The Pursuit of Happiness
April 11, 2017
I’ve been reading a lot lately about the concept of hygge (hoo-gah), the Danish philosophy that places a big emphasis on creating happiness by prioritizing the things that bring a sense of comfort. While the term doesn’t have an exact translation in English – the closest being that it essentially refers to a general feeling of “hominess” or well-being – it’s definitely a concept that people in most cultures can appreciate and recognize: finding that environment or item that helps you to settle down, de-stress, and become more in touch with yourself and those around you.
As much as curling up in a comfortable chair with a good cup of tea or coffee, a nice, warm blanket, and a good movie can’t be beat, however, being hygge isn’t just about being relaxed; it’s a whole mentality, from lighting and furniture style (Danish people are big fans of using candles and lights that emphasize soft, natural lighting), to the type of food that’s eaten (there’s cake involved). Because hygge is largely about happiness through shared experiences, it’s a great approach to bringing people from different backgrounds together through food; for this reason, many Danish recipes are not “one-pot wonders,” but rather dishes that require a little time to prepare and are meant to be enjoyed slowly, with others.
One of these dishes, frikadeller (Danish meatballs), reminds me a lot of this concept; not because meatballs are a uniquely Danish meal or even because they, in comparison with stews or soups, are designed to be portioned out among groups of people, but precisely because they are not either of these things. While frikadeller are traditionally Danish, many cultures have some variation on a meatball dish – Spain and other parts of the Spanish-speaking world have albóndigas (meatballs in a soup or light broth), Middle Eastern countries have kofta (meatballs typically made from ground beef or lamb and often served as a kebab or in a curry or light tomato sauce), and, of course, Italians have polpette (meatballs served in a light tomato sauce) – effectively making the meatball, in all its various forms, a global dish.
I have to confess that, despite waxing poetic about the frikadeller and its similarity to meatball dishes all over the world, the extent of my knowledge about Danish cooking (and Scandinavian cuisine as a whole) begins and ends at my visits to IKEA. In order to find out how to make the tiny meatballs that so distinctly represent Danish culture and why they reflect the intent behind hygge, I borrowed a page from Trine Hahnemann’s beautifully written and photographed Scandinavian Comfort Food and made some frikadeller of my own, accompanied by a warm potato salad and a delicious, light lemon mousse that’s a Danish classic. You can find the recipes for all three in her cookbook, which can be found here.
First up – the frikadeller. I’m sure many of you reading this post immediately thought of the tiny, gravy-laden meatballs that come with a side of lingonberry jam and some vegetables; as much as the globally-recognized brand reflects the intent behind hygge and is a familiar presence worldwide, traditional frikadeller are much different and much lighter. Because I had ground chicken on hand, I substituted it for the ground beef/pork combination recommended by Hahnemann in her cookbook, which really added an interesting element to the meatballs when they were dipped in the yogurt dill sauce which accompanies the frikadeller. The meatballs would be good on their own, but the sauce makes the dish; made up of whole-cream or Greek-style yogurt, dill, mint, parsley, and lemon juice, it’s both light and tart without being overpowering to the rest of the dish. Even better, the addition of the chopped dill gives the yogurt mixture a look that’s one part tzatziki, one part winter landscape in a cup.
In my opinion, making food isn’t just about arriving at the desired result of having something to eat; it’s about having something to share with other people that tells a story of traditions passed down from generation to generation or maybe just the experience of having tried a recipe for the first time and wanting to include others in that experience. It’s art. In any case, the best kind of food is always the food that’s made by hand, and frikadeller definitely fall into this category; the meatballs need to be made from scratch, as does the yogurt dill sauce, and, while not anywhere near as time or labour-intensive as dishes I’ve made in the past, at the end of the day, it’s a dish that’s filling without weighing you down and perfect for sharing with other people.
The dish I made to accompany the frikadeller, the warm potato salad, is typically Danish in form, but tastes amazingly similar to the cold version my mom makes, despite the ingredients between the two dishes being very different.
The Danish version of potato salad is less dense and more colourful than the version many people, especially in the United States and Canada, are used to, but definitely something that can be transplanted from Denmark to anywhere else in the world, thanks to the readily-available list of ingredients that go into making the dish. The original recipe calls for the kernels of corn to be added to the potato salad by cutting them from the cob; however, in the interest of time and because I didn’t want to use frozen corn while the fresh version was out of season, I used a can of corn, with the liquid drained from it. I also skipped using mustard leaves because they’re not available where I live and capers in the dressing, because I’m not a big fan of them; I think that eliminating the capers from the recipe definitely brought out the taste of the dill and creme fraiche in the dressing, which I liked.
The last part of the meal, the lemon mousse dessert, is a classic Danish treat that goes perfectly with this time of year. Again, mousse isn’t a uniquely Danish food nor is adding lemon to desserts to flavour them, but it does go perfectly with the concept of sweets as an important part of the concept of hygge.
To be honest, I was a little apprehensive about making this dessert; gelatin and I have a love-hate relationship – I’ve previously made marshmallows from scratch, only to discover after letting the mixture set, that the gelatin and the rest of the ingredients had completely separated into two different layers. So I was happily surprised to find out that, not only did the gelatin set the way it was supposed to, but the dessert was Lighter. Than. Air. Best of all, you can serve it in ramekins or other serving glasses when it’s done, so other people can put a little spring in their… mouth, too.
Unlike the frikadeller and potato salad, the mousse requires a few extra steps (and more than a few extra dishes), but it’s definitely worth it. Unless you’re a whiz in the kitchen and can be in multiple places at once, I recommend having someone help stir things while you work on whipping up the different ingredients, before you’re ready to mix everything together – the trick in getting this recipe to work is making sure that the gelatin sets for the correct amount of time and that you’re not overcooking the lemon-gelatin mixture or forgetting to stir when you add in your egg yolks.
The original recipe calls for sheets of gelatin to be used, but I used two packets of powdered gelatin (you can substitute agar agar or a similar product in place of gelatin if you like), poured 1/4 cup of cold water over the powder in a bowl, and stirred the water and powder together in order to combine the two and prevent clumping, before letting the gelatin mixture sit for 5 minutes.
When you’ve finished combining the egg whites, egg yolks, creme, and the other ingredients, pour the mixture into ramekins or serving glasses; your mousse should look like this:
After the mousse has chilled in the refrigerator for 4-6 hours and is ready to serve, top it with whipped cream if you like, serve, and enjoy! I made this meal to share with my family; I’ll likely be making it (minus the mousse because of travel considerations) again for an international potluck event that I oversee twice a year; no better time to put hygge and food as a great unifier to practice, right?
Starting this week coming up (April 16), I will be posting new recipes once every two weeks, rather than once a week; in the meantime, if there’s a recipe that represents comfort food to you, send it (and a little bit about what makes it comfort food to you) to diana [at] patriapgh.com!
Fun fact: The name LEGO comes from the Danish term, leg godt, meaning “play well.” Since it began producing its bricks in 1958, LEGO has sold more than 320 billion bricks worldwide. Denmark’s Tivoli Gardens were also the inspiration behind Walt Disney’s creation of Disneyland after Disney visited Copenhagen in 1951.