Danishes and Elderberry at Andersen bakery, Copenhagen

Danishes

Long before my first visit to Copenhagen, my mother traveled there to accompany my sister on an audition. Mom was delighted to report that the Øresund area had a thriving food culture and that the breakfast pastries in Denmark were some of the best she’d ever tasted. “They’re hard to describe,” she said. “There was fruit filling, and the pastry was light, but not overly crispy. It was almost like a… danish!” There was a pause, then everyone (including Mom) burst out laughing at the silliness of this minor eureka moment.

It makes perfect sense that the pastries in question would be called danishes. They are to Danes what croissants are to the French, and they can be found in every bakery and cold breakfast spread in Copenhagen. Oddly enough, despite their popularity, Denmark hesitates to claim these pastries as their own. The Danish call it wienerbrød, which translates as “bread of Vienna”, because locals credit Austria with the invention of this breakfast staple . Meanwhile, Austrians return the volley by referring to these pastries as Kopenhagener Plunder or Dänischer Plunder.

Figuring that a danish by any other name probably tastes just as sweet, Scott and I headed to Andersen Bakery to try them for ourselves. One of Copenhagen’s top bakeries, Andersen is named for the city’s native son, Hans Christian Andersen, and its history is almost a fairy tale in itself.

Once upon a time, a Japanese baker named Shunsuke Takaki visited Copenhagen and fell in love with the beautiful Danish pastries. He was so taken by their loveliness that when he returned to his home in the faraway land of Japan, he opened his own Danish bakery in Hiroshima. As the years passed he opened more Andersen Bakery locations, and soon the land was filled with the magical aroma of fresh bread. He ruled over these bakeries wisely, but his heart always yearned for the country where he was first inspired. Years later, Takaki’s son and daughter fulfilled their father’s dream and opened three Andersen bakeries in Copenhagen, followed by another in San Francisco.

The story ends, as every fairy tale should, with much rejoicing. Takaki’s dream is manifest in a gleaming bakery with long rows of golden and jewel-colored delights, and just one bite of Andersen’s fabled danish was enough to make me feel like I could live happily ever after. The wienerbrød’s base was an unusually tender puff pastry that had all the flaky, airy qualities you’d expect on top of an almost strudel-like chewiness. The icing was just the way I like it: not overly sweet, but perfectly set without a trace of hardness. Of the two danishes we ordered, the raspberry one was filled with an intensely flavorful seedless jam that was well balanced in sweetness and acidity. The vanilla cream version was equally impressive with generous flecks of raw vanilla bean sprinkled throughout its velvety custard filling.

Danish detail

Almost as enticing as its pastry selection was Andersen’s array of warm beverages. I ordered hyldeblomst saft, which the menu board helpfully translated as “elderflower water”. Unlike in Canada, where you only find elderberry in cocktails and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this wild woodland blossom is a staple of the Scandinavian flavor profile. My drink was served warm with lemon, and while its flavor was certainly floral, it was more like chamomile flower than rose or jasmine. After the vivid and balanced flavors of the pastries, the elderflower water was shockingly sweet, which made me wonder why it was served with a spoon. It certainly didn’t need any added sugar, and the floral notes would not have stood up to milk. Nevertheless, the spoon was there, and having nowhere else to put it, I left it in the glass where it made breakfast interesting by poking me in the eye a few times.

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If you’re in Copenhagen, I’d definitely recommend stopping in at Andersen Bakery for breakfast. The danishes are unquestionably delicious, and if you have a sweet tooth, give the hyldeblomst saft a chance. Despite its sweetness, it really is very good; so much so that next time someone tells me my father smells of elderberry, I will take it as a compliment.

Andersen Tivoli/Nimb
Bernstorffsgade 5, København
Tel: 033 75 07 35

Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time.

Taunting

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SMAK Malmö Konsthall

SMAK salad bar

I am convinced that the people of Malmö are some of the friendliest in the world. I formed this hypothesis during a day trip to the city, where interactions with the locals were improbably pleasant, even for Sweden. The bright-eyed girl serving pastries at Ambrosia Cafe & Konditori chatted happily for ten minutes about life, marriage, and the unique challenges of working at a bakery in a tourist city. (One of these was having to switch between speaking Swedish, English and French, which she did with admirable ease.) When Scott and I went to get SIM cards, the smiling lady who sold them was so intent on providing the best phone plan that she sent us down the street to another store. There, we met yet another amiable woman who waxed lyrical about the joys of spring and recommended we visit a cemetery where we would find snowdrops and crocuses by the thousands.

