Words and Recipes by
Scandinavian Comfort at Home
The first cool night usually comes towards the end of August. It’s not a commitment, but rather a suggestion of what’s to come. A breath of cool air passes through the windows that have been open for months to alleviate the brutal heat of long summer days. You reach for a blanket because you’ll sleep better with it draped over the bed.
When I moved to Isle au Haut as a full-time resident in the early spring of 2004, it was to a tent, pitched on a carpet of soft peat, beneath a canopy of ever-dripping spruce trees. It was one of the wettest springs on record, and my husband Steve and I spent the month of April in a constantly soggy state while we got our tiny rented cabin into habitable condition.
It was also the beginning of what I consider to be my true life in Maine. A life that occurred primarily outdoors, preparing for our life indoors: cutting trees, clearing brush, splitting wood, hanging laundry, repairing shingles, cleaning chimneys, painting siding—and any number of other tasks required so that the long winter would be warm, safe, and manageable.
When I moved to Portland’s East End in 2015, it was to a basement apartment with a cement floor and barely large enough to require little more heat than what emanates from the building’s furnaces behind our living room wall. The only real preparation for winter we have to do now is scouting out a decent parking space for winter storm bans.
To my surprise, I’ve come to realize that my life outdoors on the island had more to do with completing necessary life tasks and less to do with the actual pleasure of being outdoors preparing for inclement weather. I know.
Shocking. But seriously, it’s been a huge adjustment. Confectioners have a pretty intense work schedule much of the winter (Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter), and in two years I’ve gone from hearty outdoor islander, to an indoor city professional. I know there must be a healthy balance in there somewhere, but as our business goes through its own changes and growing pains, I have yet to find it.
So instead of forcing myself to spend more time I don’t really have trying to be outside this winter, I’ve decided to make my indoor life more pleasant. For instance, I’ve taken another look at my apartment. It’s not “small,” it’s “cozy.” It’s not so much a basement, but rather it’s underground. Like a den. I’ve borrowed liberally from Scandinavian hygge (pronounced HUE-guh) traditions centered around creating comfort and coziness, and have implemented little things—like using candles (all kinds, everywhere), soft blanket throws, and cats (two of them, very cuddly)—that make our home life more hyggelig.
But most importantly, I’m taking time to prepare our too-small—oops! I mean cozy—apartment to welcome friends. This takes some doing, as we have barely enough room for two chairs around our tiny dining room table, and our galley kitchen doesn’t allow for much social cooking. But for me, food is how I welcome old friends, and make new ones, so serving a meal that takes intention and effort is non-negotiable.
The following chocolate-enhanced menu takes some time to prepare, but is perfect for convivial sharing. Each recipe can serve as a one-off or be prepared as a casual but intimate party. The chai-spiced drinking chocolate is rich but not too sweet and is appropriate for friends of all ages. For smørrebrød, dense, strongly-flavored pumpernickel bread is served in thin slices and then adorned with an assortment of toppings that have been prepared and arranged on a candle-lit sideboard for your friends to help themselves. And sweet, salty, extra-crunchy, cocoa-caramel corn can come to the gathering in a large bowl, for communal munching while playing cards, or watching a movie.
It’s a menu meant to please the senses. It’s aromatic with molasses, and yeast, warm spices, and caramelized sugar. It’s crunchy, and rich, and sweet, and salty. And it’s beautiful. It takes focus and time to prepare, but once it’s done, it doesn’t steal the spotlight. Rather, it makes room for warmth and conversation. For being together. For sitting back on the couch, with a cat on your lap, and watching your basement windows fill up with snow.
Pumpernickel Bread for Smørrebrød
For 2 Loaves
2 cups tepid water
¼ cup cider vinegar
½ cup molasses
1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 teaspoons instant espresso
½ cup warm water to bloom yeast
1 tablespoon active yeast
½ teaspoon sugar
3½ cups rye flour
1 cup rolled oats
2-3 cups white flour
In a small sauce pan, combine 2 cups of water, cider vinegar, molasses, bittersweet chocolate, and espresso. Heat until the mixture is steaming, and then stir until the chocolate is completely melted. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the mixture to cool completely. Reserve.
Measure the ½ cup warm water into the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the yeast and sugar and stir them into the warm water. Allow the mixture to sit for 5-10 minutes, or until it foams. (If it does not foam, toss the mixture, buy or borrow new yeast, and start over.)
