Embracing hygge with gløgg (Scandinavian Mulled Wine)

Gløgg

A pot of spiced wine simmering on the stove, releasing its fragrant spices into the air. The flickering glow of candles, a crackling fireplace. It’s hard to imagine a more cozy setting in which to celebrate the holiday season or perhaps to welcome friends in from the cold. This is, for me, the easiest time of year to actively practice the art of hospitality that I grew up experiencing from the Norwegians in my life. these days, one of my favorite ways to do it is with a pot of gløgg.

Essentially a mulled wine, gløgg—spelled glögg in Swedish—conjures up that Scandinavian idea of hygge, or coziness, that Americans are beginning to catch on to. Even an ordinary bottle of red wine becomes something special when it’s combined with warm spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves. Add a bit of orange peel, a generous pour of aquavit, a dash of sugar, and a handful of almonds and raisins, and you have a drink that’s as festive as can be.

Gløgg Spices

Gløgg

I have been wondering lately if the antidote to the hustle and bustle of the holiday season might be found in a handful of Scandinavian recipes. What if, by creaming sticks of butter into sugar to make cookies and mixing up pots of spiced wine, we could somehow infuse the essence of hygge into our own lives? That’s certainly what I’m trying to do.

Hygge—the Danish term for a cozy, warm lifestyle and an emphasis on wellbeing—is embraced throughout Scandinavia, and it seems like it might be just what we need to dampen the stress and frenzy that so often accompany the holiday season.

We can hygge with the typical cozy things like warm, fuzzy blankets and fragrant candles glowing on shelves. We can pull on our softest sweaters and cradle portable mugs of steaming beverages between mitten-covered hands, then tuck into buttery cookies upon returning indoors. But we’d be missing the point if we didn’t pair it with community and relationship, those parts of life that are so essential.

Gløgg

Gløgg

This holiday season it’s a goal of mine to pour a bottle of wine into spice-infused aquavit anytime I’m anticipating visitors. I have the wine already purchased, the spices waiting in the pantry. Gløgg is simple to prepare, only requiring a little bit of advance planning. And the result? Well, who wouldn’t feel instantly welcomed when walking into a warm home filled with the aromas of wine and spices? Paired with the company of good friends and loved ones, this is as hygge as it gets.

Gløgg

Gløgg (Scandinavian Mulled Wine)
There are multiple ways to make gløgg. Around here, we steep the spices in the aquavit, ideally overnight. But on the occasions when we don’t plan ahead, we simply let the spices mingle in the aquavit over a low heat for a couple of hours, keeping the pot covered to minimize evaporation. I first shared my recipe for gløgg in The Norwegian American a year ago. Each time we make it, we do it a little differently, but the idea is the same. If you don’t have aquavit, go ahead and use vodka or even whiskey. I’ve added dried figs to the traditional mix of raisins and almonds, a tip I learned from Anna Brones, coauthor of Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, at a baking class last year. No matter how you make it, be sure to enjoy the company. Oh, and if your guests are new to gløgg, be sure to warn them that it’s stronger than it tastes. Taking care of them in this way is just another way to extend your hospitality.

1 1/2 cups aquavit (or vodka or whiskey)
1/2 cup raisins
8 dried figs, quartered
3 cinnamon sticks
10 green cardamom pods
2 teaspoons whole cloves
1 star anise
2-inch piece of orange peel
1 (750 ml) bottle red wine, such as cabernet sauvignon
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup blanched almonds

The day before you’re going to serve the gløgg, pour aquavit into a jar along with raisins, figs, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, cloves, star anise, and orange peel. Cover and let steep overnight, swirling it occasionally. After about 12 hours, strain the mixture, reserving the spices and fruit. You can make it ahead up to this point or proceed immediately to the next steps (in which case you need not strain the aquavit).

When ready to heat the gløgg, combine the spice-infused aquavit, wine, sugar, and the reserved spices and raisins in a medium saucepan with the almonds over low heat. Cover and let it slowly warm up for about half an hour or so, stirring occasionally and giving it a taste now and then to check the flavors. (There’s a moment, which is somewhat magical, in which the gløgg goes from good to amazing—it’s hard to describe until you’ve tasted it, but once you have you’ll know what I mean.) Be patient and keep a gentle heat—you don’t want it to boil, or even really simmer . When the gløgg is hot and the flavors have developed to your liking, ladle the gløgg into mugs, ideally something clear and heatproof, adding raisins, figs, and almonds to each. Garnish with a cinnamon stick and slice of orange, if you wish.

