The Growing Up Swedish Cookbook For Life
From as far back as I can remember, I sat at the kitchen table with my family and enjoyed a hot cup of coffee, rich with cream and sugar. Later in life, I drank it black. Now in my later years, I drink it with cream. Coffee was our primary drink. The adults drank it morning, noon and night. All her long life, my mother had a cup of coffee in her hand or sitting next to her in the house, close enough for a sip. We drank coffee as family ritual. We drank it as celebration of any event. When life got tough and we faced a problem, the family got together at the table and drank coffee. When I talk about growing up Swedish, it’s about coffee, healthy foods, and the meaning of life.
Perhaps one has to be Swedish (or Scandinavian) to understand the relevance of coffee as central to life. It soothes and tempers; it brings people together. In Swedish culture, coffee is a mighty thing. It is central to daily food and discourse. In recent years, coffee drinking has become more popular. It’s chic to know the word fika or use it in a sentence. But growing up Swedish, we lived it. Fika was not just an afternoon pause for a hot cup of brew with a treat. It was central to our lives. My grandmother Forsberg and my mother made their coffee daily in an aluminum pot that perked away until we could “smell the coffee,” which told them it was done just right.
I drank coffee in lieu of pop or anything else other than whole milk as a child. I might come home from school to have a cup of sweet coffee into which I dunked skorpar (which you can still buy at Eckloff’s) or hardtack with butter. The actual name for what my family called hardtack is Knackebrod. It’s a staple in Swedish cupboards today too.
My cousin Karin Forsberg, daughter of my grandfather’s brother Emil, tells me, “When I was little girl spent my summer holidays with my grandparents Emil and Dagmar in Storfors, Varmland. My grandma introduced me to drink coffee, the Swedish fika, to make it tasty she added cream and sugar. It was very common to drink coffee with sugar before. Today it’s unusual to use sugar. She baked very tasty buns for “the fika-moment.”
A cardamom braid was always on the counter. We often cut slices of cheese, usually the thick, butter yellow, heavy slices of Bond-ost still sold at Peterson’s Market, to eat with the coffee bread. It was a rare thing to have sweets other than that in my home. We didn’t eat candy. We never had potato chips or salty snacks. I never missed such things, and it was only later, much later in my life, that I realized most people did not eat the same foods I did or drink coffee at all meals and in between too.
My grandmother Forsberg kept and continued to make filbunke, which is Swedish yogurt made from a milk that is fermented. She kept the original on her kitchen window shelf alongside the omnipresent red blooming geraniums. There was always a dish of it growing there. Filbunke needed plenty of sugar or maple syrup to make it sweet enough. She loved it, and I’m sure it took her home again. We all weren’t so sure. We might have a spoonful with lots of sugar I think it pleased our grandmother when we ate the filbunke. It was a little bite of Sweden.
On weekends and whenever we visited our maternal Grandparents Forsberg, we had Swedish pancakes for breakfast, happily cooked and served by Grandpa Carl in his gray fleece robe and his slippers which made a shuffling sound as he moved around the kitchen in them. His carrot colored hair stood up straight and he left off his glasses in the mornings. We always smiled at him when he looked like that — happy and dancing around by the stove, spatula in hand. He was the king of pancakes, offering us a plate with three six inch round skinny crepes, sauteed perfectly with crisp brown edges, served with butter, syrup and raspberry jam. I’ve never had better. His brother Emil’s granddaughter Karin sent me the original family recipe, which I offer here. Karin says, no sugar in her pancakes! And she serves them with whipped cream and a favorite jam.
Dinners were planned a week in advance and often the same dishes served on the same days of the week. Like Germans, Swedes are people who value regularity and schedules. We aren’t squashed by such things. We are comforted by structure. Potatoes are a staple and served in a variety of creative ways with every meal — boiled, mashed, scalloped, and fried. Fried potatoes were and remain my favorite. My mother sliced them into thin circles and fried them about 20 minutes in butter, often with some sliced yellow onion. She turned the heat up high in the last five minutes so they developed a crisp crust. Mondays were pan fried pork chops, which my mother cooked artfully to the right temperature, leaving the fat on to crisp the edges. She always served scalloped potatoes with her pork chops and apple sauce on the side. She cored, sliced and boiled her apples until the kitchen was fragrant with spiced fruit. Of course, I think it was the best applesauce I’ve ever had. Vegetables included rotmus a combination of boiled rutabaga and potatoes, chopped to equal size, then hand whipped with some milk, butter and salt, hand shucked green beans with tiny onions sauteed in butter, and corn on the cob when in season. Carrots were a year-round staple, usually boiled or baked with meat.Onions — red, yellow, sweet — were cooked in some manner with all dishes. Diced celery went with everything.
