Paczki | Poland

The past month has not been kind to us.

It started with a snowstorm that dumped almost a half foot of snow and was quickly followed by the Polar Vortex (with the temperature plunging to -22 degrees Fahrenheit), which kept the kid at home for three days in one week.

Then, the following week the kid stayed home yet again from school for two days because of a fever. We figured it was just weird virus that his body was fighting off…until we got the dreaded note from school that one of his classmates was being treated for strep throat. Out of an abundance of caution, we brought our kid to the pediatrician, and sure enough he tested positive for Strep A.

Once the kid was almost done with his course of antibiotics, both he and I got sick with a wicked bad cold virus that kept us pretty bedridden for a couple of days. It was during those couple of days that 40 MPH winds blew down our next door neighbor’s tree, causing their power – and our internet – to go out. Although our power wasn’t knocked out by the felled tree, the power lines were dangling from our house and causing a bit of a fire hazard, so the power company came out and cut our power, which remained out for two days. Thank goodness we were able to borrow a friend’s generator, and added power from our next door neighbor’s generator so that we could hook up our fridge and our furnace.

Then, my husband caught the cold virus from my son and me, and I got food poisoning, because the events of the past month just weren’t crappy enough. At least this time around I was able to watch Netflix and not worry about whether the power would come back on, so that was a plus. Having your power cut for a couple of days really makes you realize just how much you take it for granted, let me tell ya!

Normally I try not to be too much of a complainer, but the sheer unrelenting sequence of these events was seriously wearing me down. I went into this winter wanting to not become my usual depressed, SAD-afflicted self. It’s like the universe heard me, laughed, and was like “Oh yeah?! Nice try!”

Hence why this blog has been extremely quiet since January. I am just now starting to reemerge after all of the sickness and all of the other unfortunate life happenings listed above. Although I still feel a bit nauseous from the bout of food poisoning, I was determined to not be a total Netflix zombie anymore!

When I realized that Fat Tuesday (aka: Paczki Day!) was coming up rather quickly, I decided – nausea or not – it was time to make some Paczki to properly celebrate my Polish heritage.

Paczki are essentially deep-fried donuts that are filled with jam or curd and covered in sugar. They are traditionally eaten on Fat Tuesday, and since the Chicagoland area has a rather large Polish population (which is why we also celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day), pretty much every bakery within shouting distance is making and selling these sugar-covered delicacies.

The traditional reason for making Paczki was to use up all the lard, sugar, eggs and fruit in the house, in preparation for the fasting of Lent ahead (source). I’ve always said it “Pack-Zee-Kee,” but apparently the correct Polish pronunciation is “Pownch-Key.”

I’d never made donuts before, and was a bit intimidated by yet another recipe using yeast (like Apfelkuchen), but still I wanted to give it a go. Plus, I had all of the ingredients on hand – minus some canola oil, which my husband graciously volunteered to procure from Aldi – so it felt like it was meant to be!

First, I warmed the milk to about 100-110 degrees and combined it in a mixing bowl with melted butter, two eggs, sugar, salt, vanilla extract and instant yeast. After mixing all of the wet ingredients together, I added in a couple of cups of flour and mixed them together using the dough hook attachment on our KitchenAid until the dough came away cleanly from the sides. I actually ended up adding more flour than the recipe called for since the dough was pretty wet, and I thought it needed it.

Once the dough was ready, I took it out and kneaded it by hand for a few minutes on a lightly-floured surface. While kneading it, I was amazed at the dough’s ability to soak up flour; no matter how much flour I threw at it, it didn’t dry out! I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a dough like that before, so that was something new for me.

Once it was nice and soft, I put it into a large, oiled bowl and sprayed the dough with cooking spray. I let it rise for about a couple of hours – since we’re getting yet another cold snap, I had to turn the heat in the house up to help the dough rise.

After the dough doubled in size, I rolled it out to about a quarter-inch thick and cut them with a round cookie cutter. I placed them on a cookie sheet and let them sit for about a half hour for the final rise. During that time, I heated the canola oil over high heat. It was supposed to be at 350 degrees, but I didn’t have the proper thermometer, so I just winged it by using what I affectionally called a “sacrificial Paczki,” which is one that I sacrificed so I could tell when the oil was ready.

Once the sacrificial Paczki was bubbling away in the hot oil, I added in the rest of them, 3-4 at a time, turning once until both sides were golden brown. I had my husband help with the frying while I rolled the Paczki around in Caster sugar since they cooked a lot more quickly than either of us had anticipated.

When the Paczki were cooled enough to handle, I grabbed a piping bag and filled it with raspberry jam because that’s what we had in the house. I carefully inserted the tip into each one of the sugared Paczki and filled then with jam, which was about as messy as you might imagine it was. The cavities in the Paczki were a bit larger than I had anticipated – turns out they really expand quite a bit when you fry them!

As for taste, they tasted exactly like how you’d expect them to: like jelly-filled donuts! My husband and kid loved them. Since I was still getting over food poisoning and was still a bit queasy, I only had a small piece, but I have to admit it was quite delicious.

Would I make it again? Not on a regular basis, since they required quite a bit of work and proofing time. At least not until Fat Tuesday 2020!

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This recipe was made and adapted from JoCooks.com

Apfelkuchen (Yeasted Apple Cake) | Germany

If you have kids in elementary school, then you understand the pain of tons of paper coming home with them on a daily basis, from information from teachers to schoolwork to art projects to fundraising requests, and more.

To be honest, about 90% of these papers go directly into the recycling bin since we have a pretty small house and don’t have a ton of room to be keeping papers floating around for too long. When I saw the flyer for Heritage Night at my son’s school, although I fleetingly thought about tossing it into the recycling with the rest of the papers that came home with my kid that day, something told me to hang on to it and consider not only attending – but participating.

A fellow mom friend who’s been following the blog encouraged me to sign up, so I pushed aside my feelings of apprehension about adding yet another item to my already crowded to-do list, and signed up to host one of the tables.

