Discover the Swedish fika tradition year-round

By Rebekah Denn

Swedish fika buns

Discover the Swedish Fika tradition year-round

Photos by Daytona Danielsen

 

A convivial break for coffee and cake sounds especially good around the holiday season. But something else might sound even better: Making this sweet gathering, a chance to reflect and recharge, a regular practice year-round.

In Sweden, this custom is a way of life. It’s called fika (pronounced FEEK-ah), a regular break to savor coffee and a snack, generally with family, friends or colleagues.

“I think much like many other Nordic terms, it starts to encompass so much more,” said Leslie Anderson, chief curator of the National Nordic Museum in Seattle. Like hygge, the Danish concept of coziness, or friluftsliv, the Norwegian commitment to spend time outdoors, “it’s almost part of a lifestyle.”

Fika—one origin story says the word is an anagram for kaffe, or coffee—can be a special event, but more commonly it’s a daily and casual get-together.

“It can be folded into the work day. We have meetings that are more like a fika in the afternoon,” Anderson said. It can be a thermos full of coffee for a break on a weekend hike with friends, or a catch-up session with your mom.

Fika most likely started in the 18th century as a coffee-focused custom, Anderson said, then “became more of an experience with a sweet component” in the 19th century with the rise of bakeries in Sweden. Certain pastries are traditional fika accompaniments, such as cinnamon or cardamom buns, but it’s all about what you make of it. Anderson urges people not to be intimidated by the concept.

“I don’t think that there’s really a right and a wrong way. The spirit behind it is getting people together for conversation and sharing a bite to eat or a drink.”

Fika in Seattle

Fika in Seattle

The Puget Sound region feels particularly well-suited to fika, with its rain and chill, its coffee culture and its strong Scandinavian roots. The Nordic Museum itself, a PCC partner, was founded in 1978 “to honor the legacy of thousands of Nordic immigrants who came to the Northwest at the turn of the 20th century.” The Ballard neighborhood with its shipbuilding history and other maritime connections is a particular locus.

While coffee breaks are a longstanding tradition, the specifics of fika began seeping into the broader Seattle culture over the past decade. That’s around the time Anna Brones, a Northwest author and artist, co-authored “Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break” with illustrator and cook Johanna Kindvall. In the 2015 book Brones noted that fika functions both as a verb and a noun, and is endlessly flexible.

“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.”

For local cooking instructor Lisa Crawford, whose paternal grandfather immigrated from Sweden and whose grandmother was second-generation Norwegian, the word “fika” wasn’t articulated as a child.

Her grandparents spoke English at home (except when they were talking about something they didn’t want the kids to know). “At that time, for their kids, it was all about assimilation.”

But Crawford’s mother remembers always finding coffee for the adults and milk for youngsters when she came home from school, accompanied by warm treats from the oven like cinnamon rolls. When Crawford was growing up, her mother carried on the tradition: “There was always coffee break.” Her mother and aunt would get together daily for morning coffee and snacks when Crawford was young, with an afternoon version when her schoolteacher father got home. Even as a young adult living on her own, Crawford’s mother would say “why don’t you come over for coffee break?”

Fast forward 25 years, and Crawford’s niece found Brones’ book. “She said, guess what, this thing we’ve always done has a name! It made so much sense, it hit all the marks.” Her nieces later visited Sweden, rediscovering their family roots and “of course they found some really great places to fika.” Crawford has added fika classes to her cooking class repertoire (see her PCC class on page 3) and recommends hosts serve two or three treats like cookies, especially around the holidays.

“Like with a lot of European options, they’re small. The cookies are not huge, they’re not super rich or decadent, but they all go well with coffee…It’s great fun.”

Around the holidays, Daytona Danielsen, a Seattle-area cookbook author and Scandinavian expert, sometimes combines fika with the Norwegian tradition of syv slags kaker, or seven sorts of cookies. “You wouldn’t be a proper Norwegian if you didn’t have seven sorts of cookies to serve at Christmastime,” she joked. (You could serve more too.) Traditionally those are rich little butter-based treats, going back to a time when farm families would sell butter from their dairies but couldn’t afford their own luxury. At holidays, those farmers would finally indulge, saying “it’s Christmas, and we need to celebrate, and this is when we get to enjoy it ourselves as well.”

The warm community gatherings of the holidays feel like a perfect time to start a fika practice—but there’s no need to stop at the end.

“The whole idea for me of fika is to be able to sit down, slow down, enjoy somebody else’s company,” Danielsen said. “It’s to take away all the pressures of the days that are around us.”

