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This summer, I undertook the daunting yet exciting task of cooking for some of my peers. The experience started when I submitted a paper for the 2014 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, which was being held at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford, England.
This year’s theme was food markets, and my paper covered my thoughts about Nordic food past, present and future. I wanted to explain the history behind Nordic food and why all of a sudden it is in focus, along with what it has to offer other than just being a new trend.
My paper was accepted, and I was thrilled. I was going to Oxford and staying at St. Catherine’s. My academic career was interrupted a couple of years ago by my love for cooking, but with this experience I could now finally live out my dream of an Ivy League university experience.
No more than a few days after learning my paper was accepted, an email came in from one of the symposium trustees, Ursula Heinzelmann. Would I cook Nordic street food for the banquet Saturday night? I was a little hesitant, as I was excited about pretending to be an academic for the weekend.
Not to mention Nordic street food does not really exist. That’s hot dogs with remoulade sauce or open sandwiches on rye bread — not really material for an Oxford banquet.
After a few hours of in-depth thinking, I decided to accept, but I changed the concept. I wanted to cook the kind of supper I would do in my kitchen at home.
Deciding on a Nordic dinner menu no easy task
My head started to spin. Did I want to come up with something completely new or just cook some of my favorite things and share my love for my own food culture? I decided on a home-cooked Danish dinner, a simple, tasty menu.
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My first menu selection was cured salmon with home-baked rye focaccia served with some favorite July vegetables: radishes and cucumbers. Testing this, I tried to cure the salmon with dry nettles, but it did not work. It tasted like herbal tea. Fresh nettles worked, but the season for nettle is over come July, so I decided on lovage, a spicy herb with an aftertaste of celery. It worked perfectly with the salmon. To accompany that, I thickened some heavy cream with lemon overnight and then added a lot of freshly grated horseradish, a bit of sugar and lots of black pepper to make a horseradish dressing.
For the main course I decided to serve black barley, which is a heritage grain that my friends at Skærtoft Mølle back home in Denmark started cultivating some years back. It’s now growing in small quantities. I wanted to use tarragon, fennel, cauliflower and celeriac. When I create a menu or a new recipe, I always start with the vegetables. For me, the vegetables are the center of the meal.
With that, I decided to serve one of my classic lamb stews with fennel, tarragon, white wine and elderflower cordial (see recipe below). The cheese for the meal I brought myself from Knuthenlund, a small organic producer in Denmark.
The pudding had to be a classic from the month of July: a cold buttermilk soup with cardamom biscuits. I contemplated going the chef way and revamping the pudding using the same ingredients, but I do not cook like that anymore. I cook things in a simple style. I do not plate it too much; I like to keep the food transparent and let the ingredients do the talking, so I stayed with the classic.
With one suitcase full of cheese and the other full of rye flour and black barley from Skærtoft Mølle, I set out for Oxford three days ahead of the dinner to start cooking everything from scratch. The first thing I did upon arrival was meet with and greet the staff and head chef in the kitchen.
That’s always an interesting experience. Head chefs do not in general like other chefs in their kitchen. They tend to compete heavily instead of exchanging ideas. The attitude is often that the head chef knows everything.
I have cooked in many kitchens around the world. First you start out humbly, trying to understand their system. This time was a little bit different because Tim Kelsey, the head chef at St. Catherine’s, and his team do this every year. I believe they both look forward and dread the event, as they never know what is going to happen. But they were very open and forthcoming with me.
I made my plans and started prepping with my new team. On Friday night, my sister Silla arrived to assist me, and on Saturday we worked all day. Silla cut 700 slices of cured salmon and I baked the bread, adjusted the buttermilk soup, cut vegetables, prepared the fresh herbs and made the stew. By about 6 p.m. Saturday, all 220 salmon dishes were lined up. The kitchen was 100 percent calm, and we were ready to get the food out.
This is the moment of bliss: You have worked for days and are just waiting for the action. You know you’ve put all your love into it. This is the moment I love the most in the kitchen; it’s the calm before the storm.
