Indoor summer

We had our furnace installed and working by about 5pm last night, and when we left for my Oakland East Bay Symphony concert at 7:20, it was still cranking away on full blast. (This fancy-schmancy furnace has a big burner and a little one, and two fan speeds, so that it can do little fires with slow speeds to maintain a temperature, a big fire with big speed to bring a cold house up to temperature, and everything full blast to handle really cold houses.) When we got home, it was off, and we had a toasty, comfortable house–every last room was toasty and comfy! Mind you, this may not be exciting news for most of you, but this house has always had warm rooms and cold rooms, mostly the latter.

I didn’t think it was possible to heat this house properly! All these years I’ve known I had a crappy old furnace, but I thought the real problem was all the glass, the high ceilings, the fireplace without glass doors, blah blah blah. Turns out this house heats up just fine when it has a decent furnace!

We didn’t even hear the furnace kick on this morning, but when I woke up around 8am and it was programmed to be 60 still for overnight, it was reasonably comfortable to get up and pee. When I woke back up around 10:30, and it was supposed to be 68 according to our weekend program, I lay in bed scratching Gjetost’s ears and thinking, “Gosh. It feels TOO warm in here. It’s nice and comfy under the covers, but the air on my face is too warm!” Now it’s in the 62˚ phase of the program, and it still feels toasty and comfy inside–too warm, even–but the furnace isn’t even noticeable. I don’t think it’s even kicked on since we got up.

All these years I’ve had the thermostat set to 68˚ for active times, 62˚ during the day while we’re away, and 60˚ overnight. Turns out I’ve never actually felt 68˚!

I grew up in a house that was 72˚ for most of winter (right, Mom? or 70˚?). We’re astonished to find that we both agree 68˚ is too warm, and we’ve already reprogrammed the thermostat for 66˚ during our active hours. All these years I’ve thought I’d lost my winter fat and exchanged it for plain old fat fat, but I guess it really is winter fat.

Amazing. I’m thinking we will see our gas bills go down! I should have done this years ago.

Okay, all you people who, like me, have been too cheap to replace your POS cheap old 60% AFUE furnaces that came with your house: stop dithering! Replace it now. You won’t regret it.

Ductwork gets redone on Tuesday. After that, we’ll probably have to get out our summer clothes and put away all the fleece throw blankets. I’ve already put my long johns, ragg socks, and turtlenecks in the laundry basket.

Indoor weather continues

For those who missed earlier episodes of “Fun with V and E: The Great Indoor Winter of 2007,” our furnace started gasping its last breaths late last week, just in time for a week of record low temperatures. (You’ve probably heard that the California citrus and avocado industry is expecting a $1B loss, and the Governator declared a state of emergency in a bunch of counties.) As a result, most of this week it’s been high 30s/low 40s outside and mid 40s inside. We’ve been shivering under even an astonishingly large heap of bedding by night, and by day I’ve rediscovered the value of long johns, fleece, flannel, and many layers, even in my office with the space heater on. V has been going around in her stocking cap. This morning I washed a bunch of pots and pans just for the pleasure of having my hands in hot water. (They did need washing.)

It turns out that it was probably a relatively easy fix costing a few hundred dollars to get the old POS working again, but on its best day that old thing still sucks, and I’ve known for a long time that I should probably replace it. It never gets below about 30 around here, yet my utility bill soars from $50-75/mo in the summer to $200-350 in the winter, which is pretty ridiculous. It’s partly due to the maybe 60% efficiency of the old furnace, which appears to be at least 25 years old and too small for the house besides (75K btu, where 90-100K btu is a better idea). It’s also partly due to the debacle of energy deregulation in California, in particular how PG&E’s rates are capped on electricity (which is expensive to produce and inefficient to distribute) but not natural gas (which is abundant, if problematic for other reasons in recent years). If you figure that a lot of our electricity is produced by burning natural gas and then pumping electricity down the lines, and line loss is way more expensive than gas-pumping, it’s really stupid not to go straight to the source and burn your own gas, but in California you pay more to do the smarter thing. Go figure. It’s ridiculous, but I’m still going to do the right thing, and there are some signs that California has finally figured out that reregulating the energy industry is needed, so maybe someday my PG&E bills will reward my good behavior.

