Book Review: Scandikitchen: Fika & Hygge

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

If you’ve never wished to be Scandinavian before, Scandikitchen: Fika & Hygge will fix you. Especially if you pick up this calm-inducing book filled with snowy images on a stifling summer day: You’ll forget about their long, dark winters and just revel in the beauty of photo after woodsy photo of rustic and fancy cookies and cakes alongside coffee and teapots and beautiful women in furry hats.

The photos depict the peaceful joy underlying the title, as author and owner of London’s ScandiKitchen Café Brontë Aurell explains: The Swedish word fika means to meet over coffee and a sweet for a chat, which Swedes traditionally do twice a day; it also means the sweet treats themselves. Hygge, pronounced who-guh, began as a Norwegian word now largely used in Danish to mean “the sublime state of inner warmth or satisfaction you feel when you are spending time with loved ones and nothing else matters.” It can, Aurell says, be enhanced by a log fire, a hot drink and a sweet treat . . . and she does have some terrific sweet treats to suggest.

Aurell opens with some basics—all pleasingly listing ingredients both in grams and cups—including a sponge cake base, pastry cream, homemade marzipan, and, of course, Danish pastry. The Danish pastry recipe, while straightforward and tasty, may still put off many readers looking for quicker recipes—but that affects only a few full recipes later in the book.

What readers shouldn’t skip is the marzipan recipe and recipes that use it. This simple food processor recipe will keep cooks from ever needing to use the far-sweeter store-bought versions instead, and makes a great base for the classic almond paste filling for Danish pastries and buns.

The book opens with simple chocolate-dipped coconut cookies optionally flavored with cardamom—a great introduction to the power of freshly ground cardamom for American bakers who rarely use this spice. It pops up again blended with ginger, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and orange zest in a terrific version of the classic Scandinavian ginger Christmas cut-out cookies. Crisp and rich, the cookies come from a silky dough in a large quantity perfect for Christmas get-togethers.

Slice-and-bake “Jewish Biscuits,” fragrant with cinnamon sugar and almonds, and Daim cookies—essentially chocolate chip cookies filled with bits of chocolate-covered toffee bars—produce quick and satisfying treats. Pretty “Nothing Biscuits,” with a lemony butter-cookie base that’s a dream to roll out and cut into small circles topped with a chewy-crispy swirl of meringue, take only a bit longer.

Aurell goes on to simple “traybakes and no bakes” such as Norwegian apple cake, coconut-topped sponge cake, and “everyday” Bundt cakes, layer cakes, cake squares, and tarts. The treats surpass their “everyday” label in looks alone—honey cake squares filled with buttercream and topped with cocoa icing, or a gingerbread layer cake that graces the book’s cover. The only bump could come in trying to find frozen lingonberries for the gingerbread cake—but barring that, raspberries will do.

Many other temptations fill this chapter, from a plum and black pepper tart, which puts the homemade marzipan to good use, to “success cake,” with an almond and egg white base topped with a rich custard buttercream and chocolate shavings. Another easy and attractive recipe, this requires just a few ingredients to produce a simultaneously light and rich result (similar to Daim cakes available in Ikea).

Aurell moves into fancier cakes, from small bites that still stick to pretty basic ingredient lists and techniques, to full-size “celebration cakes” that fewer readers may want to tackle—but will still drool over. And many of her recipes, because of their dependability and simplicity, lend themselves to experimentation and substitutions—for example, when faced with a surfeit of egg whites, make just the tasty meringue base of the hazelnut and mocha squares and quickly top it with whipped cream and chocolate shavings, or a smear of Nutella and cream.

She closes with a short chapter on pastries and breads, including semla buns, cinnamon buns, and chocolate buns, Finnish doughnuts, and exceptionally good aebleskiver—little pancakes puffs. And in case you’re overdosing on sugar by this point, the last recipe will tempt in an entirely different way—large, flat, light-rye rolls ready for sandwiches or a topping of sweet butter.

A few mild concerns: Sometimes things seem slightly off—baking times often seem a bit short; the tested Nothing Biscuits yielded nearly 90 cookies, far more than the 35 listed, and the topping ran short to cover them all. But the extra buttery bases tasted good dipped in chocolate or sandwiched with a touch of jam. American bakers will also want to look twice at ingredients—when Aurell calls for caster sugar, sometimes that’s translated as granulated sugar, other times as superfine. This matters in the meringue for the Nothing Biscuits—and it’s easy to miss.

But overall, bakers will want to keep trying the next recipe and the next. About the only reason to avoid the book would be an almond allergy; otherwise, curl up in front of a fire with a strong cup of coffee, a plate of Aurell’s treats, and a few friends—and pass the book around to luxuriate in its photos for some sweet Scandinavian dreaming.