We ran a smooth service that night. I was happy with everything, but also apprehensive. Before the guests start eating, there’s no way to tell whether they will like it. I had high hopes and butterflies in my stomach. I mean, I was cooking for Claudia Roden! That doesn’t happen every day.
The meal was indeed very well received — people complimented us and asked questions about the flavors, the grain and how I had cooked the celeriac. I believe the dinner was a success, and I was overwhelmed and very proud as I went around the tables and talked to people. I had shown a corner of modern home-cooked Danish food.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 pounds lamb, cut in cubes, from shoulder or leg
- 3 leeks
- 2 whole fennels
- 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 2 bay leaves
- 10 sprigs of tarragon
- ½ cup elderflower cordial
- 2 cups white wine
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves
- Heat olive oil and butter in a large sauté pan and brown the meat on all sides. Do this in two batches if necessary. Do not boil the meat.
- Chop the vegetables. The leeks should be in 1 inch pieces, and the fennel should be in ½ inch slices.
- After the meat is browned, add the garlic, fennel seeds, bay leaves and tarragon to the sauté pan and mix well. Then add in ⅔ of the leeks and fennel, reserving the rest for later. Allow the mixture to sauté for a few minutes.
- Pour the elderflower cordial and white wine over the meat and vegetable mix, then sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Stir well and bring to a boil.
- Skim off any froth that rises to the surface, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for 45 to 55 minutes.
- When the lamb is tender, add the rest of the leeks and fennel and let simmer for 5 minutes more, then add more salt and pepper if necessary.
- Sprinkle with fresh tarragon before serving. The dish can be served with boiled barley or boiled new potatoes.
Main photo: The cured salmon dish served at the dinner. Credit: Susan Haddleton
The harvest is in full bloom during midsummer in Denmark. Seasons are short here, and some vegetables and berries are in season for only a few months or even weeks.
Because of this, it’s important to celebrate and enjoy things when they are here. As such, in May and June I eat asparagus almost every day, and then, as much as possible, strawberries and new potatoes when they start coming out.
Of course, you can find imported vegetables and fruit year-round, but they do not taste the same as the seasonal produce grown locally.
New potatoes command attention in Denmark
Denmark has the perfect climate and soil for potatoes, so there are many types from which to choose. Denmark is a nation of potato lovers, and they collectively agree that the new summer ones are the best in the world. When the potatoes are available, it will be mentioned on prime-time news.
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A lot of people grow potatoes in their gardens, or allotments. They also like to buy them as fresh as possible, often from roadside stalls in the country. It is a trust system, where you take the fruits and vegetables you want and leave money in a jar or tin.
You cook new potatoes the same day you harvest or purchase them, rinsing them in cold water and scraping the peel off with a small, sharp kitchen knife before boiling them in salted water. The best ones are small- to medium-sized, not too big. At the height of the season, you can buy them fresh every day.
Some debate exists about when the potato arrived in Denmark, but most likely it came with the French Huguenots in 1720. Up until 1820, the peasants were apprehensive about potatoes; it was the people of nobility who were most interested because they wanted to show they practiced the latest ideas from Europe. But new research shows this is not the whole truth. The peasants were merely cautious because if the new crop failed, they could not bear the risk. They started growing potatoes on small plots in their gardens or in a corner of their farmland.
When the potatoes proved to be strong and somewhat reliable, Denmark became a potato-growing nation and potatoes became the staple food of day laborers. They planted and harvested them, and some of their pay was in potatoes.
In my grandparents’ summer home, my grandfather was responsible for scraping the potatoes. When I was little girl, he would sit every morning on a three-legged stool in the back yard scraping potatoes with this pocketknife, drinking his morning beer. Sometimes other locals would come by to sit and chat with him and have a beer. When he was done with the potatoes, he would hand them over to my grandmother; she would keep them in a pot with cold water until it was time to cook.
We always had a hot meal at noon and then smørrebrød, an open sandwich on rye bread, for dinner at night. If there were any leftover potatoes, they would be served cold on rye bread for the evening meal (see recipe below) as, in Danish, “en kartoffelmad.”
Potatoes keep well over the winter and are, therefore, a perfect staple food for the cold northern climate. For the past 150 years, the main meal in Denmark has evolved around boiled potatoes. It is a food tradition shared in northern and Eastern Europe.