 

Learn, sample and enjoy

Swedish fika cookies

 

Fika-friendly recipes

Fika-friendly recipes

Enjoy these fika-friendly baked treats from Daytona Danielsen (daytonadanielsen.com),
author of “Modern Scandinavian Baking” and the Scandinavian heritage site The Heart and Huset.

 

Pepperkaker (A Norwegian Gingerbread)

⅔ cup butter (I use salted)
⅔ cup sugar
½ cup golden syrup
¼ cup cream
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1½ teaspoons freshly-ground cardamom
1½ teaspoons ground cloves
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda

In a medium saucepan, mix the butter, sugar, and golden syrup over medium-low heat until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves. Cool a few minutes, then stir in the cream and the spices.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and the baking soda. Add the butter mixture and stir until the ingredients are incorporated and a dough comes together. Divide into two pieces and wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

When it’s time to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper—you’ll be baking one sheet at a time, but this way you can keep rolling out and shaping cookies while one tray bakes. On a very-lightly floured surface, roll out a little of the dough very thin, about ⅛-inch thick. (Keep the other portions chilled—you want the dough you’re working with to always be cold.)

Cut the dough into the shapes of your choice and transfer to the baking sheets. Bake one tray at a time for 5-7 minutes, until the edges are barely starting to turn color. Remove from the oven and cool on the baking sheet.

Store in an airtight container.

 

Swedish Mazarin Torte with Raspberries

Crust

¾ cup butter, softened*
¼ cup powdered sugar
2 eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup almond meal/flour

Filling

2 eggs
⅔ cup sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup almond meal or almond flour
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon almond extract
1 cup raspberry jam

Icing

1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon water
Fresh raspberries for serving

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

To prepare the crust, cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and beat until light and creamy. Add the flour, salt, and almond meal and mix until stiff. Press the dough into a 10- or 11-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, using your hands to create an even layer across the bottom and up the sides. Spread ½ cup of the raspberry jam over the bottom. Set aside while you make the filling.

To make the filling, beat the eggs and sugar until light, then beat in the butter, almond meal, and vanilla and almond extracts. Pour the filling into the crust.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the top is golden and slightly firm to the touch. (It will continue to set while it cools.) Slide the pan onto a rack and allow to cool fully.

Once the torte is cool, spread the remaining raspberry jam over the top and remove the torte from the pan.

Make the icing by whisking the water into the powdered sugar until smooth, adding a few more drops if needed to get the desired consistency. Spread over the top of the torte and garnish with fresh raspberries.

Notes: *I use salted butter; if you’re using unsalted butter, add about ⅛ tsp to the crust.

 

St. Lucia Saffron Buns

Makes 32 buns

½ teaspoon saffron threads
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon whiskey
1 cup unsalted butter
2 ½ cups milk
3 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
About 8 cups flour
64 currants or raisins

The night before baking, crush saffron with a tablespoon of the sugar in a small bowl. Pour in whiskey, give it a quick stir, cover with plastic wrap, and let the whiskey draw out the saffron’s color and flavor.

The next day, melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Pour in the milk and bring to lukewarm over medium heat. Scoop out a half cup or so and place in a bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over, cover, and let sit until bubbles form, 10 to 15 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, beat one egg. Stir in the rest of the sugar, salt, the milk and yeast mixture, and the saffron. Take note of the brilliant color the saffron has added, almost like a dye. Pour in the rest of the milk mixture and mix well with a wooden spoon. Gradually add flour, thoroughly mixing as you go; it should still be sticky and moist. Turn dough out onto a lightly-covered surface and knead for about five minutes until light and elastic. Take care to not add too much flour, either when mixing the dough or flouring the work surface, otherwise you’ll end up with dry buns; this is a very sticky dough, and a bench scraper can help pull it from the surface while you work. Return the dough to the mixing bowl. Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Line baking sheets with parchment. Cut the dough into 32 equal sized pieces. Roll each into a log, working from the center out, until they’re about the thickness of a finger. Form into simple S shapes by simultaneously rolling each end in opposite directions. Place the buns on the baking sheets, then cover with a damp tea towel and let rise again for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Beat the remaining egg and brush it onto the tops of the buns. Press raisins or currants into the crevices, two per bun if you’re making the s shape. Bake until golden yellow on top and cooked through, taking care not to overbake them or they’ll be too dry. Time will depend on size, but it should take 8 to 12 minutes. Transfer to the counter and place another damp tea towel over them while they cool to keep them from drying out.

— Recipes by Daytona Danielsen, daytonadanielsen.com.

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