Swedish Kanelbullens Dag

buns Ask most Swedes to name a baked goodie that epitomizes their homeland and they will choose cinnamon buns. There is a national fixation on the treat. Cinnamon buns are the cornerstone of Swedish baking, so much that even children sell them for good causes. Marcus has more of a savory tooth than sweet, but one of his favorite foods growing up were his mother and grandmother's cinnamon buns. 

Leave it the Swedes to invent a holiday for their favorite pastry. On October 4th, as with other modern Swedish traditions (think St. Lucia and Waffle Day), the focus is on food. Cinnamon buns are a national institution in Sweden, but it wasn't until 1999 that Kanelbullens Dag (Cinnamon Bun Day) began as a way for Hembakningsrådet (the Home Baking Council) to commemorate their 40th anniversary. American-style cinnamon buns are tucked into the same pan, rising and baking together then coated with a sweet glaze. A true Swedish Kannelbulle is baked individually in a paper muffin liner. Each bun rises and spills up and over the liner like a popover. They are often seasoned with cardamom as well as cinnamon, and are typically decorated with pearl sugar.

If I don’t have time to bake, we’ll celebrate Kanelbullens Dag in my family with a trip to my favorite Scandinavian bakery and I’ll load up on their big doughy buns. Laced with heady spices they pair perfectly with coffee or hot cider. Although with the holidays not too far off, perhaps it isn’t too soon to break out the glögg.

Check out this recipe for Swedish Cinnamon Buns.

Glad Kannelbullens Dag!

The Sense of Morels

Morels, mushrooms, fried morels, spring vegetables, healthy

“These are really good,” my coworker spoke quietly, “Don’t tell anyone I gave them to you,” he added as he glanced around nervously. He pressed a brown bag into my hands and backed out of my office.

At home I opened the bag and golden morels spilled out on to the counter. The spores were aliens; scary creatures of mystery but not intrigue. In my early years, mushrooms represented the dark, dank unknown. I stored the fungi in the refrigerator until I was able to forget their existence, and eventually they were pitched.

My past action, while horrifying to mushroom aficionados, came from a fear of the wild. Foraging seemed a little too "natural" to a girl who loved all things processed. Even as a kid I so feared the bugs and slugs that lived on my mom's expansive raspberry and strawberry gardens that I refused to eat fresh fruit for two summers. I was the poster child of a Monsanto-philosophy: chemicals good, nature bad.

RECIPES: Fried Morels, Spring Onions and Sage and Spring Mushroom and Asparagus Ragout

I attempt to atone for my past morel sins by adding plenty of fresh local mushrooms to my market tote. There is a mushroom for every season, and my redemption comes in the flavors of spring morels, summer chanterelles, and autumn trumpets and porcinis.

Chanterelles, morels, mushrooms, spring vegetable, farmers market

Mushrooms are loaded with energizing B vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid) as well as antioxidants that protect cells and boost immunity. They are a natural vegan source of vitamin D which promotes bone health. They provide potassium which helps regulate blood pressure, and beta-glucans that aid in immunity and resistance to allergies. Best, mushrooms are a tasty, low-calorie, and filling addition to any meal.

Being gifted a chubby bag of morels still makes me feel like I am involved in an illicit drug exchange, but I finally understand the lore of the mushroom. With reverence and respect I carry my parcel home and gently unload the lacey caps into a pan of butter and herbs. Repast becomes a communion with my senses, although impatience has me foregoing a plate. Instead I lick my fingers and eat right out of the frying pan. And I don't share.

morels, mushrooms, spring, chanterelles, farmers market

For more information how how to prepare morels:

Spring Ingredient: Morel Mushrooms

For more mushroom recipes:

Preserved Mushrooms

Mini Goat Cheese and Mushroom Breakfast Burritos

Mushroom and Asparagus Quiche

Shiitake Mushroom and Mozzarella Salad

The New Nordic Movement

Photo:  Heart felt

Photo: Heart felt

It was rather embarrassing realizing I hadn’t been practicing what I’d been preaching. Winter was waning and I’d spent the better part of it burying myself under Thai takeout and deli pizzas. It was like coming up for air, fragrant caraway and dill scented air, as I returned to a New Nordic state of mind. Not familiar with New Nordic cuisine? It is the sexy coupling of Scandinavian philosophies and France's Slow Food movement.