The way potatoes are cooked has changed over the past 30 years. Apart from boiled, as mash and served as condiment, potatoes are now also used a vegetable and cooked in many different ways with a variety of spices. Another tradition is warm potato salad made with white onions, vinegar and sugar, which is called old-fashioned potato salad. For a more modern summer version, cold potatoes are served in a salad with fresh red onions, radishes and loads of fresh parsley.
In the summer, new Danish potatoes are so good they become the center of the meal. They are boiled in salted water and served warm with butter, dill and flaky salt on the side. You don’t really need any more than that. They are also very good served with smoked mackerel or herring with a smoked cheese dressing, chives and radishes.
In these recipes I have used three types of potatoes. The purples are called Conga, the whites Sophia or Fjellfinn. You can substitute potatoes grown where you live. Find a potato that is firm and has a nutty sweet taste. Most important, it must not be flowery.
- 1 pound medium-sized potatoes
- 4 slices of rye bread, thinly sliced
- 12 radishes
- 1 leek
- 3 to 4 tablespoons cooking oil
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 4 fresh lovage leaves to decorate with
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons Greek yogurt, 10 percent fat
- 2 tablespoons chopped lovage (or parsley)
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- ½ teaspoon lemon zest
- Salt and pepper
- Boil the potatoes in lightly salted water. They should still be firm when done. Depending on the size, it will take between 12 and 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, mix all the ingredients for the cream, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
- Cool the potatoes and cut into thin slices.
- Cut the leek in very thin slices, about ⅕ of an inch thick (1/2 centimeter), rinse and drain really well.
- Fry in oil in a big frying pan at high heat until crisp without burning. When done leave to rest on kitchen paper towel.
- Place the slices of rye bread on a serving tray, then divide the cold potato slices evenly on the bread.
- Add 2 tablespoons of the cream on top of the potatoes, divide the radishes on top of the cream and finish off with the fried leeks. Decorate with a lovage leaf before serving.
Main photo: Open Sandwich on Rye With Cold Potatoes. Credit: Trine Hahnemann
Noma has regained the top position on the list of the world’s 50 best restaurants. A lot of opinions and discussions have stemmed from this: Does it make sense to name a restaurant the world’s best? Is the competition fair? Is the 50-best list accurate? How is the ranking decided? Is the list controlled by tourist boards, and on and on.
No matter how that discussion ends, Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark, is a leading star in the restaurant world. It was founded on some radical ideas that changed the restaurant experience: a more informal setting with cooks who come to the table and serve guests; ingredients that are local and 100 percent seasonal; and dialog with the food producers is at the center. And although the meals at Noma are really well thought out, there’s also playfulness — eating with your fingers, eating things you never thought possible.
These ideas have turned dining out into a much more interesting and relaxed experience. But they have also added another dimension: Eating at Noma is about being told a story of time and place — it takes you on a poetic journey, the same journey other creative disciplines do: trying to get a better understanding of who we are.
Ripple effect of Noma on Copenhagen cuisine
Locally, Noma’s history on the list of the 50 best has had evident consequences. Copenhagen is now a global gourmet destination for people willing to travel long distances for food. I grew up in Copenhagen and have worked in the restaurant business for almost 30 years. Never has there been a more exciting time to be part of the business in this city. The ingredients have never been more varied, the food is better executed, and in a lot of places even the service is really good.
But would that have happened without Noma and René Redzepi? Probably not, because it did not happen by itself. It happened when the world saw what was going on and Noma and Redzepi brought the world to Copenhagen. So the importance of the 50-best list for my hometown cannot be underestimated.
Noma is unquestionably the best restaurant we have. Try to get a table there and enjoy the incredible experience of tasty food with great ideas, playfulness and a really convivial service where you feel at home. You walk away feeling enlightened and included.
Much more to see and eat in Copenhagen
But when you’ve done that and still have more time to spend in Copenhagen, where else to go? If you want to experience what was before the Noma era, go to Lumskebugten for lunch to have the classic Danish smørrebrød. Head chef Erwin Lauterbach rules here. He has been around since the 1980s and was one of the first to introduce local produce, thus helping people understand the season. Lauterbach also brought traditional recipes back to life in a new way, but his main focus has always been vegetables.
