Monthly archives: March 2011

Waffle Day: The Good, the Bad, and the Sold Out

Imagine you live in a magical, far-away land. A land clothed in graceful swathes of Lollipop Woods and Gumdrop Mountains, populated by chocolate monsters and gingerbread people. Imagine a world where licorice is king and waffles get their own holiday… Oh wait. Sorry, that’s Sweden.

In a totally improbable turn of events, Sweden celebrates “Waffle Day”—an unofficial holiday whose sole reason for existing is a phonetic mix-up—on March 25. This year, my Waffle Day (or Våffeldagen) started in Swedish class. At that point, I wasn’t even aware of the significance of the seemingly-ordinary Friday. What a fool I was! An innocent! A naïve!

Fortunately, my Swedish class is not exactly, shall we say, “goal-oriented,” so we spent quite a bit of time discussing Waffle Day and its history in Sweden. Waffle Day was never intended to be a holiday as such, but March 25 is nine months before Christmas, and therefore a feast day for the Holy Mary. In Swedish, “Our Lady” is “Vår Fru,” and if you mumble determinedly enough, “Vår Fru” sounds a lot like “Våfflor,” which means waffles. Vår Fru Dagen becomes Våfflor Dagen, and all of a sudden Sweden has a Waffle Day.

Being the foreigner that I am, I find all this a little difficult to grasp. Like, you mean to tell me that people just started mispronouncing the name of a religious holiday en masse, and then they just kept going with it? Did they all just collectively say, “Meh. I like waffles better than church anyway?” Is this really possible?

I don’t know what the opposite of “the heights of religious fervor” is, but I think that Waffle Day comes pretty close.

I’ve also read that Swedes celebrate Waffle Day because it’s spring and back in the olden days, they were happy to finally have fresh milk and eggs, but I’m not sure I really believe that. If that were true, it could be “Practically Any Freshly-Baked Bread-like Item Day.” Plus, the Waffle/Our Lady thing seems a lot more convincing.

After discussing the Waffle Day situation for almost a half hour in class, we were instructed to write an essay on whether men or women drive better, and since I don’t really feel that passionately about the topic, I spent most of the next hour and a half thinking about waffles.

I rallied the troops—two other American girls with Swedish boyfriends—and we went off in search of a Real Cultural Experience. Unfortunately, we met with more disappointment than success. We went to Ebbas Skafferi, a really great café and coffee spot in Lund where I was sure they would have waffles. After confirming that they were on the menu for the day, we each ordered one… only to be told that the Swedish waffles had been sold out for the day and that all they were currently serving were Belgian waffles. The horrors!

Our Belgian waffles did not meet expectations.

We’re not that picky, so we ate them anyway. It felt a little wrong, though.

Waffles! A Real Cultural Experience! (Almost.)

Fortunately, I was soon able to rectify the Belgian waffle snafu. Our friends Gustaf and Malin invited us over for dinner on Saturday, and in honor of an extended Waffle Day weekend, they suggested that we have waffles for dessert. I got unreasonably excited (At last! Real Swedish Waffles!), and then Malin and Gustaf realized that they weren’t really sure where their waffle press was since they just moved. They started going through some boxes, but to no avail. Not being the type to give up, though, they decided to just buy a new one so that we could go through with the plan.

Malin didn't let a silly thing like not having a waffle iron stand in her way.

At last! Real Swedish waffles! A day late, but just as delicious as expected.

 

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To see some photos of “real Swedish waffles” with an American twist, check out Lola Akinmade Åkerström’s “Chicken and Waffles, Swedish Style,” also from blogs.sweden.se.

Söta Saker’s Exquisite Birthday Cake: Meringue cake with raspberry and vanilla cream

If you read my blog post on Swedish birthday traditions yesterday, then you got a mouth-watering look at one example of a Swedish birthday cake. If you didn’t, well… HERE IT IS AGAIN.

DROOL. Meringue cake with raspberry and vanilla cream (marängtårta med hallon och vaniljkräm) from Söta Saker.

Moving on.

