A Word About Hospitality (and a Gluten-Free Cake)

 Blackberry, Almond, and Cardamom Cake


It’s an almost old-fashioned word, conjuring up 1950’s housewives and a deceptively spotless kitchen hiding days’ worth of preparation.

But I love the grace and ease that the word evokes, and the memories that it conjures up of my late Grandma Agny.

Grandma was born in Norway during the first part of the 20th century, in a time when the country was still enjoying its relative new independence. She grew up Norwegian through and through, and then sometime in the 1950s—after the hardships and heartbreak of watching her beloved country be invaded and suffering the unimaginable grief of losing an infant son—she and Grandpa Lauritz packed up their lives and moved to the United States with my father, who was 11 years old at the time.

The newly-immigrated family arrived in New York in 1956, with the sites of Manhattan and the American cars leaving an impression on my young father. They made their way to Seattle where they would begin their new lives. My grandparents—though already established in their adult years—would learn to speak English with ease, though always with rich, thick accents. They would make new friends and assimilate the best they could into their new culture, while always feeling a bit of yearning for home. Grandma Agny would go on to find a job at one of Seattle’s finest hotels, where she must have honed her gracious sense of hospitality. Her references to that time were always marked with a sense of honor and pride, and she carried that sense of service into her home.

Dinners at my grandparents’ home were always formal affairs, with my grandmother preparing a menu of traditional Norwegian foods and serving them on a table set with fine, creamy linens, decoratively fanned napkins, and her finest dinnerware. We would sit around the small dining room table—which sat the five of us comfortably—each taking our place at one of the chairs adorned with embroidered seat cushions. Grandpa and Grandma would sit with their backs to the window, giving my dad, mom, and me the seats with the view of Puget Sound. On Christmas Eve we could see the houses adorned with Christmas lights in the neighborhood below where their house was perched. There would be Scandinavian red cabbage, steamed carrots, roast pork, and plump little savory meatballs called medisterkaker, which stood out as a juicy contrast to the drier roast. Always prepared with an abundance of food to feed a large dinner party, my grandparents would pass the bowls and platters around, and my grandfather would make his contribution to the meal by frequently asking each of us if he could pass us more meat, or vegetables, or whatever the item might be. We would drink Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider in stemware and mark the occasion together—the little family of five that we were.

My dad, mom, and I were the only family that Grandpa and Grandma had here in the United States, and they poured out their love to us abundantly, most often in the form of giving and service. Though I wouldn’t make my first trip to Norway until I was an adult, they made me aware of my heritage and demonstrated the hospitality that Scandinavians seem to be so good at.

As I develop my own vision of hospitality, inspired by the generations before me, one of my current considerations is how to graciously host friends with dietary restrictions. While it was initially a challenge to plan a satisfying meal for a vegetarian friend or how to bake a cake for my book club while being inclusive to a friend who avoids dairy, I’ve since developed a growing repertoire of menu choices for all sorts of diets. I’ve begun a list: a walnut cake made with walnut oil instead of butter for my dairy-free friends, a protein-packed quinoa and black bean salad for vegetarians, a gluten-free cardamom, blackberry, and almond cake.

Speaking of that cake, it’s made with ground almonds in place of flour, which gives it a different crumb than a tradition cake, but its nutty texture goes perfectly with the texture of the blackberries baked in its batter. I baked it recently for a group of people who were new to me, and bringing a gluten-free cake along with a chocolate one–which I’ll have to tell you more about soon–felt like a great way to quietly ensure that my new friends were properly taken care of, and in such a way that made them not worry about their dietary needs being a burden. I’m sure my grandmother would have done the same thing.

Blackberry, Almond, and Cardamom Cake
This recipe, adapted from Scandilicious: Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking, is given in metric units. I resisted the urge to convert it because I really enjoy the precision.

