For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

September 27, 2012

Honey I’m home!

I recently got to taste something almost too perfect to be true. The sensation this divine treat created in my mouth was out of this world! I couldn’t stop myself from having more and more and more. And here’s where it gets overwhelming. This morning when I opened my eyes, this delicacy was the first thing on my mind. I even arrived late to work because of it; just one more spoon, this one is the last one, maybe one for the road, okay; seriously this is the last one... Hands down, I got hooked and currently I’m a happy but struggling addict.

It came into my life so unexpectedly. It happened last week on a gray and rainy evening in Helsinki. I was on my bike pedaling home as fast as I could. I’m not made of sugar, so it wasn’t the rain that made me want to arrive home with speed of lightning. It was something I had in my bag that made me rush. I couldn’t wait to get acquainted with it.

At home, I was too impatient to wait any longer. Dripping all over my kitchen floor, I unzipped my rucksack to get a closer look at the preciousness I had brought home.  It reminded me of my childhood, when food items were still bought directly from producers in the neighborhood. Lovely, already it made me happy and I hadn’t even tasted it yet.

So this big, light yellow honey jar from Marbacka Beefarm in Liljendal, Finland had been preoccupying my thoughts for the whole day and the moment I had been waiting for – the tasting – was at hand. Something told me it’ll be good, but at that point I still had no idea of what I was about to experience.

I sat down at the table in my tiny kitchen and twisted open the jar. The aroma it unleashed was exquisite! It had been a while since the last time I had this type of honey; the hard, sun-colored kind. Like I said, it looked and smelled like the divine nectar that this old nutty village beekeeper living a few houses away from my childhood home used to make and that my Dad kept on the table. After taking the time relishing in the first perception, I badly needed a cup of hot tea to save me from the cold creeping up my spine. Also, I wanted to do something I always used to do when I was a kid. When the kettle was steaming, I poured myself a big cup of tea and placed a spoon in the mug. I used to let the spoon get really hot and then, let it sink into the hard honey. I loved how I needed no force to get a big scoop, as the spoon would sink in without any effort.

I usually don’t like having too big expectations when it comes to experiencing tastes. Not only is there a far bigger risk of getting very disappointed, but you also psychologically deprive yourself from tasting whatever it is you’re about to taste to the fullest. Also, expectations sometimes take away the pleasure of surprise.

I tried my best to distance myself from the  taste memories of the honey I ate as a child. I closed my eyes and let the spoon of honey slowly melt in my mouth. The hot spoon burned my lips slightly, but the only thing I could feel was the absolutely gorgeous taste of honey. There was nothing that could’ve distracted me from that sensational tasting.

It was like a roller-coaster ride of deliciousness, with various twist and turns. It was dangerously close to perfection. Not only did this honey have a smooth, vivid, and especially characteristic taste, it had this amazing silky texture. And at no point was it cloying! At least that’s what I thought at that point. After my fifth spoon, I had to hide the jar in my cupboard so I wouldn’t have it in my immediate sight.

The next day at work, I was daydreaming about performing my honey routine all over again as soon as I’d get home. Again, I biked home fast and arrived out of breath. I ran up the stairs and placed my key into the key whole. I turned the key, opened the door, “Honey, I’m home!” Seconds later, the jar was on the table and the spoon burned my lips again, again and again. This is why I absolutely love the simple little pleasures food brings into my life.

September 19, 2012

Massive Goodness

So I went to London last week for a four-day-long mini holiday to meet a dear friend, a new friend to be and to eat as much as my belly, appetite and wallet would allow me. Prior to my trip, my only experience of England foodwise had been a week at youth camp in Kent and a very hectic afternoon on Oxford Street when I was a teenager. Safe to say, neither youth camp in Kent nor Oxford Street had much to offer in that domain.

