As much as I love blogging, one of the things that come with putting yourself in public is that you get strange things in your mailbox. Every day — and I mean every day — my mailbox is inundated with stolen content notifications, invitations to join a mail-order bride club, offers for a product that’s supposed to enlarge a body part I don’t have, etc. If you catch me in front of the computer muttering and saying bad words under my breath, chances are I’m checking my email.
But interspersed with tooth whitener offers and 24-hour free passes to websites of dubious nature are kind notes from my readers who take the time to tell me how appreciative they are of this little blog. If there’s any truth to a definition of (divine) grace as “an undeserved favor,” well, then I have to say I’ve found myself at the receiving end of grace quite frequently ever since I started blogging 16 months ago. If you catch me in front of the computer flapping my arms, grinning like an idiot, and whimpering with joy, chances are I’m checking my email.
I woke up one morning last November to an email from a reader from Sweden, Mikael Zayenz Lagerkvist, a doctoral student from Sweden, who described himself as “a Swedish guy that a) loves cooking, and b) loves Thai food.” He wrote: “… what I would like to say with this letter is that I found your blog a few weeks ago, and you have truly inspired me to new heights in the kitchen. To date I’ve done Laab Gai with home-made Khao Khua, your peanut sauce, sweet sticky coconut rice with mango, and a coconut-curry based on a recipe from you. All your recipes have turned out wonderful, and I love the Laab Gai (one of my favourite dishes of all time in general). My girlfriend is also really happy that I found your blog, since she gets all sorts of new and wonderful dishes …”
If that doesn’t make one’s day, one is probably dead.
Mikael’s initial email came with some questions and a few requests, so he and I were exchanging emails for a bit after that. Since the closest thing to Sweden I have been to is IKEA, every bit of information about the country, the culture, and the people of Sweden which I’ve learned from my new friend has been truly fascinating.
Of course, we had to talk about food. To my amusement, I’ve learned that the common Thai dish, chicken and cashew stir-fry (ไก่ผัดเม็ดมะม่วงหิมพานต์), has been thoroughly indigenized by the people of Sweden to the point where it has become a Swedish dish in much the same way as how Tikka Masala is a British dish.
But what about the Swedish cuisine? Cloudberries, rhubarb, strawberries, and blue berries are also used quite a bit in Swedish desserts. According to Mikael, waffles with cloudberry jam, rhubarb crumble, and strawberries with milk are all very typical. Swedes are into berries and apparently proud of their local produce. “Swedish strawberries are in season around June, and they are excellent. The cold Swedish climate seems to be perfect to get them really sweet and tasty. I’ve never tasted really good strawberries outside of the Nordic countries,” Mikael said.
Other than the aforementioned berries, Mikael has noticed that, when it comes to dessert, Swedes seem to have a special affiliation for cinnamon, cardamom, almonds, and golden syrup. In an email, Mikael gave me a few detailed examples:
- Semla: A wheat bun, spiced with cardamom, and filled with almond paste and whipped cream. Some eat it as is; others dip it in warm milk. Eating semla used to be connected to Shrove Tuesday, but the connection is not very strong nowadays.
- Cinnamon rolls: “… a few web pages seem to indicate that cinnamon rolls were in fact “invented” in Sweden. Not sure if I buy that,” wrote Mikael. Regardless, cinnamon rolls are very common in Sweden. A typical Swedish cinnamon roll is lightly spiced with cardamom and has chopped almonds on top.
- Cookies: Small cookies are very important when having a fika, a Swedish coffee break – a tradition that started back in the 19th century. “Swedes are notorious coffee drinkers,” wrote Mikael. One should serve at least seven types of cookies when having guests, he added. A typical fika cookie is bondkaka (“peasant cookie”), which is made from wheat flour, sugar, golden syrup, baking soda, almonds, and butter.
- Knäck: A Christmas candy containing both golden syrup and almonds. Mikael commented that while the recipe is very simple, getting the exact right consistency takes some experience. A reliable candy thermometer comes in handy here.
- Per my (somewhat odd) request, Mikael also sent me a few photographs of his neck of the woods. As it turned out, Sweden in the winter looks very similar to, um, Minnesota in the winter.
Unfortunately for my Swedish reader, my curiosity didn’t stop there. You give a mouse a cookie and you know it’s going to ask for a glass of milk. You give Leela a few pictures of your snow-covered neighborhood, you know the nosy person is going to ask to see the contents of your refrigerator.I don’t know if Mikael bought my lame excuse of how seeing what people from a different culture eat helps you learn about their culture. All I know is that a few days after I made that rude and odd request, lo and behold, a photograph of a Swedish refrigerator and what resided therein came into my mailbox. Who knew a lack of manner would be met with even more kindness? Now, this is why I talked about grace in the first paragraph.
Apologizing for taking the picture on a day when the refrigerator was under-stocked (!!), Mikael declared his refrigerator contents as follows:
Top shelf: cream, sour cream, mango juice, passion fruit juice, and leftovers.
Second shelf: butter, bread spread, crème fraîche, red and green curry, some sauces
Third shelf: oil, leftovers, cilantro,
Fourth shelf: cabbage, pickled herring, various canned goods such as pickled bell pepper, apple sauce, some stocks, etc.
