Monday, 18 May 2009

Syttende mai (17th May)

some of the loot I raided at the Scandi Kitchen

Last week I emailed a few friends inviting them round for a 'Syttende mai', or 17th May brunch at my Bloomsbury digs

To the uninitiated, I explained 17th May is Norway's Independence Day and joked that we'd be celebrating both Norway's independence (from Sweden? Denmark? who knows...) and, I quote, "Norway's victory in this years' Eurovision" - a contest that curiously enough Norwegians get quite excited about. Almost as excited as the winter Olympics when tall, strapping 'Weegie men and women win everything except the bobsleigh and that stupid game the Scots are so fond of

What can I say, it's a small country. There's moose, whale hunting and the singing of folk songs on dark winter nights to keep us occupied, but really what we secretly hanker for is glory on the world stage, even if it is a ghastly Euro song contest defined by truly appalling songs, louche dancing and twee choreography. Norwegians' love of Eurovision is a real litmus test - I reckon one of the main reasons I emigrated from this otherwise charming arctic country ten years ago was to escape the banality of small-country jingoism

But I digress. Lo and behold, Norway won the battle of the Euro warbling on Saturday night with a mono-browed kid fashioning himself as Peer Gynt, singing about fairy tales

And now the whole country's gone bananas

So yesterday my mates and I spent a happy few hours - actually we spent a happy eight hours - musing about the silliness of Eurovision, cringing at the songs we tracked down on YouTube and excavating songs from Eurovisions gone by. In sum, we got a little carried away despite professing a dislike of this terrible song contest. France's entry from last year, incidentally, is very very funny.

We also discussed the aphrodisiacal qualities of umami, but that is another story
Of course what we were congregating for was the food. And the bloody marys. I'll start with the food and get to the bloody marys...

Peter's Yard Crispbread, my new favourite 'knekkebroed'

In true Scandi style, I put on a smorgasbord for 'syttende mai'. In less Scandi-style, or at least Bergen-style where my Dad's from, I didn't invite everyone round for a 7am breakfast as we did when I was growing up in Norway. That would be why the Bergenese refer to themselves as the "last of the Vikings", they start drinking Aquavit at 7am

We kicked off not with Aquavit, but with a platter of crispbread snacks topped with 'kaviar' from a tube, a slice of hard-boiled egg and dill. Simple, frugal and delicious if I say so myself. The sourdough crispbread from Peter's Yard makes a great base for strong flavours such as the kaviar,and is seriously addictive - I get through wheels of the stuff in one sitting it's so moreish. If you're thinking, "eew, crispbread" think again, this isn't fibrous or dry like Ryvita, or even authentic Swedish brands which can be quite tough on the mouth and tummy. Nope, this is the real deal - handcrafted, full of flavour and not in the least bit dry or fibrous, thus making an ideal base for a snack to whet the appetite. You can find smaller packs of it in La Fromagerie and from the end of May, large tins like the one above in Fortnum & Mason

The kaviar, which you can see in the first photo above, is a divisive food - it's creamy and has a sweet and salty taste that we Scandis are fond of, which is admittedly not to everyone's taste, but with some egg and dill it seemed to go down a treat. Though I did receive a few bemused looks when I mentioned it was from a tube. Snooty Brits, don't you know there's a recession on?!

Anyway we sat down to an array of pickled herrings, some tasty trout and cured salmon - you might be able to detect a pinkish hue in the salmon below, that's a Russian beetroot cure. Adding to this aquatic Nordic feast were 'Abba' sweet and salty anchovies, which you can see in the photo above - again, not sexy food, but for me replete with nostalgia as it was my first solid food. My Dad always had toast with anchovies and a soft-boiled egg for breakfast, and claims as a toddler I once climbed up on his lap and gobbled up his breakfast in one fell swoop. So Mama J from that day onwards made two plates of anchovy and egg toast at breakfast, one for Dad, one for me. To this day anchovy and egg on toast is resonant of a happy childhood and a real litmus test of friendship - any friend who tries it and concurs with me that it's delicious is a true friend for life.

But back to the smorgasbord. Aside from herrings, salmon, anchovies and trout there was mackerel in tomato, another divisive food, but I added some Turnham Green ketchup to soften the blow for the mackerel-phobic and everyone hoovered it up. A little embellishment goes a long way with the fish-phobic I find.