Note: The longer the spices stay in the gløgg, the stronger they will become. If you’re going to keep the gløgg on the stove for a while, you might want to remove the cloves, and maybe the cardamom and orange peel too, when it develops its proper flavor. If you have leftovers, strain into a jar, reserving the raisins figs and almonds. Reheat on the stove, with the reserved raisins, figs, and almonds, when ready to serve again.

Serves six.

Gløgg

My Favorite Kladdkaka (Swedish Fudgy Chocolate Cake)

Kladdkaka

Life is full of reasons to celebrate, I’m convinced of that. It’s so easy to get caught up in the movement and the swiftness of the everyday. Sometimes—as a friend put it the other day—the monotony. But I’m trying to slow down, to protect the white spaces in my schedule, to factor in time to train myself to notice.

The brush strokes in the blue-yellow autumn sunset. An efficient spider building its tightrope home outside the dining room window. The stunning transformations as summer unfolds with sunflowers and berries for a while before giving way to pumpkins and cascades of fiery leaves. Nature itself is enough to awaken awe. Even more so are our friends.

As I watch my children form their first friendships, I’m reminded of the value of my own. I don’t take any of them for granted. It’s hard to write about friendship without sounding trite, but there’s rejuvenation and refreshment to be found in a heart-to-heart conversation with someone who accepts and loves you for who you are. (Sarah, that’s you.) There’s support and nourishment, too, from the dear ones who provide a steady flow of hot meals in the weeks after a baby is born. (Too many of you to list!) There are the prayers, the notes sent handwritten and stamped, the phone calls to wish a happy birthday in the time of social media’s rapid, generic greetings.

This kladdkaka, then, is for all of my friends.

Kladdkaka

I’ll always associate this Swedish chocolate cake with Rachel, for whom I baked it in the depths of winter this past year. It was a week of recipe development for me, and I made the chocolate cake four times. The one that turned out the best was the one I brought to Rachel’s house when she hosted us for dinner. I was uncertain whether I had baked it long enough or how it was going to turn out. But I was confident enough in our friendship to know that I didn’t have to stress about perfection. I knew that Rachel is an eager cook, like me, who likes to experiment in the kitchen. She’d either celebrate or commiserate. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: When you bake with love, that’s when things turn out just right, when things become beautiful.

After dinner, when the cake—which had still been hot from the oven when I left my house earlier that evening—had cooled and set, we dug in. The knife slid in with ease and I pulled out a thin wedge baked just right, the chocolate still glistening with kladdkaka’s signature sheen but sturdy enough to transfer to a plate.

Kladdkaka - DSC_3499

The beauty of this cake is its underbaked perfection. Similar to flourless chocolate cakes and molten “lava” cakes, it’s both dense and gooey inside. But it retains a light quality, too, in contrast to flourless cakes. I’ve heard it likened to brownies, but I don’t agree with that comparison; if kladdkaka resembles those, then it’s overbaked.

Kladdkaka—often translated to gooey chocolate cake—is the most searched-for recipes online in Sweden, as I learned from Magnus Nilsson, two star chef of Sweden’s celebrated restaurant Fäviken, when he spoke at the Nordic Culinary Conference in Seattle last spring. The origins go back only as far as the 1970s, yet it’s become a national favorite. I can see why.

The cake in its simplest form only requires a handful of ingredients. The technique is rather simple too. By and large, kladdkaka recipes call for cocoa powder, but I’m pretty sure that once you’ve tried it this way, with bars of bittersweet chocolate, you won’t be going back. I started making the cake this way a few years ago, following a recipe in Signe Johansen’s mouthwatering book, Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking… Scandilicious. While I’ve given cocoa powder a try once since, I just can’t break away from the incredibly moist and silky results of a good quality chocolate bar. Signe’s approach is definitely a winner (she adds whiskey to her Bergen fish soup, too, which sounds daring until you taste it and realize that it respectfully transforms the traditional soup). I played with the recipe, switching things up a bit each time, until I came to my ultimate kladdkaka recipe. While this one now bears only an echo of hers, Signe is a master of Scandinavian baking, and I’d like to believe she’d give her stamp of approval.