So, I had appointments with four different estimators plus two others who never made it (one called to cancel, one didn’t), and a seventh from Sears blew me off twice–scheduled me, then called the morning of to cancel, both times. After my water heater experience from hell with Sears, I didn’t find that too surprising.

Everybody had the same advice about the basic question, once I stipulated that I wanted a PG&E-rebate-qualified high-efficiency furnace; namely, we should get a variable-speed, two-stage, high-efficiency furnace of the same capacity. They extolled, variously, four brands, American Standard & Trane, which are the same company and basically the same furnace, Ruud, and Amana. All are rated well by Consumer Reports. They differed on whether additional things were needed. I ended up with bids ranging from $3334 for furnace only to $12070 for furnace, fancy filter, redoing all the ductwork under the house, splitting the house into two zones, and gold-plating a bottle of snake oil.

The first guy was the gold-plated snake oil guy, and the other three were basically sensible geeks. Snake Oil guy was clearly all about sales and pushing a dubious rebate scheme that looked like a big marketing scam to me. One of the geeks took great pains to freak me out about all kinds of code issues, and I ended up concluding that this was a sales-by-fear tactic intended to make me accept a price $2K higher for exactly the same furnace installation. All of them guaranteed to do whatever it takes to pass the inspection at no additional cost, and Code Freak guy was the only one who thought that my ductwork (which is clearly also some PsOS) was fine.

Third was Family Business guy, who actually seemed to know what he was talking about and who wasn’t freaky or dogmatic about anything at all, including brand of furnace (Trane or Amana), and who presented all the options at competitive prices, explained the pros and cons, and said it was really up to me. I liked him and had decided it was his bid to lose when the fourth guy arrived. This guy basically said the same thing as everybody else and gave the 2nd lowest price but didn’t bother breaking out much detail. At some point I asked him about his accent, and he answered cautiously that he’s Iraqi. I replied that I have never voted for this president and never would, and he immediately relaxed, and there followed an interesting exchange about the war and how he’s had to move his extended family to Syria. It was an interesting conversation. His heating proposal was reasonable, and he ended up second place in my thinking.

After a long, shivering talk Wednesday night, we decided on Family Business guy and the Amana, whose efficiency has a 96% AFUE rating, vs. 92.x% for all the others. That’s a trivial difference except that it qualifies you for a $200 Federal tax credit, plus the Amana costs $700 less than the equivalent models from other brands (at least in the estimates I got) and has a better warranty. Since we have two people with allergies and asthma, three furry critters, and a bunch of friends/family with allergies, we also opted to add the $800 superduper HEPA filter (a Trane CleanEffects, which was $1695 from the snake oil guy).

And then we come to the tricky decisions: ductwork and zoning. First, ductwork:

California requires that you test all ducts and seal leaks any time you do a furnace replacement. In some zones including Oakland, buying a 92%+ furnace exempts you. However, it’s still true that leaky, poorly insulated ducts are a bad thing, because they let heat out and pollutants (like mold, and my crawlspace’s rat-shitty-dust) in.

Snake Oil guy said this is bad, bad, bad, we need to redo all the duct work; you wouldn’t have to, you’re exempt, but we really ought to, especially if we’re zoning and messing around with all this stuff anyway.

Code Freak guy looked at all the dust and crud that appears in stripes on my old ductwork and said, “That’s normal–leaks suck in air, so the insulation filters out the dust and you see dirty areas. It’s not big deal, because the insulation filters the stuff. You see this all the time.” But he said they could test and fix up leaks for another $600.

Family Business guy said they looked basically okay, but that if we redid them we’d probably get a performance gain about equal to that of the new furnace vs. old, and that doing so would also give us the opportunity to resize and rebalance things so that the house is more evenly heated (we’ve found that the living room and master bedroom are much colder than the small rooms, which is not surprising given that they’re bigger, glassier, and fed by vents exactly the same size as all the other rooms).

Iraqi guy said they’re basically okay “but they need some care. We’ll check them over and do some re-sealing.”

As for zoning, Snake Oil guy of course extolled its virtues and built it right into his price. Code Freak guy said not to bother, it wasn’t worth it. Family Business guy said it’s nice but not necessary, but then said that he himself has a crappy old furnace like mine in his house, and after he zoned the house, he’s been able to put up with it for another 20 years. He didn’t think there was a strong case for or against zoning in our house, but said we’d like it if we did it. Iraqi guy said not to bother, because it only really works when the house is divided into distinct areas like a two-flat; with my open-plan, all the heat’s going to move everywhere on its own anyway, so it’s kind of pointless.

