Wed, May 6, 2009
By Bronte Blomhoj | Photos: Wikipedia
The image of the land of the little red wooden houses, clear lakes and midsummer fishing trips is an idyllic one. Sitting in the green field on a summer’s day, enjoying fresh air and a picnic of Swedish everyday delicacies such as fresh crayfish, prawns and a sprig of dill is a blissful and welcome event. Ah, the land of the healthy people who eat all that healthy food. Or so you thought.
Deep under the surface hides a little guilty culinary secret, you see… The smörgåstårta. If you have not yet experienced this classic Swedish dish, well, basically, imagine several different sandwiches on white bread, slapped together to form a big cake that would feed, say, 15 people. Cover the lot in a thick layer of mayonnaise and decorate it in best 80s style complete with olives on sticks and whirly slices of lemon. Slice and serve. Yes, you’ve found it: the Swedish culinary calorie bomb. And man, it is so, so good.
So, the cat is out of the bag: it is not just about herring and health in Scandinavia. Every country has a few foodie secrets that probably will never be mentioned in any international cook book or tourist guide. For Sweden, it is the Smörgåstårta (although the regional habit of eating a hotdog topped with mashed potato and prawn-mayo probably comes in a close second). No self-respecting Swede will, of course, admit that eating a savoury torte decorated in half a kilo of mayonnaise is a sin, but is rather an integral part of any anniversary, birthday or nice get-together.
Nobody is really sure where the concept of Smörgåstårta originated or why it has been such a hit in Sweden in particular, as the roots of this dish do not appear to be specifically Swedish. Konditor Gunnar Sjodahl in Ostersund has been mentioned as the possible ’inventor’ of this supposedly most Swedish of dishes, although its popularity in Finland suggests its origins are less precise. The closest thing to compare it to is the American “Sandwich loaf” which was extremely popular during the 1950s. The idea is the same: a loaf of sandwich bread, sliced length ways and filled with many, many different fillings (read: anything in the fridge), then covered in some sticky dressing and decorated with things such as radishes cut into flowers and twirly bits of cucumber. Perhaps the Smörgåstårta is a leftover variation of the American fifties dish?
Regardless of its origins, it is never far from the Swedish mind: it even made headlines a couple of years back in Sweden’s own Smörgåstårtagate, when a policeman in Lund was convicted of gross misconduct for suggesting his effectiveness might be improved if offered a Smörgåstårta.
Best of Swedish
Well, perhaps there are links – but looking into the Smörgåstårta from Sweden, you cannot deny that the fillings of a Swedish smörgåstårta can represent what is best of Swedish produce: cured or smoked salmon, beautiful fresh prawns and maybe even crayfish. So yes, the idea of making it a huge sandwich from which to cut slices is similar to the American loaf, but the stuff you put into it and the combinations you choose – well, this is how it becomes the well-loved Swedish smörgåstårta.
Today, the Smörgåstårta still has its place in Swedish cuisine and you can order one at the local konditor or baker for that all important family event (usually served at Christenings, big birthday parties, as a late night snack at weddings…). Alternatively, have a go at making it yourself – it is surprisingly easy and tastes really good. Indeed, yours truly was very sceptical before the writing of this column, but having used the recipe below is now a convert and probably also a few pounds heavier. Happy pounds, nevertheless: it is worth the effort.
How to make a Smörgåstårta
Serves around 12 people (a nice slice each, eat with a fork). The quantities below are a guideline as you should always make sure the smörgåstårta is filled properly – a dry loaf is no fun at all.
16 slices of white sandwich bread
Spread or butter
Smoked salmon – about 6-7 nice slices
Prawns – about 300 grams
6 hard boiled eggs, mashed and mixed with mayonnaise, salt, pepper and a little pinch of mustard
A tub of cream cheese
A good sized jar of a good quality mayonnaise (500g is around about enough).
Stuff to make it look pretty and interesting: cucumber, dill sprigs, chopped chives, radishes, lemon, caviar… use your imagination.
This is how you do it:
Cut the crust off all bread. Lay 4 slices on your serving plate in a square (the one you will use for serving – you can’t move the loaf after it has been made up)
Butter the bread, then spread a good helping of cream cheese, add some chopped chives and place the salmon. Butter next round of bread on both sides and place on top of salmon. Next, spread with your egg mayonnaise mixture to give a good, thick, even layer across bread. Butter the next round of bread and place on top of the egg mixture. Add a good layer of mayo mixed with half creme fraiche, add chopped dill and give it a good grind from the pepper mill – and then add 2/3 of your prawns (the rest are for decoration). Butter the underside of the last round of bread and place on top.
Cover well with cling film and pop in fridge for around 24 hours to leave the bread to mix with the fillings. A few hours before serving, remove from fridge and get ready to decorate the torta.
To decorate, use a spatula to cover the entire loaf in mayonnaise. Yep, all sides need a nice layer. If you use a lighter mayo, be aware that it will not stick so well so mix with a bit of crème fraiche as this will give the mixture a bit more hold when chilled. Some people mix it with whipped cream at this point to make it stick better – although that sounds like it could be slightly criminal.
Once your wonder is all sealed, it’s time to decorate. Slices of cucumber, swirly bits of lemon, radishes cut into flower shapes and prawns arranged in lovely patterns are all go. The more Eighties looking, the better. Once you’d feel proud to serve it at a Wham fan club re-union party, it’s probably ready.
Chill until serving, then slice.
Always remember: there are no hard rules with regards to the filling, so make your own variations. A good meat smörgåstårta could be made with ham and beef and pate, or perhaps be adventurous and go for a new-age Italian version with peppers, salami, ham and olives and swap the white bread for nice Italian sliced loaf.
Bronte Blomhoj is the owner of Scandinavian Kitchen, a cafe/deli that now sells smörgåstårta made to order (as long as she doesn’t eat them first).