I hope that you were able to spend some of it with loved ones, some of it relaxing, some of it cooking and some of it eating!
I rather overdid it, partly because as a Swede celebrating Christmas in the UK, I have twice the festive fun. First there’s a traditional Swedish ‘jul’ on the 24th with a heaving smörgåsbord of ham, meatballs, spiced bread, red cabbage and Janssons temptation (a creamy potato gratin with sweet conserved sprats- odd but delicious). All washed down with plenty of beer and snaps, of course.
In Sweden this gluttony is traditionally followed by an hour of conking out in front of Donald Duck’s Christmas, broadcast every year at the same time to the delight of every Swedish child and every exhausted Swedish parent. Presents are opened when it gets dark (so about 3pm, then) and then just to add some pagan flair, everyone dances around the Christmas tree. And then if all that wasn’t enough I also got to have a proper English Christmas on the 25th with Toby’s family- a full turkey with all the trimmings, Christmas pudding, mince pies, the whole schebang. So I’m still pretty much still full. Roll on healthy eating this month!
In the meantime, here’s a recipe for a Swedish festive classic- Lucia buns. Saffron was, of course, a very expensive spice (and it still doesn’t come particularly cheap) and therefore used to flavour sweet bread in the run up to this celebratory season. But I think these buns are delicious all year round and, seeing as I have a freezer full of them, I may well be enjoying them well into Spring!
The pictures in this post are curtsy of the fantastically talented photographer, Faith Mason. You can see more of her work here. More to come from the photo shoot we did together recently, including paprika spiced chicken with apricots and a pheasant casserole!
Saffron Buns (also called Lucia Buns)
Makes about 30-35 buns
You will need:
200g unsalted butter
500ml full fat milk
3g saffron strands
1 sugar cube
50g fresh yeast
pinch of salt
125g caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten + 1 egg, beaten
1 kg plain flour + extra for kneading
handful of raisins or sultanas
1. Melt the butter over a medium heat in a large saucepan. Add the milk and heat to body temperature (you can test this by sticking your finger into the pan- it should not feel hot or cold, just wet!).
2. Bash the saffron in a pestle and mortar with the sugar cube. The cube will act as an abrasive and break up the strands into a rough powder. Add this to the butter and milk.
3. Crumble the yeast into a large bowl and add the salt, sugar and about 3 tbsp lukewarm water. Mix to dissolve the yeast. Pour the saffron, milk and butter mixture into the bowl and whisk together before adding the 2 beaten eggs.
4. Add enough of the flour, about 900g-1kg to form a dough, mixing with a substantial wooden spoon initially, then using your hands to bring the dough together. Turn the dough onto a floured work surface and knead for about 10 minutes, until you have an elastic dough. Clean out your bowl and return the dough to it, cover with a kitchen towel and leave to rise in a warmish place for 1- 1.5 hours, until doubled in size.
5. Heat the oven to 220C. Line to baking sheets with parchment or lightly grease with a flavourless oil. Tip the dough out onto your floured work surface. Knead briefly to knock out some air, then divide the dough into 2 parts. Divide each of these into 4 and then into 4 again- so you end up with 32 pieces of dough, although you may find that you want to divide some bigger pieces into two buns, depending on how accurate you are with your dough-dividing!
6. Roll each piece into a long, thin sausage. Place the sausage in front of you, vertically. Roll the top end down to the right. Roll the bottom end upwards to the left. You should end up with an ‘S’ shape. Stick a raisin into the middle of each end and place on your baking sheet. Continue with the remaining dough. Leave each baking sheet to prove for about 30 minutes before brushing lightly with the remaining beaten egg.
7. Bake in the hot oven for 10-12 minutes, until golden and baked through. Leave to cool under a tea towel- this will stop them from drying out. Enjoy with a mug of mulled wine or freeze for later.
I was back in Stockholm over Easter for a friend’s 30th and to catch up with relatives. I left behind a London that had just started to wake up to Spring to land in the middle of an icy Scandinavian winter, where the mercury barely teetered over zero most days. Having said that, the sun stayed out and I didn’t see a cloud the whole time I was there. The snow gradually started to melt, freezing overnight to create sheets of lethal, slippery glass over the pavement and roads.
|You know it’s cold when water freezes straight out of the drainpipes|
The Swedes do Easter with a bit more pizzaz than their southernly neighbours. They love an excuse to get crafty and break out a bit of colour in order to liven up the last days of winter. Feathers, dyed lurid tones of yellow, pink and blue, are the decor of choice, but many paint eggs and hang up wreaths too. There’s usually a family get-together for a big Easter meal, but we eschew lamb in favour of a smörgåsbord of traditional feast food- pickled herring, salmon, eggs, meatballs, potatoes, Janssons temptation. Rich, indulgent dishes, originally created to fuel the manual labour that farming the land required. Not quite as necessary these days, of course, but still absolutely delicious.
