As a child I watched my mother countless times reach for the bowl, the softened butter, the sugar and the wooden spoon. Then she started beating with her own hands. Creaming butter and sugar was one of the first lessons I learned in the kitchen and it is also the beginning of a range of cakes, including the most popular cake in Norway, kvæfjordkake.
I grew up with a mother who baked a lot, as was natural for her generation of housewives. We always kept homebaked cakes in the freezer ready for any guest who would turn up on our door. In the countryside where we lived friends stopped by daily, and they were always offered the hospitality of coffee and something home-baked.
Christmas was a special time when a household traditionally should bake 7 different types of Christmas cookies, stored in old-fashioned tins with Christmas ornaments. But the biggest celebration of cakes was during confirmations, weddings or milestone birthdays. Enter the big cakes. Now the table was crammed with at least 15 to 20 cakes. Jelly cake, cream sponge, swiss roll, success cake, marzipan cake and many more. It was a smorgasboard of cakes.
When we were going to celebrate the birth of our son, Loukas, I asked my mother if 10 cakes was enough for 45 guests. And she was hesitant. In my North Norwegian culture there should be an abundance of cakes. This is part of my culture’s hospitality and generosity. I call it cake generosity.
The twinkling star of the Norwegian smorgasboard of cakes is kvæfjordkake, also called the World’s best. Kvæfjordkake was invented in the 1920s in Harstad in the North of Norway. This is the country of the Arctic Circle where winter darkness and ever bright summers reign. In December there is no light. In June there is no darkness. Winters are so dark the return of the sun is welcomed in February by giving pupils a day off and summer nights are so bright you need black curtains in your bedroom. This is also the country of cloudberries and lingonberries and a rustic culture where people are more direct, outspoken and prone to swearing.
The cake relies heavily on dairy products and eggs as dairy products have always played a substantial part in Norwegian cooking and eggs were accessible in a rural society. Add to that almonds and vanilla. From this somewhat sparse base one of the most refined cakes is made, mostly thanks to the clever use of eggs. The eggs are used to make three different types of flavours and textures. The egg whites to make the crisp and chewy almond meringue. The egg yolks to make the rich sponge base and the custard filling. Usually the cake consists of two layers with the custard in between, but I have made it with three layers turning it into an Arctic version of the French mille-feuille. The cake does require some work, but is quite easy and exceptionally rewarding to eat.
Arctic mille-feuille (kvæfjordkake)
I use the best organic eggs from Holte organic farm. Their chickens are allowed so much space there is no need to prop them with antibiotics. Moreover, when their deeds are done they are slaughtered on-site by a hand, not by a machine.
250 ml full-fat milk
1 vanilla pod
2 egg yolks
25 g / 0,9 0z sugar
2 tbsp maizena (corn starch)
1 leaf gelatin
300 ml heavy cream
100 g / 3,5 0z butter, softened
100 g / 3,5 0z sugar
4 egg yolks
100 g / 3,5 0z flour (gluten-free is also fine)
1 tsp vanilla sugar (optional)
1 tsp baking powder
4 tbsp milk
4 egg whites
140 g / 5 0z sugar
50 g / 1,8 0z almonds
1. Cut the vanilla pod in two and split lengthways. Scrape out the seeds and place seeds and the pod in a small pan with the milk. Bring to boil and take off the heat and leave to infuse.
2. Soak the leaf gelatin in cold water until jelly-like, about 5 minutes.
3. Separate the eggs and leave the yolks in a bowl. (The egg whites keep for a week in the refrigerator). Whisk together the yolks, corn flour and sugar for a minute with an electric mixer.
4. Add the hot milk while whisking with the electric mixer. Then pour the mixture back into the pan. Bring to boil while continuously stirring with a whisk. Boil for at least 1 minute.
5. Take the pan off the heat. Squeeze the water out of the gelatin and add to the pan. Stir to dissolve it into the liquid. Leave the pan in cold water for the custard to cool down quickly.
6. Meanwhile, whip the heavy cream until soft peaks. Remove the vanilla pod from the custard and add to the whipped cream. Place in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours in order to allow the gelatin to set.
1. Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. To make it easier the butter should be at room temperature and you should warm the bowl a bit before you start. Then cream for at least 5 minutes.
2. Add the yolks, one at a time and beat well before incorporating the next. Do remember to keep the egg whites in a separate bowl!
3. Add the dry ingredients and the milk and fold gently into the batter.
1. In a clean bowl, whip the egg whites with an electric beater for about 30 seconds.
2. Add the sugar, a spoon at a time, and beat well before adding the next spoon.
3. Chop the almonds.
To finish the cake:
1. Preheat oven at 160C/320F. Line a baking tray (about 30 x 40 cm or 12 x 15 inches) with parchment paper.
2. Spoon the sponge on about 80 % of the tray, making the shape of a rectangle. Then spoon the meringue and finish by scattering the chopped almonds. Bake for about 25–30 minutes in the middle of the oven. This position ensures both the sponge and meringue to be evenly baked.
3. Allow to cool. Place another baking try on top of the baking tray and turn upside down. Remove the parchment paper, but place the cake back on the paper. Divide into two even-sized rectangles.
4a. If you want to make the cake the traditional way, spoon the custard cream on one of the rectangles and place the other rectangle on top.
4b. If you want to make it in mille-feuille layers, divide the rectangles into small even-sized rectangles (about 6 x 10 cm or 2 x 4 inches). Stack three rectangles with two layers of custard. When assembling the meringue should face down for the base layer and face up for the top layer.
Here is how to throw a North Norwegian Christmas
My grandfather’s rice porridge
Norwegian success tart
Nordic BLT with dry-cured lamb
Traditional Norwegian Christmas and gingerbread nuts
Scandinavian open sandwiches
Heavenly fruit salad with clementines