Since it was for my kid, we had more than just Norway, Germany and Poland to consider (also Ireland, England / Great Britain and France from my husband’s side), but we ultimately ended up choosing Germany. Between my husband and I, the one nationality that is predominant on both sides is our shared German heritage. Plus, we had a pretty compelling story to tell with my Grandpa coming over from Germany through Ellis Island in 1923 (he was only 16-years-old!), and how he now allegedly haunts a Chicago theatre (seriously – we’ve never seen him whenever we visited, but the theatre employees swear they have. Spooky!).

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to make German baked goods, since I’ve been on a kick from baking a few goodies from my new favorite tome, Classic German Baking. I decided to make one item I was already fairly comfortable baking since I had made it a few times already and was fairly easy to execute (Kirschkuchen), and another that I haven’t made before but have been wanting to: Apfelkuchen.

The recipe for Apfelkuchen (pronounced Ahp-ful Qu-ken, from the German words Apfel, meaning Apple, and Kuchen, meaning cake) was in the yeasted cake section of Classic German Baking.

Now, I can see you sitting there, rubbing your eyes, making sure you saw that correctly. A yeasted cake?! Yes, they are actually a thing in Germany and across Central and Eastern Europe. In Germany, they originated from the days when many people would work the fields and needed something heartier in the afternoon to keep their bellies satisfied so they could finish their work.

I have to admit: like most people, I hate working with yeast. Almost every time I attempt to use it, I somehow fail flat on my face and can’t get the dough to rise as much as the recipe says it should. The author of Classic German Baking said that working with yeast is not as scary or hard as it seems, but I’m not sure I totally agree with her (sorry, Luisa). Maybe if you use yeast more than the average bear and have an idea of how it’ll go down, sure, but for normal home bakers like me…yeah, not so much.

My curiosity won out over my fear, so I decided to charge forward and make it anyway. The ingredients were super simple to gather from my neighborhood grocers (I actually obtained a fair bit of it rather inexpensively from Aldi!), so at least that stress was taken out of the equation. Since Heritage Night was on a Friday, and according to the author Apfelkuchen is best eaten the day its made, I ended up having to make it in between working my day job – which, luckily, I do from home.

I started by mixing together flour, lemon zest, sugar, salt and yeast. Then, I made a well (essentially where you make an indentation in the flour and yeast mixture to pour liquid into) and poured in a mixture of egg yolk and lukewarm milk that I had whisked together. I then mixed everything together with a wooden spoon, and threw in chunks of European style butter (which has a higher fat content than American) and stirred those in as well.

I mixed it together until a “shaggy” dough formed, and then turned it out onto a very lightly floured surface so as to not dry it out, and kneaded it for about 4-5 minutes. Then I shaped it into a ball, placed it into a prepared pan with parchment paper, covered it with a tea towel and let it rise for about an hour.

Now, of course the day I made the Apfelkuchen the temperature in Chicago had dipped to a miserable -7 degrees Fahrenheit. Since yeast needs a relatively warm environment in order to rise adequately, we put a space heater in our kitchen and set our oven to warm to encourage the yeast to rise despite the frigid cold. It did help, but it wasn’t enough – after an hour, the ball of dough had barely risen. It didn’t help that the author wasn’t clear on how much the dough actually had to rise, so I had to use my best judgement. I ended up turning the oven off and placing the dough in there for about 20 minutes, which helped encourage a bit more of a rise.

After the first rise, I took it out of the warm oven and pressed the dough flat into the pan in a rectangular shape, and dimpled it (i.e., poked it a lot with my fingers). I covered it with a tea towel and let it “get puffy,” about 20-30 minutes. While waiting for the second proofing, I preheated the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and cored and peeled six Granny Smith apples, cut them into 1/2-inch chunks and squeezed half a lemon over the apples to prevent browning from oxidation. The author warned that it would seem like a lot of apples, and it was – I felt like I was essentially making some dough with a giant mountain of apples on top.

Once the dough was puffy, I pressed the comically massive amount of apples into the dough as best I could and sprinkled about 4 tablespoons of sugar over the top. I then placed it into the preheated oven for about an hour.

The result: I would describe it as sweetened apples on top of a bread-like base. It was simple since it called for really no spices or flavoring at all except maybe butter and sugar, but it was hearty and delicious – as it was intended. It really made the taste of the apples shine through with nothing else (like cinnamon) to eclipse the pure apple taste. The sugar on top got somewhat caramelized in the oven – especially on and under the crust – and it was a fun little unexpected treat.

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At Heritage Night, I honestly wasn’t sure how the Apfelkuchen would go over since it’s a bit different than many American sweets. At first no one was really eating them, but then a few brave souls tried it, and after that word got out and people were coming just to try that and the Kirschkuchen.

What made conquering my fear of yeast to make this recipe really worth it, though, was an older man in his 60’s who stopped by the table with his wife. He took one look at the Apfelkuchen and his eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas morning – he knew exactly what they were, and told us that his German mother used to make Apfelkuchen all the time. He tried ours, and the smile of pure childlike happiness that lit up his face when he tasted it was absolutely priceless. Later in the evening he brought over another relative and made her try a piece too, exclaiming,”This is the Apfelkuchen I was telling you about! Isn’t it so good?!”

We ended up running out of the Apfelkuchen, and only had one piece of the Kirschkuchen left at the end of the night. It was a fun event, not only for us to share our German heritage, but to see and experience others as well – countries from Columbia to Sweden to Israel to The Philippines to Thailand to New Zealand (and more!) were represented. It was a great reminder that although we all come from different places, we’re all human, and many of our cultures and heritage stem from what we traditionally eat at our tables.

Needless to say, I think we’ll be doing Heritage Night again next year. Maybe we’ll try hosting a Norway or Poland table instead!

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This recipe was made and adapted from the book Classic German Baking

Stout Lamb, Lentil & Cranberry Stew | Norway, Scandinavia

Now that The Holidays are officially over, now is the time of year that I truly loathe.

The cold. The snow. The ice. The wind.

