Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)

The thought of rhubarb takes me back to my grandparents’ garden, a place that surely was dwarfed by the farms that were their former landscape back in North Dakota yet seemed to me the most amazing sort of wonderland. Some of my sweetest childhood memories are set in that garden, amidst the rows of raspberry bushes, rhododendrons, and of course a rhubarb plant that to any kid would likely seem almost prehistoric.

A love for rhubarb extends far beyond those of us with Nordic roots, but I’ll still always associate it with Norwegian rhubarb cake and rhubarb soup, Andreas Viestad’s bracing devil’s rhubarb (basically you stick a stalk of raw rhubarb in sugar and chase it with vodka), and Iceland’s hjónabandssaela, happy marriage cake.

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)

I first tasted hjónabandssaela at a baking class at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle a few years ago. While good, it lived up to the cake’s tendency to be a bit dry, the sort of thing you’ll be thankful to pair with coffee or perhaps a scoop of ice cream. I wanted to create a version of my own and set to work, utilizing the traditional components of rhubarb and oats but transforming them into the recipe I’m sharing with you today, one that’s just as hearty but with a texture I prefer. It’s a simple recipe, remarkably easy to make. After breaking down the oats slightly with a few whirls in a food processor, you incorporate the rest of the crust ingredients and then press it into a pan. No rolling, no perfection needed. The filling itself is simply rhubarb cooked down with sugar until it melts into itself, leaving little more texture than a trail of luscious silky strands behind. While you could omit the cardamom if you really wanted to, I love the aromatic warmth it lends to the dish, another reminder of both sets of my grandparents, whose homes were always as full of love as they were of food.

I used to keep an empty cardamom spice jar in my office. Opening the lid would release an olfactory nostalgia as the woody fragrance–as strong, complex, and sophisticated as my grandfather’s cologne–reached my nose. There’s something vintage, aged and almost mysterious about the spice, which conjures up memories of my grandparents because the scent mingles in my memory with the aromas that greeted me when I’d arrive at their house for dinner.

I’m living with the reality now that I’ll never see my grandparents again this side of heaven. Now, the ingredients and the foods that provide a gateway to the past are all the more precious to me. One of these days I’ll plant a garden in their honor, with berries and rhubarb, roses, and rhododendrons. In the meantime, though, I’ll keep making this dessert, thinking of them all every time.

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)

Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake (Hjónabandssaela)
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. Also, if you’re wondering about the dessert’s name, no one seems to know its origins, but the cake is well known and a traditional part of Icelandic baking.   

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.

Nordic Rhubarb and Strawberry Jam

Rhubarb and Strawberry Jam with Bread

Mornings are slow, quiet times in our house most days. I sip my coffee in slow minuscule amounts at first, drinking a little more quickly as it cools. Still, I rarely find myself finishing an entire cup before it’s gone tepid and I must either reheat it in the microwave (which never yields satisfying results), drink it quickly so I can refill my mug with hot coffee from the machine (an approach requires mentally turning off my tastebuds for a moment), or simply drain out the cool remnants and start fresh (which is my preferred, yet slightly wasteful, method).

For most of my adult life I’ve treated breakfast as optional, but coffee has always been a necessity: something warm and bitter to savor as I ease into the day. Until I became a parent, brunch was reserved for a rare weekend, making it somewhat of a special occasion. These days, though, with a child, breakfast is a daily event, whether I take part in it or not. So with that in mind, I’m trying to find new ways to elevate the meal into something enjoyable and delicious, something that feels almost a little decadent while remaining nutritious and balanced. One way is by spreading a hearty slice of toasted organic whole-grain or rye bread with a special preserve or jam, perhaps one brought back from a trip or something homemade.

Rhubarb, Strawberries, and Vanilla

Rhubarb, Strawberries, and Vanilla in Pan

With my seasonal fascination with rhubarb, I got to work one recent day, chopping the stalks into pieces an inch or so long, then placing them in a saucepan with some strawberries, sugar, and a whole vanilla bean. The recipe–adapted from The Nordic Diet–was about as easy as could be, requiring only a little bit of patience as I stirred the fruit over medium heat. The fruit quickly began to release its juices, helping to dissolve the sugar. As it cooked, the fruit filled my kitchen with a warm, strawberry-rhubarb scent, as though I were baking a pie.

The fruit broke down as it cooked, and in 15 minutes or so I had a luscious, warm sauce that was equally appropriate to treat as a jam for toast or a compote to spoon over rich, creamy, plain yogurt.

I’ll keep sharing more of my breakfast treats here in the future. In the meantime, what do you enjoy eating as you start the day?

Rhubarb, Strawberries, and Sugar

Rhubarb and Strawberry with Bread for Breakfast

Nordic Rhubarb and Strawberry Jam with Vanilla
Adapted just barely from The Nordic Diet by Trina Hahnemann, this recipe is good just the way it is. However, next time I will use only an inch-long piece of vanilla bean, splitting it open before adding it to the fruit. The original recipe calls for an entire bean, left whole, which lends just the slightest hint of flavor to the jam and seems extravant for such a precious ingredient.

