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

Bløtkake - DSC_3086

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.

Bløtkake - DSC_3093

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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

Bløtkake - DSC_3077

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.

Celebrating with Norwegian Bløtkake

Bløtkake

When I was growing up, my birthdays always involved a special meal (or two or three, to be honest–I love birthdays) and the cake of my choice. There were the assorted decorated cakes–Barbie one year, a pink frosted sheet cake with an illustrated orange cat another year. But most often I remember marzipan cakes. A simple white cake layered with cream and raspberry or apricot jam, it was draped with a thin layer of rich marzipan which was then decorated with frosting flowers. As a little Norwegian-American girl with a taste for almond, the marzipan was invariably my favorite part of the cake and the reason I enjoyed this variety over and over again.

I made a similar cake this week for a celebration with friends. Bløtkake, which roughly translates to soft or wet cake, is typically served at all sorts of celebrations in Norway, from birthdays and weddings to Syttende Mai. Consisting of sponge cake, rich vanilla-scented custard, strawberry jam, fresh strawberries, and whipped cream, bløtkake is surprisingly light and airy given how decadent it sounds.

Strawberries in Sink

Though bløtkake is served at celebrations year-round and can feature various types of fruit, strawberries are commonly used, making summer a perfect time to showcase this cake here on Outside Oslo. Berries are one of the hallmarks of Nordic cuisine, and in the summer, sun-ripened strawberries are enjoyed in abundance. If you’re going to make this cake any other time of the year, chef Andreas Viestad, in his book Kitchen of Light, advises using a combination of fresh or frozen berries and canned fruit.

Bløtkake Step One

Bløtkake Step Two

Bløtkake Step Three

Bløtkake Step Four

Bløtkake can be made in stages in the days leading up to an event, making it manageable and easy. Prepare the sponge cake a day or two in advance, then layer the cream and berries the morning of the event or the night before (Astrid Karlsen Scott, author of Authentic Norwegian Cooking, says all the cream cakes reach their peak if prepared up to 24 hours in advance). Shortly before serving, whip the cream and spread it over the cake.

Baking the cake for a group of people largely unfamiliar with Scandinavian cuisine, I had the privilege of sharing a little taste of my heritage with my friends. Someone surprised me by commenting on how it tasted like a wedding cake. For as unassuming and simple as a lot of Scandinavian food is, I’m continually amazed by how this type of simplicity results in something both special and elegant.

Bløtkake

Norwegian Bløtkake
Adapted from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas

For the cake:

6 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

For the filling:

3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup strawberry jam, warmed and strained
1/2 pint fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced, plus more for garnish

For the topping:

1 1/2 cups whipping cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Up to a couple of days in advance, prepare the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9-inch round springform cake pans. Beat egg whites until fluffy, then gradually add the sugar, continuing to beat until stiff and with the consistency of meringue. Beat egg yolks in one separate bowl, and stir flour and baking powder together in a separate. Fold the egg yolks and the flour into the egg whites. Pour the batter into the two pans, then bake until the centers spring back when you touch them with a finger, about 30 minutes. Cool in pans.

For the filling, cook egg yolks, butter, cornstarch, half-and-half, and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the custard thickens. Allow to cool, covered, and then stir in the vanilla extract.

When ready to assemble the cake, slice each cake in half horizontally. Place one layer on a serving plate and spread half of the custard over the top. Place another layer of cake over the custard, and top with the strawberry jam. Cover this layer entirely with the sliced strawberries. Place another layer of cake over the strawberries, spread the remaining custard over it, then top with the final layer of cake.

At this point, you can refrigerate the cake until ready to serve. To finish the cake, whip the cream with the powdered sugar and vanilla extract until stiff, then spread over the top and sides of the cake. Decorate with additional strawberries and serve.

Serves 16.

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.

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