Ciao, February—and Hallå, Fika

As a regular supporter of our local NPR station KCRW, I receive cookbooks in the mail on a monthly basis. They’ve ranged from the obscure—an assortment of recipes and essays on the theme of “bitter”—to the comforting: collections of recipes from the Southern U.S., as well as a Jewish grandmother in New York City. The most recent, eye-catching delivery was Fika—a lovely illustrated book by Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall that celebrates “The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break.”

Fika cover

Published by Ten Speed Press, Fika (pronounced “fee-ka”) is a small format book—journal-sized, square—with a matte cover that’s almost squishy; it reminded me immediately of the puffy stickers I used to collect and trade in 4th grade. Flip by the bright orange flyleaf and a brief table of contents and you find an introductory chapter that provides some helpful background, including the definition of fika, which is basically “coffee plus something to eat”:

“Functioning as both a verb and a noun, the concept of fika is simple. It is the moment that you take a break, often with a cup of coffee, but alternatively with tea, and find a baked good to pair with it. You can do it alone, you can do it with friends. You can do it at home, in a park, or at work. But the essential thing is that you do it, that you make time to take a break: that’s what fika is all about.”

What’s interesting about that paragraph is that it sounds very similar to material in the meaty leadership training I’m immersed in at work—we’re discussing the importance of managing one’s energy and taking care of oneself. Fika sounds like an excellent energy management method.

Ska vi fika? is what Swedes ask one another: Should we fika? Looking through the recipes, my answer is a most definite JA. Chocolate, nuts, cinnamon and spices abound.

Similar to an IKEA catalogue, the recipes’ names provide native English speakers with page after page of linguistic amuse bouches that you can hear the Muppets’ Swedish chef sing out from miles away: vetebullar (cinnamon and cardamom buns), fikonrutor (fig squares), finska pinnar (Finish sticks), hasselnötsflarn (hazelnut crisps), rägbröd (rye bread), glögg (Swedish mulled wine, natch).

I decided to first try a Swedish specialty: kladdkaka, otherwise known as sticky chocolate cake.

Fika kladdkaka

The cool thing here is that I’ve got a new Swedish friend—a co-worker named Linda who joined our team in December. Near Christmas, she brought homemade kladdkaka for each of us to enjoy and it was absolutely delicious: a fudgy, dense brownie that, yes, absolutely called for a cup of coffee to go along with it. So, as I embarked on making my own kladdkaka for a friend’s visit, I had a model to which I could aspire.

Fika the book calls kladdkaka “one of the basics of Swedish home baking: the kind of recipe that you memorize and can make at the drop of a hat” (see: Americans with chocolate chip cookies). Brones and Kindvall’s version apparently departs from tradition in the use of ground almonds, rather than flour…making it perfect for the gluten-free among us.

To start, I preheated the oven to 350 and fished out my dusty spring-form pan in order to first wash and then grease it with a bit of butter using a paper towel. Next, I blanched ½ cup of almonds. As a blanching newbie, I hit the Net and found some helpful instructions: boil a small pot of water, dump the almonds in and let them hang out in their hot bath for about a minute. Then drain them with your favorite colander, rinse the pile and, once they’ve cooled a bit, squeeze them to pop the nut out of the now loosened skin.

Who knew blanching would be so easy? And so satisfying! The only downside is that the leftover skins look like a pile of cockroaches, so I quickly scraped them into the compost bin and slammed the lid.

I took my shiny, freshly blanched almonds and tossed them into the Cuisinart for a few quick bursts of pulverizing until they were just this side of finely ground. After that loud, rackety step, I quietly melted ½ cup of butter in a saucepan—a much more trusted approach then putting the half stick in the microwave and hearing it explode 25 seconds later.

Back to the kitchen island I went to whisk 2 eggs and 1 cup of “natural cane sugar” (I figure you can use whatever you have) into a grainy paste. I sifted together 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder and ¼ teaspoon salt and added that to the egg sugar, followed by the ground almonds, and then the cooled butter. All this I stirred until it was smooth and thick.

I poured the batter into the prepared spring-form pan and made sure it was evenly distributed. The recipe says you can sprinkle poppy seeds on top at this point, but I completely forgot. Into the preheated oven the cake went for about 20 minutes; it can come out when it’s set but still sticky, cuz, you know, it’s sticky cake.

The results: It was one of those super chilly weekends early in the year, and my friend Lisa and her daughter Alice were over for an afternoon of dolls, football, and catching up. In other words, a perfect opportunity for fika!

When I pulled it from the oven, my kladdkaka looked and smelled delicious—deeply chocolate-y, with a nutty rich warmth. I cut slices for Jon, Lisa and I (Roxy and Alice had zero interest), dolloped each piece with whipped cream, and made hot cups of tea. Only the presence of snow would’ve made the scene more Swedish.

And the kaka? Fantastiskt!

Sheesh, it was good. Moist, slightly chewy, and satisfyingly flavorful with a hint of fruitiness…either from the almonds or the natural cane sugar, I’m not quite sure. The almond base made for a less overwhelmingly sweet dessert—maybe by countering the sugar better than mere flour could. And the whipped cream was a perfect topper—a smooth cloud of calm against the assertive chocolate. Lisa and I talked, we chewed, we ooohed and aaahed over this simple cake; we fika-ed, for sure.

The following day, a Monday, I brought a slice of kladdkaka in a Tupperware to work for Linda. I left it on her desk with a little note, and held my breath. Later in the morning, she sent a quick email. “Your kladdkaka is amazing! I’m happy to be your Fika tester any time.”

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