Monday, January 21, 2013

Baking Blackout

This weekend I had a baking blackout.  Have you ever experienced this?  Here's how it starts: It's Saturday morning and you're devouring whatever food media strikes your fancy.  You've just listened to Lynne Rossetto Kasper's supportive, upbeat, incredibly knowledgable voice on an episode of The Splendid Table while preparing your morning coffee.  You nibble on your breakfast toast while watching an old video of Craig Ponsford of Artisan Bakers in Sonoma, California, where Ponsford discusses his love for the science of baking. This leads you lurk around conversations on Chowhound, which brings you to some perusing of recipes on Pinterest, which causes you to scan through your Google Reader to catch up on the food blogosphere feeds.  You bounce around between Epicurious, Food and Wine, Saveur, Afar, and Cook's Illustrated. So much food media, so little time. It's impossible to mention all of the great content out there, and you know you're just scratching the surface.  Then with a few simple clicks, you land upon a recipe.  You're not sure how you got there, but your eyes land on this recipe and you start to scan the ingredients list. You just happen to have every ingredient required in the cupboard.  And it begins. 

You start to brown the butter for the brown butter, brown sugar, espresso cookies.  You're stirring and stirring, and the pre-heating oven helps you forget it's winter outside.  While carefully watching the pot, the nutty scent of brown butter fills the kitchen. And then you think to yourself: when did I decide this project would be born?  You can't quite pinpoint it, but you know it was somewhere in between the morning episode of The Splendid Table, your first sip of coffee, and the final catalyst, the words 'brown butter' flashing on your screen, like a beacon leading you to your kitchen.  Your Google search history says it all. You're suddenly covered in brown sugar, ingredients are everywhere, and morning has turned into late afternoon.  That, my friends, is a classic baking black out.  Are any of you guilty of this?  I have found that the wealth of excellent culinary content on the web is both a blessing and a curse.  So much inspiration is everywhere!  So some days, if you're like me, you "forget" to do your laundry and spend that time baking instead.

The final step of the espresso cookie recipe, before baking, is to dip the rounds of dough into a brown sugar mixture. Luckily for me, this jar of homemade vanilla sugar has been waiting for a purpose, so I added a few tablespoons to the brown sugar mix.

A jar of vanilla sugar seems like the type of thing that every woman should have in her arsenal of kitchen tools.  (As a temporary resident of Denmark, I have noticed it's very uncommon to see vanilla extract on the supermarket shelves.  This means that purchasing vanilla pods gives you ample opportunity to jar up batches of vanilla sugar.)  

While the cookies baked, I started to clean up from the aftermath of my baking blackout.  Deciding to take a break from food media, I started an episode of the podcast This American Life (the recent "Mapping" episode) while rinsing the dishes.  But food media consumed me again, this time unexpectedly. All of a sudden, Jonathan Gold's voice came through the speakers, with the tale of how he started his career mapping the LA food landscape.  
Gold is most well known for being the first food critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize, but to Southern California locals who care about food, he was a legend long before this award.
As the podcast explains, it all started along Pico Boulevard-- a street where many food cultures combine along one stretch of Los Angeles. Gold's local column not only put so many hidden gem establishments on the map, but through his explorations, he framed the way people could appreciate the city and its diversity.  As I listened to Gold explain getting his start, and heard his heartfelt appreciation for the city of Los Angeles, it made me miss my California roots.  But it also empowered me-- because around each new corner in Copenhagen is a new bakery or cafe to discover, and his words are encouragement to wander a little further down the block each day.
  There are so many voices in the food world driving us to explore our neighborhoods, open ourselves up to experimenting with new ingredients, or simply put our aprons on and get down to business.  I am thankful for the passion they share with their readers, listeners, and fans-- and I'll always treasure any Saturday afternoon seized by inspiration in the kitchen. 

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Ask a Dane: Tanja Trab on romkugler

Today at The Great American Bakery Hunt, we're starting a new series called Ask a Dane.  Throughout this series, I'll interview Danes about their favorite baked goods and culinary traditions.  The series kicks off with an interview with Tanja Trab, who shared with the Great American Bakery Hunt her love for romkugler, a treat sold throughout many Danish bakeries.

Growing up in Vallensbæk, a suburb of Copenhagen, Tanja would buy romkugler from the local baker on her way home from school or gymnastics.  

Romkugler have sprinkles on the outside, and in the middle, a doughy, dense, rich center with a rum flavor.  Some fancier versions are dipped in chocolate, but the treats are most known for the fact that they are cakes made with leftover crumbs from other cakes.