Danish Chef Claus Meyers outlined The New Nordic Manifesto with its attention to regional and seasonal ingredients, and clean simple flavors. Claus’s Manifesto also calls for sustainability practices in the growing and harvesting of food. It promotes humane treatment of animals, and kitchens that produce little waste. Health is the key component of New Nordic, both of the planet and of an individual. We are, after all, symbiotic.

While the Mediterranean diet continues to make headlines for its health benefits, it doesn’t necessarily translate for those of us living in Northern climates, especially if we want to stock our pantries with local and seasonal ingredients. But compare the Mediterranean guidelines with those of our Nordic kin and you’ll find many similarities. Both diets call for more vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fish and non-animal proteins. Both diets call for moderate consumption of low-fat dairy, less meat and sweets, and avoidance of processed food. New Nordic shares this Mediterranean thinking but utilizes the ingredients and flavors of a northern climate.

Meanwhile, American chefs are also paying attention to region and season, sustainability and farm-to-table sourcing. Clean simple flavors are featured in many restaurants, and not just in those lauded as New Nordic.

Everybody talks the local seasonal thing these days. But it isn’t anything new.

Photo:  Alice Saunders

Historically, Nordic foods emphasized regional and seasonal ingredients that came from the landscape. This continues to be true today. Seas, rivers and lakes provide fish. Mountains and forests provide mushrooms, berries, and game. Farmers raise dairy, rye, barley, pork, and reindeer. Centuries of trade have brought spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, caraway, fennel, allspice and citrus, while locally sourced aromatics like dill and parsley anchor the cuisine. A short growing season and long winter meant that preservation methods such as smoking, pickling and curing rose to artistic heights. Long winters also created a reliance on root vegetables.

Today Scandinavian foodways are influenced by travel, wealth, politics and immigration. The cuisine is dynamic, beautiful, healthy, and among some of us in America often dreadfully misunderstood. Those of us with Scandinavian ancestry often suffer from a belief that what our grandparents ate for Christmas Eve every year is the summation of everyday plates across Scandinavia. Admittedly there are some foodstuffs that outsiders (and insiders) might consider to be strange. Fermented Baltic herring (surstrӧmming) is packed in a can that must be opened under running water due to the gases that escape. Lutfisk is generally enjoyed by older folks during the holidays; if prepared well the gelatinous lye soaked cod brings to mind flaky lake walleye or whitefish. It is somewhat difficult to convince Midwesterners that Nordic food is not consistently white and bland, and that yes, some of us enjoy eating lutfisk.

You might think that that eating local seasonal foods is impossible for those of us in the Midwest especially during winter. But with some careful planning, and some time puttering in the kitchen each week (which is something many of us do anyway), dinner practically cooks itself. My menu plan adheres relatively close to the New Nordic Manifesto. It includes eating fish at least twice weekly and I’ve added more vegetables to every meal and use local, seasonal, and pesticide-free ingredients whenever possible.

I admit I cannot mimic Chef Claus 100% of the time. I don’t forage, although I grow my own herbs and tomatoes and have an annual canning party. I’ve owned the NOMA cookbook since it came out and won’t be attempting one of those majestic recipes soon. The book looks lovely on our coffee table. I adhere to the 80/20 rule; 80% of the food I eat is locally sourced and prepared in my kitchen.

Photo:  Javier Marca

Photo: Javier Marca

Walk into my house today and you will smell fragrant fennel, caraway, orange and molasses from the rye bread baking in the oven. The dense limpa sustains us during the work week with smörgås. Open-faced sandwiches are perfect for breakfast and lunch, topped with cheese and radish, salmon and avocado, or eggs and tomatoes. A garnish of fresh dill or parsley makes these small but filling meals feel fancy. As winter takes a few last wheezy breaths our evening meals consist of root vegetables, organic greens, local trout or chicken. We’ll dine on a beautiful roast or chop once a week, but are relying more on vegetable based ingredients than we have in the past. With spring our plates will be filled with asparagus, new potatoes, ramps, herbs and baby greens. New Nordic eating means celebrating each season as it comes.

Book Club Shares Stories and Food from "Yes, Chef"

Yes, Chef Book Party
Yes, Chef Book Party

Knowing what a Nordic food geek and Marcus Samuelsson devotee I am, my sister invited me to visit her book club last week when they discussed Samuelsson’s memoir, “Yes, Chef.” I trekked to Gaylord, Minnesota for an afternoon of good food and lively discussion. We cooked from Samuelsson’s most recent cookbook, “New American Table,” and our menu included a seared tuna glazed with maple-Dijon glaze, curried pear-potato salad, and apple cake.