Brrrrrr.

Last weekend we got a couple of inches of snow in our neck of the woods. My husband and kid were both thrilled, and gleefully shoveled the sidewalk and driveway like a couple of kids in a candy store. I remained inside with the cat and frantically Marie Kondo-ed items that didn’t “spark joy” to me any longer (Netflix, I blame you).

It was on this day that I thought a nice, warm and hearty stew would be a good idea. So, I looked through my copy of The New Nordic – which, thankfully, gives me lots of joy so I chose to keep it – and came across a recipe that I’ve made before and remember enjoying: Stout Lamb Stew.

The New Nordic, if you’re not familiar, is mostly broken up into different sections based on the primary locations where the Nordic people source their food, such as The Sea and The Forest. This recipe was in the section of the book called “The Land,” which fits nicely since it plays on the earthy, grainy flavor of the stout co-mingling with the lamb, onions and cranberry.

The ingredients were super simple to locate, although the lamb was a bit pricey; to be fair, I got the fancy-pants grass fed version, which may have had a factor in the cost. First, I cut the lamb into cubes and browned them in some oil (the recipe calls for “rapeseed oil” but Canola Oil is a decent substitution, which I used). Since I don’t cook with lamb that often, I tend to forget that, since it’s fattier than the ground turkey and beef that I normally work with, that it’s more like bacon when it cooks – that is, it splashes and pops, a lot. One of the splashes unexpectedly hit me on the side of my neck, which made me yelp and say what my 5-year-old would refer to as a “Very Bad Word.”

After throwing in some flour to soak up the liquid and dodging fatty splashes from the pan, I set the lamb into a casserole dish and topped it with a couple of cups of stout to soak while I fried up a sliced onion, some celery and garlic. When they turned soft, I added in a couple of whole cloves and some vegetable stock to deglaze the pan. Then, after adding the vegetables and stock to the casserole dish, I covered it with foil, topped the foil with the glass cover and put it in a 350 degree oven for 1.5 hours.

Now, that didn’t mean that I got to lounge around for 1.5 hours – oh no. For a majority of that time, I did a task that surely must be included amongst the top circles of Hell: taking the skin off of a whole bunch of pearl onions.

If you think working with regular old onions is bad, well, my friend, I’m here to tell you that it can get so much worse, as pearl onions are a veritable nightmare to deal with. They’re so stinkin’ small, and the skin is super tough to get off, and even though they’re small those little buggers still make your eyes burn like hades. After finishing one bag, I outsourced the majority of the next one to my super brave husband, who I owe a freaking unicorn to for helping me out. Thankfully by the end I remembered a trick that worked for getting the skin off of garlic that also helped in our case – putting the onions in a glass jar after cutting the ends off of them, and shaking them up. This helped either remove or loosen the skin so it was much easier to remove.

The pearl onions were added in about halfway through cooking, and the dried cranberries (which, thankfully, we didn’t have to do a thing to) were added in during the last 15 minutes. As for the lentils, those took about a half hour to cook. I actually soaked them ahead of time for about 6 hours, primarily to help lessen their ability to cause…ahem…flatulence. After those were done, I added a tablespoon of dried dill (I didn’t want to get fresh dill just for this recipe and then have the rest of it potentially go to waste), because, well, Scandinavia.

I knew the stew would be good, but after a blustery, cold and snowy day, it almost felt like we were digging into an indulgent treat. We all ate the stew with the lentils scooped into it, not separately as the recipe intended, primarily because we liked the texture of the lentils with the stew (and, I may or may not have overcooked the lentils).

The lamb soaked up a lot of the stout flavor, and was fall-apart-in-your-mouth tender. The pearl onions and cranberries gave it a nice subtle sweetness, and the lentils provided some good texture. I was surprised that my kid gobbled it right down, since he typically loudly proclaims that he doesn’t like onions, and I essentially gave him a bowl full of miniature versions of the very things he thought he hated.

Hmmm….maybe dealing with those damn pearl onions was worth it, after all.

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This recipe was made and adapted from The New Nordic: Recipes from a Scandinavian Kitchen.

Kirschkuchen (Lemon-Cherry Cake) | Germany

This past month, we’ve been on a mad baking spree, mostly due to the holidays. I made so many cookies, chocolate covered sprinkle pretzels, fudge and peppermint bark that I almost started talking to flour and sugar like old embattled comrades, reminiscing about surviving the Great Holiday Baking Battle of 2018.

Not all of the baking was for family and friends – some of it was purely for pleasure, like my hubby making fresh Challah bread just because he felt like it, and me making an amazing Lemon-Cherry Cake from my new favorite cookbook, Classic German Baking (aka: the same book I used for the amazingly delicious German Biscuit Christmas Cookies). In German, it’s called Kirschkuchenkirsch means cherry, and kuchen means cake.

I was intrigued by the use of preserved sour cherries in a baking recipe, since my husband is from northern Wisconsin and has fond memories of plucking plump, tart cherries straight from the trees in Door County, still warmed from the early August sun.

According to Classic German Baking’s author, pitted sour cherries in syrup are ubiquitous in Germany, and there are “as many recipes for this simple cherry cake as there are German grandmothers” (this recipe was actually adapted from a lady named Lottchen who was her friend’s mother-in-law). It was this quote that made me want to make this cake as a way to reconnect with my German great grand relatives of generation’s past.

Apparently, Germans use these cherries on everything: from cakes to rice pudding to tortes and more. The author warned that although these cherries are readily available in Germany, in the United States they can be downright difficult to track down, which turned me off a bit after my previous scavenger hunts for specialty ingredients (like juniper berries for Rotkohl, or elderberry syrup for a Midsummer Almond Torte).

It was like my German great grand relatives heard me from the great beyond, because while I was out shopping at Aldi (which, if you’re not already aware, is German-owned) I happened across a large jar of these very cherries in their “Aldi Finds” section. I took it as a sign that I needed to make this cake, and plopped a jar into the cart next to my kid, who was busy doodling on his Boogie Board.

