This post was supposed to be published yesterday on the 21st. Due to technical difficulties it’s now today. So please just pretend it’s yesterday ….
Today I woke in the dark to the sound of birds … from a dream in which I fell from an airplane with my father, tumbled through the air, down into the ocean and kept sinking all the way to the bottom. I pushed up off the ocean floor and thought I would have no problem reaching the surface. I could see the sunlight through the water, but it was a very long way, and I began to wonder if I’d make it. But I did. The first thing I remembered when I awakened was something I’m feeling sad about. The second thing was that it’s Midsummer.
Here in New Mexico it seems strange to celebrate light, when it exists in such overwhelming abundance. Most of the time I am trying to hide from its searing white hot blue glare. But in places of dark cold and frosty stars, the longest day of the year feels magical and almost impossibly sweet. With half my genes rooted in Scandinavia and a childhood in the Maine woods … Midsummer conjures up the fairies no matter where my tent is pitched.
We always had a party on the porch and often talked about heading to New Sweden, the little town up North where Midsummer is still celebrated in the traditional fashion with dancing around a pole, flower wreaths, and special foods. We never made it … because who wanted to get in the car and drive away from the Lake? My Mom, the keeper of holidays, baked Scandinavian style cakes all summer, but especially in June, when we had our gluttonous fill of strawberries after the measly produce offerings of the local A&P all winter. I would wait all year for the two weeks of ripeness, when we drove to the farm in the pre-sunrise darkness to join the other pickers in the fields with flashlights, bent on scoring the juiciest, reddest berries.
My mother had no desire to live in the wilds. Left up to her, I would have grown up a city girl, and who knows what I’d have become. It was my father, who hauled us to Maine from Manhattan, and hacked a life out of the wilderness. My grandparents back in Queens never forgave him for spiriting their only child and grandchildren off to what they perceived as Outer Siberia – and let’s face it, back in the 70’s that assessment of Northern Maine wasn’t too far off. Mom coped – rather brilliantly it must be said, given that she hadn’t chosen the outhouse or the unplowed road or the tarpaper walls or the months of endless snow. “Be cheerful” was her mantra, which got her through quite a bit of pioneer style craziness. She sewed all my clothes – her sewing machine never stopped whirring. She home-schooled my brother and me back when that was just plain weird – she learned and taught us all the plants, rocks, and animals we lived among and mapped the constellations, lying on the four foot thick lake ice on freezing nights. She filled long winter days with tea parties and art projects, igloo building and sledding, cooking and stories. Mom made a lot out of a little with almost no money in a place she never dreamed she’d be. In the end, a lifetime of living someone else’s script caught up with her, and it all came splintering apart in a spectacularly nightmarish mess … But that is another story.
Today we’re sticking with the summer solstice and the bliss of waking up to the fragrance of pine trees and a giant puffy golden Swedish pancake, smothered in butter, fresh lemon juice and powdered sugar … with absolutely nothing to do all day and for days ahead but swim and lie on the rocks reading, and swim some more. Mom would always go into town early before it got hot so the ice cream wouldn’t melt in the car, and on the way home she’d pick armfuls of wildflowers. She loved daisies best, but we picked anything that grew – black eyed susans, lupine, queen anne’s lace, goldenrod, lilacs … There were always flowers in the big copper kettle on the kitchen table. One recent summer, visiting home after a long absence, I filled the empty vases with familiar blooms and realized Mom was truly in another place when she didn’t notice, had no joy left in flowers.
Today my thoughts turn to my hometown, the lake and woods, my beautiful friend, Stephanie, another amazing mama, who is the epitome of Nordic beauty with her white blond hair and astonishing blue eyes. I miss her and haven’t kept in touch well enough. Steph’s Mom hails from Monson, a community settled by Finns in the 1800’s, who came to work in the slate quarries. At the Finnish Farmers’ Hall they still hold dances on summer nights, where you can whirl your sweetie around the old wood floor while fiddlers crank out the tunes and fireflies cavort outside. Stephanie also happens to be a talented baker, who makes the most delectable Finnish sweet rolls. Perhaps we’ll pry that recipe out of her come the holidays …
In celebration of Midsummer I’ve ordered up a copy of Faviken, the sumptuous cookbook by Swedish chef, Magnus Nilsson. Oh, yum, yuuuuum, I can’t wait til it arrives in the mailbox!! I’ll also be rereading my worn copy of the epic classic, Moominsummer Madness, which is definitely, hands-down one of the all time best books EVER WRITTEN. Along with all the rest of the Moomin series by Tove Jansson. If you are not yet acquainted with Moomintrolls, stop reading right this second, sprint to the nearest bookstore like your butt’s on fire, and grab any Moomin book you can get your hands on. If the store is closed, break in – it’ll be worth it – you can read the book while you’re in jail.
When you get out of jail, make this cake. Scandinavian desserts are divine in their simplicity, relying on lots of butter, subtle flavorings, and fruit. Please do me a favor, and do not get all hip and try to make this with coconut oil instead of butter. Excuse me, we’re Swedish – what the hell is a coconut?? Go out and milk the cow. This grain-free version of my Mom’s basic summer cake was inspired by a recipe from my good friend, Ann, whose little baby girl looks so much like a nissa (Swedish elf) I suspect she may in fact be one. You will get to try Ann’s recipe later on … this one is true to the Nordic dessert heritage, while skipping the flour and white sugar. Have a piece on the porch with your best friends. Have another after midnight skinny-dipping. Finish it off the next morning with some good strong coffee as you rev up to launch into summer …
Grain-free Nordic Midsummer Madness Cake:
- Two 15 oz. cans great northern beans
- 9 tablespoons butter
- 6 large eggs
- 1 cup honey or maple syrup, plus a little more to taste
- 1 cup almond flour
- 1 cup sliced almonds
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
In addition you will need:
- 16 oz. whipping cream
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- dash ground cardamom
- rosewater or vanilla
- lingonberry (traditional) or raspberry (much easier to find) jam
- two 16 oz. boxes of fresh strawberries
- ½ cup sliced almonds
Optional Rhubarb Sauce (highly recommended!):
- 6 stalks rhubarb
- maple syrup to taste
Making the cake is super simple – just put everything but the sliced almonds in a food processor, and hit the ON button. Whiz until everything is smooth, then add the sliced almonds and pulse just for a few seconds to mix. Pour batter into two 8 or 9 inch cake pans, and bake at 350 until firm in the center. Now you can make your rhubarb sauce if you want it. Chop rhubarb into chunks and add water to cover and maple syrup to make it as sweet as you like it. Simmer, stirring occasionally until the stalks completely break down, and the water has evaporated so it is all a silky saucy consistency. While the cakes are cooling, hull your strawberries. Slice half of them and drizzle with a splash of maple syrup. Whip the cream until it holds stiff peaks, adding maple syrup, cardamom, vanilla and/or rosewater to taste.
When cakes are fully cool, put one layer on your prettiest plate, and spread the top with jam, a about half the strawberries, sliced, and half the whipped cream. You can also spoon some rhubarb sauce between the layers. Put the top layer on, cover with whipped cream, and the whole strawberries. Sprinkle sliced almonds over the top. I like to decorate with wildflowers too. There is an old Swedish custom of picking seven different wildflowers on Midsummer and putting them under your pillow to dream of the person you’ll marry. I think I’ll try it. Happy Midsummer, everyone!! May you walk in light, dear friends.