Thursday, April 18, 2013

Meeting the Mazarin: a hidden gem

Through travel, we discover hidden gems if we're paying attention. I would never fault anyone for enjoying a photo op at the Eiffel Tower, but I also believe these moments should be balanced with taking in the little details of one's surroundings. For in these details, you can find magic. Take airport people watching as one example.  I once spent an entire pre-boarding period at an airplane gate captivated by a musician picking ever so lightly at his guitar.  A gentleman in his late 60's (?),  he was playing just loudly enough to attract the curious glances of those passengers who could sense his immense talent.  I'm still convinced he was some sort of award winning artist who played backup for all the greats, and he left us wondering for the whole plane ride.  While adventuring around the world, hidden gems can be people, they can be your most favorite local specialty cookbook shops, and of course, they can also be desserts that your palate has yet to meet.  And when it comes to desserts I've never seen, I pay particular attention.  It was during a trip in Stockholm, Sweden that I met the mazarin: a perfectly-sized-to-accompany-a-coffee sweet, with a crumbly outer shortbread dough and a soft almond paste (heavenly) interior.
I also became acquainted with the work of the Stockholm-born artist Bengt Elde, whose whimsical prints I fell in love with right away. The small souvenir budget I had given myself was immediately spent on Bengt Elde postcards. My favorite, a postcard of the horse that reoccurs in many of his works, is captured in the mazarin taste test photos further down in the post.  I visited two bakeries for mazarins-- Petrus, and Chic Konditori, both in the Södermalm neighborhood of Stockholm. 

Lacking plates in my traveler's hotel room, I looked for an improvised solution and borrowed the wine glasses the staff had intended for use with the minibar.  Little did the management know that these make perfect mazarin holders!

Both bakeries made excellent versions, one with a sugar topping (Chic Konditori) and one with a layer of icing instead (Petrus.)  I will admit, after Stockholm, I now have a mazarin vice, and have seriously considered riding the train from Copenhagen across the border to Malmö, Sweden just to try to get my hands on a good one.  This has instantly become a favorite on my top ten list of desserts.

It's worth noting that the Södermalm neighborhood is packed with hidden gems, including 18smaker glassmakeri, which serves ice cream so tasty that is appealing even in a cold climate.  As they say on their website: "Here in the ice cream parlor, it's always summer, come in for a scoop of ice cream and forget the rain outside!"  You need a sense of humor when you're an ice cream shop in a Scandinavian climate.  Then again, this ice cream is seriously good. Their cinnamon and cardamom flavor is like a Swedish cinnamon bun and an ice cream all rolled into one.  After one taste of their ice cream, which I intended only on sampling, I had to buy a cone and willingly spoil my dinner.

Enjoy the pursuit of your own hidden gems!  Happy traveling. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Fluent in flødeboller

After much anticipation, I finally attended a flødeboller workshop in Copenhagen.  

Flødeboller (roughly translated to cream bun) is the Danish name for a chocolate treat with a meringue filling, a nationally consumed dessert in Denmark which I assume is second only to licorice as a local favorite.  
Naked flødeboller, yet to receive their chocolate coating

You can find a very basic version in every Danish grocery store, usually so light and with such a thin chocolate coating that you can eat them forever if you're not careful.  Alternatively, gourmet candy companies and high end stores sell rich deluxe versions-- typically characterized by a thick layer of chocolate, sometimes flavored, often topped with coconut, and if you're lucky, laced with a layer of marzipan.  
Typical coconut-covered flødeboller sold by the bakery chain Lagkagehuset
Above and below: Deluxe versions, made at our workshop!

Just one of these requires a large glass of milk to wash it down! (For an excellent store bought option, try the Irma deluxe version with the white chocolate, dark chocolate variety mix and you'll become fluent in flødeboller in no time.)  

Like many sweets I have discovered through travel, I quickly became obsessed with learning how to make the chocolate coated treats myself (and in this case, learning how to pronounce their name as well.)  While I may not ever totally master saying words with the Danish "ø" character, my determination to learn the skill of making authentic flødeboller is a necessity if I want to keep consuming them. As a kind employee at the Danish sweets company Summerbird once warned me, flødeboller are fragile enough that if you try to bring them on an international flight, they can explode mid-air.  Just as an In N Out Burger cannot possibly travel in good condition from my home state of California to Denmark, so too must flødeboller stay in their local habitat unless you learn the craft of their creation. With only a handful of months left to conquer Danish recipes, this was one I needed in my skill set. 

Now, unless you're trying to recreate the Modernist Cuisine lab, you can try nearly any food experiment at home.  But while I'm all for the adventurous pursuits of the home chef, you can't beat immersing yourself in the context of a local food culture. 

It's why food enthusiasts dream of quests like learning the art of homemade pasta in an old Italian village, or journeying to the Swiss Alps to study cheese.  The Danes have made an art out of making flødeboller, so who better to learn from as I set out to master this challenge?  

Plus, the opportunity to take a flødeboller class is a perfect example of one of the treasures of life abroad.  Even more than an item on my culinary bucket list, this was also the chance to celebrate the local culture and spend time with new friends made during my travels (friends who graciously translated as I fumbled through the Danish recipe and instruction.)  

For the particularly entertaining conclusion of the workshop, all of us flødeboller pupils cautiously secured our boxes of fragile sweets to various bike baskets for transport home.  

There is no mode of transport too gentle for these delicate confections, and getting them from point A to point B does not always end in victory-- especially in a city full of cobblestones.  In the summer of 2012, I had attempted a similar feat, in an effort to deliver some flødeboller to visiting family members-- only to have the flodeboller meet a cruel fate when my bike toppled over at the scene of their hotel's bike rack, crushed just minutes before consumption.  
Above, the ill-fated flødeboller
On this night, things would be different-- they had to be different.  
We had worked hard. 

And we were ready to eat. 

We cycled into the Copenhagen evening towards a celebratory post-workshop dinner in Nørrebro, with much anticipation for our homemade desserts. We were hopeful they would survive, despite the odds being against us.  The air was warmer than I remember it being for months, spring was on our side, and we all crossed our fingers that we wouldn't hit too many bumps in the road.