Söta Saker is a Swedish food blog run by Therésia Erneborg, who is a fabulous cook and takes beautiful photos of the food she makes. Most of her recipes are personal twists on Swedish classics and some of her recipes are even family heirlooms, inherited from her mother and grandmother. Therésia gave me permission to translate her birthday cake recipe into English, but you’ll have to check out her website to see the photos she took to illustrate the step-by-step construction of this cake. Even if you don’t speak Swedish, it’s worth a look just to get a glimpse of what Swedish food looks like at its most attractive.

There are four parts to this cake: the sponge cake, the vanilla cream, the raspberry cream, and the meringue topping. Fortunately, it’s not too difficult… just a little time-consuming.

The sponge cake is a really common base for the layer cakes that Swedes love so much, and if you live here, you’ll find that grocery stores actually sell pre-made sheets of sponge cake that you can use as a shortcut: just cut it into whatever shape you want and add filling with reckless abandon. This cracks me up. This may be the only cooking shortcut that I’ve found in Sweden that doesn’t exist in the US. Therésia even recommends having an extra sponge cake on hand in the freezer just in case you “unexpectedly find yourself in the party mood.” Common occurrence, actually.

For Therésia’s sponge cake, you’ll need the following ingredients. If you want a really tall cake, double the recipe so you have more cake to work with.

3 eggs

2 dl sugar (just a little less than a cup… .83 cups to be exact)

1 dl potato starch (just a little less than half a cup… .42 cups to be exact)

1 teaspoon baking powder.

Whisk the eggs and sugar together, then stir in the other ingredients. Throw all of it into a baking pan and bake at 175 C (350 F) for 35 minutes. Let cool, then cut it into three layers. From my experience baking here in Sweden, I’ve found that corn starch and potato starch are more or less substitutable, and corn starch seems to be a lot more common in the States. It might make a small difference, but not enough to worry about.

Then there’s the vanilla cream. This is something that makes even the most hard-hearted Swede swoon and sigh at pleasant memories from his or her youth. Seriously. It’s kind of like a hard sauce, but without the alcohol, and it gets thrown on every kind of pastry imaginable. I like it much better on the inside of a cake than the outside, but to be honest, once I start eating it, it’s like I go into this alternate dimension where I love vanilla cream more than anything else on earth and will not rest until I have shamelessly scraped the last drop from my plate. It is an undeniable phenomenon. Swedish-vanilla-cream-compulsive-mandibulation-salivary-ostrophy. Obviously.

You can also buy packets of instant vanilla sauce at the grocery store (just add milk!), but Therésia’s vanilla sauce is the real deal. You’ll need…

2 egg yellows

3 dl milk (10 fl. ounces)

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon potato starch

1 vanilla bean (If you don’t have a vanilla bean, my guess is about a teaspoon of vanilla extract will work, but I’m not the expert. Maybe you’ll need more.)

Split open the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into a pot. Mix the other ingredients and whisk them together by hand. Let the mixture come to a low boil while you continue to whisk until the cream begins to thicken. Keep a close eye on it, and whatever you do, don’t let it boil or burn on the bottom. Cool before using.

Are you getting tired yet? Do you need a sneak peek of the finished product to keep you motivated? Fine.

The finished birthday cake... a thing of beauty.

Make sure you check out Söta Saker for more photos, especially if you’re unclear about what it should look like in process.

For the rest of the cake, you’ll need…

Raspberry cream

3 dl raspberries

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

1 tablespoon potato starch

 

Whipped cream… just whip it! whip it, yeahhh!

 

Meringue topping

3 egg whites

1 krm essence of vinegar… technically, this is 1 ml, but I think it’s safe to translate it as a “little splash of” vinegar essence. For those who live in the States, it’s just as easy to add a ¼ teaspoon or 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar… both are thickening agents that combine with the egg whites to make the meringue fluff up properly.

A pinch of salt

1 dl sugar (just a little less than half a cup… .42 cups to be exact)

So! Now that you have all the ingredients, divide the sponge cake into three layers. Spread the vanilla cream on the bottom layer, and then set the middle layer on top. Cook the raspberries together with the powdered sugar and the potato starch and stir until the raspberries start to dissolve into each other and the mixture becomes thick and smooth. Spread the raspberry cream on top of the middle layer. Whip your cream, then spread or spritz it out of a pastry bag over the raspberry cream. Whisk your egg whites with the vinegar essence and salt until they form stiff white peaks. Whisk in the sugar a little at a time. (Editorial note: in my experience, they should get a little glossy… you’ll know they’re done when there’s a sheen to the whiteness.) Put the top layer on a baking sheet lined with a sheet of baking paper and spread the meringue on top. Make small peaks so that it gets a nice structure. Bake for 8-10 minutes at 175 C (350 F), or until the meringue is a little brown and crispy on the outside but soft on the inside. Carefully pick up the top layer and set it on the cake. Garnish with raspberries!

