From a Swedish Chef to Swedish Cookbooks

Reading the news that The Muppets are returning in a new series (Muppets Now) feels like an instant happiness boost. The article in The New York Times (available to us all through the Digital Library) was a comprehensive history of how the executives got to a point where they could offer this six-episode run but all I could see were the truly important pieces of information in the piece – I was scanning for names like “Fozzy”, “Bunsen Honeydew” and “Beaker.” I was relieved to see that favourites from my childhood, perfectly aligned with prime Muppet Show years, would be returning.

During long dish washing marathons one of my older brothers would imitate the characters from the show for me and his version of the Swedish Chef voice is still firmly in my memory decades later. Through the lens of 2020 we see that character as a stereotype but at the time I know that I loved to hear those nonsense sounds and the piles of dishes did go by faster with a silly older brother beside me. Will it still cause me to feel the same way when he cooks and bakes on the screen this summer? I hope he still works with abandon, tossing ingredients and ladles out of the way when he no longer finds them useful, and perhaps has some extra exciting guest stars (Stanley Tucci would be a magical choice). Will there be explosions? Will visiting chickens be added to giant pots? Maybe my sense of humour has advanced to the point where watching him talk to the prawns before he cooks them is no longer hilarious?

I have learned, through the shelves of the library, that the version of a Swedish chef and cuisine that Jim Henson and Frank Oz brought to the screen in the mid-70s is far from accurate (I’ve never seen any instructions to throw the ingredients behind you or knock anything over, for example). Our groaning shelves of cookbooks include more than one cookbook that features recipes from the country that their enthusiastic chef is supposed to call home. As soon as I realized that the new series was close, I decided to research our dinner for that night and extend the fun. I’d checked out the book Fika: the art of the Swedish coffee break before (based entirely on the beauty of the cover) and enjoyed making some of their cookies but this time felt it was worth spending more time with the book. Authors Johanna Kindwall (check out her blog) and Anna Brones (and her blog) provide more than accurate recipes and delightful illustrations in their book, they share the history of the country, the ingredients and stories about moments they have shared these foods with family. It’s a book that is so worth enjoying a second time.

Melissa Bahen’s family is from Norway and her book is called Scandinavian Gatherings: from afternon fika to midsummer feast. She acknowledges that technically, only Denmark, Norway and Sweden are considered to be part of the “Scandinavian region” but she feels that because of cultural similarity, history and proximity Finland is also closely associated with the Scandinavian countries and has included their recipes and celebrations in her book. It includes suggestions for decorating for your home for an event (maybe not a Muppet celebration?) crafts, baking and menus for parties you can adapt all year long and in the heat of the summer. There are abundant choices for brunch and picnic menus as well as casseroles that could be made ahead. Of course, she does include a wonderful recipe for Swedish meatballs and recommends that we serve them with lingonberry sauce. Unfortunately, we have all missed Swedish National Day (June 6th) and Denmark’s National Day (June 5th) which she mentions in the text so that readers can celebrate, but we can all look ahead to Finland’s Independence Day which is December 6th. I think that will be a good time to try out her recipe for hot chocolate with homemade cardamom marshmallows. Or, why wait? We could turn those into s’mores right now.

I don’t think I’m likely to attempt any of the recipes from graphic designer Marit Hovland’s book, Bakeland: nordic treats inspired by nature (her cardamom buns are inspired by the Swedish Fika classic) but I do love looking at them and imagining that I might be able to. Her precise painting on cookies is something that I am sure is absolutely beyond my abilities but when she uses individual rice puffs surrounding a spot of icing to replicate a delicate white flower? I think I could do that and then balance it on a rustic oatmeal cookie just like she does. For sure I can bake rustic oatmeal cookies. Her sugar cookies that are frosted in white and then sprinkled with OREO crumbs to look like birch bark? I’m not at all optimistic, but I will have a whole bunch of OREO filling left over at the end of the experiment. If I achieve nothing else, I will have spent a few hours lost in the pages of her book and end up with something that tastes like a cookie and can be enjoyed at the end of a celebratory meal. I’ll have learned something about a creative person (here is her work) and experimented with some new ingredients.

Take some time to enjoy some of these recipes, explore some of these gorgeous ingredients and then find a friend to share it with – even if that friend is a talking prawn.

— Penny M.