Swedes here still eat korv on holidays, sill, brown beans, corn and rice puddings. Other weekly favorites, often weekend fare with the whole family — cousin Barb and her parents Aunt Ingrid and Uncle George, our grandparents Forsberg — were pot roast, cooked for hours in the closed dark pan filled to the brim with red potatoes, carrots and onions chopped into just right bites. At holidays, Grandma Forsberg made her special Swedish meatballs redolent with cardamom and clove and served with the special roux or white sauce my mother used for so many variations including macaroni and cheese, tuna casserole, scalloped potatoes (the thin sauce for this dish), creamed chicken and peas over biscuits, and most gravies. Sometimes we had baked ham dotted with cloves and pineapples in perfect symmetry and glazed with a brown sugar sauce I’ve never mastered.
This was our literal food. But my family days were rich in meaning. At meals, particular dinners, and any time during the day over coffee, we talked about life. Or rather, the adults held discourse, and I listened, in awe, in respect, savoring every word I heard about the family stories — life in the beautiful Sweden they had left. We heard about Grandmother Zettergren, Gunhild’s mother, who ran her own laundry in Karlskoga on the shores of Lake Mockeln and who cast out her husband because he was a scoundrel. She raised the children mostly on her own. She must have been a formidable person.
My grandmother Gunhild was her last child, and the two were inseparable un Gunhild left for American in 1927 on the great ship Gripsholm out of Gothenburg. Harbor. Maria Zettergren was small and straight and proud. Gunhild was moaning for her on the day she died on the fifth floor of WCA. I heard her from the hallway, crying out softly, mama, mama, I want to come home, mama mama.
My grandfather talked about the Navy where he had loved every breath of salt air and inscribed his forearm with a blue anchor, which I liked to trace with my finger. He loved boats and fishing all his life. He talked of labor, the value of it, the beauty of work, the importance of respecting oneself and one’s chosen work. He told stories about life during the Depression when workers stood outside the doors of the Jamestown factories before dawn, hoping to be chosen to work that day.
And sometimes he came for coffee and comfort, like the fall morning of 1954 when we heard him knock at 7:30 a.m., unusual for him. He came in and took off his great red and black plaid wool coat. He laid it neatly on the back of his chair. But I recall his boots were still on, green, snow covered, something he wouldn’t have done ion regular days. Mom got him a cup of coffee, which he warmed in his hands. He stared straight ahead. He said, tack, dear Barbro. He would not look at me. Ja, he said, shaking his unshaven face, Ja, old Pete is gone now. His pale blue eyes teemed but did not spill. He sat for a long time with his hand on the cup of coffee, leaning forward, no speaking. It’s stayed with me all this years, his love for that old hound, his grief that morning.
And so we Swedes grew up in families like this, loving each other well, eating good food, talking good talk, the kind that nourished soul and self. I smell cardamom and clove when I think of family. I smell coffee. I was lucky. That was growing up Swedish for me. I have a friend from childhood, Denise Ahlstrom-Priestman, who regularly posts what she’s cooking for dinner for her family. It’s always something that sounds delicious. She plans each menu with such care. And it calls to mind how the preparing of good food is the sustenance of family life. We gather together. We reinforce our bonds. We salute and celebrate; we commend and grieve. It’s the growing up cookbook for life, for all of us.
The Swedish Recipe for Pancakes
(from our cousin Karin Forsberg in Sweden)
11 ounces flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
21 ounces milk
3 tablespoons melted butter
Serve with jam and beaten cream
Grandpa Forsberg’s Pannkakor or Swedish Pancakes
3 tablespoons white flour
3 eggs (see below)
1 tablespoon half and half or light cream (milk works in a pinch too)
3 teaspoons white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Dash of salt and pepper
Whip eggs and milk with sugar and vanilla first. Add in spices, stirring well. My mother used six eggs instead of three. Her pancakes were a bit firmer while grandpa’s three to one eggs to flour ratio produced thinner, crispier pancakes. Pour thin batter to § pan size; dip pan this way and that to cover the rest of the pan bottom with batter (the thinner the spread on the pan, the better!). Standing over the pan, heat until edges begin to brown and turn up; flip carefully all in one turn with large spatula. Cook until opposite side is browned and golden. Edges are best if just a tad crispy. Spatula onto a plate; roll into a crepe shape.
When ready to serve, offer the following varieties:
1. Sprinkle one third of them with powdered sugar (not too much!)
2. Put a dab of butter on another third of the crepes.
3. Put butter and lingonberries (or any sweet/tart berries or mixture thereof)
Put a little warmed gravy cup of good maple syrup, but most people prefer the Swedish pancakes as above. They are quite sweet on their own.
Both recipes are delicious.