We ended up deciding yes on the ductwork and no on the zoning. All this is costing us $6134, minus a $300 PG&E rebate, a $200 tax credit, and supposedly up to $1K/yr savings in energy use, but we’ll see about that. If that savings actually comes through, we’ll also get a PG&E discount for reducing our average monthly consumption by whatever percent it is they set as the goal–I think it’s 12%, but don’t quote me.

Fortunately, Family Business guy had a cancellation for today which meant we’re getting our furnace before rather than after the weekend. His guy Jeff is banging away downstairs putting in the furnace now, which he said would take him pretty much all day, and a crew is coming on Tuesday to redo all the ducts. On Monday night I plan to crank the house up to 70-something so we’ll make it through another furnace-less day on Tuesday.

Finally, now that the cows are safely outside in the neighbors’ pasture, we’re looking into a lock for the barn door: I priced out wood-burning stove inserts for our crappy sheet metal fireplace that looks nice but sucks heat out of the house, and we’re giving strong consideration to spending just shy of $3K to install one that can heat up 1200-2000 sq ft, or possibly even one size larger. I also looked at gas fireplaces and wood pellet stoves, but it seems to me that with this spiffy new furnace, the heating power of greatest emergency use to us is a backup system works no matter how many utilities have gone out of service. So, gas is out. As for wood pellets, those stoves use motors and electricity. And if I don’t have something that takes logs, what am I supposed to do with the huge oak tree that is now a stack of logs under my stairs? Or the big fallen branches on the hill behind my house that look like kindling waiting to happen?

Anyone got opinions on this puppy?

Indoor weather report

Last week our furnace began to bite the dust. By the time we got back from a weekend away, it had bitten the dust.

So it’s 48 in our house today and 41 in our driveway. I’m frozen despite being dressed in winter fleece pants over long johns, ragg wool socks, winter boots, a turtleneck, and my GoreTex-lined Norwegian sweater.

Our furnace comes on and makes half-hearted attempts to do things for 5-10 minutes every so often, but clearly it’s not helping much. I have two guys coming to give estimates today and two more tomorrow, and I hope some obvious conclusion about our options jumps out at us soon. I have a feeling “how soon can you do it?” will end up being a pivotal point when we compare their bids. I’m also hoping that the guy who’s now 15 minutes late for the first estimate appointment will see something simple and obvious to fix and get us back in heat for the time being.

I also looked into fireplace inserts, and it sounds like what we need would start around $2500, all told. Probably money well spent, but not necessarily at the same time we’re paying to install a new furnace and address god knows how many other problems in the process.

Even Candy seems to appreciate having a blanket over her–V tucked her in with a doubled blanket last night, and she stayed put under it until morning. I retucked her this morning at 8:30, and she hasn’t budged since. The cats are snuggling under the comforter.

And here’s proof that it’s too darned cold in this house: we have flannel sheets, a flannel duvet, and the doubled down comforter on the bed, but even Victoria agreed that we needed the afghan on top, too. Last night I just about went to get my neoprene face mask for skiing, too, except that I would’ve gotten too cold getting out of bed to go look for it. I even slept through the night without getting up to pee despite having wanted to pee since about 2am. I’ve heard that it’s a bad idea to get in the habit of peeing in the night, because it’s a problem that will only get worse over time if you give in to it, so maybe this will be good bladder and sleep training for me.

A break from smørgåsbord news

Our furnace is kaputt. We can either spend a few hundred on a quick fix or else several to many thousand on a replacement that’s probably long overdue. Since it’s 40 degrees indoors, both of them seem appealing. Fortunately it’s supposed to warm up to 60 outside by Sunday, so we can probably tough it out while we wait for one or the other to happen.

But in the meantime, one of the companies who gave us an estimate has sort of an amusing name, which prompted Victoria (the Mandarin scholar) to comment that it sounded Chinese, and in a quick few exchanges we merged in all our favorites from the Chinese business name hit parade and came up with the ultimate name for a new business, especially if it caters to a Chinese clientele: Lucky Golden Rising Star Dragon Snake Happy Wind Joy Luck Fortune Fish Club. Luckily for anyone wants to start a new business, we’re not entrepreneurial types, so we won’t be needing a name and I’m not going to run out and trademark it. I’m too busy freezing to death here in my office. Help yourself!

