Getting to the Heart of Food Writing (and a Swedish Currant Cake)

Swedish Currant Cake

There’s a secret that food writers keep. We don’t mean to, of course, but when one’s beat is food, it’s easy for most of the media we use to reflect only a tiny facet of who we are. That secret is the varied nature of our lives–outside of the kitchen. Aside from the occasional clue found on our Instagram feeds or the other publications you might find our work in, you probably wouldn’t know a lot about us other than the fact that we read a lot of cookbooks, can use work as an excuse for baking after cake, and that we sometimes get a little sentimental and nostalgic about something as ephemeral as food.

I’ve been thinking, though, about how much more there is to each of us. In fact, food writing isn’t about the food at all to me. I could get all starry-eyed about that amazing meal I ate and fill up a blog post with overused words like “delicious” and “perfect” but chance are that would end up sounding shallow at best, disingenuous or pretentious at worst. Food is all about the people, the memories, the experiences–it’s about life.

It’s about the beachside crêpe stand down the square from the house where I stayed the summer I studied in Normandy–a little white truck luring passersby with the sweet aromas of melted butter and warm sugar carried on the ocean breeze–and how my awareness of the world and its many cultures expanded as I fumbled my way through my order in a foreign language. Then there’s the glow of early love I felt as I sat by the side of a street by the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome for lunch with my husband on our honeymoon. We ate slices of chewy, yeasty pizza by hand, savoring the balance of the delicate zucchini blossoms and assertive anchovies adorned with little more than olive oil and salt; eight years later we still stalk zucchini blossoms together at the farmers’ market each summer until we find them, just so we can attempt to recreate that pizza at home and keep that experience of early romance alive. It’s also about how deeply comforting a protein-fortified milkshake and peanut butter and jelly sandwich paired with Earl Grey tea in a paper cup tasted when I was recovering from an emergency cesarean delivery and how even the mention of stewed prunes takes me back to the first sweet but hazy days with my newborn in the hospital.

That’s a little bit of my story right there, all wrapped up in food. And none of it really is about food. The pizza and the crêpes sucrées and the milkshake from the hospital cafeteria mean nothing in and of themselves–they’re just things that someone made and that someone ate, sustenance that meets one of our biggest needs for survival. But when there’s a story associated with them, they become something more: an entry point into our memories and a framework by which to contemplate our pasts.

If you were to look at what I’ve been eating in the past couple of weeks, the number of quick café meals–a breakfast sandwich here; yogurt, milk, and a panini there; and an occasional blended strawberry and cream drink and double nonfat latte along the way–would help define this moment in time occupied with hospital visits. As my son and I have eaten our drive-through coffee shop meals in the car (which I try to avoid) and out of crinkly white paper to-go bags in a lobby, I’ve experienced guilt about abandoning the structure and nutritional quality that I’ve built around our daytime meals. But in a way, while I watch someone dear to me struggle with the debilitating effects of stroke and wonder whether her speech and comprehension will ever fully return, I am thankful for the steady, predictable schedule of mealtime, no matter the form or its contents–that rhythm, at least, is one thing still in my control.

Swedish Currant Cake

And so we come to cake. Just as with that milkshake and those crêpes, there’s no inherent magic in a bunch of flour, sugar, butter, and currants baked together in a pan–unless you have something bigger to attach it to. Food blog guidelines would instruct me here to use evocative language that would entice you to want to drop everything and head to your kitchen right now to bake, but perhaps because of what I’m going through at the moment that seems beside the point–pointless even. For me, what this cake really represents is a gateway to a day I don’t want to forget, something a little ordinary, a little special, and full of sweetness in a time otherwise filled with grief and uncertainty.

This cake sat in my kitchen this morning, surrounded by toasted English muffins, sliced tomatoes, ham, artichoke hearts, avocados and bacon. As my husband made Hollandaise sauce and poached eggs, we mingled with a dozen or so friends, inviting them each to whip up a Bloody Mary and build their own eggs benedict. To have a houseful of people so early in the day is a rarity (late to bed, typically late to rise), but it was opening day of the Seattle Sounders FC season, and we wanted to mark the occasion well. In the blur of it all, I didn’t even think to snap a photo as a visual record of the morning. All I have are the photos of this cake, which I took yesterday.

From there we went to the game, a match against Sporting Kansas City, a game in which the 0-0 score glared down at the fans until after the 90th minute, in stoppage time, when the Sounders finally made a goal, winning the game with what felt like less than 30 seconds to go. I’m not a huge sports fan, but to be there with my husband and son, surrounded by tens of thousands of people cheering on a team in the rain–and erupting in applause as fireworks went off and the word “GOAL” flashed on the screen–that was something special, a memory I don’t want to forget.

And so there’s cake today, a dense, subtly-sweet one studded with almost three cups of dried currants, the type of cake you serve for brunch rather than a special occasion. One that would taste just as good toasted and spread with butter as any raisin-cinnamon toast. I’ll leave you with a recipe, should you want to give it a try. For me, it’s another way to remember something that has absolutely nothing to do with cake but has everything to do with friends and fellowship, brunch and soccer, and the bright hours of an otherwise challenging couple of weeks.

Swedish Currant Cake

Swedish Currant Cake
Adapted from Swedish Cakes and Cookies. As the original recipe recommends, plan on making this cake a couple of days before you plan on serving it. Just keep it covered and it will stay moist and get better with time.