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If you still have the budget for another high-end meal, visit Kadeau, a New Nordic restaurant whose staff works with ingredients from the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. You’ll experience very interesting ideas, great fun and a stunning room in a great location not far from Noma in an old neighborhood of Copenhagen called Christianshavn.
For more casual dining, noisiness and more of a city atmosphere, get a table at Pluto. Fast, fun and lively, you’ll be served mountains of great food prepared with ideas from the whole world mixed with a bit of New Nordic. Shared plates get handed to the table, and the service is great, which isn’t always the case in Copenhagen.
On a gourmet trip to Copenhagen, the best way to get around is by bicycle. They can be rented from shops, or city bikes can be rented by the hour. Spend an afternoon at the food halls, called Torvehallerne. For Danish products, visit the stall called Omegn, which means the local area around us. It has a great selection of cold cuts, cheese, beer and Danish wine. Outside the halls, Omegn has a vegetable stall with 100 percent organic vegetables from local growers.
Torvehallerne is also a great place for an after-work drink at about 6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday nights. Try the cava bar outside and enjoy the light during summer nights. Also look for spices at Asa and organic chocolate at Summerbird, which also sells quality marzipan, for which Denmark is famous.
For coffee and cake, go to Café Rosa. The baker bakes everything on the spot using organic ingredients and is often there herself. She is Swedish and inspired by Scandinavian children’s literature. The place embodies that playfulness and quirkiness, which belongs to Pippi Longstocking. You’ll get a great cup of filter coffee made to order and the best cardamom snurre, which can be enjoyed mornings or afternoons or taken home.
Adjacent to the city center, called Indre By, Copenhagen has three boroughs a 10-minute bicycle ride from the where a lot of interesting things are happening. In Nørrebro, for example, is Jægersborggade, which is a foodie street with coffee, restaurants and small independent shops. There is also a place where they produce toffee. Here you can by beautiful ceramics in New Nordic style. For restaurants on this street, don’t miss Relæ, which has 1 Michelin star. It is owned by Christian Puglisi and is almost 100% organic. Alternatively, try the little brother Manfred on the opposite corner. For a late-night snack and glass of wine along with some real local atmosphere, visit the wine bar Underwood.
After several late nights, an early-morning walk in Copenhagen can be a real treat. The city is a slow starter with amazing, clear blue morning sunlight. Walk to Vesterbro, another borough, and go to Café Risteriet, which is a small room in a basement with very good coffee and a simple breakfast consisting of a soft-boiled egg and home-baked bread and lots of friendly atmosphere.
Main photo: Unika, a cheese shop, at Torvehallerne in Copenhagen. Credit: Trine Hahnemann
All countries have food clichés — that is, dishes everybody thinks about when they talk about a country. Scandinavia is no exception. One of Scandinavia’s food clichés is meatballs. Why are Swedish meatballs so famous? And why the Swedish ones and not some, or all, of the other kinds of meatballs eaten throughout Scandinavia? Is it because Ikea serves small, round meatballs in light brown gravy with lingonsylt (lingonberry jam) in all its megastores around the world?
Stereotypes in food are as boring as they are in people. The Scandinavian food culture is diverse and seasonal and has much more to offer than meatballs. And when it comes to meatballs, there’s a lot more to it than just Swedish meatballs. Ikea is properly the best-known Scandinavian brand with a global reach, except maybe for ABBA. The Ikea food store and its restaurants both sell and serve Swedish meatballs produced by a Swedish food company. They are promoted in all Ikea catalogs and on its website.
Is that the only explanation for the celebrity of Swedish meatballs? Or is it because of the large number of Swedes who immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th century. Clearly, they brought the recipe to America. Did the famous Swedish Chef in “The Muppets” ever do meatballs? Did well-known Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson?
Meatballs part of food culture in Scandinavia
It is difficult to answer all these questions. Instead, I will try to highlight some of the other Scandinavian meatballs and give a few other recipes that can outsmart the Swedish meatball.