Although we, too, like to give Easter eggs (generally decorated cardboard ones brimming with sweets), I’m always more interested in the baked goods category when it comes to festive eating. Whether it be the spiced breads and biscuits at Christmas, the berry-filled tarts at midsummer or the cream filled cardamom buns available during Lent. Snappy crisp breads, although enjoyed all year round, particularly come into their own with the rich foods served during the holidays. Over Easter, my godmother, Margareta, very kindly shared her technique for making home made rye crisp breads. Over an afternoon, we rolled, poked holes and scattered various toppings over the dense dough that gets slowly dried out in the oven. It is quite a physical, painstaking job, but absolutely worth it. Not least because the results could probably survive a nuclear holocaust. Make a big batch, wrap it up in an airtight container and you’ll have delicious bread or canapé bases on tap.
|Melting ice on lake Mälaren|
|Easter decorations for sale on Mariatorget|
Pepparkakor are to Swedish Christmas what mince pies are to English Christmas. One without the other would be a bit of a sin, really.
Although you can find them in shops all year round, these spicy gingerbread biscuits with their taste of cloves, cinnamon and ginger are undeniably Christmassy and ubiquitous come the first of advent.
Apart from being delicious accompanied by a mug of glögg (Swedish, much stronger mulled wine) or a cup of Earl Grey, they are also rather wonderful as canape bases for your Christmas party. You might think me mad, but topped with some blue cheese, they are an absolutely dreamy combo of salty and sweet and a perfect pairing with a glass of fizz. In my family, they were also always part of Christmas eve breakfast.
This is my recipe, which makes for quite crisp biscuits with a slight citrus tang from the lemon essence and dried bitter orange peel (pomeransskal). I realise these two ingredients aren’t the easiest to find, but you could easily substitute for a teaspoon each of grated lemon and orange peel. Or try ordering them online. Cloves can be quite difficult to find ground in the UK and US, but are essential in this recipe. You can always try grinding whole cloves yourself in a pestle and mortar if you can’t source the ground stuff.
This recipe is best when the dough has been left to mature for a few days in the fridge. It also freezes very well. A word of caution for when you do come to bake them, though: Don’t step away from the kitchen. These beauties burn in a millisecond. Watch them like a hawk.
Pepparkakor (Swedish Gingerbread Biscuits)
You will need:
250g butter, softened
200g caster sugar
150ml golden syrup
1/2 tsp lemon extract (or 1 tsp lemon peel, grated)
2 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp bitter orange peel (or 1 tsp orange peel, grated)
1 tbsp ground cloves
2 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp bicarbonate soda
500 g plain flour
1. Cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl before adding the syrup and lemon extract (or lemon and orange peel, if using).
2. Combine all the dry ingredients (spices, flour and bicarb) in a smaller bowl and beat into to the butter mixture.
3. Knead quickly to form a sticky dough. Separate into two balls, wrap in clingfilm and leave in the fridge for at least 24 hours, but preferably a few days. You can also freeze the dough until you need it.
4. Remove the dough from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature for about an hour before using.
5. Preheat your oven to 180 degrees. Line a couple of baking sheets with parchment.
6. On a floured work surface and using a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough as thinly as you dare. Use cookie-cutters to stencil out they shapes you would like. If the dough becomes to sticky and difficult to use, return to the fridge for a little while.
7. Carefully place onto the baking sheets and bake in the preheated oven for 7-10 minutes, keeping an eye on them to ensure they don’t burn.
|Goodbye, Stockholm. Hello, Archipelago.|
|Mormor’s chocolate cake.|
|On Mormor’s balcony|
|Time for some coffee and cake in the archipelago town of Vaxholm|
|Cake at Hembygdsgården, Vaxholm|
|The streets of Vaxholm|
|Picking berries- rasp and blue|
|A-foraging we will go|
|Breakfast on the back porch.|
|Blackcurrants in the garden|
|Crepes with blackcurrant jam and crepes|
|Afternoon tea on the veranda. The view.|
|A slice of princess cake- sponge, jam, custard, cream and green almond paste. What’s not to love?|
|Burgers and beer on the jetty.|
|Crayfish party in the local park|
|Old timer band take to the bandstand.|
I think it is about time I tackled the dish most stereotypically associated with Sweden. The mighty… the classic… the evocative… the no-introduction-required…. meatball.