Fifth shelf: Pork and salmon, tahina, jams,
Drawer: Bell pepper, cucumber, salad, cheese
[No meatballs. Hmm.]
Looking at the contents of Mikael’s refrigerator, it’s quite obvious some serious cooking takes place in his kitchen.
“A lot of computer science people like cooking,” said Mikael. “There is a disproportionate amount of food geeks among my computer scientist friends.” As I was told, Swedes are exact cooks; they always have a scale in the kitchen as well as a digital thermometer. Mikael himself considers a kitchen scale an absolute necessity, “I’m not quite sure how one can cook without it.” Handling measurements is easier if one is trained in math, he added. Flunking math since first grade, my ego took a hit.
In one email, Mikael gave me a report on his Thai cooking adventure: “… I’ve tried my hand on Tod Man Pla (turned out wonderful) and Mushroom Stir Fry with Brown Sauce (very nice). Our last dinner guests got Tod Man Pla as a starter and Laab Gai as the main course …,” Mikael wrote. “… They really liked it, and asked for the recipes later on. The dessert was Swedish Cheesecake …”
Upon seeing the words Swedish cheesecake, my heart started racing. ‘This had better not be just a tease,’ I thought to myself. Graciously, Mikael included a recipe for ostkaka, a quintessential Swedish dessert, in his email. Right away, I knew I had to try it.
When Mikael was younger, his parents used to buy him a pre-made ostkaka every now and then, and that’s when he discovered the dessert. With some jam and whipped cream on the side, the young future computer scientist gleefully gobbled up this almond cheesecake. As a grown-up, Mikael now prefers liqueur-spiked fruit compote with his ostkaka.
Ostkaka these days, according to him, comes in several different flavors and with different add-ins. This recipe, however, produces the traditional version of the dessert — the kind that is entrenched in the southern county of Skåne.
Ostkaka is admittedly quite plain and appears uninteresting on the outside. One bite, though, and it’s no longer uninteresting. The texture of this cheesecake is different from the more common type wherein cream cheese is used. While the texture of the latter is smooth and, well, pasty, the former boasts an interesting texture of smooth, creamy, curdy, and lumpy all in one bite. Add the subtle taste of almond to the mix and you got a winner. All I can say is that this Swedish cheesecake will definitely be a regular in my kitchen.
Having made ostkaka several times after having received the recipe, I think I have reached a point where I can make this cheesecake blindfolded. It’s very easy to make to begin with. Everything is mixed in one mixing bowl. Neither a spring-form pan nor a water bath is necessary. It’s one of those fuss-free recipes that yield very impressive results.
Ostkaka is mildly sweet and is often served with some sort of fruit-based sauce, so you probably want to make some sort of fruit compote to go along with it. (I served my last batch (shown above) with my blood orange-star anise confit). Saftsås, a mixture of fruit-flavored liquor and fruit purée thickened with starch, is also a common ostkaka accompaniment. Any kind of fruit sauce works, actually. I even improvised a pineapple-palm sugar-coconut milk compote to serve with my 4th batch of ostkaka (in the Hey-Sweden-Meet-Phuket-Thailand manner). It was delicious.
My utmost thanks go to Mikael Zayenz Lagerkvist who has graciously and extensively collaborated with me on this post. Much of what you see here is the result of his research and data compilation. Thank you so much, Mikael!Ostkaka: Swedish Cheesecake Recipe from MikaelPrep timeCook timeTotal timeAuthor: SheSimmers.com adapt from Mikael Zayenz LagerkvistRecipe type: DessertCuisine: SwedishServes: 6-8Ingredients
- 750 g (~1.7 lbs) cottage cheese, strained (see notes)
- 4 large eggs
- ½ dl (1/4 cup) granulated sugar
- ½ dl (1/4 cup) all-purpose flour (see notes)
- 1 dl (1/2 cup) almond meal
- 3-4 bitter almonds, ground (see notes)
Notes1. I have found that using cottage cheese alone results in a a cheesecake that is too wet, lumpy, and salty. My theory is that cottage cheese in the US is made differently from cottage cheese in Sweden. After a few experiments, I have come to like the flavor and texture derived from using half whole-milk small-curd cottage cheese and half whole-milk ricotta cheese. Being a bit overzealous, I even made my own ricotta using the paneer method, except I use vinegar instead of lemon juice and don’t squeeze the curds so dry.
- Whip the eggs until fluffy. Stir in sugar, flour, and cottage cheese. Add the almonds. Pour into a buttered pan (at least 1.5 liters in size -- see notes), preferably flat. Bake in oven at 225°C (see notes) for 1 hour (cover with tin-foil when starting to brown).
- You want to let the cheesecake cool before serving as that is when it tastes the best. According to Mikael, ostkaka is best served cold or lukewarm.
2. You can also use cornstarch, potato starch, or rice flour.
3. Bitter almond is commonly used in Europe, but it is banned in the US as it contains hydrocyanic acid, making them poisonous. (You have to eat a lot of bitter almonds in one sitting, though, to suffer from the cyanide effect.) Apricot kernels can be used as a substitute. Otherwise, add a tablespoon of Amaretto to the batter to mimic the distinct flavor of bitter almond.
4. I use a 9″x13″ ceramic pan.
5. I bake the cheesecake at 425°F.3.2.1251