The recipe itself wasn’t difficult at all to execute – I preheated the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and lined the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper. I then beat the butter and sugar together, and added in 3 eggs and beat them in as well. I then mixed in grated lemon peel and added a mix of flour, baking powder and salt. After draining the cherries, I folded them into the batter to ensure they were evenly distributed (you also can add the cherries right on top; this will make it a sunken cake). I baked it for about an hour, and the cake turned out beautifully. After it cooled, I dusted confectioner’s sugar on top.

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How did it taste? It was delicious! I love that the European baked goods that I’ve made so far are not nearly as sweet as their American counterparts. The cake was slightly moist and crumbly (but in a good way), and the cherries and lemon peel gave a great tart kick. Although the powdered sugar blanketing the top looks like a lot, it’s a needed slight dose of sweetness to offset the tartness of the cherries. My kid and husband loved this cake; my husband liked it so much that he requested it for his birthday, which I’ll be making in a few days to celebrate his thirty…erm…”something” birthday. 😉

Many thanks to my dearly departed German relatives for helping me along from the great beyond – it couldn’t have happened without all of you!

Note: when using these cherries, keep an eye out for the pits! Even though the jar said “pitted cherries,” we found a couple in the cake, so make sure to pick through the cherries and ensure all pits are removed before using.

Weihnachtsplätzchen (German Biscuit Christmas Cookies) | Germany

Try saying that blog post title five times fast.

Go ahead – I triple dog dare ya!

Life has been busy lately; practically every weekend this fall we had something going on, whether it was birthday parties or family and friends visiting or community happenings, which relegated this poor little blog to a dusty corner of the web.

Well, despite the fact that this time of year is notoriously crazy because of a little event we like to refer to as “The Holidays,” I decided that it was finally time to clear the cobwebs off this wee little blog and get back to it. Plus, The Holidays are typically the time when I’m already working myself into a baking frenzy, so I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone.

That’s exactly what I was going for when I decided to make Weihnachtsplätzchen, which are simple, traditional German Christmas cookies. I found the recipe in the book Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss, a delightful tome full of traditional German baking recipes. Despite its title, it was published fairly recently and has some great background information and history about German baking. Which means…this will not be the last you’ll see of recipes from this book!

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Truth Time: I had actually checked this book out from my local library awhile ago before I started this blog and didn’t think much of it – at the time I was busy with work and didn’t think I could devote a lot of time or energy to the recipes. When I returned to the library to find new sources to pull from for the blog, I decided to give Classic German Baking another chance, and I’m so glad I did!

When I mentioned to my husband – who, might I add, took several years of German and knows the language fairly well – that I wanted to make Weihnachtsplätzchen, he looked at me with a confused look on his face. That was my first clue that I completely butchered the pronunciation of the word (I think I said something like “WINE-KNOCKED-SPLATS-CHEN” when it should have been “VINE-NAHKT-SHPLET-CHIN”….I think…). Weihnachts means Christmas, and plätzchen means biscuit cookie.

Put them together and you have….Christmas Biscuit Cookie!

According to the author, “every German baker has a recipe for simple Christmas cookies in her or his archive.” This one was a thin biscuit cookie that was flavored with lemon and incorporated European-style butter, which has a higher fat content than American butter (I used Kerrygold). There were a few options for the glaze for the top of the cookies, including using rum, kirsch, glacé cherries, or raspberry jam, but I chose to keep it simple with a lemon sugar glaze.

First, I mixed the flour and butter in a large bowl and worked it with my hands until it resembled coarse meal. The author said that she tried using all purpose as well as a blend of whole wheat and all purpose flours, and both worked well – I took her word for it and decided to use the blend. In a separate bowl, I whisked together powdered sugar, baking powder, grated lemon peel and salt. In yet another bowl (because two just weren’t enough!), I whisked together an egg yolk, whole milk, and vanilla extract.

I combined everything together in the large bowl and worked it with my hands. The dough came together a bit more crumbly than I would have liked, likely due to the fact that I used the flour blend instead of just all-purpose flour, so I added in more milk than the recipe called for (a tablespoon at a time until it came together smoothly). Once the dough was ready, I wrapped it into a ball and stuck it in the fridge for an hour so it would be easier to work with.

I then rolled out the dough and used my super awesome Christmas cookie cutters procured from a Target 75% off post-holiday sale from years’ past to cut out some shapes. Then I stuck them into a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes (it was clearly spelled out that the temperature was Fahrenheit instead of just Celcius, which as an American I very much appreciated). Once the cookies were cooled, I added the lemon glaze and some fun sprinkles to spread some holiday cheer.

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As far as taste – they were freaking delicious. Without the glaze they honestly didn’t look that appetizing, and I was concerned that they would be crunchy and dry with the consistency of a cracker. Oh no – they were nowhere near that texture. They were velvety-smooth, and slightly crumbly but just enough to remind you that you’re eating a cookie. They literally fell apart in my mouth in the most amazing way possible. The lemon added the right amount of sour to counteract the sweetness from the cookie and glaze. We had to stop ourselves from gobbling all of them up in five minutes flat…they were that tasty!

This is a great recipe to make with kids – my 5-year-old son helped me practically every step of the way and had a blast. He especially enjoyed glazing and decorating the cookies. Bonus: I got to share with him a piece of his culture as well, which really is the point of doing all of this!

What cookies are you making for the holidays? Using any traditional ancestral recipes? Please share – I want to hear all about it!

This recipe was made and adapted from the book Classic German Baking

Blueberry Tart With a Rye Crust | Norway, Scandinavia

A few weeks ago, we all took a much-needed staycation. Normally we travel somewhere for a week in the summer; one year we did Door County, last year we stayed in Michigan. However, with everything that’s been happening this year so far (good and bad), what we really needed was a break without the stress of planning a vacation and paying the hefty price tag that often goes along with it.

Plus, we want to do a bigger trip later in the year anyway, so this way we can save up and (hopefully) go all out. Adulting…it’s happening, folks!