The ease of this cake makes it perfect for celebrations of all kinds. I’ve served it at book club, and at a dear friend’s bridal shower. It comes together quickly and requires less than 15 minutes to bake. Plus, it has a reputation for freezing well.

As I’m trying to live life looking for things to celebrate, I’m glad to have this cake recipe in my repertoire. I’m sure you will be too.

Kladdkaka - DSC_3513

Kladdkaka (Swedish Fudgy Chocolate Cake)
The magic in this cake is in the timing. There’s no real way to guarantee that your timing is perfect until the cake has cooled and you’ve gone ahead and cut yourself a slice, as I did when I brought it to Rachel’s home last winter. Go for the 14 minutes indicated the first time around. Make a note if you need to give it a minute or two more or less the next time. When you know how much time it needs in your particular oven, you’ll have a deceptively easy cake recipe that’s bound to become a favorite.

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used 60% cacao)
2 sticks unsalted butter
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1 cup sugar
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Powdered sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Grease a 9-inch springform pan.

Roughly chop the chocolate, using either a sharp knife or a food processor.

In a deep saucepan, 3-quart or larger, melt the butter over medium heat. Remove from heat and add the chocolate, stirring until melted. Stir in the espresso powder and vanilla extract. Set aside to cool to lukewarm.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until frothy, then stir in the melted chocolate and butter. In another bowl, give the flour and baking powder a quick whisk to combine, then gently fold in to the batter until incorporated. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 14 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack. Remove from pan and dust with powdered sugar. Serve with mounds of sweetened whipped cream and fresh berries or a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Serves 12.

Swedish Sailor’s Stew (Sjömansbiff)

Sjomansbiff

If I could live in the pages of a Scandinavian cookbook, I might. Photographs of snow-kissed mountains and reflective fjords as dark as their chilly depths draw me in, and the food beckons as invitingly as the dinner bell my grandmother would ring when it was time to come to the table.

Some people daydream of sundrenched beaches while others find beauty in the mørketid. I’ve yet to experience a time and place in which the sun never or barely rises above the horizon, but it’s in my family’s blood. Scandinavians celebrate the darkness and embrace the cold. These inevitable parts of the season are merely what support the cozy atmosphere and active lifestyle they crave. (Think cozy, candlelit evenings and brisk jaunts on skis.)

The recipe I’m sharing with you today would warm one up even on the coldest of days. Called sjömansbiff, or seaman’s/sailor’s beef stew, it’s the sort of fare that I can imagine sustaining and nourishing countless Nordic sailors through grueling days battered by frozen winds.

Sjomansbiff

Sjomansbiff

The dish is the sort that fills you up and leaves you extremely satisfied. I haven’t seen as much of this dish as I’d expect (I first learned about a version of it in Trine Hahnemann’s The Scandinavian Cookbook from 2008 but have mostly seen it in the older, more traditional cookbooks I’ve collected; The Art of Scandinavian Cooking by Nika Standen Hazelton, from 1965, calls it a popular Scandinavian dish that is great for informal buffet entertaining). Sjömansbiff is a hearty Swedish stew made with beef, onions, and potatoes that have nearly melted into themselves. Served with some punchy condiments like pickled beets and whole-grain mustard, it’s a great mix of flavors and colors, and perfect for winter.

This is the sort of meal that complements the stunning landscapes and dramatic skies that illustrate some of the most authentic Nordic cookbooks. I think it’s time for it to have a comeback.

Sjomansbiff

Sjömansbiff
Some of the older or perhaps most traditional of the recipes I’ve encountered call for thin slices of beef, maybe pounded flat. I’ve taken cues from more modern recipes and used cubes of meat instead. Even with the traditional layered assembly, this approach is a bit more approachable while preserving the integrity of this very classic Scandinavian dish. This recipe comes from no single source, but rather embraces elements from The Art of Scandinavian Cooking by Nika Hazelton (republished in the 1980s as Classic Scandinavian Cooking); The Scandinavian Cookbook by Anna Mosesson, Janet Laurence, and Judith Dern; The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trine Hahnemann; and this recipe from The Boston Globe.