For those who are eager to read the next (overdue) smørgåsbord installment, here’s a tidbit: the word “smørgåsbord” effectively means “buffet of lots of yummy little things,” but its literal translation is a triple compound that I guess the Chinese would also appreciate: butter-goose-table.

Step 11: Mach Rotkohl!

We’ll be serving that roasted goose on a bed of Rotkohl, which is the red, sweet, spicy version of Sauerkraut that many people have never had the pleasure of tasting–yet. Rotkohl is fabulous stuff. We’re making a double version of Frl. Nadia’s recipe:

  • 1 red cabbage. cored and shredded fine
  • 1 T honey
  • 1 C red wine vinegar
  • 2 T butter
  • 2 shallots, peeled and minced
  • 3 medium tart apples, cored, peeled, chunked (or a glob of applesauce
  • 1 bay leaf
  • pepper, salt
  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled, and studded with 6 whole cloves
  • 2 T red currant jelly

Mix the honey, vinegar, salt, and toss with cabbage. Let sit for an hour while the salt draws the juices out of the cabbage.
Melt the butter and saute shallots until translucent. Add apples and cook until softened, or skip that and substitute the half jar of applesauce you still have leftover from Hannukah latkes. Add cabbage, bay leaf, pepper, and 1 C cold water. Cooking tip: when recipes call for a can or jar of something and later call for a bunch of liquid, use that liquid to rinse the can or jar. Place the clove-studded onion in the middle of things, turn down to the lowest flame, cover, and allow to simmer for an hour until the cabbage is soft and yummy. Stir in jelly, remove onion and bay leaves, and remove to the refrigerator until the big day. Warm and serve as a bed under goose.

Save the clove-studded onion to stuff into the goose along with everything else.

Step 10: Start "Erin’s Professor Sylte Gløgg"

Gløgg is a Norwegian mulled wine. We make a gigantic 5 gallon cauldron of it, and we invite people to bring cheap red wine to dump into the cauldron. No, really–cheap. Two Buck Chuck is too good. You want the box of Franzia or Almaden. This is your opportunity to get rid of the weird odds and ends that you have acquired in the red wine corner of your closet that you’re afraid to drink.

What makes it good, despite the dreadful plonk that is its base, is that you start by whacking up a whole fresh pineapple, zesting and juicing 2 oranges, and dumping this into a huge pot with several cups of mixed raisins and slivered or food-processored almonds. Also grate 2-4″ inches of fresh ginger, crush 20 whole cardamom pods, 12 whole cloves, 4 cinnamon sticks. For raisins this year, we’re using probably 3C of dead old white raisins and 3C more of basic raisins, another C or two of craisins (dried cranberries), and whatever other crap you might feel like adding. Cover with cheap red wine (the classic recipe calls for burgundy), bring to a boil, cover, turn off heat, and let sit around until the day of the party.

On the day of the party, you’ll dump in slugs of the following along with a lot more wine into the largest pot you have–we use a 5 gallon Revereware brewpot. It’s a bit of a juggling act, really; you want to kind of pace yourself on the extra ingredients to make them come out even with the wine that gets added. We usually get the pot up to about the 2/3 full point with our own wine and the following, and then we add the wine that arrives with guests and selected additional slugs of the following as we go. Ultimately it all adds up to about: 10 liters or more of red wine, 1-1/2 C akevit, 1-1/2 C sugar, 2 bottles of port, 2 bottles of sweet vermouth. All of these should be the cheapest plonk you can find.

This recipe is named for three people: the legendary but anonymous “professor” of classic Norse gløgg recipes, Ruth Sylte who gave me a version of it/, and I, who multiplied it a bazillion times to soak 50+ guests.

Bring to the meekest of boils, then turn down the flame to the lowest possible setting to keep the gløgg warm but not burn off the alcohol. Put your entire mug collection out on the counter and invite your guests to choose a mug that they will remember is theirs. Provide a ladle and encourage people to get some chunky bits, too. Gløgg is first a drink and then a marinated-fruity-almondy snack.

