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Scandilicious with Signe Johansen

On Saturday we had a wonderful day of Scandinavian baking and cooking with Signe Johansen, author of Scandilicious Baking. The cookery school was perfumed with cinnamon, cardamom and freshly baked breads. Here is Lindsey Harrad's account of the day.

Lindsey Making Cinnamon Buns

Lindsey Making Cinnamon Buns

Scandi Baking by Lindsey Harrad

A few years ago, our knowledge of Scandinavian food would have been confined to stereotypes such as pickled herring, Danish pastries and Daim cake at Ikea. But with the success of Noma, The Killing, Jo Nesbo and now the delightful cookery author Signe Johansen, Scandi culture has never been cooler. Keen to find out more, I signed up for Signe’s one-day course at the Vegetarian Cookery School.

Lindsey & Signe finishing the Sesame “rundstykker” rolls

Lindsey & Signe finishing the Sesame “rundstykker” rolls

Signe’s most recent book – Scandilicious Baking – is a follow up to her first, Scandilicious: The Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking. Although, as Signe admits, you’d be hard-pressed to find any vegetarians in Scandinavia, where the food culture revolves heavily around fish and farming, there’s plenty of potential for veggies to learn the secrets of Scandi baking, and we soon learn that the Scandinavians love their bread and dairy products.

Sesame “rundstykker” rolls

Warm Sesame “rundstykker” rolls

Following coffee and introductions, where we discover that vegetarians are in the minority in the group in favour of baking enthusiasts and those interested in Scandinavian culture, one of our first surprises was discovering the extensive use of spices in both sweet and savoury cooking. We typically associate many of these spices with the hot climates of Asia, but as Signe explains, their appearance in Scandi cuisine is partly due to the historic legacy of the spice route during the Middle Ages, and spices now find their way into everything from pickling vinegars to bread. We learn that cardamom is a particular favourite, and Signe recommends always buying the pods whole, then de-husking and grinding in a pestle and mortar for maximum freshness and flavour. During the day, cardamom finds its way into Fyrstekake (a Norwegian spiced almond tart), traditional cinnamon buns and the ‘gløg’, a Scandinavian take on mulled wine.

Spices, nuts & seeds

Spices, nuts & seeds

Our first job is to get the various doughs prepared, and Signe demonstrates on one batch, before we break off into pairs to make the dough for traditional cinnamon buns, spelt and fennel seed bread and sesame ‘rundstykker’ rolls, which are typically eaten for breakfast. We learn that spelt flour, both wholemeal and white refined, can be easily substituted for normal wheat flour in almost all recipes, including for pastry, and offers a less glutinous, more digestible alternative – which some people who are sensitive to gluten can eat.

Signe showing how the dough should look

Signe showing how the dough should look

However, the day is not just about baking, and while the dough is proving we move onto a demonstration of Signe’s roasted swede soup and discover another key spice in Scandi cooking – nutmeg. Nutmeg is often used in desserts and coffee in Scandinavia, but also works beautifully in many savoury dishes. Signe reveals that nutmeg has hallucinogenic qualities, and an alarming number of students want to know how much nutmeg they need to eat to experience the effects…

Roasted Swede Soup

Roasted Swede Soup

Swede is an under-rated vegetable in this country, but makes a wonderful mash, especially in partnership with other root veg. Swede is grown in substantial quantities in Sweden, from where it is often imported into the UK (where it was often known as a Swedish turnip), and roasting transforms a rather humble looking, mild-tasting vegetable into something rather sweet and special. The golden roasted swede is added to homemade veg stock, plenty of fresh nutmeg and a basic mirepoix of onion, celery and carrot, and soon a delicious aroma starts to fill the kitchen, awakening our appetites for lunch. We all gather around the workbenches to eat our simple and delicious lunch of homemade soup and freshly baked sesame rolls, which prove to be light, fresh and so utterly delicious we can’t quite believe we made them!

our first lunch! Roasted Swede Soup & Sesame “rundstykker” rolls

our first lunch! Roasted Swede Soup & Sesame “rundstykker” rolls

The day also includes a pastry demonstration, as Signe reveals how to prepare a traditional Norwegian Fyrstekake, or ‘prince’s cake’, which combines an old fashioned pastry, made with baking powder and double cream for a super light, crisp texture, with one of Norway’s favourite sweet treats, an almondy, sticky marzipan-like filling with a hint of cardamom. Signe’s well-practised technique and plenty of tips soon help to demystify pastry making, which is often the nemesis of even the most capable cook.

