A light in the window

Night Apartment

In a country where the sun sets before three o’clock on the shortest days of the year, it’s no surprise that lighting plays a crucial role in the home. Swedes take lighting seriously, and even our tiny town has three lamp stores lining the main square.

When we moved into our IKEA-issued, furnished apartment, we were puzzled to find several mismatched lamps scattered around the small studio: table lamps, desk lamps, and lamps stashed away in closets. Scott even found a chartreuse frosted glass lamp balanced on the front windowsill and promptly removed it.

Mylonits

When he came home from his first day on the job, he immediately rushed to the closet to recover the lamp and restore it to its former position. “It’s supposed to be there,” he said in the fretful tone that comes with being new to a country and mindful of cultural blunders. He’d learned at work that it’s traditional to keep a light in the front window on winter nights and to keep the blinds open until bedtime. From this I deduce that it’s probably not traditional to walk around in your pyjamas all evening, which is probably a good habit to cultivate anyway.

In Canada, traditions tend to be observed mostly by older folks who are joined by the younger crowd only on special occasions. Not so in Sweden, where they are very big on tradition. In the case of the window lamp, I was delighted to discover that the vast majority of windows in Älmhult, Stockholm and points between are lovingly illuminated every evening around four o’clock. The effect is magnificent and turns a trudge down a windy, wintery street into a holy processional home.

It’s not just an urban tradition, either. Even a farmhouse in a desolate field of snow will have pinpricks of light in its windows, casting a friendly yellow glow into the night.

House windows

While I’m sure some Swedes, especially those who don’t have the luxury of working from home, probably automate their lamps with timers, pressing the switch has become a cherished part of my day. To pause for a moment, mark the sun’s retreat and look forward to seeing Scott walk through the door always fills me with quiet joy.

Next week, my travels take me to a conference in Las Vegas, so I leave behind the grey skies of Småland for now. But even as I pack to go, I’m already dreaming of getting off the train at Älmhult station, turning the corner onto our street, and seeing the strange green halo that means Scott is waiting to welcome me back to the light and warmth of our home.

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Semla

Semla

Dessert says a lot about a place and its people.

Hints about attitudes toward leisure, pleasure, and extravagance are revealed by the time, care and resources a country dedicates to what some people might call a non-essential food group. (Note: I am not one of those people.) A region’s finest fruits are proudly featured in tarts and pies, and the best of the season’s produce and cream are often the foundation of beloved holiday sweets.

It’s with good reason that the French speak of their madeleines; sweet things are the stuff of childhood, and memories of gatherings with loved ones take on an extra sparkle when seen through a veil of sugar. Behind every cherished cake recipe are the histories of countless grandmothers setting down stools to help little ones stir the batter. All this can be sensed when you first taste the specialty of the region you’re in.

So a good bakery is one of the first things I look for when I arrive in a new city. (Anything in the name of research.) When I walked into my first bakery in Sweden, my eye was immediately drawn to rows upon rows of enormous cream puffs. Seeing as this was a small town on a Tuesday, I was baffled by the sheer number and sorry for the poor soul who would be left with the ones at the back, no doubt many days later. Or so I thought.

It turns out that this baseball-sized confection, called a semla, is serious business in Sweden, and those I saw in the konditori that day likely sold out long before the doors shut for the evening. The average Swede eats five of these traditional Easter pastries every year, so I definitely have some catching up to do.

The size of the semla makes a little more sense once you get the chance to taste it. It’s not so much a cream puff as a cream bun. The bread is soft and light; a little like what you’d find in a homemade cinnamon roll or hot cross bun. The creamy filling is not the heavy, solid mass you get in a lot of similar-looking North American treats. Instead, it’s a delicate, only-just-sweet whipped cream flavored with cardamom to give it depth. Between the bread and the cream is a thin, subtle layer of marzipan that adds a little richness without overpowering the flavor.

Nothing I write could convey to you how delicious this is, and I can definitely see why they’re advertised on big signs outside every place that sells them. At our bakery in Älmhult, they even get their very own bags.

Semlor

The plural form of semla is semlor, which sounds to me like the name of a villain in the Lord of the Rings. (Semlor. WE MEET AGAIN…Hardcore traditionalists are said to eat semlor by placing them in a bowl and pouring hot milk overtop. I’ve been assured this is delicious, but I can’t bring myself to do it. (Wouldn’t the milk melt away all the whipped cream?)

If you’re looking for something a little different to serve your sweetie pie this Valentine’s Day, I’ve included a recipe for semlor here. Who knows? It may even win you a princess.

Thanks to a cream bun...Thanks to a cream bun...

Semlor (recipe from Ewa at delishhh.com)

Yield: 16-20 buns

Total Time: 2 hours

6 tbsp butter
1 cup milk
1 packet dry yeast or 50g of fresh yeast
1 pinch salt
3 tbsp sugar
3 cups flour
1 tsp cardamom
2 eggs, beaten (one for brushing)

Filling:
10 oz. almond paste (recipe below)
1/2 cup milk (only if you are using store-bought almond paste)
1  1/2 cup whipping cream
confectioners (icing) sugar

Almond paste:
3/4 cups almonds or 3/4 cups almond meal (you can get this at Trader Joe’s or any organic food store)
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup sugar

Melt the butter in a saucepan, pour in the milk, and heat until lukewarm (99° F). Pour the yeast in a bowl (crumble the yeast if using fresh), and stir in a little of the warm butter-milk mixture until the yeast is completely dissolved. Add the rest of the butter/milk mixture, 1 egg, salt, sugar, cardamom and most of the flour (save some for kneading). Work the dough. It should loosen from the edges of the bowl.