My intention isn’t to insult anyone or anything, but England, a lot like Finland, even though for different reasons, isn’t one of the countries that come in mind when thinking about amazing gastronomy. Because I’m a Finn and I know for a fact that my country has been underestimated and undervalued over and over and over again when it comes to food, I didn’t want to get caught up in the cliché of English food only being bad, heavy and greasy. On the other hand, London can’t really be sided with the rest of the country, as in this transcultural metropolis with just under 8 million inhabitants, you really can find whatever food you could possibly imagine eating. I can’t say for certain, but at first sight it sure seemed that the actual English food was rather underrepresented.

The most British food I tried.

Already on the three-hour flight from Helsinki to London, I learned that the word to use in London is ‘massive’ and the food to eat is curry. I wanted to arrive a.s.a.p.! I was curious, impatient and hungry for my first London experience (the previous one doesn’t count). As soon as the plane landed and I had barely made it through passport control, an older Englishman already came up to me and wanted to buy me a fish and chips and a G&T. It must’ve been written on my forehead that I was both hungry and thirsty and I almost accepted his kind offer, but I was in hurry to get to my friend’s house, so I politely declined.

Actually, it was my friend’s friend’s house, to be precise. Such details are unnecessary, the only thing you need to know is that I was hosted by two very lovely Bulgarian women, Plamena – an ex-colleague and a dear friend and Yana – Plamena’s old friend, who has been living in England for a while now and who also, to my contentment, turned out to be quite a foodie and a living London encyclopedia. What I know about Bulgarian food isn’t nearly enough, but let’s say that I had already been convinced by the country’s culinary potential, and thus had certain food-related expectations. When the girls greeted me at the train station, their hair smelled of oven-baked peppers. Very Bulgarian and very delicious, I couldn’t wait to dine! However, a part of me wanted to know British food.  But something that I almost immediately understood about the culinary scene in London was that it’s all about multiculturality at its finest. Suddenly, having a Bulgarian dinner didn’t feel that off track at all. It in fact, it fit like a glove and I ate with great pleasure.

Beigles and 'fika' – world's apart but next door neighbors on Brick Lane.

And then, an hour later, Lao/Thai street food.

It’s funny when people who love food meet. It’s like nothing else has any importance and everything revolves around food. After dinner, very full and very content, Yana took me through London’s divers districts on the map, “This place is great, there’s … Oh and there’s this amazing café that has massive pie that are just too good to be true”. I’m absolutely awful with maps and directions, but somehow, I managed to follow. It was easy; there was always some ‘you have to try it’ food-related twist to each place. I’d just have to follow my strongest inner drive – my appetite and I’d stay on track for sure. I hadn’t seen anything yet, but London already seemed like my kind of city.

The next day, I got up inhumanly early. Must have food! On the double decker bus with The Smiths singing in my ears, I had made sure to have a travel snack in my rucksack. The little organic deli at Herne Hill had delighted me with home-made flapjacks, fresh plums (from Kent!) and aubergine and tahini salad.  With a fork in my pocket, a map with plenty of yummy destinations pointed out all over London in my hands, I was good to go. I know I often tell you how excited and psyched I am when I’m living life through my many culinary adventures, but what else can I say?! I guess food simply has that intoxicatingly exuberant effect on me. And to describe it another way would be a lie. And I love it! So there I was, in London, the sun was shining, I had a map and good food in my immediate reach, good music that I had downloaded for the occasion (80’s hits) on my iPod, I could only be excited, psyched, high on life, ecstatic and beyond! Even though I’ve traveled a lot since I was a child, this was my very first time to be discovering a huge city solo. Plamena and Yana both had work to do, so I promised I’d eat for all three of us.

I'm not a beer drinker at all, but this was divine and as local as it gets. The brewery was located next door.

One of the sexiest fruits. Also one of my favorites. 

Pop-up street food in Shoreditch.