Fyrstekake Norwegian spiced Almond Tart

Fyrstekake Norwegian spiced Almond Tart

For the less technical among us, the cinnamon buns prove great fun to make, as our dough is rolled out, lathered in rich sugary cinnamon butter, rolled up and chopped into segments, revealing whirls of cinnamon inside. Even the less-than-perfect looking buns still taste marvellously light and not too sweet.

Cinnamon bun-cake

Cinnamon bun-cake

By late afternoon, the kitchen is soporifically warm and it’s time to take a well-earned break and watch a demonstration of how to make Scandilicious gløg, a celebratory spiced red-wine-based drink with the addition of dried cherries that have been soaked in cherry brandy and almonds as a sweet, boozy treat at the bottom of the glass. Anyone who has drunk far too much unpleasant mulled wine over the years will know that buying pre-made varieties is usually a mistake, and with the spiced sugar syrup so quick and easy to make, there’s really no reason not to make your own. For best results, Signe recommends using a good quality wine, not allowing it to boil, and using your favourite berry-based liqueur or brandy. We all toasted ‘skøl’ (pronounced skole), Norwegian for ‘cheers/good health’, and fuelled by goodwill, the VCS team then cracked open the bubbly!

Scandilicious gløgg

Scandilicious gløgg

It’s worth noting here that throughout the course, the well-oiled teamwork of Rachel Demuth and Jo Ingleby goes on unobtrusively in the background, ensuring a smooth transition from one demo to the next and allowing Signe to pack in nine substantial recipes in one day, including a spontaneous demonstration of Danish pinwheel Christmas biscuits with leftover pastry. But as an experienced chef herself, Jo often stops to give a few useful tips on everything from how to make a good vegetable stock, the best way to roast whole beetroot, and a foolproof method for separating eggs.

Pearled spelt, roast beetroot salad

Pearled spelt, roast beetroot salad

A day at the VCS, as always, ends by gathering to enjoy the wonderful food we’ve prepared in the dining room, and we tuck into the beautiful yet simple winter salad of glossy roasted beetroot, fresh-tasting local Homewood ewes’ cheese, nutty pearled spelt barley and colourful mixed leaves, all drizzled with a wonderful pink raspberry vinegar – Signe explains that fruit vinegars are very popular in Scandinavia – accompanied by our fennel bread and the pumpkin, cheese and sage muffins we whipped up in a flash earlier in the day. It’s a feast for all the senses and an unexpected pleasure to discover the diverse flavours of Scandi cuisine ­– and to share the fruit of our labours with like-minded foodies.

End of the day!

End of the day!

The Menu

Spelt and fennel seed bread

 Sesame “rundstykker” rolls

 Pumpkin, cheese and sage muffins

 Roasted swede soup

 Pearled spelt, roast beetroot salad

 Fyrstekake

Norwegian spiced almond tart

 Cinnamon bun-cake

 Scandilicious gløgg

View more pictures on Flickr.

Follow Signe’s blog at  signejohansen.com

Twitter: @scandilicious

Signe has two books, both of which are available through her website, Amazon and in bookshops:

Secrets of Scandinavian Cooking... Scandilicious by Signe Johansen, published by Saltyard Books.

Scandilicious Baking by Signe Johansen, published by Saltyard Books.

Scandi Baking with Signe Johansen - a review by Lindsey Harrad @FabVegWriter

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