Now, just so you know, you don’t have to wait until your birthday to make the cake. In fact, you can probably make it any old time you want. It’s a cultural experience, you know. Educational for the kids and all that.

 

Drottning for a day.

Some people don’t like to make a big deal out of their birthdays and do their best to ignore the day and the fact that they’re getting older. I’m just getting to the point where adding a year to my age gives me the heebie jeebies instead of making me feel really adult and cool, but I’m definitely not at the point at which I would willingly give up the one day when I can be the total center of attention without feeling guilty.

On March 21, I’m queen for the day—or, in Swedish, dagens drottning.

I am wearing a sombrero because I am the queen. And queens wear hats.

Growing up, my mom would always let my sisters and I choose whatever meal we wanted for our birthday dinner, including dessert. Amazingly enough, this backfired only occasionally, like the year my middle sister was obsessed with potatoes and requested a dinner of mashed potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, and French fries, followed by—what else?—chocolate cake.

As we got older and moved away from home to college, my mom started a new tradition: mail ordering a dessert to us that would be delivered on our special days. One year it was cheesecake; another year it was pies, and always in quantities large enough to share. My parents would also come to visit us on the weekend if they could and take the birthday child out for dinner.

Sadly, no parental visitors this year, but my American birthday traditions and culinary preferences (Mexican food and cheesecake) took precedence over the Swedish traditions. Surprisingly, though, there are some notable differences, which I first experienced this summer when my boyfriend turned 25.

First and foremost, Swedish birthday celebrations start in the morning, with the birthday boy or girl being surprised by singing and a birthday cake in bed. This means, of course, that in most cases, the birthday child has to lie quietly in bed and wait for the party to come to them. If you get up and start clamoring for cake, well, you’re spoiling the mood, and maybe there won’t be any cake after all. Swedish parents: very strategic. On the other hand, you are allowing an already-excited child to eat cake with his or her breakfast, which is a preposterous concept in general.

In our case, just as Santa sneaks into your house at night to leave you Christmas presents, Simon’s parents wanted to sneak into our apartment, bringing with them a treasure trove of brunch foods and a birthday cake. It was a very lovely idea, and one they executed beautifully, but one that kind of freaked me out at the time. Am I supposed to lie in bed too? Am I supposed to get up? Do I act surprised? What am I supposed to do here??

Fortunately, I discussed the issue with my own mom, who was absolutely horrified at the idea of me being in bed when Simon’s parents arrived and told me in no uncertain terms that I ought to rise with the sun and make coffee. Lots of coffee. Good idea, Mom.

Further magnifying the importance of Simon’s birthday this summer was the magic number “25.” In Sweden, the important birthdays are 18 (the age of majority), 20 (when you can buy alcohol at Systembolaget, the liquor store), 25, and then all the following decade years: 30, 40, 50, etc. In the grand scheme of things, 50th birthday parties are really important. The in-between years don’t get that much emphasis.

Also, when it’s your birthday, you are “filling” or “completing” the year. So if I wanted to say that I turned 24 this Monday (hypothetically speaking, of course), I would say that Jag fyllde 24. I completed 24!

Here are some useful things to know at a Swedish birthday party.

First of all, the songs. Instead of Happy Birthday, you’ll hear “Ja, må han/hon leva!” and “Vi gratulerar!” The first means “Yes, may he/she live!” and the second means “We congratulate!” The first sounds kind of strange, but I think it’s more like “Woohoo, let’s go team, let’s go birthday guy, just keep on living your life, you bad thing you!” but I’m not really that sure. It’s a festive-sounding song, so at least it seems unlikely that it’s something that people sang below a gallows, for example, to try to convince executioners to pardon criminals and save their lives.

