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