Scandikitchen: Fika & Hygge by Brontë Aurell (Released September 7, 2016, by CICO Books; 176 pages)

This review first appeared online at the New York Journal of Books.

For Americans, the bar to be charmed by anything British gets set plenty low. We love the accent, the funny words, the history, the royal baby. And we used to love making fun of the food.

But now we’re charmed by the food as well—witness the current mini-craze over the “Great British Bake Off.” And with Paula McIntyre’s new book, we can be charmed by both the food and the funny words from a part of Britain we rarely associate with great food: Northern Ireland.

McIntyre’s warm, relaxed voice—heard in weekly cooking segments on the BBC’s Saturday Magazine show with John Toal (and available on podcasts)—shines through in Paula McIntyre’s Down to Earth Cookbook. Although she repeatedly refers to her “rustic” style, it’s often a fairly fancy rustic, making these flavor-layered recipes well worth a dinner party.

The book focuses on using local produce—in chapters on vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, bread, sweets, and preserving—which McIntyre pumps up with a few powerful ingredients and techniques. Her opening recipe, for a leek gratin with a crunchy topping, gently simmers the leek greens and coats them delicately with cream and thyme. That gets topped with the leeks’ white parts that have been poached, then grilled—scorched, she says—and buttery soda bread crumbs. It’s a great lesson in building flavor by enhancing the natural properties of a few ingredients.

About those soda bread crumbs: This is not “Irish soda bread” as Americans may think of it—an oven-baked, buttermilk and baking soda-raised dome often untraditionally dotted with currants or raisins and caraway seeds.

Here come the funny words: in Northern Ireland, soda bread means “soda farls”—farl meaning quarter—a griddle baked buttermilk bread that looks like scones. (Northern Ireland’s “wheaten bread” comes closer to our idea of soda bread—for which McIntyre also includes a recipe.)

Like many of McIntyre’s recipes, her “treacle soda farls” pose a few challenges to American cooks. The farls require a translation of “self-raising soda bread flour”—how do you substitute for that, and likely for the treacle as well? In other recipes, cooks may need to do similar sleuthing for gorse flowers, Armagh Bramley apples, green elderberries, brown lemonade, soup celery and heather ale—not to mention deducing when the many calls for cider mean something alcoholic, not the “cider” on our grocery shelves alongside the apple juice.

But quick Internet searches answer most questions and often lead to a pleasant interlude learning about five other previously unheard-of ingredients. This is a pretty book with attractive photos, but it’s not precious—so cooks may find themselves jotting a quick glossary in the back cover, to remember what castor and muscovado sugar are or what they did for that soda bread flour.

That said, it still wasn’t entirely clear how to substitute for the flour, but farls made with all-purpose flour mixed with salt and baking soda, a local farm’s thick buttermilk, and a touch of golden syrup in place of treacle were quickly devoured. At least twice, McIntyre describes a food as “scorched”—and she doesn’t mean a cooking disaster. “The smell of buttermilk and scorched flour,” she writes of farls, creates a lasting food memory—and these will become a regular memory-inspiring item on many readers’ tables.

As will many of these recipes—despite a few shortcomings. The lavender shortcakes—rich, toothsome cookies made with butter, confectioner’s sugar, and egg yolks—include no baking temperature (they were tested at 375 degrees); the meat and potato pie lacks the entire final set of instructions on putting together the pie dough and filling. Other recipes lack the sort of regimented (many would say dumbed-down) instructions American cooks have come to expect.

That makes reading through a recipe—and envisioning the steps as you go—crucial to avoiding mid-recipe frustration. But it’s worth it: cider-braised, bacon-topped turnips, blackcurrant Barbados cream (tested with blueberries), a juniper, honey and ale brine useful for many meats, oat biscuits (cookies) with whiskey-soaked raisins, and plum- and spice-steeped gin all proved worthy of a permanent place in the kitchen.

A few recipes seem a bit intimidating—carrot wine, home-brewed whin bush and hibiscus “champagne,” blackberry wine with extremely scant instructions—but they are by far the exception, and may provide a pleasantly relaxed counterpoint to our sometimes hyper-cautious food prep rules.

So indulge in some funny words and fresh takes on the food of a charming country, confident that even the slightly tricky recipes will likely turn out something truly tasty.

Paula McIntyre’s Down to Earth Cookbook by Paula McIntyre (Released August 18, 2016, by Colourpoint Books; 144 pages)

This review first appeared online at the New York Journal of Books.

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