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In Scandinavia, minced meat is a big part of everyday meals. I would estimate it is eaten once or twice a week in many households. There are different regional recipes and traditions, from kjøtbullar, frikadeller and krebinetter to a variety of meatballs in sauce with vegetables.
Danish meatballs (frikadeller) are made from equal shares of minced pork and minced veal combined with a mixture called fars, which consists of finely chopped onion, eggs, flour, milk, salt and pepper and maybe a little bit of spices like nutmeg or juniper. Frikadeller are not round like a ball, but have an oval shape. They are pan-fried in butter and served according to tradition with boiled vegetables and potatoes and often no gravy. If there is gravy, it can be just melted butter from the pan, and it is always served on the side.
In my own recipe for frikadeller, I use freshly chopped thyme. My grandmother taught me to use sparkling water instead of milk, which makes the meatballs lighter. The best way to serve them in winter is with baked root vegetables and parsley pesto. In the summer, they can be served with summer cabbage pan-fried in butter with a bit of chili flakes and small new potatoes. Another classic meal is to serve frikadeller cold the next day on rye bread with pickled beetroots.
Frikadeller can also be made with 100% fish, often mixed with fresh herbs such as dill or tarragon. This is also a very traditional dish.
Recipes for vegetarian frikadeller became trendy in the 1970s with all the micro-macro food and the vegetarian movement. Instead of meat, the meatballs can be made with beetroot, split peas, carrots, leftover boiled vegetables — the combinations are endless. It’s a great way to make use of the lonely vegetables left in the back of the fridge.
Then there are all the different meatballs in sauce or gravy, again with equal shares of pork and veal and similar to frikadeller but boiled instead of pan-fried.
A classic Danish recipe is meatballs with celeriac and white gravy made with lots of nutmeg: Boil the meatballs in salted water and bay leaves. When done, use some of the stock to make a white sauce based on a roux and add leeks and big chunks of celeriac. Let the sauce simmer until the celeriac is soft, then add in the meatballs again. Both fresh thyme and tarragon go well with these meatballs. I like to serve them with boiled spelt or rye grains.
Another classic, and actually one of the most popular dishes in Danish households, is meatballs made with curry powder based on a recipe from about 1935. The spice mixture is from England, but the idea of the meatballs and gravy is Danish. The classic recipe has no vegetables, just meatballs and gravy served with rice.
This recipe is a bit more up-to-date and has lots of vegetables and ginger.
Meatballs in Curry Sauce
Serves 8, or a family of 4 for two days
For the meatballs:
1 pound minced pork
1 pound minced veal
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 cup milk or sparkling water
½ cup plain wheat flour
2 tablespoons curry powder
5 teaspoons flaky salt
Freshly ground pepper
Water for boiling
2 bay leaves
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
4 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 tablespoons plain wheat flour
1 cup double cream
2 leeks, sliced
4 carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
2 apples, cored and sliced
Salt and pepper
1. Combine the minced meats, onion and garlic in a bowl. Add the milk, flour, curry powder, 2 teaspoons of the salt and some freshly ground pepper and mix together.
2. Add the eggs and mix again for about 5 minutes so that the mixture is as light and fluffy as possible.
3. Heat 8 to 10 cups water in a pot. Add the bay leaves and the remaining salt to the water and bring to the boil. Meanwhile, use your hands to shape half the meat mixture into little balls about three-quarters of an inch (2 centimeters) wide.
4. Plop the meatballs in the water and let them simmer for 20 minutes.
5. Remove the meatballs from the water with a skimmer and place on a tray.
6. Shape and cook the other half of the meat mixture and then cook the same way.
7. Set all the meatballs aside until the sauce is done, reserving 3 to 4 cups of the cooking liquid.
8. In another pot, melt the butter. Add the onions, garlic, ginger and curry powder and cook for a couple of minutes.
9. Add the flour and stir well.
10. Add ½ cup of the meatball cooking liquid and stir until smooth. Pour in more of the cooking liquid as necessary until you have smooth gravy, and bring to a simmer.
11. Add the cream and return to the boil. Reduce the heat, add the meatballs, leeks and carrots and simmer for 5 minutes.