The best part of all this is definitely the aftermath. After all the singing is done, you’ll get three determined and hearty hurrahs: HURRAH! HURRAH! HURRAH! Brace yourself. This definitely feels medieval.

Last but not least—the cake. Swedes are really into layer cakes, and birthday cake is no exception. I imagine that many families have different variations that they prefer, but the one that seems to be traditional is a vanilla layer cake with berries and cream in between. As with all dairy products in Sweden, the cream can take many forms and flavors: whipped cream, custard, vanilla cream (more of a sauce than anything else), or even meringue, which is not really a cream at all.

I found an outstanding example on the Swedish food blog Söta Saker. Her födelsedagstårta, or birthday cake, is a meringue layer cake with raspberry and vanilla cream. Umm, yes please.

NOW THAT IS A CAKE.

I will take one for myself and one for all my birthday guests. You can find the recipe at the link above, but it’s in Swedish. I’ll post the recipe tomorrow. Totally delicious looking!

Here are a few more words and phrases to help you get through any birthday in Sweden, whether it’s yours or someone else’s.

  • Where are my presents? Var är mina presenter?
  • I’m in charge. Jag bestämmer.
  • He/she is in charge. Han/hon bestämmer.
  • Oh, you shouldn’t have. Det hade du inte behövt.
  • I couldn’t possibly take another piece of cake. Inte ska väl jag ha mer kaka.
  • I’m not one to say no. Jag är inte den som är den.
  • Sugar coma: sockerchock
  • Birthday party: födelsedagskalas
  • We need more balloons. Vi behöver fler ballonger.
  • Where are my minions? Var är mina undersåtar?

And, of course…

  • Grattis på födelsedagen! Happy Birthday!

We’re throwing a party. The theme is Sweden.

There are certain countries you grow up with depending on where you’re from, what your parents are interested in, and what’s going on in your country politically. We are aware of these countries almost from birth and continue to learn about them throughout our childhoods and into adulthood, whether through deliberate study or a more informal “impression-gathering.”

Sweden was not one of those countries for me.

England, yes. I know lots about England. Stiff upper lips, a dry sense of humor, a distinctive use of adjectives, an accent that automatically sounds more intelligent than my own… check. I also know a fair amount about France. Beret-wearing, baguette-wielding, prone to horizontal stripes and art house film, with an accent that automatically sounds sexier than my own… check.

On second thought, maybe it’s better that I didn’t grow up with the idea of Sweden.

Actually, if you had asked me about Sweden about three and a half years ago, the list of things I could have told you about the country—stereotypical or not—would have been quite short. I grew up in a nice Midwestern suburb with one WASP parent and one Italian-American parent in a predominantly Dutch area of Michigan, and my exposure to Sweden was almost nonexistent. If I had grown up in another area of the Midwest, especially Minnesota, that probably would have been different, but as it is, I bet all I would have come up with would have been a vague description of a Nordic country populated by very tall, very skinny, blonde-haired blue-eyed supermodels. (No word on the men… no idea why they don’t have a similar stereotype.)

I had to be told that Ikea's colors are Sweden's colors. Now I know.

“The land of Ikea” probably would have also made the list. Less certain entries would have included “Swedish meatballs—are they actually from Sweden?” and “that one Swedish pancake that my sister gets when she orders the international pancake platter at IHOP” (now renamed and re-categorized as a “Swedish crepe;” as far as I know, it’s still filled with lingonberry jam). That probably would have been about it for me.

Instead of the jumble of half-baked stereotypes and impressions that I have about Canada, Mexico, and a lot of other Western European countries, I came to the idea of Sweden with a nearly blank slate—as did the majority of my friends when I announced at the beginning of my senior year at college that I was dating a Swede.

Most common response: “Aren’t the girls really hot there?” Pause, no answer. *Skeptical look.*

Ouch.

Anywaaaay, when March rolled around, my group of friends didn’t know much more about Sweden than they had at the end of August, but they decided to throw me a very special surprise birthday party. As it happens, my friends are big on birthday parties, but not very good at surprises, so I knew something was in the works. I had been whisked away to a friend’s apartment for dinner (just a last minute thing, you know, it being Saturday night and there being NO SURPRISE BIRTHDAY PARTY TO SPEAK OF, of course). When I returned to my apartment, the living room was packed with people, and I saw that my “surprise” birthday party was also a theme party.