As part of our staycation, we went to a local beach, took the train into the city and explored, and for our last day we decided to go to Michigan and pick blueberries.

It was a first for all of us – we’ve picked strawberries (lots of bending in the hot, hot sun) and raspberries right in our own backyard (lots of avoiding buzzing bees and thorny branches under some semblance of shade). A former boss of mine used to bring back a giant box full of blueberries that she would pick annually with her family in northern Michigan, and those blueberries were some of the best that I had ever had – sweet, slightly tart with a delicious tang. Ever since tasting those blueberries, I’ve been hankering to mosey on over to Michigan to pick some of my own.

This year, we finally got our chance. Instead of Northern Michigan, we went to the Southwest corner of the state and went to an orchard near the lake, hidden behind thicks of luminescent forested vegetation. We were all given white buckets to hang from our necks to hold the berries as we picked. The bushes were large – many bigger than me – practically dripping with plump, sweet berries begging to be plucked off.

In all, we picked four pounds(!) of blueberries, measured out and handed to us in a clear bag to taunt us on the long drive home. Mile-wise it actually wasn’t too long to our house, but getting through Indiana was a huge pain in the rear due to a very poorly planned highway system that caused impressively awful traffic snarls.

I was slightly vexed by how to use all of those berries. Sure, we could have easily eaten all of them right out of the bag (which we did with many of them), but I wanted an excuse to bake with them because the quality of ingredients really matters to me. There’s a huge taste difference in baking with store-bought berries and with those that you get straight from the orchard.

In my search for recipes, I came across a Nordic one for a blueberry tart with a rye crust. Honestly, I’m normally not a huge fan of rye bread, but since rye flour is used a lot in Nordic cuisine I figured I’d give it a shot. Many Nordic breads trend toward the rye variety, resulting in a dense, dark brick with lots of nuts and seeds dispersed throughout. In this case, however, the crust was meant to have more of a more graham-cracker like texture, with the rye flour providing a nice complement to the sweetly tart almond and blueberry filling.

I made two batches – one did not turn out so well since I overfilled them…whoops. After learning from this rookie mistake, the next batch turned out much, much better. The recipe itself was not too difficult to execute, nor were the ingredients terribly hard to procure, which was a nice change of pace from the last few I have made for the blog.

The tarts tasted delicious – the rye, almond and blueberry flavors synced quite nicely together, providing a subtly rich, sweet and tart tasting experience.

All in all, a pretty good way to use up some of those blueberries!

*This recipe was made and adapted from the blog Outside Oslo, by way of the Nordic Bakery Cookbook. Outside Oslo is written by a journalist turned food writer / blogger, and is an absolutely fantastic source of Nordic cuisine. Highly recommend you check it out!

Midsummer Almond Torte | Norway, Scandinavia

Have you ever had one of those days where absolutely nothing goes right?

You know the ones I’m talking about. The days where, as soon as you step out of bed, you know the universe is just not on your side. Nothing hugely bad happens, but lots of little maladies add up until you end up convinced that nothing but curling up in a fetal position in the corner with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s will make it disappear.

Well, today was one of those days. We woke up late, because the 4th of July now apparently means that people feel the need to set off fireworks all. week. long. We were all cranky from the collective lack of sleep, and our attempts at eliminating our sour moods did little to actually alleviate them.

One of my attempts to rid myself of my melancholy was to make a recipe from a book that I checked out from the library about Nordic living, called How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life by Signe Johansen. When I got the book, I wasn’t planning on using it for the blog since it’s geared more toward how to live a simple and happy Nordic life overall, but when I saw how much eating around the table and enjoying food and life were central to a Nordic sense of “hygge” (actually pronounced “hoo-ga,” not “hig-ee”), I knew I had to try one of the recipes out.

Although most of the recipes looked scrumptious, I had a difficult time locating one that wasn’t a super-heavy winter meal (not too surprising, considering where Scandinavia is situated on the globe). When I came across the Midsummer Almond Torte recipe, however, I knew it would be the perfect thing to make on a 80+ degree day.

I already had a good chunk of what I needed to make the torte, and the other ingredients required for the recipe looked easy enough to source from my local grocers.

Famous. Last. Words.

Google told me that I could find elderflower syrup at my local Trader Joe’s. Elderflowers and the syrup they make are widely found in Nordic countries, and show up a lot in their cuisine. It has a subtle, sweet and slightly floral flavor that lends itself well to sweets especially.

So, I went to the Trader Joe’s in the next town over and came up empty handed. I also tried Whole Foods and another grocery store, and then came back cursing to Google. That’s when I found the most likely place it would be: a little Swedish furniture store that goes by the name “IKEA.”

I drove the 20+ miles to the nearest IKEA to obtain the syrup, and miraculously resisted the siren calls of inexpensive Swedish home goods, cinnamon rolls and 99 cent frozen yogurt to buy it. On my way home, I stopped at Aldi for the rest of the items I needed, and low and behold, they didn’t have any lemons, because my day just wasn’t lousy enough already. After that I went to yet another grocery store, got the lemons, but wasn’t able to find the vitamins I wanted (related more to my general bad luck happening that day than to the actual recipe itself).

By the time I got home, I was tired, annoyed and sick of feeling like Blackbeard spending years trying to find treasure on a crappy old map. To cheer myself up, I watched an episode of The Great British Baking Show, and cheered when bakers got it right and empathized when they got it wrong (like that poor guy whose custard collapsed in front of Paul and Mary…many hugs to you, my brave baking comrade).

Feeling a bit less cranky and more inspired after watching the British give it a go, I gave the recipe a shot. Once again, it called for superfine sugar (which is more widely used in Nordic countries), so I pulled out my food processor and got to work grinding down the sugar. After creaming together four egg yolks and the sugar, I ground some almonds and added them to the mix, along with the lemon zest, melted butter, vanilla and salt.

It was at about that point that I wondered whether I should have used almond flour instead, since the mixture was thick and a little chunky. The recipe called for ground almonds, and I thought that’s literally what the author meant – to get some raw almonds and grind them down.