3 pounds chuck or round beef roast
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1/3 cup flour
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons butter
3 large thinly sliced onions
6 bay leaves
12 ounces ale (a Belgian-style beer is good here)
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and sliced
3 sprigs thyme
Pickled beets, for serving (I have a recipe, if you need one)
Whole-grain mustard, for serving

Cut beef into 1- or 1 1/2-inch pieces. Toss with salt, pepper, and flour. Heat olive oil and butter in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the beef, working in batches in order to not overcrowd them, and brown until they’re deeply golden, a few minutes on each side. Remove and set aside.

Using the same pan, lower heat to medium and cook the onions with the bay leaves until golden and soft, about 20 minutes, stirring frequently and scraping up the brown bits as you go. Reglaze with the beer and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly butter a 2 1/2-quart casserole with lid (cast-iron works great here). Layer a third of the potatoes on the bottom, followed by half of the meat and half of the onions (separated from the beer with a slotted spoon), another third of the potatoes, the remaining meat, onions, and finally the rest of the potatoes. Nestle 3 sprigs thyme throughout.

Pour the reserved beer over the layers. Cover and place in the oven until the meat and vegetables are cooked and tender, 3 to 3 1/2 hours, giving it a gentle stir from time to time. (They should almost melt into themselves when you take a bite.)

Serve with pickled beets and whole-grain mustard, removing the thyme sprigs. Scandinavian cucumber salad and knäckebröd/knekkebrød would be very typical and pleasing accompaniments.

Serves 6-8.

Biff à la Lindström

Biff Lindström

It occurred to me the other day as I set to work in the kitchen making an early dinner that the days are getting longer. Though afternoon, it was still light enough to snap some photos of the food, with hopes that the biff à la Lindström (piquant little Swedish meat patties) I was making for my family might be as appetizing to you as they were to me.

Some days it feels like we’re trudging on through the grey days and the dampness that forces its way through our clothes and skin down to the bones. While the darkness and the cold are nothing like the polar nights that my friend Dianna who lives in Tromsø has been experiencing, and while I do in fact love the winter and the coziness that it inspires, it can take some effort to break out of the weather-inspired lull and celebrate the season’s merits instead.

I read a recent story about how people in northern Norway cope with the darkness of winter. While sunlight is important for one’s physical and mental health, there are months in which the sun never rises above the horizon there—and yet people thrive. A Stanford University PhD student on a Fulbright scholarship in Tromsø discovered that seasonal depression wasn’t as common as one might expect. She found that people there celebrate the winter. They find ways to enjoy it, such as skiing. They take in the physical beauty around them, and they embrace all those wonderfully cozy elements of winter, such as curling up with a fuzzy blanket and filling the house with the warm glow of candlelight. The takeaway from the story was that shifting the way we think about winter might really help.

I’ve been trying to do that, from leaving a bunch of candles scattered throughout the house after Christmas to frequently baking treats like cardamom boller that fill my home with the warm, cozy aromas of yeast and spice (being a food writer engaged in frequent recipe testing helps with this). Soon enough spring will arrive and we’ll stash away our cold-weather gear until the next winter. We’ll miss the fireplace and the comforting feeling of knits and wool grazing against our necks and skin. It’s going to come soon—sooner perhaps than I would like—as evidenced by the lighter afternoons. Thankfully I have these little meat patties to help remind me to embrace it while it’s here.

Biff Lindström

People in Scandinavia have been enjoying biff à la Lindström for potentially over 150 years, making it a true classic. There are a couple of stories about its origins, one being that Captain Henrik Lindstrom allegedly brought the dish from Russia to Sweden in May 1862 when he introduced it at Hotel Witt in Kalmar. Another story involves Norwegian chef and polar expeditioner Adolf Henrik Lindstrøm, who was involved in three famous Norwegian polar expeditions.

Whoever said that Scandinavian food is bland must not be acquainted with biff à la Lindström. The distinctive flavors are pickled beets and capers, which are bold and present enough to be interesting but without overpowering the overall meal. It’s commonly eaten for lunch; Danish chef Trine Hahnemann, author of The Scandinavian Cookbook, writes that these piquant little meat patties—which are sometimes topped with a fried egg—are also great as a hangover cure.