Pour the cooled water-vinegar mixture into the bowl. Add all the rye flour and mix on low speed with the paddle attachment until the ingredients are thoroughly blended. Switch to the dough hook, and begin to add white flour in ½ cup increments. When the dough just begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl, stop adding flour. Knead the dough in the mixer for another 8-10 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto a board and knead by hand for another 2 minutes. Form into a ball, and place in a greased bowl. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and set the bowl in a warm place while it rises—about 1½ hours.
When the dough has doubled in bulk, punch it down, split it in half and form it into two loaves. Place the loaves into buttered 9” x 4” loaf pans. Smear the tops of the loaves with soft butter and cover loosely with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel. Allow to rise in warm place until the loaves have doubled in bulk.
While the bread is rising, heat your oven to 350°F.
When the loaves are ready to bake, dust them with a little flour, slash the tops with a sharp knife, and bake for 35-40 minutes. To check if the bread is done, let the loaf fall from the pan and tap the bottom of it sharply with your fingers. If it sounds hollow, it’s through baking.
Remove the bread from the pans and allow it to cool completely on a rack before slicing for smørrebrød, the open-faced Scandinavian sandwiches last seen on 1960s restaurant brunch tables but now reborn.
Serves a group
I like the idea of a DIY Smørrebrød sideboard—or Social Smørrebrød. The following suggested spreads, meats, vegetables, and cheeses can be prepped and arranged on a platter, and placed alongside a basket of your pre-sliced pumpernickel bread. Guests create their own individual sandwiches.
Meats and Fish
Gravlax (salt-cured salmon)
Black Forest ham
Really good Danish butter
Fresh Goat Cheese
Thinly-sliced roasted beets
Pickled red onions
Sharp orange cheddar
Chai-Spiced Hot Chocolate
Makes 4 mugs of hot chocolate
4 cups whole milk (or almond or soy milk)
6 Twining’s Chai Ultra Spice tea bags
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2-4 tablespoons honey
Place the milk into a large sauce pan and heat until almost boiling. Remove from the heat, add the tea bags and cover the pan. Allow to steep for 10 minutes.
Remove the tea bags from the milk and give them a good squeeze to get all the liquid out. Add the honey to the milk, and heat until almost boiling.
While the milk is heating, place the chopped chocolate into a heat proof bowl. When the milk is hot, pour about one quarter of it over the chopped chocolate, and whisk until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.
Pour the chocolate mixture back into the sauce pan, and whisk until everything is blended and smooth. Taste for sweetness, and then serve immediately, topped with whipped cream if desired.
Dirty Chai Chocolate
Makes 4 adult beverages
½ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons of sugar
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 recipe Chai-Spiced Hot Chocolate
6 ounces Kahlua
Bittersweet chocolate for grating
In a chilled metal bowl, beat the heavy cream with the sugar and the instant espresso powder until the cream holds soft peaks.
Pour an ounce and a half of Kahlua into 4 mugs. Divide the warm Chai-Spiced Hot Chocolate between the mugs. Top the drinks with a generous dollop of espresso whipped cream, and sprinkle with grated chocolate. Serve immediately.
Extra Crunchy Cocoa-Caramel Corn
Makes about 10 cups
1 tablespoon coconut oil, or other vegetable oil
½ cup unpopped popcorn kernels
½ cup maple syrup
½ cup sugar
12 ounces butter
1 teaspoon Frangelico, or vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½-1 teaspoon sea salt
1½ teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
Heat your oven to 325°F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper, and spray with cooking oil.
In a large pot, melt the coconut oil over medium heat. Add three popcorn kernels and cover the pot.
When all three kernels pop, add the rest of the popcorn, cover the pot, and pop the corn, shaking the pot every 30 seconds or so.
When the kernels have stopped popping, empty the popcorn into a large bowl and set aside.
Place the maple syrup and the sugar into a large sauce pan and stir to combine. Heat the mixture over medium high heat until the sugar is melted, stirring occasionally.
Cook the sugars until they are dark, and just starting to smell barely burnt. Stir in the butter and allow it to melt completely. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately stir in the Frangelico, baking soda, cocoa powder, and salt. Stir until the mixture stops bubbling, then pour it over the popcorn. Toss the popcorn while you do this. You might ask someone to help you.
Divide the caramel corn between the two cookie sheets and spread it out as best you can. Bake the popcorn for ½ hour, rotating the cookie sheets once.
Remove the sheets from the oven, and break up the popcorn into a bowl.
For later use, store the caramel corn in an airtight container.
Kate Shaffer is the author of Desserted: Recipes and Tales from an Island Chocolatier, and owns Black Dinah Chocolatiers, an award-winning confectionery with locations in Westbrook and Blue Hill, Maine.