2 3/4 cups dried currants
3/4 cup salted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
Zest of one lemon, grated
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon water, plus more hot water for rinsing currants

Preheat oven to 300 degrees and grease a tube pan. Rinse the currants briefly in hot water; drain well and set aside.

Beat butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl, scraping down the sides occasionally, until light and fluffy. This will take a couple of minutes–don’t rush it. One at a time, add the eggs, mixing well before each addition.

Toss a tablespoon or two of the flour with the currants in a separate bowl. Add the rest of the flour–along with the cinnamon, lemon zest, and baking powder–to the batter and beat until mixed. Stir in almond extract, lemon juice, and a tablespoon of water until everything is incorporated, then fold in the currants.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean and the edges start to pull away from the sides. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for about five minutes, then loosen the cake from the sides of the pan with a knife, invert it onto a plate and remove the cake. Store covered.

Bringing Back the Casserole with Jansson’s Temptation

Jansson's Temptation

There was a time when my ideal evening at home would involve cuddling up with a pillow by the weathered-brick fireplace in our old house, my hardcover edition of Les Misérables or trade copy of Out Stealing Horses in hand. My husband would sit nearby on the sofa having a little quiet time of his own, and we would share the evening in good company, each immersed in our own little world of fiction and stories. I might sip on an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan as I turned page after page, and Max the cat would inevitably make himself known.

Months and years go by and routines and rhythms change. These days my husband and I still enjoy those quiet moments together whenever possible, often stealing the time from precious sleep. But rather than becoming engrossed in a book, I often now sit side by side with him–surrounded by books and bags and sweaters and toys–with a laptop, catching up on the day’s correspondence and planning my week, sometimes multitasking while we watch a show we’re following. Reading happens in found moments throughout the day rather than in luxurious hours-long evening sessions.

For someone like me who has historically devoured books like cookies, I seem to have taken a bit of a reading hiatus these past couple of years. It’s not that I haven’t read; rather, my attention turned from classic literature to informative guides on timely topics, including pregnancy, parenting, writing, and travel.

I’m excited to say that a new routine has begun this year, thanks to some great friends who enthusiastically backed my crazy little idea to start a “foodie lit” book club. We’re two meetings in, and I can already sense a great group forming. As friends arrived one by one last night, new connections formed and people whom I know from different parts of life came together and met. The ice breaker of the evening–having everyone bring a food that told a little about who they are or where they came from–would have been adequate to get people talking, but it turns out that they didn’t need my help at all. As we dined on Meagan’s Swedish meatballs, Julie’s fennel and apple salad, my Jansson’s Temptation and Christy’s salted chocolate chip cookies, we kept realizing that the topic of the evening–the books we had read–was taking a backseat to all the wonderful conversation. Success? I think so.

Jansson's Temptation

I’ve been curious about making Jansson’s Temptation for quite a while, and with adventurous cooks such as my friends, I knew my company would appreciate the culinary exploration. Jansson’s Temptation–or Janssons frestelse–is basically a traditional Swedish version of scalloped potatoes with the addition of Swedish Abba “anchovies,” or sprats. (The tiny fish are soft and somewhat sweet, and nothing like the anchovies you’re undoubtedly thinking about right now.)

So, the verdict? Make this dish as part of a smörgåsbord on a chilly winter evening when you have a lot of company (there’s a reason it’s often served for Christmas). The cream and the anchovies–not to mention the potato-based nature of the dish–make it a hearty and rich meal that probably ranks among the top Scandinavian comfort foods. I did, you’ll notice, add sliced mushrooms to the recipe below, which are not at all traditional. I couldn’t help thinking while shopping for ingredients that the recipe needed a little toothsome quality from mushrooms, and my guests concurred, calling the addition a must. There are a few couple of things I would do differently next time: slice the potatoes more thinly using a mandolin, experiment with other kinds of potatoes, increase the quantity of fish, and possibly add a little chopped parsley or dill–for garnish if nothing else. Aside from that, this recipe is a keeper.

Janssons Frestelse or Jansson’s Temptation (Swedish Anchovy and Potato Gratin)
Adapted from Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking…Scandilicious by Signe Johansen

2 large onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 100g tin Abba anchovies (or two tins if you like a more pronounced flavor), anchovies drained and cut in half
4 large potatoes
8 ounces sliced cremini mushrooms
3/4 cup sour cream or crème fraîche
3/4 cup whipping cream
Approximately 1/2 cup crushed melba toasts (plain)
2 tablespoons butter for topping

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and butter a shallow 2 liter pan.

Heat olive oil in a medium frying pan and add the onions, stirring occasionally over medium heat until soft and translucent. Meanwhile, get to work peeling the potatoes and cutting them into 1/5-inch slices (or thinner).

Layer the ingredients as follows:

  • Place a third of the potato slices in the bottom of the dish.
  • Top with half of the anchovies.
  • Evenly cover with a quarter of the onions.
  • Lay half the mushrooms over the onions.
  • Spread half of the remaining potatoes on top.
  • Scatter the remaining anchovies over the potatoes.
  • Spread the remaining mushrooms over the anchovies.
  • Add another quarter of the onions.
  • Arrange the final layer of potatoes.

Put the remaining onions in a small saucepan and add sour cream, whipping cream, and some salt and pepper. Stir over medium heat until it it just barely begins to simmer, then pour the mixture over the final layer of potatoes. Scatter the crumbs evening over the top, and dot with butter cut into pieces.

Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until the topping is golden brown and the potatoes are cooked through.