Flowers

With so much good will floating around, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the warm reception we got at SMAK, the excellent restaurant housed in Malmo Konsthall art museum. I’d sent an email late the night before, hoping to secure a last-minute reservation, but I hadn’t had a chance to check my inbox that morning for a reply. As soon as we walked into the busy space, the beaming (and possibly clairvoyant) greeter called out “Ah, Sarah!”, and ushered us to a table marked by a lovely hand-written card. After settling in for a moment to take in the shining surfaces and merry daytime candlelight, we stood to begin our meal.

Back in Canada, there aren’t many enjoyable dining experiences that involve carrying around one’s own tray. (Vancouver’s wonderful Art Gallery Cafe is a notable exception.) In Sweden, it’s pretty much the norm. Most lunch places offer a choice between three or four main courses with self-serve salad bar, bread station, coffee, and sometimes even cookies to end the meal. So after a quick trip to the counter to grab trays, pick up cutlery and order our mains, we moved on to what might just be the best salad spread I’ve ever tasted.  

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The dishes were deceptively simple. A carrot salad flavored with ginger, orange, dijon might not seem like anything to write home about, but the precise balance of flavors was like nothing I’d tasted before. Another salad featured large, chewy durum wheat grains called Ebly (which were a joy to discover), and was likewise skillfully seasoned with paprika, garlic and coriander. Even the green salad, a fresh, peppery mix of arugula, thinly sliced radish and citrus vinaigrette, was exceptional. The bread station was piled high with rustic loaves that bore the scorch marks of an artisanal oven, and the thick crusts gave way to rich softness inside.

SMAK bread station

The relaxed, friendly service was perfectly on point, leaving just enough time to enjoy the salads at our leisure before the main courses arrived. Scott’s dish was a gorgeous beet terrine topped with walnuts, goat cheese, mizuna, pear and red onion. I wish I’d gotten a better picture of this plate, because it was as beautiful as it was delicious.

SMAK beet terrine

My main course was baked cod with carrots, pickled mustard seeds, beetroot sprouts and a creamy, mussel-infused sauce. While I could go on at length about the sweet, flaky fish or the luscious sauce, the real show-stoppers were the pickled mustard seeds. They brought all the richness of dijon without any of the sharpness, and combined it with an almost caviar-like texture.

Cod

The overall experience was so impressive. I suspect the chef moonlights as a classical composer, because the menu was put together with all the skill and artistry of a piano sonata. The distinct flavors of the ingredients came together in perfect harmony, and themes introduced early in the meal reappeared as variations later on. Despite the unique character of each dish, there was a discernible tone to the whole meal that spoke of restrained and rigorous attention to seasonal ingredients.

At the end of this outstanding meal, I was almost relieved to find that SMAK’s coffee station didn’t include any sweet treats. (Almost.) A hot drink was the perfect end to our lunch, and Scott liked the coffee so much he had two cups. The restaurant is situated directly beside the main exhibit space, so we were treated to an after-lunch stroll among a selection of featured paintings, photographs and sculptures from the City of Malmö’s art collection.

Malmö konsthall

There were a couple of great pieces on display, including Andres Serrano’s stunning Black Supper. I was also happy to see this jolly little guy:

Malmö konsthall bonhomme

And just when I thought the fun was over, right outside the front door of the museum was a playground with stylish steel monkey bars in a variety of artsy shapes, squiggles, and curlicues.

Playground

Monkey bars

I didn’t actually climb the monkey bars, though I was sorely tempted. Instead I made the grown-up choice and took Scott’s arm to walk back towards the rusty-red roofs of the old town.

If you are in Malmö, SMAK is an absolute must. I can’t think of a better way to spend a lunch hour.

SMAK Malmö Konsthall
S:t Johannesgatan 7, Malmö
Tel: 040-50 50 35

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