Step 9: bake pretzels

On Wednesday we baked pretzels. I’ve made homemade pretzels before, so you wouldn’t think this would be particularly challenging, but I managed to make it really complicated somehow.

First, a disclaimer. In the real world, you should make pretzels approximately 20 seconds before you plan to serve them. Within a few days, they’re excellent, but warm right out of the oven, they’re frigging awesome. However, smørgåsbord day is always a frenzied chaotic storm of last-minute preparations–putting out decorations, arranging foods on the table, and preparing the foods that must be served absolutely fresh. Notably the Norwegian meatballs are a reliable source of at least 90 minutes of tension; if they don’t set off the smoke alarm and alert the ADT monitoring office, they at least make a giant mess, and after that you have to gather your wits somehow to gather the drippings, make beef broth, make roux, not scald yourself, and get a gravy together, all while last-minute RSVPers are calling to say they’re coming or not and bringing someone else or not.

Another comment on RSVPing: yes, it’s good to RSVP, especially when asked, and more especially when nagged about it in a blog like mine, but what’s the point of RSVPing the day of? No extra shopping, cooking, cleaning, or dish-purchasing will be done on the day of. Just show up and give your hosts an extra-enthusiastic kiss, please. When you call the day of, you’re likely to get frenzied freakazoids who are worried that if the conversation lasts one more sentence, meatball burning, roux scalding, or gløgg boiling will occur. Or whatever it is that your hosts are doing (we realize that although smørgåsbords are the best possible party, many people throw parties that lack a smørgåsbord theme). At any rate, the company of your pleasure is very much desired, and please come even if you haven’t RSVPed (unless it’s a dinner party and there’s a chance of exactly the wrong number of something-or-others being prepared), but don’t call. We’re busy. They’re busy. All hosts are busy the day of, or else they have a lot of hired help and professional caterers and the party won’t be any fun anyway.

Okay, I guess that wasn’t a comment, it was a rant. What do you expect? This is a blog!

Now let’s discuss those pretzels. The wonderful German cuisine for Americans cookbook that V got me for Christmas, Spoonfuls of Germany by Nadia Hassani, Hippocrene: New York, 2004 (which can be purchased here) is a nice collection of recipes, and the commentary and diagrams are nice, but it has some problems. First, the index lists only the translated names of foods, so if you want to make Knödel, you’ll have to figure out whether that’s filed under potatoes, dumplings, globs, blobs, starchy units, or whatever. Good luck. We haven’t actually found them yet. Another problem is that it wasn’t proofread very well, so for example, their recipe for spätzle calls for “soda water,” without specifying whether that means seltzer water/club soda or water with baking soda dissolved in it. She also is weak on the principles of baking, so if you’ve never baked and have her cookbook, just go ahead and follow her directions and you’ll probably get lucky, but if you are an experienced baker, please substitute your own knowledge where needed and consider her recipes to be serving suggestions.

About those spätzle: we were planning to make a double batch of them tonight, but we ran into our wonderful friends Noel and Ayse at our other wonderful friends’ David and Arlene’s befana tonight, and Noel promised to make Rotkohl and Spätzle. I explained that I’d already made a massive batch of Rotkohl (see later post), so he’s making a quadruple batch of Spätzle and we’re not, so it doesn’t matter that we don’t know whether to use baking soda or seltzer. (Vielen Dank, Noel!)

So anyway, Frl. Nadia’s pretzel recipe is hella confusing. She calls for 1 oz of fresh (cake) yeast, or 2 (1/4 oz) envelopes of active dry yeast. We have the little jar of Fleischmann’s, which says 2-1/4 tsp equals one package active, or RapidRise Yeast (1/4 oz) = 1 cake fresh yeast. So how the hell much of this shit are we supposed to use?! Well, whatever–but be sure to dissolve it in water that’s around 110 degrees F, and don’t trust V’s senses of this. Add salt. She calls for 1 tsp, which seems wrong, and I’m sextupling, see below, so it’s a healthy slug of salt in my version.

Moreover, her recipe makes 10 pretzels, which is almost enough for one person. We have invited almost 200 people, and probably 60-80 will show up. So we needed a sextuple recipe, and if we cut the pretzels, we might run out before half the guests have arrived. So if you don’t know how much yeast to use in the first place, and you need to make a sextuple recipe, and you sextuple the liquid but for some reason after immensely complicated algebra you only triple the yeast, and in metric at that (don’t ask), it all gets rather confusing. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever known Jane, you are likely to substitute whole wheat flour for at least half of the white flour in the recipe. This, however, changes the moisture requirements of a recipe. Note that in managing your moisture supplies, which are a sextuple batch of warm water and a I-don’t-know-uple of yeast.