I have deliberately avoided the subject so far, aware that I could not do so for long and dreading it at the same time. Because the issue is this- I don’t know how to reclaim the meatball. I am all too conscious of its connotations: Meatballs paint a picture of a Sweden filled with blond, Volvo-driving Abba-fans who went through Utopian school systems and have 24 hour access to faultless health care. Meatballs never get bored during Ingmar Bergman films. And so on…
(There is also the Swedish Chef of Sesame Street fame, of course. But I actually wrote a food column for my university paper entitled the Swedish Chef, so I’ve made my peace with that particular cultural caper. I’ve embraced it.)
But now I feel ready to set the record straight: the Ikea, factory-style portions are not the meatballs that I grew up with. OK, so sometimes they weren’t all that dissimilar, a nursery-food, fresh from the freezer and served with macaroni and ketchup (and kind of glorious, to be honest). But they also feature in my childhood memories as lovingly home-made, part of the ‘julbord’ (literally- Christmas table, the buffé style meal eating during the holidays) or served up for a special occasion. Because the truth is that meatballs, although not difficult to make per se, do require a lot of patience. It takes a bit of practise to understand the ratio of mince/onion/breadcrumbs and to know when they are going to be too gloopy and stick to the pan. It takes a frying pan you know well and feel confident with. But, above all, it takes time. Meatballs are small and you have to roll each one individually, using the palms of your hands- a messy and slightly gruesome business. And time-consuming.
Meatballs in Sweden are served in all manner of ways, with pasta, in sauces and with different flavours (this Christmas, my godfather made some flavoured with ginger and cinnamon). I have a healthier recipe on file (equal parts mince and lentil), which I serve with bulgar wheat. The possibilities are endless. But if I am honest, I really enjoy serving them with quite traditional, dare I say it, even slightly kitsch accessories- new potatoes with dill (a Swedish staple, but mash is a substitute of equal merit), ‘brown’ sauce (a creamy gravy), grated carrot salad, lingonberry jam (available form the Scandinavian Kitchen) and, finally, some hard bread with strong cheese. Perhaps this is because when I am back in London I do that typical expat thing of actually behaving more Swedish than the Swedes proper.
And so, just for you, here is my grandmother’s definitive recipe (although I find mine never live up to hers). I hope you appreciate it. It makes for about 4 portions, or two hungry people with leftovers (for a meatball sandwich the next day- fantastic, although often served decorated with a slice of orange back in Sweden. Peculiar.)
She has added two secret and imperative ingredients: A stock cube for extra flavour and a pinch of sugar. Apparently the sugar is particularly controversial, but she says she once heard the famous Swedish chef, Tore Wretman, on the radio saying that it’s what he did too and since then she felt vindicated.
You will need:
500 g of lean mince
1 dl* breadcrumbs
1 large egg
2 dl* water
1 stock cube
1 medium sized onion
pinch of sugar
salt and pepper
Butter or margarine
1. First, bring the kettle to boil, put your breadcrumbs in a large bowl. Dissolve the stock cube in the water and pour over the breadcrumbs. Leave to ‘swell’ for about 10 minutes.
2. Grate the onion with the coarse side of the grater into the stock mixture. Add the mince, egg, sugar, plenty of pepper and a pinch of salt.
3. Mix until well-combined. You may want to get your hands in there. At this point, my grandmother tastes the raw mixture to see if it needs more seasoning, but I wouldn’t recommend that. Instead, get your frying pan on a high heat and melt some butter in it.
4. Form a couple of balls, rolling between your palms. They should have a circumference no bigger than a £2 coin. Fry in the pan, turning when brown and crisp on the outside. This should take a few minutes per side. Taste them and see if the mixture needs more seasoning.
5. Form the rest of the meatballs and fry in the pan, tossing and flipping as you wish.
6. Serve with mash or new potatoes, some dill, salad, lingonberry jam and a cream-based gravy sauce. And a cold beer, of course.
* The decilitre is used a lot in Swedish cooking. It is used for volume and basically is the solid equivalent of 100 ml, if that makes sense. So just use a measuring jug and fill up to the 100 ml line unless you have dl measuring cups.