125 grams unsalted butter, softened
200 grams baker’s sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 medium eggs
250 grams ground almonds
2 teaspoons gluten-free baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon salt
200 grams blackberries (fresh or frozen will work)
200 grams fresh fruit for garnish (I used strawberry, but peaches or nectarines would complement the blackberries beautifully as well)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9-inch round cake tin.

Get started on the batter by creaming butter, sugar, and vanilla together with a stand mixer. Add eggs, one at a time (the original recipe suggests doing so with a tablespoon of ground almonds to stop the mixture from splitting).

Combine the remaining almonds, baking powder, cardamom, and salt and then fold into the butter mixture, taking care not to overmix.

Add the blackberries to the batter, and then pour into the prepared pan. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until golden brown and a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack in its tin. Serve with fresh fruit.

Serves 6-8.

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In a word

If I had to give one word to describe Scandinavian cuisine, I’d say almond. Of course that would be greatly underestimating the wealth of flavors you’ll find among Scandinavian foods–including salmon, dill, hearty meats, and potatoes. It would also limit the flavor profile to desserts, which probably says something about me.

There was never a shortage of almond-flavored cakes and pastries around when I was growing up. With a heavy Scandinavian population in the area, particularly in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, grocery stores in the suburbs even had their fair share of Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish treats from which to choose.

My mom and I would often add a bar of fyrstekake to our cart during after-school trips to the grocery store, treating ourselves to bites before we reached the checkout line. And anytime there was a kringle around, I’d voraciously make my way around the puffy yet crumbly sugar-coated edges, saving the rich almond- and raisin-filled center for last.

Then there was marzipan cake, which almost always seemed to make an appearance during family birthday parties as I was growing up. A white layer cake filled with apricot or raspberry preserves, it was covered in a layer of whipped cream before being wrapped with a thick, fondant-like layer of intense almond-flavored marzipan. Aside from the themed cakes every child wants at some point or another–one of mine was a Barbie cake, which, unfortunately, portrayed the blonde doll in a very poor light–my generally preferred choice of cake was marzipan.

And don’t getting me started on the marzipan candy. That, it itself, is a subject for another post.

With such a rich selection of almond desserts available around Seattle, I wouldn’t really even need to bake my own. But there’s something so satisfying about measuring all the ingredients, following the steps of a recipe, and then seeing it all come together (not to mention sharing it with people I love).

If there’s an opportunity to bake, I’ll take it. The latest excuse to spend an hour in the kitchen was a party. The touring actors at the theatre where I work just wrapped up a season, and the staff threw them a surprise party after their final performance last week. When the signup sheet for food contributions went around, you can guess what I signed up for.

I had meant to plan a dessert in advance, giving myself plenty of time over the long holiday weekend to shop for the ingredients. But before I knew it, the day before the party had arrived and I still didn’t know what to make (nor did I feel like going to the grocery store). It took a while, but I finally found a recipe that a) I had all the ingredients for, b) I had the correct pan size for, and c) I wanted to bake. Don’t you love it when you have a recipe you feel like making and all the ingredients are already in your kitchen?

When it comes to entertaining, the pros say you should never make a recipe for company without doing a trial run in advance. They’d probably say the same thing about bringing food to a party. But the way I see it, there are so many delicious-looking recipes and so little time. So when I found the recipe for this mazarin torte, I went for it.

Calling for pulverized almonds but no almond extract, I wondered if the flavor would turn out as pronounced as I hoped. Amazingly it did, complemented by a hint of orange liqueur.

The verdict among my coworkers? A hit! I’ll be keeping this recipe around for when an almond craving strikes.

Mazarin Torte
Adapted from Beatrice Ojakangas’ The Great Scandinavian Baking Book

3/4 cup butter
4 tablespoons powdered sugar
2 egg yolks
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup almond flour*

2 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup almond flour*
2 tablespoons fruit-flavored liqueur**
powdered sugar, optional

Start by preparing the crust. Cream the butter and the sugar in a mixing bowl, then add the egg yolks and keep beating until the mixture is light. Add the flour, salt, and almond flour and keeping mixing until it stiffens. Form the dough into a ball and separate 1/4 of it. Press the remaining 3/4 of the dough into a 10- or 11-inch metal tart pan with a removable bottom (alternatively you can roll out the dough between two sheets of waxed paper, as Beatrice Ojakangas suggests, but pressing it into the pan will be easier with this soft and delicate dough). Set aside while making the filling.