My sister Cheryl’s book club friends clamored into the kitchen bubbling with New Year greetings for one another and carrying copies of “Yes, Chef.” As they settled in around the table with chilled glasses of Greyhounds (a Swedish spin on the classic cocktail) they began discussing the book and its author Chef Marcus Samuelsson. “Didn’t you find it fascinating?” “His birth mother, his adoptive mother, his wife! The strength of these women in his life! Wow!”

A few weeks earlier Cheryl borrowed my tattered copies of “Aquavit,” “Soul of a New Cuisine,” and “New American Table,” and asked if I’d be willing to cook something from one of them for her book club. As a food geek and Chef Marcus devotee, I was thrilled to accept her invitation, and anxious to hear her clubs’ assessment of the memoir. Each month the group plans their menu around the book they’ve read, and our lunch included recipes inspired by Marcus’s journey from Ethiopia to Sweden to Harlem.

Yes, Chef Book Party
Yes, Chef Book Party

“What shocked me was that he threw up from nerves when he first started cooking. I never imagined that cooking could be such a brutal profession,” someone said. We talked about the kind of drive it takes to be successful in such a competitive field and about what Chef Marcus sacrificed to ambition. The kitchen always took priority while family, friends, and secondary pursuits came last.

Marcus and his sister’s story of adoption is especially poignant to my sister, who adopted her two children from Korea. We talked about the impossible 75-mile walk Marcus’s birth mother made with her two small children so they could receive treatment for tuberculosis. “I cried through the first three chapters,” I admitted. We agreed that it is a tribute to Marcus’s birth mother’s sacrifice that he now has relationships with family still living in Ethiopia, and how remarkable that he is able to send his sisters to school.

Hearing I’d met Chef Marcus, a few ladies got personal, “Is he as sexy in person as he looks?” Several women had never seen Chef Marcus on his various television appearances and asked, “What does he sound like?” Someone brought the book on CD, so Cheryl popped a disc into the stereo and we listened as Marcus described his experience in a Swiss kitchen.

Yes, Chef Book Party
Yes, Chef Book Party

I took my place at the stove while the conversation continued. I smiled at the speculation and seared ten tuna steaks then drizzled the fish with maple-mustard glaze. The pear-potato salad was fragrant with curry and garlic, still slightly warm and tossed with spinach, almonds and lemon. We served the tuna and salad family-style along with green beans and almonds, and an anise-kissed fruit salad.

“Wonderful!” the book club agreed. “This tuna is so good! And what are the flavors in this potato salad?”

By the time dessert was served, the book club had moved on to talk of vacations in France and Barcelona, visits to summer cabins just a few short Minnesota winter months away, and what sports or colleges their kids were pursuing. I munched on Apple Cake (made using Marcus’s mom’s recipe) and thought about how good books and good food are made better with a good story. “Yes, Chef” has both.

Photos: Patrice Johnson

Glad Lucia Dag! Happy St. Lucia Day

Glad Lucia Dag! On December 13 we celebrate St. Lucia Day with saffron buns. Although Advent begins prior to St. Lucia Day, Lucia is a tangible kick off to the coming holiday season. At dawn on December 13, traditional Swedish families awake to the procession of St. Lucia complete with songs and children dressed as St. Lucia and her court. Lucia, the martyred Saint of Light, provides light during the dark season, and saffron buns are the traditional breakfast served with hot coffee and other baked goods.

Lucia is often thought to hail from Sicily, but she is now a Swedish icon. Is she a remnant of Catholic rule? A Värmland folktale asserts that during a severe famine Lucia appeared and distributed pork, beer, and wine to the starving citizens. Lucia became a welcome symbol of light and salvation.

December 13 was once referred to as the night of the trolls. As with so many folk traditions that are replaced with Christian substitutes, Lucia and the trolls are now symbolically morphed. Lucia’s association with the devil stems from that earlier belief, and many believed she was the leader of the trolls. Her name being the female equivalent of Lucifer did not help her reputation. It wasn’t until the 1800s that Lucia became the saint of light and goodness, and it wasn’t until 1927 that her holiday took off as a national celebration when Stockholms-Tidningen, a now defunct newspaper, began an effort to increase Christmas shopping. Their marketing campaign popularized Lucia with parades and processionals headed by a white clad Lucia.

Today, every home, school, community, and hospital hosts a Lucia event, sometimes with competitions among young girls who compete to be selected as Saint Lucia. The late Swedish invention of St. Lucia celebrations is likely the reason that so few Minnesotans of Swedish descent incorporated Lucia into their holidays until recently.