With all that cured and pickled umamilicious fish I made a simple potato salad accompaniment with a sauce based on creme fraiche, trusty Heinz salad cream and given extra zinginess with Pommery mustard, lots of chopped spring onion and sprigs of dill. Perfect with the fish. Some side dishes of beetroot, gherkins, and plenty of wholemeal sourdough bread rounded off the smorgasbord, which we washed down with beer, white wine and - for the sensible few - pomegranate cordial. No Aquavit in sight, thankfully, the stuff is lethal

it was a dark, gloomy Sunday outside, at least it didn't snow

After scoffing with abandon we moved on to coffee and cake, another Scandi tradition taken very seriously in Norway. It's just not 17th May if you haven't consumed at least a few slices of cake and pastry, and ideally a few scoops of ice cream for good measure. I made a simple chocolate almond cake with no wheat as one of my pals is gluten-intolerant, and before I had a chance to snap it with my Finepix we demolished it. No time unfortunately for making ice cream this year

To complete the nostalgiafest however, I made a classic cinnamon bun cake, for which you can find the recipe on this blog (entry 16.11.08). If you look carefully in the first photo above there is a small yellow cube with 'Kron Jast" on it - this is a fabulous Swedish fresh yeast available at the Scandi Kitchen and I now use it for all my yeast baking. It imparts a much more discrete yeast flavour than dried yeast, and produces a really vibrant, springy dough. The cinnamon bun recipe's from Trina Hahnemann's Scandinavian Cookbook and is one of the most reliable cinnamon bun recipes in existence, I've tried many over the years and this one is most bona fide one yet. Without fail the buns come out perfect - fluffy and full of flavour - a mix of subtle cardamom in the dough and pungent cinnamon butter laced through the buns. Instead of making individual buns I placed the cut slices in a cake tin and baked them as a cake so that in the spirit of commensality everyone could commune over the cake by tearing off a bun. Predictably my polite British friends used a knife to cut slices, rather than tear the cake, to which I shall refrain from making any negative comment.

the breaking of buns

Eventually after copious cups of coffee, some more wine, and a bottle of prosecco we capped off the bruncheon with a pitcher of bloody marys. Somehow this seemed sensible at the time, but as I write my 'Syttende mai' entry I'm reminded of why we don't gather for Sunday brunch more often - the subsequent hangover's a persistent one. Suffice to say, there's no vodka left, we used an inordinate amount of tabasco, horseradish and worcester sauce and that was the end of our brunch, we might as well have drunk Aquavit! Everyone shuffled home at 7pm, with goofy grins on their faces reminiscent of the kid who won Saturday's Eurovision, and after cleaning up I tumbled straight into bed to read the remainder of this weekend's FT

So there you have it, a happy 17th of May was had by all ;)

I'm imposing a strict regimen for 10 days while revising for final exams next week, so there'll be less of the eight-hour brunches, more of the the dude below. A reprise of Sunday's bruncheon shall have to wait til June, as will the baking. Until then, that's all folks!

p.s. in case you're wondering, the first photo also features a small black box of liquorice known as...'spunk'

Monday, 4 May 2009

In Praise of Profiteroles...

What a joyful picture - to you this looks like an allmighty mess and hardly worth a mention, but these chocolate profiteroles were sinfully good, so good in fact that I decided to post a note about them, despite not being their baker. Choux pastry, as I've mentioned on this blog before, is my favourite form of pastry - making it is straightforward and I don't feel like a total retard whipping a batch of choux together, in contrast to the endless rolling of layers for puff pastry I did at Leiths, when butter would ooze all over the place and my baked puff pastry resembled Carr's water biscuits. This is not to say I don't love eating other styles of pastry but when a girl's in possession of breadmaking hands she just won't have the knack of making really light puff, not to mention flaky croissants or even a relatively easy shortcrust. 

Brioche, filo and choux are the extent of my pastry skills. The first because it's more akin to breadmaking and thus makes sense to a bread baker, and the second because frankly the old-fashioned method of slapping filo pastry all over the place is so much fun that it doesn't feel like pastry-making but rather an exercise in kitchen comedy. Filo is a great way to let off steam. 

Choux has a curious hold on the imagination, inexplicably more so than the other two, which is odd since I didn't grow up scoffing lots of choux pastry - in Scandinavia it's not as popular as Viennoiserie-style pastry. Perhaps it's the quaintness of choux, or the way they're filled to the brim with custard. Favourite filling of the moment has to be passionfruit and vanilla custard, but I imagine other flavours such as violet cream, lemon curd, pistachio or coffee custard would make interesting twists on the traditional vanilla custard. Topping the choux buns with chocolate sauce is what constitutes the classic profiterole, but I'm thinking the next experiment with choux might have to incorporate a salted butter caramel sauce. 

Finally, the act of popping each little choux bun in your mouth is perhaps what makes them so moreish (and indeed sensual). I know in principle you can fill other pastry such as almond croissants, pain au chocolats and millefeuille but the texture of a thin, crisp choux bun giving way to sweet custard isn't easily replicated IMHO.

So this post is dedicated to the humble choux. And the photo above is from Saturday's wedding of two awesome friends, Nina and Finnbar. Their wedding luncheon was at the Bombay Brasserie where we ate, drank and celebrated in grand style. The chocolatey profiteroles were assembled in an auspicious French croquembouche, the dark chocolate acted as glue to keep the choux buns in place before hiding them under layers of creamy white chocolate that rippled like a helix down the croquembouche cone. A joyous occasion marked by a joyous tradition. 

Felicitations Nina and Finn, the wedding was a storming success.