Beat the eggs and sugar until they turn “light and fluffy,” as Ojakangas describes, then add the butter, almond flour, and liqueur, continuing to beat until incorporated. Pour the filling into the crust.

At this point you’ll want to preheat your oven to 350 degrees. To make the decorative topping, take the remaining 1/4 of the dough and and use it to form a latticework design over the filling. You have two ways to do this:

  1. Use your fingers to roll the dough into thin ropes and piece them together in a pattern, or
  2. roll out the dough and cut it into 1/2-inch strips.

I prefer method #1, but if you choose #2, you may want to chill the dough first, to make it easier to work with. Thankfully Ojakangas was kind enough to tell her readers to not worry about making the top design perfect, as it will bake into the filling leaving only a pattern behind (as you can see from the photo).

Bake 30-35 minutes, or until golden. Cool, then dust with powdered sugar if you wish.

* The original recipe calls for the same amount of pulverized unblanched almonds. While you could certainly pulverize your own, almond flour will make this recipe come together much more quickly if you have access to it.

**I used Grand Marnier and loved how the orange flavor complemented the almond. The original recipe suggests cloudberry, lingonberry, or cranberry liqueur as possibilities, but I imagine any fruit-flavored liqueur you have on hand would go nicely in this recipe.

Serves 10-12

Marzipan candy and other delightful things

I’ll be honest, it took me a while to fully appreciate some of the finer parts of my Norwegian heritage, such as the beauty of the language and elegance and simplicity in Scandinavian design. As a child, my primary connections with Norwegian culture were through my grandparents and by living near Ballard, a Seattle neighborhood that used to be full of Scandinavians. Therefore, I liked my Norwegian heritage, but it seemed quaint and old-fashioned, and sometimes just plain goofy thanks to Norwegian jokes and Stan Boreson songs. That said, one of the Scandinavian treasures I’ve always loved, as far back as I can remember, is marzipan candy.

Commonly shaped into pigs or various fruits, marzipan candy is a popular Scandinavian treat. Imagine taking a bite of almond extract, if that were possible, sweetened and given a delightful pasty consistency. I know, it doesn’t sound that appetizing, but it’s so good!

These days I love the sound of the Norwegian language, and how it feels to speak it (I’m contemplating taking another class soon). I’m intrigued by Norwegians’ sense of beauty and wealth; despite being one of the richest countries in the world, Norway isn’t packed with high-rises and ostentatious design, instead the Norwegians I’ve met seem to truly value quality and have a sense of contentment about them. And I’m enjoying discovering more about Norwegian and Scandinavian cuisine, in addition to the traditional dishes my grandparents served for holidays each year.

In celebration of the delightful things about Norway, I’m going to go eat another one of those candies…

Going shopping on an empty stomach


I remember grocery shopping with my mom while growing up, armed with a delicious, dense, almond-filled pastry called fyrstekake from the bakery.

When I bought Beatrice Ojakangas’ The Great Scandinavian Baking Book this summer, the first recipe I decided to try was the Norwegian Prince’s Cake. A simple, easy cake with an almond filling, it sounded wonderful. Little did I realize at first that I was looking at a recipe for fyrstekake. (Never mind the fact that the Norwegian name was in parentheses directly under the English one.)

Scandinavians must be born with a taste for almond in their genes. Growing up, some of my favorite sweets involved almond. Closer to my heart than fyrstekake is kringle, an almond- and raisin-filled, pretzel-shaped pastry. And don’t get me started on marzipan candy!