12. Add the apples and continue cooking for 3 minutes.
13. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with rice.
Top photo: Meatballs in Curry Sauce. Credit: Lars Ranek
Danish is famous. It comes in many forms and with a lot of things that are copied but have no resemblance whatsoever to the real thing.
In Denmark, Danish pastry is called wienerbrød, meaning “bread from Vienna.” That is the general term, but there are individual names for each particular kind. When you go to the baker in Denmark in the morning, there will be a variation of Danish — all sweet and never savory. We Danes do not do savory and Danish together.
Danish is mostly sold in the mornings. Many kinds will be sold out before afternoon, as bakers don’t make new ones because Danes eat different cakes in the afternoon. A Danish is really a morning pastry, just like the croissant in France. People tend to buy wienerbrød from the baker and not make them at home because it takes time, particularly to make the dough. Most Danes have one or two favorites they always eat, so when sent to the baker on weekend mornings it’s a big responsibility to get your family’s wishes right.
Eating Danish is part of Danish culture
Wienerbrød is really embedded in Danish culture and remains very popular. It’s not eaten every day; it’s mostly reserved for weekends or special occasions. At work, it’s common to have Friday breakfast together with colleagues, and wienerbrød is often part of that. Sometimes it is exchanged for a multigrain bun, for health reasons.
Excellent wienerbrød in Copenhagen:
I recommend you try to make wienerbrød yourself. The results are worth it. If you happen to travel to Copenhagen, below are a few of the best places to buy wienerbrød.
Visit Brød for the cinnamon bun called kanelsnegl.
Try Lagekagehuset, a bakery chain with an outlet in Copenhagen Airport, among other locations, for chokoladeboller, spandauer, frøsnapper and tebirkes.
Café Europa, located in central Copenhagen, has excellent cinnamon Danish, or kanelsnegl.
La Glace, which is a time capsule where you can get a sense of old Copenhagen and have morning coffee, makes terrific wienerbrød.
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Wienerbrød is similar to a croissant; it’s a yeast dough folded with butter three times. Some bakers use margarine because it’s easier to work with, and they claim it gives a better texture. I don’t agree. I like butter best.
It’s important to make Danish in a kitchen that is not too hot; otherwise the butter melts. With a basic dough you can make all the varieties of wienerbrød. The variation comes in the remonce, which is a mixture of butter, sugar, sometimes marzipan, custard, jam and different nuts and seeds.
Different types of wienerbrød have names like spandauer, tebirkes, frøsnapper, snegl, rosenbrød, tryksnegl and chocoladebolle. The baker who comes up with the idea for a particular type usually also gives it a name.
If served in the afternoon with coffee, the cake has different names and is bigger. The most common name would be wienerbrødsstang, where the last part of the word, -stang, means “long piece.” Borgermesterkrans is another variant: borgmester means “mayor,” and -krans means it has a circular shape. They are cut out and eaten in pieces with your fingers, so they’re very handy. Often they are part of a bigger cake selection, like cream cakes and butter cookies.
Many stories exist about how the wienerbrød started in Denmark. The stories probably all have some truth to them, but it is difficult to pinpoint who was the first to bake wienerbrød. The inspiration most likely came from Vienna. One of the stories goes that the tradition started in 1843 in Copenhagen by a local baker who had visited Vienna and learned how to make croissants. Knowing how the locals loved sugar, he added some remonce, that is the sweet paste made of sugar and butter. It was an instant success, and the pastry’s local name became wienerbrød after the origin of the recipe. It was sold from the baker’s bakery in central Copenhagen, and initially, only the originating baker had the right to sell wienerbrød. However, in 1850, the magistrate allowed five conditors (bakers that only bake cakes) to bake wienerbrød.
For the dough:
1 ounce fresh yeast
⅔ cup lukewarm water
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon superfine sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2⅓ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cold butter, thinly sliced
For the filling:
1 vanilla bean
1 cup light cream
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
For the icing (optional):
1½ cups confectioner’s sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
For the dough:
1. In a mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water.
2. Stir in the egg, superfine sugar and salt. Add the flour and stir until the dough comes together and leaves the edge of the bowl.
