The latest guest on my podcast, “Your Last Meal,” is Seattle’s Lindy West, a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and author of the truly fantastic book, “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman.”
West pushed the limits of “Your Last Meal” with a six course feast, that features dishes from many Seattle restaurants. But the one I focused on is a very hard-to-pronounce pastry from Larsen’s Bakery in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Smorkage is a flaky, buttery, laminated pastry layered with custard and raisins that looks like a tin of cinnamon rolls. West says her mom was the first in her Norwegian family to be born in the United States.
“I grew up in a very Norwegian intensive lifestyle,” West said. “A lot of Norwegian flags around the house; my mom believes that Norwegians do things the right way. Once a month all my aunties would get together and we’d sit around and talk and bake cookies and gossip. Someone would always go to Larsen’s and get a smorkage. I think it translates to butter and cake … I believe, oh god, I’m gonna get in trouble. The whole thing is on the verge of just melting into a pile of butter with just the smallest amount of flour holding it together. There are raisins in it, it’s kind of flaky, it’s really gooey. It’s the best kind of middle-of-the-cinnamon roll gooey except no cinnamon. Ugh, it’s so good.”
According to it’s original owner, Danish immigrant Poul Larsen, his is the only bakery in the United States that sells smorkage. I couldn’t find anyone else selling it online, let alone many people referring to it. Even in Denmark it’s rare, having fallen out of culinary fashion. But Larsen’s has been baking kringle and smorkage and all kinds of other baked goods for 44 years.
“The first customer I had, he’s still shopping here,” said Mr. Larsen, as his employees call him. “He’s a famous fisherman from Ballard.”
“Yesterday, we had a group of 5- and 6-year-old school children and one father said he’s been coming here since he was that tall,” said Larsen’s production manager, Peter Rizzo.
Smorkage, hygge, and tradition
West describes a cozy family gathering, complete with sweets. This is basically hygge, a Danish way of living that is basically defined as the good life. A cozy atmosphere and feeling punctuated with indulgent foods, cozy sweaters, a roaring fire and warm and fuzzy time spent with loved ones.
Copenhagen’s Meik Wiking wrote “The Little Book of Hygge.”
“The whole culture around hygge also explains why Danes consume a lot of Danish pastries, or as we call them here … pastries! We also have the second highest consumption of sugar in Europe, only beaten by the Finns. Basically everything can be a little more hygge if you just add cake.”
Recently, Seattle was named the most hygge city in the country, partly because of our gray skies and abundance of fireplaces. Over the last couple years, US bookstore shelves have become heavy with books on hygge. I asked Signe Johansen, author of “How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life” what caused the Scandinavian invasion.
“For years people have been interested in Scandinavian design,” Johansen explains, calling it the “perfect storm.”
“Also people are really intrigued by the quality of life that they read about and hear about from all the Nordic countries,” she said. “Every year either Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, or Iceland seems to top the [list] of world’s happiest people. We don’t have political power in the world, but people live really well. So I think that’s quite compelling and it’s interesting to people from outside the region.”
Talking about smorkage
Lindy West is speaking at Benayorya Hall on April 15. Het tickets here.