May 2015

Teri Vlassopoulos


A Warm Kitchen After the Snow

I halfheartedly culled my possessions using the trendy, much lauded Marie Kondo method a few weeks ago. While it was fairly easy to apply to items of clothing, books were much harder, despite the section in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up entirely devoted to the particular roadblocks a book hoarder might encounter. The problem was that, while I had no problem accepting Kondo's "sparks of joy" theory, when she wrote that she prefers to keep her bookcases in her closets (really?), I lost some respect for the method, which is why the culling was only half-hearted. I managed to put together a few decent stacks of books to discard, but they're still sitting in my basement and every time I walk by I pluck out a book to save.

I've rescued more than a few cookbooks, which was the group of books I was most hoping to thin out. Cookbooks make up the most space-consuming portion of my book collection, not just physically, but psychically as well. Whenever I resort to an untested food blog recipe rather than something within bound pages, I can't help but feel my books' disapproval. Keeping only the essentials might, like Kondo promises, open me up to better kitchen experiences in the future. I look at many of them so rarely that their removal would cause minimal disruption to my life, and yet, I want to keep them all. I continue moving books from the donate pile to my overstuffed bookshelves.

I felt fortunate, then, to get Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall's Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break because it reminded me of a Swedish word I'd once learned, but then forgotten. Mysig captures a feeling so specific one would recognize it immediately, but it's one of those words without an English equivalent. It's a shame because its meaning is so lovely -- it's meant to convey a kind of overarching coziness, a comfort, or, as it's described by Brones and Kindvall, "a warm kitchen to welcome you inside after you've been out in the snow." I could tolerate the idea of keeping items that gave me Kondo's sparks of joy, but what I really wanted in a home, I realized, was to achieve mysig, and my unwieldy collection of cookbooks helped me do that.

Fika is another Swedish word that would be useful to have in English. Both a noun and a verb, it's essentially a coffee break: a moment in the day where you drink your coffee (or tea, but mostly coffee) and pair it with a baked good. Fika is a fundamental part of quotidian Swedish life, so much so that kanelbullar, cinnamon buns, one of the most popular things to eat with a cup of coffee, have a day devoted to them. (It's October 4 if you want to celebrate.) The emphasis in fika, in real life and in the book, is handmade; the doughs are mixed and kneaded by hand, no food processors or Kitchen Aid mixers required. While the North American coffee break tends to be equated with a quick infusion of caffeine to fuel work for the rest of the day, the goal of fika is to take a measured, thoughtful pause.

Scandinavian countries are the top consumers of coffee per capita, and as such they've mastered the types of foods to accompany it. Baked goods rely on strong flavors that aren't often found in a Starbucks display case -- nutmeg, anise, saffron, and, most popular, cardamom, which is baked into all kinds of cakes (kardemmummakaka!) or buns. But there's lots of chocolate too, like kladdkaka (sticky chocolate cake) or chokladbiskvier (chocolate buttercream almond rounds). I was happy to find a recipe for havreflarn med choklad, oat crisp chocolate sandwich cookies, which I always buy at IKEA and then regret the next day when I've eaten too many of them in one sitting. There was no regret involved in making them at home myself -- grinding up oats, dipping the baked cookies in ginger-spiked melted chocolate.

Fika is not necessarily only a time for something sweet, and the book has savory recipes as well for things like tunnbröd, a Swedish flatbread, and rye or crisp breads, which can be used to make smörgås, open-faced sandwiches.

Fika would have been the perfect book to have during the long winter that finally ended, all those buns and coffee cakes and cookies warm out of the oven as comforting padding from the cold. Fortunately there are summery recipes as well, like berry-based pies or cordials for when you want something to drink other than coffee. I'm trying to figure out if I have access to an elderflower bush so I can make my own flädersaft. Its recipe is so quaint and the thought of snipping the tiny flowers into a clean bucket with lemon slices to distill into cordial is almost too wonderful.

Fika easily passes the sparks-of-joy test, not just in content but aesthetically. It's a satisfying, squat size, filled with simple color line drawings instead of photographs, tiny illustrations of ingredients or instructions for rolling and folding dough to achieve proper bun shapes. There's lots of airy white space too. I can imagine paging through it during a solo fika, using it to help me take a pause from the rest of the day. Fika, the book, is an object you keep.

Teri Vlassopoulos lives in Toronto. More of her writing can be found here.