11 ounces rhubarb, cut into inch-long pieces
2 cups strawberries, halved or quartered
1 vanilla bean
1/2 cup raw organic sugar

Place rhubarb, strawberries, and vanilla bean in a 3 quart saucepan and toss with the sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently as you bring the fruit to a boil. The fruit will release its juices as it cooks, so you shouldn’t have any problems with it drying out; however, Hahnemann says adding a little water would be fine if that should happen. Boil for 15 minutes, stirring frequently, then cool. Store in the fridge.

Yields about 1.5 to 2 cups.

Classic Norwegian Rhubarb Cake

Norwegian Rhubarb Cake

Oh springtime, you most gentle of seasons, on one day you bring sunshine and warmth, and on the next a tranquil fog.

The quiet morning unfolds with the aroma of coffee as I unload the dishwasher and begin the next phase of cleaning up. These mornings after, with vestiges of the previous night’s book club meal, involve reflection and reminiscing: new friends and old, successful new recipes, and countless tangents originating from one common book. These book club dinners, begun just months ago, have become an instant highlight in each one of our lives.

Book Club Mussels

As I load the dishwasher with the next batch of bowls and glasses, I pour remnants of milky broth speckled with parsley, shallots, and bay leaves down the drain. The fragrant scent of mussels lingers in the air and I light candles to freshen the room, enjoying the special quality they add to the morning. I take a bite of rhubarb cake, leftover from the night before, and sip my coffee, which cools rapidly in the ceramic mug.

I have come to enjoy these still, quiet mornings and to savor the freshness of a cloudy spring day. While the sunny days of the past week beckoned us to hurry outside, today with its diffused light and tranquil stillness seems to give us permission to just be—to enjoy a leisurely walk with a friend, to read a few extra books to my son before his nap, to linger at the computer and enjoy the process of writing as much as the progress, even as the kitchen remains cluttered.

Norwegian Rhubarb Cake Batter

Freshly Baked Norwegian Rhubarb Cake

Oh springtime, you most gracious of seasons! Even as I write this, the blue sky emerges from the fading clouds and the sunlight casts its warm rays on the trees outside. Morning has transitioned to afternoon, with the promise of a mild evening and the possibility of a dinner enjoyed outdoors. But not before I head back to the kitchen and finish the final phase of cleaning—and eat another bite of rhubarb cake.

Norwegian Rhubarb Cake on Pedestal

Norwegian Rhubarb Cake (Rabarbrakake)
Adapted from Norwegian National Recipes, this recipe features the exact proportions called for in the original, but elaborates on the instructions, which were limited. So, what you’ll find here is a true classic. Please try to bake this cake within a few hours of serving. At its most moist and tender in the first three hours, this is the perfect time to present it to guests. I must add, though, that you shouldn’t hesitate to enjoy the leftovers with a cup of coffee the next morning as you get ready to start your day–consider it a host or hostess’ reward.

1/4 cup salted butter
1/3 cup milk
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 large stalk rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat, then remove from the heat and stir in the milk. Meanwhile, beat the eggs and sugar together until light and fluffy. While continuing to stir, slowly pour in the melted butter. Add flour and baking powder and mix until combined.

Pour batter into an 8-inch springform pan and sprinkle the rhubarb over the top, making sure the rhubarb doesn’t touch the sides of the pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean–this took about an hour for me, but check it in advance. Allow to cool and carefully remove from the pan. This cake would be lovely served with whipped cream, as the original recipe suggests, but is also delicious plain.

Serves 6.

The Essence of Spring in Rhubarb Soup

Rhubarb Soup for Spring

When I cook with rhubarb I’m struck by the color–that ballerina-pink to magenta ombré effect married with salmon and the faintest hint of green. Then there’s the scent, the almost citrus, grassy notes smelling like the essence of a spring garden in the moments after the rain.

Rhubarb Soup with Yogurt Ice Cream Horizontal

I wonder if there are many foods more associative of spring in our childhood memories than this unusual plant. The thought of it conjures up sunny days in my grandparents’ backyard garden, where the rhubarb–at least as I remember it–seemed as large as a prehistoric turtle. Guarding the steps down to the raspberry patch, the plant silently waited as we passed by to comb through rows of bushes for berries at the peak of perfection.

These days I take every opportunity like to cook with rhubarb. Roasted with vanilla bean and wine. Cooked and strained for a syrup to add to tequila. Simmered until its fibrous stalks soften and become a delicately-textured base for rabarbrafromasj, rhubarb fromage.

The desserts made with rhubarb are some of the best that come out of my kitchen. The latest one–rabarbrasuppe, rhubarb soup–is no exception. Simmered with vanilla bean, the rhubarb releases all of its flavor and vivid color into the water, which, when strained, becomes a clear pink soup. Scattered pieces of baked rhubarb and a scoop of homemade yogurt ice cream complete the simple yet elegant dessert.

Spring Rhubarb Soup

Rhubarb Soup (Rabarbrasuppe) with Yogurt Ice Cream
Despite the various steps, this recipe–adapted from The Nordic Diet by Trina Hahnemann–is rather simple. Since it is to be served cold, each step can be prepared in advanced, leaving only assembly for serving time.