Then, I took the egg whites and whipped them furiously with my KitchenAid mixer until they had stiff peaks. I then gently spooned the whipped whites into the almond mixture until everything was just combined, and poured the batter into a round, greased cake pan, and put it in the oven.

The torte was supposed to bake at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 30-35 minutes. Of course it took longer – more to the tune of 45-50 minutes. Since it was around dinnertime and I had to get my son’s pizza in the oven before he became hangry, I grew impatient and took it out, hoping that it was finally finished.

That is, until I let it cool on the cooling rack and went to turn it out. It took some finagling to get it out of the pan, but when it finally did, it came off in pieces, with a big gaping hole in the center.

It took all of my self control not to scream in frustration. The torte that I had worked so hard to get elderflower syrup and lemons for was a heaping pile of undercooked almond torte dough. Because the sad sight of the crumbled mess wasn’t enough, my son came up behind me, saw the torte and let out a startled “Oh no, Mama, the cake is broken!”

Yes, son. That cake was so f**king broken – past the point of no return. And so was any last vestige of any inspiration had by me that day.

I halfheartedly made the lemon and elderflower sugar glaze and poured it over the top of the torte. I then cut up some strawberries and placed a few raspberries that I had picked that afternoon from the bushes in our backyard on top of the torte in an attempt to pretty it up.

But then, I looked at the mayhem of a torte on my kitchen counter, lemon sugar glaze oozing off the sides like slime, and couldn’t help myself: I let out a giggle. The giggle became a laugh, and the laugh evolved into an hysterical guffaw that I couldn’t control. I totally put lipstick on a pig of a torte, and thought it was one of the funniest damn things I had ever seen.

Here are the results. You may or may not laugh uncontrollably by the juxtaposition of lovely photos with the really stinking ugly torte.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And the pièce de résistance:

In terms of taste, well…it was okay. It probably would have tasted better if it was, you know, fully baked. To add insult to injury, the glaze topping was really overpowered by the lemon zest and juice. To be honest, I enjoyed the berries on top the most. My husband and kid liked it, though, so that’s something I guess…?

In failing at this baking attempt, I learned an important lesson. On a day where life throws you so many lemons, and you try making some lemonade, sometimes that lemonade just doesn’t turn out, and you make a huge mess. And that’s okay, as long as you learn something from it, and maybe try again another day where the lemons are in shorter supply – in this case, be patient, and no matter what these European recipes tell me, trust my baking instincts.

Would I make it again? Probably not. I have no desire whatsoever to perfect this recipe, and I can totally live with that.

However, if you’re interested in learning more about how a simple Nordic life could bring happiness, I would totally recommend checking out How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life! One of my favorite philosophies that was presented in the book was to get outside, no matter the weather – with the exception of a blizzard / hurricane / tornado / other extremely dangerous weather event, of course. I typically find that I put forth a lot of excuses for not going outside (i.e.: it’s raining, it’s too cold, it’s too hot, etc.), and this book took those excuses and went “Pfshhhh….you just don’t dress / plan appropriately for it! Get your butt out there and enjoy!” It really made me want to appreciate the simpler aspects of life, and also maybe to move back to the land of my forefathers and mothers….but that’s another story, for another time.

*This post contains affiliate links. Also, this recipe was made and adapted from How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life.

Rotkohl (Sweet & Sour Red Cabbage) | Germany

Red cabbage has intrigued and intimidated me for many years.

It’s likely because I’ve used regular cabbage in the past for other recipes, and have become overwhelmed by how ginormous they are. I’d use a quarter of the cabbage for whatever recipe I was trying that day, and still have more than enough leftover to feed a small army.

Lately I’ve been trying to give red cabbage a fairer shake because it’s healthy, and well…it’s pretty! Apparently it’s loaded with nutrients, most notably Vitamin K, which helps your blood clot, which is reassuring since it can be cumbersome to chop something as large as a cabbage.

I’ve been increasingly using red cabbage lately to make homemade slaw and salads, but then would run into the same problem I did with its less aesthetically-pleasing counterpart – I’d use about half of the head of cabbage and ended up with a ton leftover, and no idea of what to do with the rest of it other than to make more slaw or salad. Which I guess are decent options, but my taste buds tend to get bored and require variety, so I needed something else to make with it to tickle my fancy.

That’s when the proverbial lightbulb went off in my head: why not make Rotkohl with the rest of it?

Rotkohl is essentially sweet and sour red cabbage that’s been cooked so long that it practically melts in your mouth. I’ve had it at many German restaurants, and was amazed at how delicious something as simple as red cabbage could be. It’s served as a side dish, and, unlike sauerkraut, it’s tender and sweet with a slight tang, and makes for a perfect complement to sausage or schnitzel, or really any traditional German fare.

I tried, in vain, to find a cheap and quick fix whenever a craving for this delicacy hit, since German restaurants – though delicious and providing generous portions – tend to be a bit on the pricier side. I tried bottled red cabbage that I found at my local grocery store, but was sorely disappointed that it wasn’t nearly the same flavor level as what I had encountered at German restaurants.

So, I decided to try making it from scratch. However, the recipes I found were either super complicated or took forever – or both. After that realization, I tucked my red cabbage making dreams away like an old knitting project, hopeful that I’d pull it back out and execute it once I was ready.

Earlier this month, since this blog gave me an excuse to finally try it out…I was ready. I had half a head of red cabbage leftover from making a slaw for pork sliders, a Rotkohl recipe (I used this one from the Daring Gourmet), a dream, and some chutzpah. I was finally going to make my red cabbage fantasies come true!

There was one small problem: I couldn’t find the Juniper berries that the recipe called for, which provide a pine-like essence that adds a depth of flavor to the dish. Anywhere. I found elderberries. I found allspice berries. I found gogi berries. But Juniper berries? Like a sneaky and sly fox, they hid from me, with the promise of local availability via Google searches turning out to be quite false.

