A chocolate orange cake for your coffeetable


I knew exactly what the flight attendant was saying. Though I speak virtually no Norwegian, that word transcends most Western languages. Though spelling and intonation may change, coffee, in a way, is almost a universal word in the Western world.

It was something else that caught me off guard: how I was to respond. It was a word—a one-word question—so familiar, so intrinsically understood, even when spoken in a different language. Even the answer—a simple ja or no—would have been so easy for my unschooled tongue. Or so it seems.

Blonde and fresh-faced, a Nordic beauty, the woman offering me a cup of steaming coffee on the Scandinavian Airlines flight could have been my cousin. Perhaps that’s why I stumbled over my thoughts, unsure of how to answer. She was so like me—or, rather, I was so much like her—yet I had one big, shaming disadvantage.

At 26, I was a full-blooded American-born Norwegian who had never been to the fatherland, and had taken a less-than-helpful Intro to Norwegian class hoping to get a crash course in the language before visiting. The phrases I learned as a child—jeg elsker deg (I love you), du er en kjekk gutt (you are a cute boy), du er en gris (you are a pig)—weren’t going to cut it.

On that SAS flight, on a trip that took me around Greece, Turkey, and Norway, the flight attendant must have taken one look at me and identified me among many of the other blondes on the flight: a Scandinavian. What she got was a half-second-generation Norwegian with a surface-level grasp on the culture of her father and grandparents.

I fumbled for the correct response. At that point it wasn’t even a matter of whether I really wanted coffee or not. That was beside the point. Was she really offering me coffee, was it as simple as that? Would my yes or no or ja or nei be an adequate and correct response?

That was 2008. Today I still don’t speak Norwegian, but I’ve come to grips with it (at least until the next time I travel to Norway). What I’ve truly latched onto is the food of Scandinavia, and how it brings back fond childhood memories as well as furthers my appreciation of my heritage.

Since we’re on the topic of coffee, I’ve learned a lot about the significance of coffee among Scandinavians through The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas. I grew up witnessing a ritual of coffee in my family, but this book helped me to understand coffee’s place in the culture.

“Coffeetime makes up three of the six meals of the Scandinavian day,” Ojakangas says (page 67). “And what you eat with coffee… is a coffeebread. Coffeebreads are not served with meals, but accompany morning coffee, afternoon coffee, or evening coffee.” She goes on to describe the coffeetable that accompanies special events such as birthdays, name days, and anniversaries; the spread may include “cardamom-flavored coffeebreads, plus other special sweet yeast breads, plain as well as frosted cakes, and a variety of cookies” (67).

Though Scandinavian cuisine is generally less known than others such as French, Mexican, or Chinese, it offers no shortage of variety–from the caramel- and nut-topped Tosca Cake (one of my personal favorites) and an endless assortment of cookies to savory traditional dishes such as klüb. For today’s coffeetable, here’s a recipe for Norwegian Orange Cake.

Norwegian Orange Cake
Adapted from the Los Angeles Times

3/4 c unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
Grated zest of one orange
1/3 cup orange juice, plus 2 tablespoons, divided
1 1/3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3 ounces dark chocolate (70%), finely chopped (or, if you have a 3.25 ounce bar, just go ahead and use the whole thing)
3/4 cup powdered sugar
Candied orange peel (optional), or fresh orange wedges

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease and flour a 9-inch bundt or angel food cake pan. Using a stand mixer, beat the butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add one egg at a time, beating until incorporated before adding the next. Add the orange zest and 1/3 cup of orange juice and combine.

Sift together the flour and baking powder in a separate bowl. Slowly add it to the cake batter with the mixer running, beating just until incorporated, then add the chocolate and fold to combine.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula. It will only fill about a third or half of the pan–that’s okay. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in the pan on a cooling rack before removing from the mold.

Meanwhile, sift the powdered sugar in a bowl and whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of orange juice to make the icing. When the cake has cooled, drizzle the icing over it. Garnish with candied orange if desired, or serve with orange wedges.

Serves 10-16.

UPDATE: Thanks to reader Britt-Arnhild for pointing out an error in my Norwegian–it has since been updated!

Too late at night to be thinking–or writing–about coffee

(Yes, it’s after midnight, I should be sleeping, and I’m writing about coffee.)

There’s almost nothing better in the morning than waking up to the smell of freshly-brewed coffee, still too hot to drink, and discovering that it’s been brewed for you by a husband who’s standing at the side of the bed, waking you up with a mug of the fortifying tonic.

These days, a freshly-ground, fair-trade Nicaraguan coffee brewed in a humble coffeemaker or French press hits the spot more than the fancy drinks I used to order regularly: mix-and-match concoctions with any combination of flavorings, extra shots, milk selection, etc. The unassuming black coffee is like a classic, well-tailored suit contrasted with a bold, trendy ensemble that’s sometimes accessorized almost to the point of being gauche.

Before you think I’m being harsh, remember, my coffee tastes didn’t always reflect this sensibility, and I still love a good latte, cappuccino, hot chocolate or chai.

I was still a kid when lattes became cool in Seattle, before people started making jokes about there being a coffeehouse on every corner. But once the drinks caught on, I was one of the shops’ most serious young customers.

One day, it must have been back in elementary school, my friend and I approached the bakery counter at the neighborhood grocery store. Oh, how we thought we were cool, ordering triple or quad lattes—I can’t even remember now which one it was—unaccompanied by an adult. Having already earned the right to call myself a coffee-drinker (a big deal at that young age), we were adventurously moving onto the next symbol of pride: how many shots our coffee cups held. Wisely, the woman behind the counter took one look at us young girls and laid down the law: There was no way she’d be serving us so much caffeine.

Fast-forward to college, I was way beyond getting my coffee at the bakery; rather, I was now getting my pastries at the coffeehouse. I discovered that these places were perfect for studying or writing; I could surround myself with people, but still get to be alone. (The Seattle mystique is often true, sorry to say—Seattlites are often most comfortable cocooned in their invisible-walled shells, where they can watch their surroundings in safety and solitude. If you come to visit our beautiful city, please don’t take it as an offense, but try to see it as a cultural experience.)

After graduating, and finally landing a job in line with my career goals, my coffee habits took on a new dimension: frequent, near-nightly trips to the 24-hour drive-through on the way to work. I had accepted a position working pitiable hours, and while other people were sleeping, I was taking my hot, freshly brewed latte to work. In the alternate reality I seemed to be living by working at night and sleeping during the day, the coffee was like my blankie, serving as a constant, comforting thing as I walked into the artificially lit building at 1 a.m. (One of the few good things that came out of that habit was making friends with one of the baristas, who ended up being a bridesmaid in my wedding.)

Back to the beginning of the story. These days, one of the most pleasant aromas to me comes from a bag of coffee beans, just waiting to be ground and brewed. The fragrance is so full of warmth and comfort that it seems like just the thing to have on a cool, autumn evening, like the ones just around the corner. Unfortunately, I’ve learned the hard way that I should avoid having caffeine too close to bedtime. (And, I probably shouldn’t be writing about coffee at 12:30 a.m. on a work night.)

However, my experience (at least in my own family) is that Norwegians aren’t afraid to enjoy a nice cup of coffee in the evening. If you enjoy after-dinner coffee, too, I have a treat for you:


This Norwegian almond cake, accented with poached nectarines, would be a perfect pairing with that evening coffee as summer turns into fall. I’ll share a recipe soon. In the future, I plan to explore coffee traditions in Norway. If you have insight or experiences you’d like to share, please let me know.