As with any classic recipe, variations for biff à la Lindström abound. It’s often made with mashed potatoes, though cookbook author Beatrice Ojakangas swaps breadcrumbs for the potatoes in Scandinavian Feasts, and Hahnemann doesn’t use either. Recipes sometimes include a liquid of some kind—heavy cream, or perhaps even the liquid from pickled beets—but this recipe shouldn’t need it. I researched a number of recipes to come to this one, and I trust you’ll be pleased with the results. It’s delicious alongside a simple green salad, or perhaps some new potatoes that have been boiled, smashed, and then roasted with olive oil and salt.

I managed to whip these up for an early dinner yesterday before the sun had even begun to set. The patties came together quickly, a combination of little more than lean ground beef, bread crumbs, onion, capers, and pickled beets, leaving me plenty of afternoon light. We’re still in the heart of winter, but spring will be coming soon. It’s the perfect balance–enough time to savor the season while looking forward to the next one.

Biff Lindström

Biff à la Lindström

1 pound lean ground beef
½ medium onion, finely chopped
¼ cup fine, dry bread crumbs
1 extra-large egg
½ cup chopped pickled beets, plus more for garnish (try mine, if you’d like)
2 Tablespoons capers, finely chopped
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon salt
a few grinds of freshly-ground black pepper
1-2 Tablespoons butter
Whole grain mustard, for serving (optional)

In a large mixing bowl, stir together beef, onion, and bread crumbs (I used my stand mixer for quick, thorough, yet minimal mixing). Add the egg, picked beets, capers, and Worcestershire, along with salt and pepper, and mix to combine well.

Using your hands, shape the meat into 8 patties, creating a little indentation in the middle of each one with your thumb to help cook them evenly.

In a large skillet, heat butter over medium heat. Add the patties, in two batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding, and cook, flipping once, until each side is a rich golden brown and the center is cooked as you’d like.

Garnish with additional pickled beets and a spoonful of mustard on the side for serving, if you’d like. Serve alongside small boiled potatoes and something green—a salad of baby arugula, simply dressed, is nice.

Serves 4.

St. Lucia Saffron Buns (Lussekatter)

Lussekatter

“Who made these?” she asked, sitting across from me at the dinner table the other night, a golden swirled saffron bun in her hand.

“I did.”

“They’re good,” she replied, her face in a slight grimace of satisfaction. It’s been nearly two years since the strokes tangled the words and ideas in my grandmother’s mind. I didn’t expect to necessarily receive such a compliment from her again. But there we were, sharing a meal in the company of extended family, still connecting over baked goods, the things that have brought us together time and time again each Christmas season.

Each fall and winter my grandma, mom, and I would get together, often weekly, to bake lefse, Norwegian waffles, and a variety of cookies. It was our pre-Christmas tradition, one that marked the season with a time of festivity and love. We don’t do it anymore, not since the strokes. For the past week I’ve been thinking about how it doesn’t feel like Christmastime yet–I think the loss of a tradition has a lot to do with that.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be like that, maybe it’s not necessarily gone. Maybe we’re just doing it differently. I’m still trying to bake as much as I can this month, still trying to infuse my home with the Scandinavian aromas of hot butter, sugar, and spice. And even if Grandma is not here baking alongside me, I can still share with her the products, perhaps sparking sweet reminiscences with each familiar flavor and bite.

Lussekatter

Lucia Buns Diptych with Saffron

Grandma used to make airy round buns scented with cardamom. They were golden on top and slick, and they really didn’t need to be spread with any butter, probably thanks to all the butter in the dough. Those buns were on the list of things I had wanted to learn to make in my baking sessions with Grandma. Over the years, as she downsized homes and eventually moved into a retirement home–and as she stopped cooking much independently–I think she forgot which recipe she used. I have a thing about lost recipes; I regret their loss and want to recreate them, but then the task itself becomes daunting.

When I baked a batch of St. Lucia saffron buns the other day, however, I bit into the yeasty, buttery dough and savored a taste and texture reminiscent of so many of the breads of Grandma’s that I grew up eating. Don’t get me wrong, these saffron buns are distinct and quite different from cardamom buns. But if you’ve tasted either, Scandinavian style, then you might understand what I mean when I say that these contained enough of the essence of Grandma’s old baking to bring me back to a place where a taste conjured up a wealth of memories. I hope that for Grandma they did too. At least, these saffron buns have inspired me to try recreating Grandma’s cardamom buns. Maybe the task won’t be as challenging as it might seem.

