingling on occasion in recipes like Nordic rhubarb and strawberry jam. In this way, fruits and vegetables help mark the changing seasons, ushering one gracefully into the next. Around this time each summer, when the midday sun begins to compete with the moist marine air around Seattle and the leaves begin their gradual display of changing colors, I feel compelled to embrace tomatoes, still vibrant and full of flavor, as often as I can and buy corn to grill for an outdoor meal, even if we must pull a sweater up over our shoulders while we dine.

This time of year, we do a lot of grilling. My husband prepares good quality meat or fish, seasoning it simply with olive oil and sea salt and maybe a little pepper and puts it on the grill while I make the side dishes and set the table. On Friday evening we needed little more than lamb chops and a couple of simple salads to make a meal.

Creamy Cucumber Salad with Yogurt and Spice and Tomato Salad

Cucumber salads have figured prominently in my home in recent months, with the sweet-and-sour cucumber salad and cucumber salad with dill that I made for June’s Midsummer picnic and a creamy salad of cucumber and radish. There are any number of varieties in Scandinavian cuisine, and even with similar ingredient lists they can taste much different, depending on technique, the palate and taste preferences of the cook, and the seasonings. I veered away from the traditional Nordic varieties this past weekend, taking cues from David Tanis’ Heart of the Artichoke instead. Peeling the cucumber and slicing it into half moons, I dressed it with yogurt seasoned with garlic, fresh dill and mint, and drizzled olive oil and sprinkled red pepper flakes over the top. Adding a simple salad of heirloom tomatoes, we were set.

Heirloom Tomatoes on Board

Soon enough the tomatoes will make way for the foods of autumn. Apples are already making their way into my baking, and soon artichokes and Brussels sprouts will take up significant parts of our meals. And don’t forget the squash and root vegetables that conjure up all the cozy nostalgia of autumns past. One season is beginning its gradual roll into the next, but I’ll hold onto every last bit of summer as long as I can.

Tomatoes and Summer Dinner

Creamy Cucumber Salad with Yogurt and Spice
Inspired by the Cucumbers and Yogurt in Heart of the Artichoke by David Tanis

1 large cucumber
Salt and pepper
1 cup whole milk yogurt
1 garlic clove, pressed
1-2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 tablespoon chopped mint
1 tablespoon chopped dill
Red pepper flakes

Peel the cucumber. Cut it in half lengthwise, then slice into half moons about 1/3-inch thick. Place in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Add yogurt, garlic, olive oil, mint, and dill, and stir. Refrigerate while you’re preparing the rest of your meal–try to give it at least a half an hour. Check the seasonings and add more salt and pepper if needed. Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with red pepper flakes and drizzle olive oil over the top.

Serves 4.

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