Fire up Kitchen-Aid mixer! Put the yeasty mess in the bowl. Gradually add flours–to each 1-1/3 cup of yeasty mess, add about 3 C of whole wheat flour and 2 C unbleached white flour. Mix until it comes off the sides of the bowl yada yada yada. Knead. Cover with a moist towel and let rise 2 hours.

Go off and catch up on blogging step 6. Come back and dissolve 6 tsp baking soda in a big ass pot of hot water, bring to a boil. Get your oven preheating to 425 F. Briefly knead a whunk of the dough, roll into snakes about 1/2″ in diameter, and pull off 12″ snakes to make each pretzel. Make a loop, twist twice, flip upside-down, and fold the ends over, pinch, and plop onto a greased cookie sheet. Get a dozen or so ready on the sheet, cover with the moistened cloth, and move on to the next sheet. At some point, get V involved in the snakerating, and start this process, which should be familiar to those who have made bagels: drop the pretzels several at a time into the water to boil for 20-30 seconds or until they float, then fish out with a leaky ladle (Barbara Tropp’s name for the Chinese net spoon; Nadia calls for a slotted spoon–once again, whatever). Plop back on the greased sheet. When you finish up a sheet, sprinkle the pretzels with kosher salt.

If you’ve been ranted at about cooking by me before, you know that I believe kosher salt is a necessity in any kitchen. Uniodized sea salts are optional, kosher is mandatory, and iodized table salt gets the Barbara Tropp skull-and-crossbones treatment.

Slide into the oven and bake 25 minutes or until brown and crisp. Serve at once. Or store in Tupperware and serve on Sunday. If you do serve at once, butter’s a nice touch.

Step 8: Start baking!!

The baking began at Jane’s place in Sausalito. On Monday night Jane prepared
the pepparkakor dough, recipe courtesy of our friend Nilos:


sifted flour 3 1/2 c.
ginger 1 1/2 t.
cinnamon 1 1/2 t.
cloves 1 t.
cardamom* 1/4 t.
butter 1/2 c.
sugar 3/4 c.
egg 1
molasses 3/4 c.
orange zest 2 t.

Sift together flour and spices and set aside. Cream butter till fluffy, adding sugar gradually. Beat in egg, molasses and orange zest. Add dry ingredients and mix well. Chill covered overnight (will hold more than a week of wrapped airtight). Roll out 1/8″ thick on well-floured board, cut out and bake on greased cookie sheets at 375°F for 8 – 10 minutes. Store airtight. They get better as they age.

Great recipe – tasty and easy to make. The dough does not contain too much butter (relatively speaking), and so does not stick to the floured cloth rolling-out urface. Enjoyable to make these.

Tuesday night, Jane baked the pepparkakor and made the Zimsterne, recipe courtesy of Beate:

ZIMSTERNE (Cinnamon Stars)

4 egg whites
2 tsp lemon juice
300 g caster sugar (powdered sugar)
1 tbsp cinnamon
375-400 g ground almonds

Preheat oven to 130°C.Beat egg whites with lemon juice until very stiff. Gradually add sugar and beat until firm (so that it could be cut with a knife) and glossy.Take away and set aside a little more than half a cup of this mixture for the topping. Mix cinnamon and almonds into the rest of the egg white mixture. Make sure it is not too sticky and not too dry. Add more almonds if too sticky.Sprinkle the worktop with flour, some sugar and some ground almonds. Spread a small amount of the mixture on the work surface and roll out to a thickness of about ¼ inch. Cut little stars with a cookie cutter and place on a baking tray.
Spread the egg white mixture set aside earlier on top of the stars.Bake stars for about 45 minutes, leaving the oven door slightly open (the icing
has to stay white).