Lucia Buns Diptych

In the meantime, I’ve been eating saffron buns for days and have a large bag of them in my freezer waiting to serve with the morning coffee on St. Lucia Day, December 13. The day is marked, in Scandinavia, with light and the image of children wearing long, flowing white robes tied with red sashes and carrying candles. One wears a crown of candles. (Read more about the tradition here and here.)

As most celebrations are accompanied by good food, saffron buns are traditionally enjoyed on December 13. Saffron, a very special and expensive spice, is used in a variety of Scandinavian baked goods, especially during Christmastime. It’s the single showcased flavor of these traditional buns, which are soft and buttery and perfect with a cup of coffee, gløgg/glögg, or hot chocolate.

Lucia buns, commonly known as lussekatter, can be formed in a variety of shapes (there’s a great illustration of some of them here). One of the most common and simplest is the S shape, which–as Magnus Nilsson points out in the new The Nordic Cookbookis really called the julgalt, or Christmas boar. The real lussekatt shape has four curls, which I suppose could be interpreted as paws, each curling outward.

The recipe I’m sharing with you today is quite traditional, flavored simply with saffron and decorated with only a couple of raisins or currants each. If you don’t mind playing around with tradition, you might want to try tossing a handful of currants into the dough, as does Anna Brones, coauthor of Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. I tasted her lussekatter recently at an event, and it’s definitely worth a try. Signe Johansen adds cardamom and replaces the currants with sour cherries in her book Scandilicious Baking. No matter how you choose to make them, do be sure to wrap up a package of them to share with a Scandinavian (or anyone, for that matter) in your life. Fresh or toasted, with butter or plain, they’re sure to bring a smile to their face.

Lussekatter

St. Lucia Saffron Buns (Lussekatter)
There’s no shortage of ways to shape these buns. I’ve included instructions for the simplest version, the S shape, also known as julgalt. But feel free to get as creative as you’d like. Lucia buns are best served on the day that they’re made, as they have a reputation for drying out quickly. If you’re not going to eat them that day, freeze them immediately, recommends Anna Brones. Then when you’re ready to serve them, just defrost them for 10-15 minutes, wrap them in foil, and pop them back in the oven to reheat. If you happen to have extra buns that have begun to dry out, toast them for breakfast the next day or make them into French toast, she suggests.

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon whiskey
1 cup unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups milk
3 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
About 8 cups flour
64 currants or raisins

The night before baking, crush saffron with a tablespoon of the sugar in a small bowl. Pour in whiskey, give it a quick stir, cover with plastic wrap, and let the whiskey draw out the saffron’s color and flavor.

The next day, melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Pour in the milk and bring to lukewarm over medium heat. Scoop out a half cup or so and place in a bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over, cover, and let sit until bubbles form, 10 to 15 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, beat one egg. Stir in the rest of the sugar, salt, the milk and yeast mixture, and the saffron. Take note of the brilliant color the saffron has added, almost like a dye. Pour in the rest of the milk mixture and mix well with a wooden spoon. Gradually add flour, thoroughly mixing as you go; it should still be sticky and moist. Turn dough out onto a lightly-covered surface and knead for about five minutes until light and elastic. Take care to not add too much flour, either when mixing the dough or flouring the work surface, otherwise you’ll end up with dry buns; this is a very sticky dough, and a bench scraper can help pull it from the surface while you work. Return the dough to the mixing bowl. Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Line baking sheets with parchment. Cut the dough into 32 equal sized pieces. Roll each into a log, working from the center out, until they’re about the thickness of a finger. Form into simple S shapes by simultaneously rolling each end in opposite directions. Place the buns on the baking sheets, then cover with a damp tea towel and let rise again for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Beat the remaining egg and brush it onto the tops of buns. Press raisins or currants into the crevices, two per bun if you’re making the s shape. Bake until golden yellow on top and cooked through, taking care not to overbake them or they’ll be too dry. Time will depend on size, but it should take 8 to 12 minutes. Transfer to the counter and place another damp tea towel over them while they cool to keep them from drying out.

Makes 32 buns.

Lussekatter

Swedish Mazarin Torte with Nectarines (Mazarintårta)

Mazarin Torte with Nectarines IMG_9537

A spider web hangs below the eaves, suspended from various points along a string of patio lights. I can see it glistening in the sun outside my window as I write, trembling in the gentle breeze. Autumn has long been one of my favorite seasons, and this one might go down in my memory as one of the best.