Swedish themed.

Every horizontal surface in the apartment was covered with bowls of Swedish fish (a red gummy candy) and there was a large bottle of Absolut Vodka in the freezer. Welcome to Sweden!

My very Swedish birthday accoutrements.

I guess you could say that my friends’ interpretation of the theme provides a unique insight into Sweden’s cultural and culinary contributions to the world… or maybe not. Now I would be able to make some more typically Swedish suggestions for food and décor—a Princesstårta would be high on the list, for example—and a more extensive list of characteristics to associate with the idea of Sweden and Swedish culture.

Sadly, very few pictures of my Swedish-themed birthday party survive. This is one of the few... closed eyes, but better than nothing.

There are some things my friends got right, though. As my birthday approaches once again, I find myself looking towards home for ideas that will take me back to the friends and family that I miss. Whether you’re in own country and connected to someone or something abroad or actually living in another country as an expat, these celebratory occasions make you feel the pull towards the country, the culture, and above all the people you’re longing for. My Swedish-themed birthday party presaged the connection I would have with Sweden, and this year’s birthday meal will not have anything to do with Sweden except for the lovely Swedes I will spend my day with. Instead, my birthday meal this year is aimed to satisfy a hunger for a cuisine that you just can’t find enough of here: Mexican food.

Bring on the carnitas!

Breaking news: lame joke bears eerie resemblance to real life.

In an odd twist of events, an incredibly lame joke about the weather turned out to be strikingly similar to real life experiences. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND.

I grew up in Michigan, which means lame jokes about the weather are nothing new to me. For example, “You know you’re from Michigan when you know only two seasons: winter and construction.” Or, “You know you’re from Michigan when you prefer driving in the winter because the potholes are filled with snow.” Then there’s one that I’ve heard in Sweden, too. “Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes.”

Har. Har. Har.

The prevalence of terrible jokes about the weather makes sense; I will grant you that. In places like Michigan and Sweden, the weather is a big deal. The snow, the rain, the dark, the cold—all of these will actually affect your mood and significantly impact your daily commuting experience. And the jokes are lame, but they’re also a way of signifying this sort of shared camaraderie in fighting against the misery of winter.

But never in my life did I expect one of these jokes to be even slightly similar to reality… until last Friday.

I made the mistake of celebrating the start of spring about a week ago because I found the first spring flowers just barely poking little yellow bulbs through the mat of dead grass by a bike stand. Spring is here! Spring is here! I cried, with a delight that can only be compared to the happiness of a thousand little munchkins at the death of the Wicked Witch of the West. Sadly, I had spoken too soon, and a mere three days later I returned home to Lund after a long day of working in Malmö to find snow on the ground. SNOW. Then, on Friday, it seemed like the weather was once again becoming more spring-like.

The first spring flowers! These yellow crocuses (croci?) are just poking their heads out from below a bike stand.

I woke up in the morning to sun, which already is a big success in March. Then I packed up my things and went back to Malmö, where I proceeded to sit at the same table in front of the same windows for five hours while teaching English. During the five hours I spent in front of those windows, the sun gave way to hail, which receded and then came back again twice as strong, setting off car alarms and ricocheting off of innocent pedestrians as they scrambled for cover. Then hail session number two eased into a blizzard-like snow, which, within an hour, became torrential rain. Then about half an hour before my scheduled 3 pm departure time, the sun came out, and I was able to unzipper my coat on my bike ride home.

Now please, someone, explain to me how this range of weather phenomena is possible. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND. I keep trying to talk about this day with people here like it was something extraordinarily strange, WHICH IT WAS, and everyone just shrugs their shoulders at me and look at me like, “Yes, and…?” NOT THE RESPONSE I AM LOOKING FOR. The response I am looking for, by the way, is more along the lines of, “Oh my God, the apocalypse. THE SKY IS FALLING!”

Anyway, now that I’ve shared this slice of life of you… here are some photos that I find encouraging. Spring is on its way!

Little shoots poking through the dirt.

Flowers are beginning to bring color and life to Lund! You can see the remains of last fall's ivy, which was stunning a mere five months ago.

Some more early bloomers,