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.

Kräftskiva, Swedish Crayfish Party

Swedish Crayfish Party with Dill

It’s been a quiet week here in my little corner of the world, and to my dismay a quiet one on the blog as well. I have spent the entire week sick, and while it hasn’t kept me from working toward essential deadlines, I’ve had to take it easy and also decline invitations for some quintessentially summer events in Seattle (boating? On a sunny summer evening? I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to miss that).

As August nears a close and I reflect back on the summer, however, I have to say that it’s been a good one. My husband’s MBA graduation, a Midsummer picnic out of town, picking berries and freezing them for special treats as the weather cools down, the majority of dinners eaten outside on the patio, and plenty of writing, recipe development, and recipe testing to keep me inspired–I can’t complain. To top it off, last Friday I hosted a kräftskiva-inspired crayfish dinner for the family, complete with the requisite aquavit and Scandinavian beer.

While my own roots are entirely Norwegian, there are some Swedish connections on my husband’s side, so I enjoyed researching the traditional Swedish crayfish party and holding one of my own.

Swedish Crayfish Party Sides

Lemon and Crayfish

Kräftskiva–as the parties are called–typically take place in August as a throwback to the times when crayfish were limited to this time of year. Sweden used to be the world’s biggest crayfish exporter, I read in Scandinavian Classics by Niklas Ekstedt, but now–nearly a century after the crayfish plague there–the country is now the world’s biggest importer. An interesting turn of events, to be sure. Much of the crayfish now comes from China, but that doesn’t stop people in Sweden from going all out and enjoying a Scandinavian feast as festive and abundant as any other.

The menu typically features crayfish cooked in a brine flavored with crown dill, served with a variety of cheeses, bread, flatbread, pickled herring, potatoes, beer, and schnapps (aquavit). We took some liberties with the traditional menu, extending the country of origin for some of our items to neighboring Norway and Denmark (even in Seattle, a distinctly Scandinavian city, we do have limitations in what’s readily available). We also served the crayfish alongside Alaskan salmon, freshly caught by my father-in-law who had just returned from vacation (it’s hard to make a meal out of crayfish alone, after all). I should add that if you don’t know where to find fresh crayfish, I found mine frozen at Ikea last week.

Before August comes to a close, I thought I’d take a moment to share with you my menu from last week, along with links to the recipes that I used. Next year I’ll do it up a little more, adding the crayfish streamers lanterns, and other trappings that traditionally accompany these events. But I have to say, the menu was a success, and people were talking about the event for days.

Outside Oslo’s 2013 Kräftskiva Menu
Crayfish with Lemony Mayonnaise and Lemon Wedges
Fresh Alaskan King Salmon
Green Bean Salad with Lemon-Dijon Dressing
Assortment of Scandinavian Cheese
Various crispbread and bread
Pickled Herring
Linie Aquavit
Karlsson’s Gold Vodka
Carlsberg

Swedish Crayfish Party Feast with Salmon

Swedish Almond Rusks

Swedish Almond Rusks in Bowl

Food has taken on a special characteristic since I became a mother. Sure, I always enjoyed baking, cooking, feeding others, sharing a meal, dining out. But now it’s about so much more than that: It’s about introduction. The naturally sweet flavors of steamed carrots… Toothsome mushrooms sauteed in olive oil and garlic… Ripe strawberries that spew juices as you take a bite… When you’re the one being the first to share such simple, pure flavors and textures with someone with a budding palate, even the most seemingly humble produce that you might otherwise end up dressing up with spices and sauces comes back into focus, reminding you of how delicious it was to begin with.

And then there are the sweets. Homemade cookies, a lopsided birthday cake that made up for flavor what it lacked in presentation, the very first taste of ganache still warm from the pan–these are some of the treats that I have been able to share with my son, a child who talks about “Mama’s cookies” (referring to the rusks I’m sharing with you in today’s post) even while he eagerly eats grilled wild Alaskan sockeye salmon and cole slaw.

Swedish Almond Rusks with Coffee

Swedish Almond Rusks on Baking Sheet

When introducing my son to solid food, I took the stance of many mothers around me: only organic fruit and vegetables, homemade over processed whenever possible, limited empty calories, and no sugar. An ideal introduction to the exciting world of food choices out there, for sure. With a healthy foundation and a daily diet that focused on the nutritive qualities of food, I eventually began to incorporate foods that carry with them a softer, harder-to-define value: that of the heart.

If you’ve been reading Outside Oslo for any length of time you know about my belief that food fosters communication and connection, bridging generational gaps and helping us to identify with and learn about the heritage and culture of our own family and of people we love. Whenever I bake lefse with my 94-year-old grandma, my son gets to enjoy it, still soft and warm from the griddle. When he watched me mix up the dough for a Norwegian fyrstekake recently, I didn’t stop him as he reached for a piece of dough and sampled it. The same goes with these almond rusks pictured here. I kept a handful of them around this week (after giving a good portion of them away, as I love to do with baked goods), and he inevitably spotted them in the kitchen and wanted to try them. I let him. I have helped to steer his palate toward healthy tastes, and part of that training involves the occasional treat, enjoyed in moderation.

Swedish Almond Rusks

Swedish Almond Rusks

Though I bake often, sharing many of the recipes here on the blog, we don’t generally keep a lot of sweets in the house. Whenever possible I wrap up the cookies or half a tart and give them away. It’s a pleasure to be able to give a little unexpected gift to someone, sharing something handmade and from the heart. These little rusks made it easy to do so: They’re sturdy so they travel well, and they keep for a while.

Rusks, as they’re known in Scandinavian cuisine, are a twice-baked cookie or bread, much like the Italian biscotti. This particular recipe is flavored generously with cardamom, that wonderful spice that defines much Scandinavian baking, and dotted with slivered almonds. When freshly-baked these rusks are not so hard that you couldn’t eat them on their own, but they’re excellent dipped briefly into a cup of coffee. They are just enough to elevate the essential morning or afternoon cup into a special experience. And since food is about so much more than just sustenance, I encourage you to whip up a batch and share them with your family or friends this weekend.

Swedish Almond Rusks
Adapted (barely) from Scandinavian Classic Baking by Pat Sinclair

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup slivered almonds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prep a baking sheet by lining it with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, cardamom, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and set aside. Beat the eggs in a small butter and set these aside as well.

Using an electric mixer, beat the butter until creamy, then gradually add the sugar while continuing to beat, letting the combination take on a light appearance. Add the sour cream, almond extract, and the prepared eggs, and beat to combine. Reduce the speed to low and begin to add the flour, adding it gradually and allowing a soft dough to form. Add the almonds and beat just until combined.

Place the dough on the parchment paper in the form of three logs, each about a foot long. The dough is sticky and the rusks are rustic, so don’t worry too much about a smooth appearance at this step. Press them down to flatten slightly, then bake until they’re light brown and firm, about 25 to 30 minutes.

Remove from the oven and leave on the baking sheet to cool a little while you go about your business. After about 10 or 15 minutes or so, when they’re cool enough to touch but still warm, cut each log into diagonal slices about 3/4-inch thick. Turn the slices so they’re flat on the baking sheet and return to the oven to bake for another 8 to 10 minutes. Turn them over and toast the other sides for 8 to 10 minutes, then cool.

Makes about 36 rusks.

Swedish Almond Rusks in Bowl on Tray

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