3. Turn the dough onto a floured counter and knead for five minutes, until it is shiny but not sticky.
4. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
5. Roll out the dough into a 20-inch square. Spread the thin slices of butter over the dough about 4 inches in from the edge, so the square of dough has a smaller square of butter on top.
6. Fold the corners of the dough over the butter to meet in the center, making a square package.
7. Carefully roll the dough into a 16-by-24-inch rectangle, making sure it doesn’t crack and the butter stays inside the dough package. Next you want to fold the dough so the butter becomes layered within it: Fold the bottom third of dough over the middle third and fold the top third down over that.
8. Roll out the dough again and fold the same way.
9. Put the dough in the refrigerator for 15 minutes, then repeat the rolling and folding process three times, remembering to let the dough rest in the refrigerator for 15 minutes each time.
For the filling:
1. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a knife.
2. Put the vanilla seeds and cream in a pan and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks and superfine sugar together until the mixture is pale and fluffy, then stir in the cornstarch.
3. Pour a little bit of the hot cream into the egg mixture to temper it, then pour all the egg mixture into the pan.
4. Return the pan to a decreased heat and whisk until the custard starts to thicken. Take care not to let the custard boil, and beat continuously to avoid scorching. Remove from the heat and let cool before use.
5. Roll out the dough to a 20-inch square, then cut it into five rows of 4-inch squares. Place 2 teaspoons of the filling on each square. Take each square’s corners and fold them into the middle over the filling, pressing the edges together to seal. Turn each pastry upside down and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover with a dish towel and let rise for 20 minutes at room temperature. Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Brush the pastries with a little beaten egg and bake them for 12 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack.
For the icing:
1. Mix the confectioner’s sugar and cocoa powder together in a bowl, adding a little bit of hot water, and whisk to make a smooth, dark brown paste.
2. Place a spoonful of the icing on each pastry and let set for 10 minutes before serving.
Top photo: Danish, or wienerbrød. Credit: Trine Hahnemann
The use in food of true cinnamon from Sri Lanka, or Ceylon cinnamon, is not as common as the more familiar cassia, which is the one mostly used in Scandinavia for baking and hot drinks and in a lot of winter and Christmas dishes.
True cinnamon has a more complex and flowery taste. The aroma is light and complex, not as strong and pungent as cassia. True cinnamon is a rare spice in Scandinavia, and it is also more expensive.
In Sri Lanka, they grow cinnamon on hills and valleys. The cinnamon tree can be seen in many places. Some farms still do not use pesticides to grow cinnamon, and human labor does all the cultivating and processing.
Harvesting cinnamon is a hard and difficult job, and the preparation of the spice takes significant craftsmanship. You must carefully remove the cinnamon bark from the tree’s branches. Only skilled and experienced people can do it well. In the old days, these workers were called “chalias.” European colonizers were not known for treating them humanely; they were treated more like slaves.
Cinnamon has been written about going far back into history. In the Bible, in the book of Exodus, both kinds of cinnamon were described. The Lord gave Moses a recipe for holy oil with cinnamon that he had to prepare.
Cinnamon has played a vital role in European history. It was an important commodity and a source of growth for the European economy in the 15th and 16th centuries. Christopher Columbus went looking for cinnamon in the West Indies, but as far as we know he found nothing. His fellow countryman Lorenzo Almeida had more luck. In 1505, when Almeida arrived in Ceylon, he found cinnamon trees.
In Europe, cinnamon was sold at a high price for decades, but in the 16th century the price fell and it became more accessible for the common man. Thus, cinnamon became the most popular spice in Europe, as reflected in recipes from that era.
In 1795, the British took over control of Sri Lanka from the French. The trade in cinnamon was about the economy and power and, as with a lot of other commodities, played an important role in history.
Cinnamon trees are not tall; they are more like a bush, and they are pruned often. Harvesting is done twice a year, and at each harvest you take three to four branches and leave the rest. You can also pick the leaves and make cinnamon oil because the leaves have a wonderful delicate and flowery scent. A tree can live for about 40 years; after that, cinnamon producers plant new ones.
