Mardi Gras looks a bit different in Sweden. It is much colder than Rio or New Orleans, but there is no bonhomme like in Quebec. They said goodbye to the Catholic church quite a while ago, but retain some (modified) traditions. Naturally, my favourite is semla, the seasonal pastry. A semla is a cardamom-flavoured yeast bun split open and filled with marzipan and whipping cream. A variation called ‘groda semla’ or frog semla (???) mixes the cream and marzipan together first, then fills the bun. Both are good! Originally this was a way to get rid of some of the rich foods before lent started, kind of a last treat before the austere season before Easter. However, people liked them so much and when an austere lent became less important, it was a tradition to eat a semla every Tuesday during lent. Rock on!
I am not really one for yeast dough, so I experimented and made some semlakex (semla cookies) with cardamom dough and a pat of marzipan on top that caramelized in the oven. No cream, but they are far more portable for bringing into work!
It has been a while since I posted about Swedish food or our cooking exploits here, so it is time for a food post now! We are getting more used to Swedish food and taking advantage of what local ingredients have to offer. Here are some meals, but we will post on baking soon too.
We spent the Luciadagen weekend in Stockholm checking out the city a little bit more and to learn some Swedish Christmas baking secrets from Catherine’s colleague Per. We arrived around 10:30 and spent a couple hours walking around Gamla Stan (old city) and checking out the Jul Marknad (Christmas Market). The sun even made an appearance, which if you’ve been following along is quite the rare occurrence these days.
Per made us a traditional Swedish lunch of kale soup with eggs and knäckebröd and then we got down to business of baking. Per had already prepared the pepparkakor dough using his aunt’s secret recipe. So “all” Catherine and I needed to do was roll out the dough and cut into shapes. The challenge is that the best pepparkakor is made very thin and cutting the shapes and getting them off of the counter top without mangling the cookie is difficult. But after the first tray we started to get the hang of it and the cookies turned out great. We made a variety of shapes, but mostly the simpler ones worked best like circles, hearts, and diamonds, although Catherine made lots of pigs as well. Pigs may seem like a strange shape for Christmas cookies, but Swedes eat pork for Christmas dinner and have a little sense of humour about it so it’s not an uncommon shape. But Christmas trees, Santas and angels not so popular in the Swedish cookie shaping. Per was impressed, and happy that he didn’t have to roll out all the cookies himself this year.
While we were rolling and cutting Per was busy preparing two other Swedish Christmas specialties: Knäck and Chocklad-kola also made with secret family recipes. Knäckis a traditional hard Swedish toffee and Chocklad-kola is a softer dark toffee.
We had a great time learning to make three new treats – and sampling wasn’t too bad either! If you’ve been good (and if Canada Customs doesn’t decide to confiscate our unlabelled baking), Tomten may just bring you some of these treats as a julklappen.
I went to Umeå again this last week for a two-day full department meeting. We talked about grant and manuscript submissions for the coming year, and I proctored a journal club discussion with the PhD students. The highlight, however, was the julbord.
Most people know about smörgåsbord as being a Swedish buffet. Julbord is a special variation for Christmas. Good julbords have some classic inclusions: ham, luttefisk, pickled herring (sometimes 6 kinds!), bread, knackbröd, meatballs, sausage, cold potatoes, boiled eggs, red cabbage, beets, chopped kale, some kind of salad or veggie plate, and snaps. You can drink either snaps or Julöl. If you drink wine you’re a noob. Apparently, their are a million ways to identify yourself as a julbord-noob, as I learned from this valuable post on Sweden’s English-news-for-expats site.
Luckily, it went well. I had jul öl AND awesome jul snaps. We went to a really great place, where most things were made on the premises, including the bread AND the butter! I ate fish, even the pickled herring, and about a postage stamp sized piece of smoked reindeer (enough for me). My favourite was the Janssons frestelse, like scalloped potatoes with cream, onions and anchovies. Also good was the rödbetsalat, a creamy salad with pickled beats. I thought the whole thing was great – even the 12 kinds of sausage I only admired, but didn’t try. The dinner food was great AND THEN I FOUND THE DESSERT TABLE! (Sorry, no picture) There was ostkaka (which translates to cheesecake but is more like a baked ricotta pudding so I am just going to call it ostkaka), cloudberry sauce, mixed berries and cream, swiss meringue banana pudding, chocolate mouse, passionfruit fool, ris malta (rice pudding), lemon cheese (another ricotta special) and a think chocolate pudding. There was also pepperkador, toffees, and a big variety of Christmas candies. AWESOME!
When we got back to the hotel Hasse and I checked out the sauna (bastu). It was ‘only’ 50 degrees. Apparently it is not so uncommon to have 80 degree saunas. How is that even possible? I think that could cook an egg or a lobster.
The next day I got up and did some reading before out meetings started. It was dark when things got started – and pretty much dark when we had coffee break. It was unseasonable warm so I was able to step outside for a bit to take a picture. Check out how dark it is! The sun was set at 2PM.
My favourtie meal this week was chicken-noodle soup, because I have a cold. Graham made really good biscuits too. But we also made hoot owls using mom’s recipe just after Halloween, at Elizabeths’ suggestion.
We make a lot of our favourite Indian and Asian-type dishes still, but we have also tried to use some local foods in a local way. We eat more wasa bread and beets and potatoes and carrots than we did before. We eat more cruciferous type things too, like cabbage and kale.
On Friday evening we attended “Personalfest” which is the yearly staff party for the university. Before the party we crammed into the hot steam sauna in Catherine’s building so we could be nice and dehydrated before the partying got started.
130 staff and partners attended the party, but only a small group from Catherine’s department. We had dinner, drinks and dancing to a live retro cover band. The band was actually quite talented – they were able to play pretty much any request. It was interesting to hear the selections of the Swedish folks as many of the English songs were not recognizable to us English-speakers but seemed to be well-loved hits by the Swedes. It was nice to get out and meet some new people and not have to cook for an evening. Here are some pictures of the evening.
Graham and I both like to eat, so we have developed some foraging and cooking skills. My parents are very open-minded and mom in particular is very adventurous and creative and encouraged us to try new things (just try it!)… but she wasn’t about to make a veggie option in additional to the meal she was cooking for the family when I decided at 12 that I didn’t want to eat meat. Graham is not a vegetarian, but he eats a TREMENDOUS amount to keep up with his activity level and crazy Hamilton-steel-furnace-metabolism. We are used to cooking vegetarian meals for ourselves, often with Indian, South-East Asian, and Latin American flavours. I think its fair to say that we both take an interest in food and cooking; we have a collection of cookbooks at home, I have a diploma in Applied Human Nutrition from SFU, and Graham has an honorary degree in eating awarded by Superstore.
One of the coolest things about traveling has been seeing and tasting the local specialties, and self-catering (or at least picnicking) along the way. We try to check out the outdoor markets and grocery stores whenever we can to see what grows there, what people buy, and what things cost. We have described some of the things we ate in the different countries, but there is a lot more so I thought it deserved its own post. We have a few pictures of markets, so I thought I’d post them and narrate. If you are not a food person then my apologies, we’ll be back to the vagaries of Swedish bureaucracy shortly.