As I creaked my way to the kitchen this morning to start making breakfast, the light of dawn eased me into wakefulness, diffused by a blanket of steel blue fog. By the time the coffee, hot and black, and a steamy shower had loosened up my tight muscles and it was time to leave the house, it was warm enough to head outside with just a light sweater. Now this afternoon the sun shines brightly, reflecting on all those vibrant multicolored leaves. Though the sun sets much earlier now, it’s as though summer won’t quite let us forget the long, radiant days of the months before.

It reminds me of my honeymoon, nine long-short years ago. Married on a clear, sunny day in late September, we boarded a plane headed to Rome the next morning and spent the following days in sun-drenched bliss as we sailed along the Mediterranean. It was autumn, but we never would have known it by the golden glow and warm kiss embracing all our surroundings.

This past week we’ve roasted hot dogs outside, made a cobbler with late-season peaches fresh from the farmer’s market, and baked nectarines into an almond torte. It baffles me that we’re still doing these things in October, a time I typically associate with simmering stews and fragrant braises. The cold will come soon, and with it darker days and the countdown to winter. But in the meantime I’m soaking in all the senses of this transition between seasons.

Mazarin Torte with Nectarines IMG_9531

Mazarin Torte with Nectarines
The classic Swedish Mazarintårta combines a shortbread crust with a luscious alnond filling. Somewhere along the line this recipe has roots in Beatrice Ojakangas’ The Great Scandinavian Baking Book, which is–as its title boasts–a great book. It’s one of the first Scandinavian cookbooks I bought back when my grandmother Agny died and I was trying to soothe my aching heart by clinging to our shared heritage. I wrote about Ojakangas’ mazarin torte a few years ago, but I’ve since shaken it up quite a bit, simplifying the preparation and adding fresh fruit. I hope you like the results.

Crust
3/4 cup unsalted butter
4 tablespoons powdered sugar
2 egg yolks
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup almond meal/flour

Filling
2 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup cup almond meal/flour
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 nectarines, peeled and cut into eights
Powdered sugar, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare the crust by creaming the butter and sugar, then adding the egg yolks and beating until light. Add flour, salt, and almond meal and mix until stiff. Press the dough into a 10- or 11-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, using your hands to create an even later across the bottom and up the sides. Set aside.

To make the filling, beat the eggs and sugar so they become light, then beat in the butter, almond meal, and almond extract. Pour the filling into the crust.

Arrange the nectarine wedges in a circular pattern on top of the filling. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until golden. Cool, then remove from the pan. Finish with a dusting of powdered sugar if you’d like.

Makes 1 torte.

Mazarin Torte with Nectarines IMG_9548

 

Note: Last month I attended a couple of sessions at IFBC, the International Food Bloggers Conference, in Seattle. The organizers offered steep discounts to bloggers for writing about the conference, so you’ll be noticing a few posts that showcase what I learned. For this one, I’d like to thank Shauna James Ahern for her session on professional recipe development. Authenticity is key, she said. Plus, creating recipes that work can be a long, tedious process, but the reward comes when a reader tries a recipe and it works. She’s right. I’ve been hearing from some of you lately about your success with the recipes here on the blog, and I have to say that each time you write, I get a little spring in my step.

The focus of this blog–the connection between food, family, and heritage–is very dear to me. I created the blog five years ago as a way to share my experiences as I explored my Norwegian heritage. My grandmother had just died and I was finding comfort in all things Scandinavian. Through this blog I have discovered a community of people who also share a love of Nordic food, and I’ve seen how food can bring people together. Occasionally the recipes are my own, but more often–as is the case with this Mazarin torte–they’re inspired by or adapted from other Scandinavian cooks. I might give them my own touch, as with the nectarines in this torte, or I’ll add my own experiences to the instructions, but often I’m simply another step in a long line of cooks sharing the coziness and hospitality of Scandinavian food with the world. I had no idea when I started this blog that I would find such richness in exploring a cuisine I had grown up eating but had seldom cooked. It’s been a gift to me, and I hope that the authenticity is apparent. I hope, too, that the recipes and stories here provide warmth and fond memories for you as they do for me.

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-Studded 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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