When Tanja was growing up, you could get 5 romkugler for 10 Danish kroner.  Her typical distribution method was to save 3 romkugler for herself and barter away 2 to her brothers. Romkugler were crucial bartering tools in the sibling economy of Tanja's household.  If her brothers were lucky, she would share with them.  But often romkuglers were a powerful tool that could help secure special favors, or guarantee a period of time without the typical teasing that all girls with brothers know too well.  "Do this and I will give you a romkugler" was a phrase typically uttered during these sibling exchanges.
  While romkuglers were a great childhood treat, they did not become Tanja's favorite until she reached her 20's.  One day while wandering the neighborhood of Christianshavn with a friend, they had a half hour to kill and stopped at a Lagkagehuset (a bakery chain in Copenhagen.)  She remembers that the weather was good on this particular day, as exceptionally good weather in Denmark is a rarity to treasure.  They shared some jorbær kage (strawberry cake) and a romkugler, and it was over this meeting that they started to become very good friends.   These days Tanja only buys romkugler from Lagkagehuset because their fancier-than-standard version is produced with a thick decadent outer layer of chocolate and sprinkles.  
But perhaps part of her affection for these romkugler is due to the good memories associated with them: meetings with friends, sharing romkugler and conversation, paired with pots of tea on sunny afternoons.  Plus, she says, with romkugler you get everything-- three treats in one: candy, cake, and chocolate.   While she cannot tell you how many romkugler has she eaten over her lifetime, she does know that she ate between 8-10 in January 2012, and that perhaps minimum consumption for a romkugler aficianado is about once a month.  She has never made romkugler at home, but she has made the very traditional Danish sweet called havgrynskugler--which have a similar texture as romkugler. Havgrnskugler are basically buttery, sugary rounds featuring a mixture of oats, cocoa, butter, and powdered sugar, which are then rolled in cocounut.  So many Danes have this recipe in their back pocket, I'd like to think it is their equivalent of the American chocolate chip cookie, making several appearances in office cookie exchanges during each holiday season.   
Havgrynskugler is a recipe full of nostalgia, and since it is a no-bake treat, some Danes (including Tanja) admit to mischievously scooping a bit of the mixture straight out of the bowl with a spoon instead of taking the time to roll up the mixture into presentable little morsels.  Therefore, I learned that America is not the only place where we have guilty (but wonderful) kitchen moments, sneaking pinches of cookie dough here and there out of our mixing bowls.  And there's nothing wrong with finding some joy in that, wherever you live.   Thanks to Tanja for sharing her story!

Celebrating Terre Madre Day with Slow Food Copenhagen

During a very snowy weekend in Copenhagen, I attended the Slow Food Copenhagen-North Zealand gathering to celebrate Terra Madre Day in honor of local food. The event was nearby in the Nørrebro neighborhood, which under normal circumstances is an easy bike ride away. However, I quickly learned the lesson that Google Maps's travel time estimates do not take into account city snowstorms and the snow-covered bike paths that result.  Thus, my 16 minute bike ride turned into a 45 minute bike ride. While I thought of turning back several times and worried they may have cancelled the event due to the storm, I kept going. It was the kind of day where I'm certain that 90% of people were sitting inside curled up with a good book, drinking hot chocolate.  The rather empty streets and cycling paths were indicators I might be crazy for venturing out, but I'm very glad I did.
Upon my arrival, I parked my bike and dusted off the layer of fresh snow that had collected on me (see example above.)  Traveling 3 miles on my bike had never felt like such a personal victory!  From the very start, I recieved warm greetings from the members of Slow Food Copenhagen-North Zealand and felt so welcomed at the event. 
Outside, members gathered to cook up some soup over an open fire, in good spirits despite the bad weather.
Inside the event, I experienced a cozy gathering where people came together to care about food, share their passion for recipes, and celebrate food traditions. 
My first stop was the Lykkeberg herring table, where a company representative, Cornelia Kaas generously offered a history lesson on the tradition of salting and pickling herring. Kaas explained that while many households in Denmark used to salt and pickle their own herring, now it is more common to purchase herring that has already been pickled and the tradition is getting lost. She also told me about how Lykkeberg employs people who put special care and attention into how the herring is placed inside their jars, so that the fish is displayed in a particularly artful way. I was able to try some different herring samples, and fell in love with the 'havfrue kryddersild,' which had a melt in your mouth quality.  While I have tried herring once or twice, I'll admit I have shied away from it a bit in the past. But living abroad means embracing new food adventures, and after my snowstorm bike ride, I was ready for anything. Plus, listening to Kaas explain the tradition of herring gave me a whole new appreciation for it.  (By the time I attended my first traditional Danish Christmas lunch on December 25, I was truly enjoying herring just as much as the Danes were.)

Attendees brought hidden treasures from their home kitchens to share or swap, and this crowd did not disappoint. Slow Food member Karen Hansen designed illustrations to showcase the homemade items, adding even more charm to this cozy event (I see food-oriented graphic novels and cookbooks in her future!)  
Everyone had something to offer-- and it's likely that they carefully transported it using their bikes, in the snow!  (I didn't take a transportation poll, but in Copenhagen it's a safe guess.) Pictured below is a jar of rødkål made by Slow Food member Jannie, which is a pickled red cabbage side dish very traditionally served during the Christmas season in Denmark. The mixture is quick pickled with apple cider vinegar, and quite delicious!
 She also made a veggie gratin, also called a 'carrot pudding' based on a Finnish recipe, along with her lingonberry ketchup recipe.

 Another portion of the event featured a sweets competition, where members could have their kitchen creations tasted by expert judge, local pastry chef Nikolaos Strangas from Copenhagen's Cakeaway. Below, you can see the proud competitors of the sweets contest!
Below, some lovely mini pecan pie tarts, made by fellow American food blogger Kim who now calls Denmark her home. 
This family was kind enough to share a jar of their homemade rumtopf with me-- a mixture of hand-picked berries gathered during the summer season and preserved with 80 proof rum! 
 The mixture was saved for the holidays, to share with visiting friends from the States-- as they suggested, we drizzled it over vanilla ice cream!
And the treats kept on coming! Katrine Klinken, the president of Slow Food Copenhagen generously gifted me a Danish pigeon apple, a special Nordic apple in season at the moment. By the end of the day, I was quite overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality of Slow Food Copenhagen members, and my taste buds were equally overwhelmed. I hope I can someday return the favor with some Southern California hospitality, and I can guarantee that no one will need to battle a snowstorm to reach any of our culinary destinations.  If you ever want a guide through the Santa Monica Farmer's Market, a tour of the best Mexican food in the golden state, or a taste of our coziest coffee shops or bakeries, I hope you'll let me know.  Thank you so much Slow Food Copenhagen!