Conversions: degree Celsius = 266 degree Fahrenheit grams = 2.5 cups unsifted powdered sugar375 – 400 grams = 2.6 to 2.75 cups whole almonds

This was a baking experience!! Not your average cookie dough! This recipe is not for the baking novice . . . . but what a tasty result! The cookies is very much like one recipe for the traditional Scandinavian “kransekake” – ground almonds, powdered sugar and egg white – no butter or flour. (Stay tuned for the kransekake blog this weekend.) For the Zimsterne, be sure to set aside enough of the egg white/lemon mixture for spreading on the cookies later! I didn’t set aside quite enough, so there are a few “naked” zimsterne in my cookie tin. 🙂

Also be sure you have plenty of extra ground almonds on hand to add if the dough is too sticky. These cookies bake longer than your average American cookie, and at a lower heat, so as to keep the white meringue topping white. And a word to the wise, or to the temper-tantrum-prone, keep a tasty cocktail handy to keep your mood mellow when the dough sticks too much or when frosting the cookies with meringue or when things don’t turn out exactly as you’d thought they would . . . . 😉 Because this was the first time I’d made this cookie, I used my good friend “google” to look up some other recipes for the same cookie and found the following words of warning to begin one of the other recipes, “These are extremely difficult to make, but if you make them, they are heavenly.” Took a sip of my cocktail and ploughed ahead!

Wednesday was the easy baking day – just one batch of Spritz cookies. Though you find a recipe for spritz in any Scandinavian cookbook, I found a recipe for “German Spritz,” so chose to make that one. It’s virtually identical to the Scandinavian recipes.


1 c. butter
2/3 c. sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla or almond extract (I used vanilla)
2 1/2 c. flour (actually, 2 c. was plenty)

Cream butter and sugar. Add egg yolks and vanilla. Mix well. Stir in flour.
Fill spritz cookie press, press, decorate. Bake at 400°F for 7 minutes.

Baking blogs to follow in next few days – krumkake, kransekake, pumpernickel
bread, and braided cardamom bread. 🙂 Yum!

Step 7: Start graved laks

Graved laks (aka gravlaks) is ridiculously easy, but few people seem to realize this, so it always gets big oohs and ahhs at the smørgåsbord. The keys are to buy really good salmon (wild, of course) and start at least 5 days in advance. We make a two-fillet batch for the smørgåsbord. Fresh salmon (like any fish) should be firm and not smell fishy. Farmed salmon is evil, both nutritionally and environmentally, so even though it’s a lot more expensive, always hold out for wild salmon.

To start, roast a bunch of anise seeds in a pan, then add 4 parts salt to 3 parts sugar and stir. You need enough of this stuff to cover both sides of both fillets. For two fillets, I used about 2 C of stuff.

Rinse and pat dry the fillets. Feel along the bone-line to find any pin bones needing to be removed, grab hold with a small, sprung needle-nosed pliers, and yank out. This is the way the pros do it, and it’s much easier and tidier than any other method. Be sure to wash, dry, and oil the pliers when you’re done.

Next, cover the fleshy sides of both fillets with the stuff, then cover again with chopped fresh dill. The idea of graved laks is that the stuff is going to suck out the water from the fish as a way of preserving it. Stick the fleshy sides together and then use whatever you have left to cover the skin sides. Use the discarded dill stems to make a rack in the bottom of a pan, plop the fishes on top, cover with plastic wrap, and put them in the fridge. Weight the salmon down by piling whatever stuff you had to move out of the way in the refrigerator on top of the fish; this helps press out the juices.

For the next several days, every 12 hours you need to drain off the juice, turn the pair of fillets over, and put back in the refrigerator. The pictures (above) are after the first 24 hours; notice all the salmon juice in the pan!

Step 6: Shop more!

Next we drove back to Oakland and visited Nordic House, where we picked up a frozen lutefisk, several kinds of gjetost, our house cheese and cat’s namesake, some rullepolse, several varieties of syld (herring), and whatnot.

Gjetost is a sweet brown cheese made from cow and/or goat milk and whey that is simmered for hours to carmelize out the sugars, and then it is made into cheese; the carmelized sugars stay sweet rather than getting digested and made tart by the little microbial friend. The cat is a sweet brown Snowshoe Siamese with beautiful, Nordic blue eyes. Here are the cheese and the cat. They chose not to pose together.

Finally, a trip to Andronico’s for less exotic groceries. Many hundred dollars later, we returned home and got to work. Well, actually V went to Dunsmuir (Scottish dance) practice, and I got to work much later on.