A Swedish superstar chef turns his attention to baking and comes to Minneapolis
Magnus Nilsson is preaching to the choir as he sings the praises of baking to a Minnesota audience.
This is, after all, the home of flour companies and a butter cooperative. It’s the birthplace of the granddaddy of all baking contests, the Pillsbury Bake-Off. And we have a state muffin, for goodness sake (blueberry!).
Many Minnesotans first heard Nilsson’s name two years ago as he visited the Twin Cities to discuss his photo exhibit of Nordic landscapes at the American Swedish Institute, as well as to describe the finer points of home cooking in his bestseller, “The Nordic Cookbook,” which established him as a leading authority on Nordic culinary culture. Others know him from the Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table” and the PBS series “Mind of a Chef,” both of which showed him behind the scenes as head chef of Fäviken Magasinet, in western Sweden, which has been called the most remote restaurant in the world.
On Sunday, he will speak about his latest project, the making of “The Nordic Baking Book” (Phaidon, 576 pages, $49.95), with recipes that reflect the culture of bread, pastries and pancakes throughout the seven countries that make up this Far North region (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands). From flatbreads to kringles, potato crackers to Danish buns and porridge, he describes how to prepare more than 450 traditional and contemporary recipes, both sweet and savory.
We talked with Nilsson by phone about the need for bread, the history behind a platter of seven types of cookies and how to measure ingredients.
Q: How was your approach different from your earlier volume that covered home cooking?
A: This is the end of that six-year project. “The Nordic Cookbook” was the halfway mark of chronicling Nordic food culture. The baking book took another three years. We could have done one giant book with all the material instead of two books, but that would have been a very impractical book. I’m happy that we could do it this way. Baking is such a huge part of Nordic food culture, especially Scandinavian food culture. With this book, the subject actually gets enough space to describe it in depth, which is hard if making a general book like “The Nordic Cookbook.”
Q: Do Scandinavian folks bake as often today as they did in the past?
A: Yes, I think so, and that’s quite rare. When you look at Western countries, they are experiencing a huge interest in baking, but it’s a lot of baking television and books. They are not actually baking themselves. One indicator that people of Scandinavia bake more often than in other places is that you can buy fresh yeast everywhere, in the metro station, at food stores, at every little place. People buy fresh yeast to use it. It has to do with this part of the world and its marginal climate. In the past, baking was a good way of using grains, which made up quite a big part of everyone’s caloric intake. That’s no longer a prerequisite today for those living there, but it continues to be a big part of Scandinavian and Nordic food culture.
Q: Was this the most interesting of your books to write?
A: Definitely. It was a very rare chance to go so in-depth on a single subject. For me, I don’t separate the two books in the research process. Essentially half of the recipe development and research was done at the same time as I was working on the last book. That was always the plan for the process.
Q: How did you conduct your research, as you gathered recipes from home cooks?
A: I had a web-based questionnaire and did a lot of traveling, spending time with people at their homes and seeing what people actually baked. I also studied other sources, like magazines, cookbooks and academic research.
Q: Did you discover any surprises in your research?
A: I was surprised quite a bit that baking is the part of food culture where you see the closest links between countries and regions, both culturally and how knowledge is transferred in various parts of the Nordic region. Variations were related to climate. It makes sense when you think about it. Baking relies entirely on what grain you have, which is dependent on the climate. But I didn’t think that way in the beginning. To me that was fascinating.
Q: You have noted that the way cultures ate in the past has influenced how we eat now, especially with regard to grain.
A: It applies to everything. Look at savory cooking. We have cured hams and pickled herring because we had to preserve them. Now it’s some of the most cherished parts of festive cooking. Cheese was made to preserve milk, bread to make grain digestible. Now what we do with bread makes it delicious. I think it’s very fascinating, as how we cook today is so colored by the way things were done in the past, even when don’t need to do that anymore.
Q: You talk about how there’s bread for every occasion in Nordic countries.
A: It mirrors the significance of grain in marginal climates. No meal is complete without a grain component, most often bread. My generation probably is the first to view this differently. We eat other carbohydrates, like rice and pasta, that weren’t common years ago. My parents had hardtack with every meal on the table as an automatic thing. If you go back further, my grandparents made Bolognese sauce with pasta, and served it with hardtack and potatoes. It has to do with how people used to work long days in the field and in manual labor. That wasn’t limited to Scandinavia, but because of the marginal climate, a big portion of calorie intake had to come through grain. That made people creative with bread, pastries and baked goods.
Q: Has the custom of needing seven cookie varieties survived when serving treats?
A: This occurred after sugar was more available to everyone, once it was cheaper to import it from the West Indies. People wanted to display wealth and they did it with baking. Sugar before then was reserved only for royalty. When it became more common in middle-class and workers’ diets, it was a way to show wealth with a big display of cookies. That stuck and became part of the culture.
Q: Was it difficult to write a book that has to have measurements used throughout the world?
A: It was very hard. What a publisher would say is, if you want to sell books well in the U.S., you have to convert to imperial measurements. But I refused to do it. It doesn’t work when you bake. If you have 175 grams of wheat flour, it makes a scant cup. We came up with a good compromise by using both measurements. Then if you choose to use a scant cup instead of 175 grams of flour, it’s your decision.
Q: Many novice bakers worry about how precise they have to be with a recipe.
A: With baking, you can follow a specific recipe and it will turn out OK when you follow it exactly, even if you don’t understand the scientific explanation of why it works. But when you are cooking, if you follow a recipe exactly, it doesn’t necessarily turn out exactly the way it’s supposed to, because there are more variables in savory cooking — a piece of lamb may be different from another piece of lamb. Wheat flour can be different, but it’s still wheat flour. Sometimes people overexaggerate the importance of exactness in baking. It’s more important to allow yourself to try to understand how it should feel when it goes well, rather than exactly replicate a recipe. It takes away the pressure if you allow yourself to see what is happening. If we all did that, we would become better bakers in the long run.
Q: You note that there are two breadlike items that are common throughout the Nordic countries: pancakes and flatbreads.
A: They are everywhere. Pancakes are important to many different parts of the Nordic region. They are generally used differently than in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, where they are considered breakfast food. That’s not true in the Nordic region, where we eat pancakes for lunch or dinner. It also shows the importance of grains in our traditional diet. Pancakes are an entirely grain-based dish that is also considered a main meal, rather than snack or breakfast meal.
Flatbreads are really important because they reflect the regions where they are made. With some exceptions, you most often find a lot of flatbreads in cooler climate regions, where wheat doesn’t grow and where there are barley and oats or low- or no-gluten grains. You also find them in more scarcely populated areas where there are no bakeries, so people make them at home.
Lee Svitak Dean • @StribTaste