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To harvest cinnamon, the branches are processed by scraping off the outer bark, which is discarded. Then the workers loosen the inner bark with a special knife. The bark has to come off when still wet. The 1-meter-long bark strips are folded into each other as a stick. This must be done before the bark dries. (The inner wood is sold off separately to households as firewood.) The cinnamon sticks are then left to dry for a few days under a roof, and then they are dried in the sun. The whole process takes about five to six weeks.
Recently, I visited a cinnamon farm in Sri Lanka just outside Galle. The work of making the cinnamon sticks is carried out in a house on the hill in the shadows of the palm trees and only a few meters from where the cinnamon is harvested.
The cinnamon worker sits on the floor on a leather carpet, wearing a leather apron. To see a worker cut, prepare and clean the branches is fascinating — utter craftsmanship. It takes years of experience to learn the trade, and some of the workers have been employed here for more than 30 years. The hand movements are very meticulous and particular. You can really see the care and craftsmanship both in using the knife and in the entire process of folding the layers of bark into the stick.
In Sri Lankan cooking, it was very interesting to see that they used small pieces of cinnamon in many curries. It is a bit like how we in the West and in Scandinavia use bay leaves in stews, soups and broths, which makes sense because the cinnamon tree is of the same family as the bay leaf tree. In small quantities, cinnamon adds a subtle flavor to such dishes as fish curries, dal or beetroot curry.
Cinnamon is called “kanel” in Danish and Norwegian and a similar word in Swedish. It originates from the German “Canelle.” Both powder and stick cinnamon are part of Scandinavian food culture. Besides baking, we use it in Danish, apples cakes, breads, buns and spice cakes. It has been used here since the Middle Ages in many variations.
For the past 100 years, different versions of cinnamon buns have become popular. They are baked differently in each Scandinavian country. In Copenhagen, Denmark, cinnamon buns seem to be rising in popularity. All the bakeries are doing variations on cinnamon rolls or buns in all sizes, and a lot of them are organic.
We eat cinnamon in our legendary cinnamon buns and rolls; in hot drinks; and especially at Christmas in the gløgg. We eat cinnamon powder mixed with sugar on rice porridge and in rømmegrø, a Norwegian specialty; it’s a porridge made from a sour cream called rømmer boiled with wheat flour, and then hot milk is added. We use cinnamon for curing herring and salmon, in aquavit, in preserving and in various cookies. For this time of year, when it is cold, the fragrance of the warm spice in cinnamon buns is a treat I think we should succumb to at least once a week.
Makes 24 buns
For the buns:
2¼ teaspoon dry yeast
2 cups lukewarm whole milk
1⅓ stick softened butter
1 egg, beaten
6½ cups plain wheat flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
⅔ cup caster sugar
For the filling:
2 sticks soft butter
⅔ cup caster sugar
6 teaspoons ground cinnamon
For the glaze:
1 egg, beaten
Sugar for sprinkling
1. In a large bowl , dissolve the dry yeast in the warm milk using a wooden spoon. Mix in the butter, then add the egg and stir again.
2. Sift together the flour, salt and cardamom and add to the milk mixture with the sugar, stirring to form a dough. Keep stirring until the dough comes cleanly from the edge of the bowl.
3. Knead the dough on a floured work surface for about 5 minutes. Return it to the bowl, cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for 1 hour at room temperature.
4. Make the filling by mixing together the butter, sugar and cinnamon.
5. Divide the dough in half and roll it out to make two rectangles measuring about 16 by 12 inches (40 by 30 centimeters).
6. Spread the cinnamon filling over the top of each. Roll each piece of dough into a wide cylinder and cut into 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) slices.
7. Line some baking trays with baking paper or parchment paper. Lay the cinnamon rolls on the paper, pressing down on each one so they spread slightly. Cover and leave to rise for 30 minutes.
8. Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 C or Gas 7).
9. Brush the cinnamon rolls with the beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar.
10. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, then leave to cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or cold with a nice cup of tea.
Top photo: A worker prepares the bark in the cinnamon house at a Sri Lankan cinnamon farm. Credit: Trine Hahnemann