For the soup:

1 1/2 pounds rhubarb, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
1 vanilla bean
1/4 cup sugar

For the baked rhubarb:

2 rhubarb stalks
1/4 cup sugar

For the ice cream:

1 3/4 cups low-fat yogurt
3/4 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Several hours before serving, prepare the soup by placing the 1 1/2 pounds of rhubarb pieces in a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean down the middle with the tip of a knife and scrape out the seeds, adding both the seeds and the pod to the saucepan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer for about 30 minutes, resisting the urge to stir (you don’t want to break up the rhubarb, which you’ll soon strain out and discard).

Pour the soup through a sieve and return to a clean saucepan, adding sugar and bringing back to a boil just to dissolve the sugar. Allow to cool, then transfer to a bowl and place in the refrigerator until completely chilled.

While the soup is chilling, prepare the baked rhubarb and the ice cream. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees and toss the rhubarb with sugar in an baking dish and placing it in the oven until it’s tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

Make the ice cream while the rest of the dessert cools. Beat the yogurt and sugar until the sugar dissolves. Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks, then gently fold it into the yogurt. Transfer to an ice cream machine and freeze according to manufacturer instructions; depending on the machine, this should take about 20 minutes. If needed, transfer to the freezer for a little while to firm it up further.

To serve, divide the chilled soup between four wide, shallow bowls. Scatter the roasted rhubarb pieces around and place a scoop of ice cream in the center.

Serves 4.

Savoring the Seasons: Chicken with Baked Rhubarb

Dining Outside on Spring Day

Visiting Bergen back in the summer of 2008 I noticed something special about the Norwegians, the way they embraced the long hours of sunlight and milked the sunshine for every last drop. Out on ski boats in bikinis and swim trunks as the evening sun hovered lazily above the horizon, never seeming quite like it would ever fully set, the smiles never left their faces as their boats skimmed the surface of the golden water, bouncing along as it went. That image of pure bliss, of people relishing the moment, has stayed with me through the years, and it demonstrates a part of the Norwegian character that is not so unlike that of people in the Pacific Northwest.

Chicken with Rhubarb, Cucumber Salad, and Potatoes

Here, as in Norway, spring and summer are short, and hot, sunny days are rare. At least on this side of the Cascades. When such conditions happen, restaurants with outdoor seating fill up and the roads leading to any body of water become clogged with traffic. It seems ingrained in us to seek out the sun and to bask in its rays amongst strangers who are celebrating it as well.

Chicken with Rhubarb

Cucumber and Radish Salad

Each year I make a summer list, a collection of ideas and ideals, things that seem to capture the essence of the season. This year one of the first to surface is dining outside whenever possible. Though squinting our eyes in the bright sun and enduring the goosebumps that come from the breeze that even the warmest days can bring, we can hardly imagine anything better, while in the moment, than sitting amongst friends in the little bits of nature we try to create in our urban dwellings.

Please promise me, no matter where you live, that you will embrace the sunshine this spring and summer too, that you’ll get out there and enjoy meals on your patio or deck or front porch or the nearest park. Listen to the birds chirping and dogs barking and notice the warmth of the sun mingling with the gentle breeze on your skin. Breathe in the fresh air and smell the scent of flowers and grass being carried on the wind. The winters can seem so long and so dark, and moments like these are ones to savor.

Chicken with Rhubarb Served with Salad and Potatoes

Chicken with Baked Rhubarb and Cucumber-Radish Salad
When it comes to using foods in respect to their sources and peak seasons, Danish chef Trina Hahnemann is a star. Her book The Nordic Diet–from which this recipe is adapted–celebrates locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients with a collection of innovative recipes that are always fresh, always healthy, and totally satisfying. Hahnemann would have you using a whole organic or free-range chicken cut into eight pieces, along with organic raw sugar and goat-milk yogurt. If you choose to follow her lead, please do. I have modified it below for ease and convenience. This dish only needs potatoes to round it out (I recommend six medium-sized Yukon gold potatoes).

For the chicken:

8 chicken thighs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
11 ounces rhubarb
1/4 cup raw sugar

For the salad:

1 medium cucumber (about 11 ounces)
1-2 bunches radishes (about 7 ounces)
Generous 1/3 cup whole-milk yogurt
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place the chicken thighs on a baking sheet or shallow ovenproof dish and season with salt and pepper and roast for 30 minutes. While the chicken is roasting, cut the rhubarb into 1-inch slices on a long diagonal and toss in a medium-sized bowl to coat. After 30 minutes of roasting, remove the chicken from the oven and tuck the rhubarb pieces underneath the chicken and return to the oven to roast for 15 minutes longer.

To make the salad, peel the cucumber, cut it in half lengthwise, and scrape out the seeds with a spoon. Cut into 1/4-inch slices and toss in a medium-sized bowl. Thinly slice the radishes and add them to the cucumber. Stir together the yogurt, garlic, mint, salt, and pepper, and add to the cucumbers and radishes, stirring until well combined.

Serves 4.

Cucumber and Radish Salad

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