Since I’m what my father affectionally calls a “Stubborn German,” I couldn’t leave well enough alone, and it became an obsessive and epic search for these damn berries. After looking all over Kingdom Come and almost giving up hope, one morning I was passing a Whole Foods, and decided to stop in and check since I needed a tomato, and thought “Why the hell not? One last try.”

Well, in the spice aisle of this magical Whole Foods, I finally found the final piece to my red cabbage recipe puzzle. I swear that I saw a light shine on the bottle of Juniper berries, and heard the faint echo of the “Hallelujah” chorus.

I brought the bottle of Juniper berries home, excited to finally get started, when I took another look at the recipe and realized that I didn’t have a tart apple that the recipe also called for.

After lots of facepalming and swearing on my part, I obtained a couple of Granny Smith apples from my neighborhood grocer (those, thankfully, were far easier to find!), and finally got to work in the kitchen.

The recipe itself is actually fairly easy to execute – you heat 1/4 cup of butter (I actually reduced that amount to 2.5 tablespoons, since I thought a 1/4 cup was way too much) in a large pot and brown one diced onion for a few minutes. Then, you add in the sliced cabbage and cook for about five minutes. After the cabbage and the onion get a little “happy,” add the diced apple, vegetable broth, bay leaf, cloves, Juniper berries, red currant jam, red wine vinegar, sugar and salt (I chose to omit the jam since it was optional, and after the Great Search for Juniper Berries, I was pretty much over trying to locate specialty items).

Then, you bring everything to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

You’re probably wondering: was all of this searching, all of this chopping, all of this waiting for a couple of hours for it to cook down – was it worth it?

In two words: Hells. Yes.

We ate it as a side dish to accompany roasted carrots and the leftover pork roast that I had made in the slow cooker the day before. After tasting the familiar tender and sweet morsels of red cabbage that I had previously only  experienced in a restaurant setting, a childlike grin spread across my face, and I exclaimed to my family: “Oh yeah…this is it. This is the stuff.” My husband, after tasting it himself, heartily agreed, and my kid…well, he was being a “Stubborn German” that day, and wasn’t really interested.

But that was okay. More for me!

“Nothing” Soup | Poland

Life has been a bit rough lately. Lots of death. Lots of drama. Lots of life and work fails.

Which comes as no surprise that, when I had decided on what I wanted to make next on my culinary heritage journey, I wanted to make nothing.

That didn’t stop me from at least putting forth a minimum effort while I tried to cheer myself out of my melancholy, by checking out a book from my local library, Polish Cookery : Poland’s Bestselling Cookbook Adapted for American Kitchens, by Marja Ochorowicz-Monatowa (try saying that five times fast).

While The New Nordic: Recipes from a Scandinavian Kitchen was captivating and beautiful in its depiction of Scandinavia and its cuisine, Polish Cookery was bare bones and basic. It was like comparing a picture of Catherine Zeta-Jones to a picture of Amy Farrah-Fowler from The Big Bang Theory.

Like Amy, although Polish Cookery is nothing special to devour with your eyes, the substance is most definitely there. Recipes ranged from liver soup (which I surprisingly want to make!) to dumplings to meat pastries. When thumbing through this tiny but mighty volume, I came across a few…shall we say, interesting options:

  • Hunter’s Stew – At first, I was intrigued by this, since it’s a super-duper traditional Polish recipe, and according to the author, “…no Polish cookbook would be complete without it.” After taking a closer look at the recipe, however, I realized that I required a small village to feed in order to make it plausible for me to even consider making this monster. It calls for at least a half pound of eight different types of meat, six to eight pounds of sauerkraut, and a ton of other ingredients to make this thing. Thanks, but no thanks.
  • Cold Stuffed Goose Neck, Marrow Balls, Suckling Pig in Aspic, Calf’s Brain Mayonnaise (apparently the Poles are very into Calf’s brains, as there was more than one recipe devoted to what I thought was a pretty obscure body part)….now don’t those all sound delicious?!
  • Calf’s Lungs in Wine sauce. Because wine will make that stuff taste good. One would assume.
  • Gruel. Enough said.

Although this volume is chock full of many traditional Polish recipes, the author showed some restraint and opted not to include the recipe for peacocks from another traditional Polish cookbook, because apparently “at royal banquets, a favorite dish was a pâté made of peacocks’ brains, and two to three thousand birds had to be slaughtered at one time.”

Two to three thousand freaking peacocks. For some pâté for part of a recipe. A bit excessive, no?

Anyway, not all of the recipes consisted of obscene amounts of meat and peacock brains, or other mystery meat. Some of them looked pretty damn delicious, like braised wild duck, pork goulash, whole chestnut stuffing, chicken and rice casserole, roast loin of pork, stuffed apples in wine, and more.

Remember earlier when I said I wanted to make nothing?  Turns out, the universe has a twisted and wicked sense of humor, since this cookbook included a recipe for…you guessed it: “Nothing.”

Well, “Nothing Soup,” to be exact.

I noticed this recipe under the “Summer Soups” section, when it shot up to 80 degrees (because in Chicago, Spring is as elusive as finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, or a unicorn…it’s either really cold, or really hot, none of the glorious in-between weather that begs for a sweater and a bonfire). The ingredients – milk, eggs, sugar and a vanilla bean – looked simple enough, plus a nice, sweet, cold and refreshing soup was just what I needed to cool off on a Chicago spring day.

How hard could it be?

Well, it wasn’t really difficult, per say…but it did require a lot of patience, as I had to scald the milk and vanilla bean. One small problem: I didn’t know how to scald milk. Now, I’m a pretty adept cook, especially compared to some other people I know who would give me a bewildered stare when I’d ask them to dice or julienne a vegetable, but I honestly didn’t know what it meant to scald milk.

Good old Google / Allrecipes.com to the rescue, which instructed me to heat the milk and the vanilla bean on medium heat until just at the boiling point. Apparently, scalding milk is a great way to get the most flavor out of vanilla and cinnamon. The more you know!