Fyrstekake with Rosé-Poached Nectarines
Cake recipe adapted from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book

While planning a dessert to bring to a dinner with friends recently, I decided to bake this traditional Norwegian cake. But I wanted to give the dessert my own touch. As promised, here’s the recipe. Nectarines pair nicely with the cake’s almond flavor and add some moisture and contrasting texture to the dense, dry cake.  I kept the poaching liquid very simple in order to let the flavor of the frystakake shine without overwhelming it or adding too many flavors. But if you’d like, a little cinnamon might be a nice touch.

Despite the decorative crisscross pattern, this is a very simple cake that doesn’t require an artist’s touch. If you keep that in mind while forming the crust, you’ll be just fine, and you’ll spare yourself the frustration when the crust inevitably breaks or does something you don’t want it to do.

Despite the cake’s dryness, it keeps surprising well. Serve leftover cake the next day with coffee.

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ cup and 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, chilled and cut into slices
1 egg
1 cup whole almonds, unblanched
1 cup powdered sugar
2 egg whites
almond extract, to taste (optional)
wine-poached nectarines (recipe follows)
vanilla ice cream, for serving

Equipment: food processor, 9-inch springform cake pan

Sift the flour, sugar, and baking powder into a food processor. Add butter and combine; it will quickly develop the consistency of sand. Add one egg, and process until the mixture comes together into a dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill while making the filling.

Clean and dry the food processor. (You do not need to wash it; rinsing it in warm water and removing the bits of dough will suffice.) In the same bowl, use the food processor to finely chop the almonds. (Be warned, this is surprisingly loud!) The almonds will still have a rough consistency, which is okay; you’ll get a sense of when they’re ready. Add the powdered sugar and two egg whites, and process until combined. Taste the filling; it will have a delicate almond flavor, much softer than  marzipan. If you wish to have a more pronounced almond flavor, you might want to try adding a little almond extract to taste. Then cover the food processor bowl and refrigerate. (At this point, you may leave the dough and filling to chill for awhile, or proceed to assemble the cake. However, the dough may benefit from a little time in the refrigerator, as it should help it become more workable.)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Using 2/3 to 3/4 of the dough, create the bottom layer of dough. Feel free to simply press it into the bottom and sides of the pan (you’ll want it to go up to about 3/4 of the sides), or, roll it out on a floured board into a circle about 10 1/2 to 11 inches in diameter, then press it into the pan. The important thing to remember is that the crust doesn’t have to be perfect; this is a rustic-looking dessert. Once the bottom crust is ready, spoon the almond filling in and spread it evenly onto the crust. Roll the rest of the dough out onto a floured board and cut it into 1/2-inch strips, then arrange them on the filling in a crisscross pattern. Once again, resist the temptation to make them perfect. The dough will easily break when you’re lifting the strips from the board; it helps to take a flat utensil and run it between the board and dough to loosen it, then lift it up gently. If it breaks, just put it back together like a puzzle. Bake, uncovered, for approximately 30 minutes, until the crust is golden.

One the cake cools, cut into slices, and serve with nectarines and ice cream. Drizzle a little of the reduced wine sauce on top of each slice and serve.

Serves 8-10

Rosé-Poached Nectarines

2 nectarines
1 cup rosé*
1 tablespoons sugar

While the cake is baking, prepare the nectarines. Cut them into eighths, and put them in a saucepan with the rosé. Bring to a boil, then simmer for approximately ten minutes, or until cooked, but still al dente. Stir frequently, turning the nectarine slices over to make sure they’re cooked evenly. Don’t be afraid if they lose their skin; most of it will inevitably  fall off. When the nectarines are cooked, remove them with a slotted spoon, and discard the skin. Reduce the wine sauce, stirring frequently, until it turns into a thin, jammy syrup.

*While I used rosé, white wine would probably have very similar results. I happened to have an open rosé in the fridge. The important thing is that you use an inexpensive wine, but one that you enjoy drinking, because the nectarines are the stars here.

You may want to double the nectarine recipe, depending on how many servings you need. I made it to serve four, but come to think of it, it could easily have served 6-8.