Allow the dough to rise under a towel/cloth for 40 minutes. Sprinkle remaining flour on the counter, place the dough there and knead a few minutes, getting rid of any air pockets. Roll the dough into one big ball. Divide into 16-20 pieces. Make each piece into a round ball and place on a baking sheet with parchment paper. Allow buns to rise for  30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 440° F.

Brush the buns with the beaten egg and bake them for about 10 minutes in the middle of the oven or until golden brown. Let them cool on an oven rack under a towel/cloth.

Once cooled, cut off the very top of each bun. With your fingers, scoop out the insides and put them in a bowl.

If you don’t have store-bought almond paste, this is a good time to make it. Warm the milk and pour it, together with the almonds/almond meal, sugar, and the insides of the buns into a food processor to make a nice smooth paste. The warm milk will melt the sugar.

If you have store-bought almond paste, crumble it into a food processor, add the insides of the buns, and process with a little milk to make a smooth paste.

Put the almond filling into the buns. Whip the cream and put a large dollop in every bun. Put the tops back on and sift some confectioners’ sugar overtop.

Eat as is, or serve in a bowl with warm milk

7 trends spotted at Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair

Bent wood abstract chair

Just days after arriving in Älmhult, it was time to hit the road again for the Furniture & Light Fair at Stockholm Design Week. The Swedish capital is a five-hour train ride north, winding through pine forests, cheery villages and rolling, snowy fields. Arriving at Stockholmsmässen, the scenery got a whole lot more energetic as acres of exhibits from some of Western Europe’s top industrial designers unfolded before us.

There’s a gallery at the bottom of this post with photos of fifty of my favorite pieces from the show. There were a few design choices that were very popular, and while some of these trends were predictable (mid-century modern? In Sweden?), others were interesting surprises. Here are some of both:

1. Blonde wood: It being a Scandinavian show, this trend was a given. Most of the wooden pieces on display were pale and graceful, and there was an even split between modern minimalist and simple rustic styles.

Bent wood loungerLovely loveseat

2. Textile upholstery: Leather furniture was scarce; in fact, out of the hundreds of booths, I can only remember a handful of leather pieces. Upholstery was king, and popular colours included heather gray, mustard yellow, and burnt orange.

Easychairs clean linesPuffy chair

I loved this chair, though don’t ask me what’s on the wall behind it. I don’t remember anyone tripping with a supersized Coke in their hands, so I’m guessing it’s an unfortunate effect of the unvarnished wood.

3. Warm-toned metal lighting pieces: One of the big surprises of the show was the huge number of brassy, coppery chandeliers and pendant lamps. While some designers went for fine detail and delicate shapes, most opted for massive, chunky pieces that seemed destined to hang from exposed beam ceilings.

Shiny pendantsBrass pendants

4. Northern African-inspired colours in lighting: Building on the popularity of Moroccan lamps from a few years ago, several designers incorporated materials that evoked the shades, if not the shapes, of North African textiles.

Morrocanish chandeliersThread wrapped chandeliers

5. Puffy white chandeliers: Another long-standing European lighting trend, and still going strong. I have a real fondness for this style of fixture though I wonder if, and when, this trend will wear itself out.

Hot air balloonish chandeliersCloud chandeliers

6. Geometric pendant lamps: Many of my favorite lighting pieces at the show fell into this category. Structured, simple and lovely.

Rhomboid pendantsCloud lamps

7. Leafy lights: These pieces had the effect of bringing a sunny park into the interior space without drifting too far into whimsical territory.

Featherleaf pendantsFeatherleaf

There will hopefully be more to share as we hit some other big shows in Western Europe this spring. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with the full image gallery and this terrific head-scratcher:

Where goes the white?

And here’s the gallery:

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And we’re off!

IKEA cake

One of my favorite song lyrics is John Lennon’s “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans“, a concept which comes in handy when I find myself dwelling excessively on possible alternative futures. Of all the things I imagined doing this winter, moving to a small town in Sweden wasn’t even on the radar. With Scott in the final year of his Industrial Design degree and me busy with work and music, there were no clues that a major change was looming.

So when we got the call in November that Scott had been selected for a design internship with IKEA of Sweden, we were stunned to see our vision of the future transform in an instant. There wasn’t much time to get used to the idea; eight weeks of packing, sixty-four boxes and a garage-sized storage locker later, we’re on our way to Älmhult, Sweden.

Moving away from the home city is an emotional experience, which we learned six years ago when we left Calgary for Vancouver. The most difficult thing, then as now, is the prospect of being far away from dear friends. No matter what exciting adventures lie ahead, it’s hard to leave behind the quiet joy of tea on rainy afternoons, laughter over wine, leisurely walks by the ocean and sun-soaked weekends in the Okanogan.

It’s a touching paradox that the same friends who make leaving Vancouver so hard also came together to make the departure easier. Whether by dropping in to help with the packing, carting giant boxes around in the rain, hosting a lavish going away party, or putting us up in the last days of the move, our friends have been instrumental in giving this venture its start.

And so it’s for friends and family everywhere that I decided to blog about this next five months in Sweden. I want to share with all of you the beauty, flavors and idiosyncrasies of the new places and cultures to be discovered. There will no doubt be lots to tell about life in a small town in Småland and about travels in Sweden and farther afield. In this way, I keep all of you with me wherever I go, so whether I’m wandering the wind-swept shores of Gotland or staring down a plate of rotten herring, I’ll take comfort in knowing that we’re in this together.

Vi ses snart! (See you soon…)