For the first 15-20 minutes or so, I patiently stirred the milk so it wouldn’t develop what’s called a skim, which is a thin layer of milk fat that develops on top. While stirring, my son and I danced along to Queen in the kitchen – well, more like I danced, and he hopped around and shrieked a lot. Relocation of a certain cat who shall remain nameless since he kept leaping up on the counter to beg for food also occurred in this timeframe.

After 20 minutes of medium heat, I got a bit impatient since it still wasn’t to the boiling point yet, and not wanting to be at the stove until midnight I bumped up the heat a couple of times to medium-highish. Some skim did develop, but I got most of it off, and it blessedly came to a rolling boil. Finally!

I transferred the milk to a large Pyrex container to cool. While it was cooling, I separated a few eggs and beat the egg yolks and a few tablespoons of sugar together. When they were almost white, I added them to a double boiler heated over medium-lowish heat. I then slowly added in the vanilla-infused milk with one hand while whipping everything furiously with the other, making a frothy, sweet treat.

After everything was whipped up, I transferred the soup to another Pyrex container, and put it in the fridge to cool. The author offered an optional way to use up the egg whites so they don’t go to waste – something called “kisses,” which are heavily beaten egg whites with sugar, baked at a low temperature to dry them out. Kind of like meringues.

Making the kisses was actually pretty easy, but again I was stumped by a culinary term I’d never heard before – I was supposed to put the kisses into a “slow oven.” What? Like, was it supposed to be an oven that was outpaced by other ovens that were faster? An oven where the heat had to come up more slowly than others?

Again, Google to the rescue – turns out it refers to an oven at a lower temperature. However, that temperature varied widely; some sites suggested 250-325 degrees Fahrenheit, others suggested 300 degrees, others said as low as 200 degrees. I decided to go in the middle and bake them at 300 degrees for 30 minutes, since the recipe called for a 30-40 minute bake, and to not let them brown.

Yeah….I let them brown. I guess that’s what happens when “slow oven” has more than one meaning, temperature-wise.

Below are a couple of photos of the final result. I couldn’t really shape the kisses all that well, and since they ended up browning they look kind of like….well, blobs of dirt. However, everything tasted absolutely scrumptious (really!). The soup had a custard-like taste, but a thin, souplike consistency, and was very smooth and creamy. It was sweet, but not too sweet, and infused with just the right amount of vanilla flavor. The kiss actually tasted good as well, despite its humble looks – light, sweet and airy, with just a hint of chewiness.

As for the lilac garnish, the lilac bush in our backyard is blooming away, so in an effort to pretty up what essentially looked like a bowl of soup with some odd-shaped brown thing floating in it, I decided to include a small branch of flowers in the photos.

Because in a time of gloom we all need a reminder of what’s beautiful, whether it’s something that we make, or that nature creates.

*This post contains affiliate links. Also, this recipe was made and adapted from Polish Cookery : Poland’s Bestselling Cookbook Adapted for American Kitchens

Sweet Potato, Asparagus and Bacon Hash | Germany, Norway, Scandinavia

I’ve been making hashes for years. Usually they consist of some potatoes or other starchy vegetable, onions, bell peppers, green veggies, eggs, and breakfast meat. It’s a fabulous way to get a lot of the major food groups onto one plate to help fuel your day.

Do they look super fancy and exciting? To be honest…no, they really don’t. Actually, sometimes they look pretty disgusting and usually resemble something akin to what a dog or a cat should eat. Our son would often look at the plate of hash in front of him and glance up at us in disbelief, wondering what transgression earned him such a crappy meal. But, it’s a great way to use up whatever veggies and breakfast meats that are languishing in the fridge, and it’s super easy to make.

And trust me….hashes taste a hell of a lot better than they look!

When reading through The New Nordic: Recipes from a Scandinavian Kitchen, I came across a recipe for Pyttipanna. Looking at the photo accompanying the recipe, I thought to myself “Wow, that looks a lot like hash!” Turns out, it was indeed hash! In the recipe notes, the author explained that it, in Swedish, Pyttipanna means “scraping together” ingredients, the idea being “that you bring together leftover meat and vegetables in a pan for a hearty meal.”

Have I really been making hash for all of these years without knowing that my ancestors likely made the same thing, albeit in a slightly different way? It certainly seems like it, although in the course of my research on this subject, I had to sort through lots of websites that concentrated on the other hash (aka: marijuana).

Here’s what I found: In Norway, it’s called Pyttipanne, and it’s the same concept as the Swedish version – essentially, gather whatever leftover ingredients you have laying around, throw them in a pan with some eggs and cheese, and voilà: a hearty, healthy, and satisfying meal. The German equivalent is called Labskaus, which is commonly made with beef or corned beef, onions and boiled potatoes, and then fried in lard. Beetroot and herring also are often added to the hash, or served as a side dish. (source)

This past week has been a bit emotionally draining. We had a dear family member pass away unexpectedly last week, so I’ve been putting forth an effort to make healthier and heartier meals for me and my family so we’re all well fed and strong enough to deal with the emotional rollercoaster of the past week. Food doesn’t just nourish our bodies; it also feeds our souls, which is exactly what we all need right now.

To be completely honest, I totally made up this recipe, and although it’s not super-authentic Norsk or German, it is a hash that I often enjoy making and eating.

Here’s what I do: I fry up a pound of bacon cut into small pieces. After draining a majority of the bacon fat and adding about a tablespoon of butter to the pan, I throw in cubed sweet potatoes and cook for a few minutes until tender, but not mushy. After that, I add in cut asparagus, and cover for about five minutes to allow it to steam the vegetables. I then return the cooked bacon to the pan and season everything with salt and pepper to taste, and then crack four or five eggs and scramble them into the mixture. I finish with some shredded cheddar cheese on top, because cheese is amazing.

I’ve put other veggies, like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and even beets into this kind of hash before with great results. I’ve also used sausage, but I feel like bacon lends itself better to hashes. Plus, c’mon…bacon is freaking delicious, and if you don’t like it, I’d have to question your sanity.

*This post contains affiliate links.