During the four days I spend eating my way through London, like any good Finn, I firmly kept my promise to the girls: Pop-up street food, grilled burgers, vegan burgers, Jamaican chicken jerk, Brixton Market, Dalston Market, Brick Lane Market, Borough Market (where I cried happy tears when I found a young and charming baker who sold gluten free and sugar free banana loaf cake), countless cafés and bars, pubs, deli stores, China town, meat pies, cheese, fruit, fish and chips… I don’t think I’d exaggerate if I told you that there wasn’t a moment where I didn’t eat, wasn’t on my way to eat or wasn’t planning on going somewhere to eat. How I managed all that eating? I walked. You must think I’m crazy, which I probably am, but seriously, London is totally doable on foot. Sometimes I had to cheat and hop on one of those massive red busses, but it was like a joy ride. I always, except once, got the first row seat with the big window on the second floor. Nice and touristy.

Meet my beloved...

...baked in this bakery.

I must say, the city offered my appetite and I an unforgettable culinary stimulation. Not only will London make you feel like you’re in about twenty countries at once, but you’ll be able to eat in all of them too! What’s amazing is that the many immigrant communities are so well established foodwise that you’ll really get that authentic and genuine feel of the countries’ food cultures.

Very tasty. Brits make good cheese.

A favorite? I don’t know if I could pick favorites out of my many yummy London discoveries, but there was one I’ve never done before. A very well-informed and well-eating Londoner called this place the best Pakistani restaurant in town, “You know how people tell you to have curry here, well this is even better!” How could I resist? This place called Tayyabs, located on 83-89 Fieldgate Street London E1 1JU, is a stone’s throw away from Brick Lane. Tayyabs serve amazingly delicious food, but no alcohol. Bringing your own is allowed though. Not that you need alcohol, but for a Finn to be told to bring your own booze to a nice restaurant felt so impossible, illegal even. When in Rome…

An absolutely gorgeous plate of grilled meat.

I made my way to the restaurant from Brick Lane together with Plamena on my last evening in London. The map we had didn’t show further East from Whitechapel, so the rest of the way we had to follow the delicious smell of grilled tandoori. With a plastic bag containing two big ice cold Magners we entered foodie heaven. We ate. We ate again. And we ate more. The waiter couldn’t believe his ears when we ordered a second round.  I really don’t need to praise the food further. It honestly speaks for itself. Go and try it!

Ready for more!

In the end, I didn’t have curry, but I damn sure can say London offers massive goodness!

September 17, 2012

I Learned From the Best

I’ve written about the amazing karjalanpiirakka – Finnish/Karelian rice pies – before.  I even made an attempt to bake some little less than a year ago with rather satisfactory results. On top on that, I actually managed to inspire a young Turkish woman to try making them. That was cool! And she did an excellent job, to say the least.

But now, I can write about this superb Finnish delicacy again, since this time, I can say that I know how to make the traditional pies the way they really should be made. Not only was my teacher an elderly woman from Karelia, but she is, in fact, ranked among the country finest karjalanpiirakka bakers! That is cool!

People have different ideas about how to spend a sunny Saturday night.  Parties, dinner parties, dates, cinema, theater, concerts... What is expected out of a Saturday night is for something out of the ordinary to take place. Something intoxicating – literally and figuratively speaking. Usually, the preferred activities involve reaching a euphoric state of mind in one way or another. Expectations are most often sky-high and disappointments are commonplace. Sure, I can recognize the aforementioned in myself too, but still, for me, staying in on a Saturday night making karjanlanpiirakka with a jolly old lady couldn’t be more perfect.

I arrive to the home of the master of karjanlanpiirakka in the late afternoon that Saturday. Seija Raitanen greets me with a big smile and a hug that almost breaks my ribs. It has to be a part of the charm of Karelian women, I thought to myself, and squeeze her back as hard I can. She’s full of energy and all ready and prepared for the occasion, “I woke up at 6 am today, so I’ve already prepared the rice porridge” (the filling for the mouthwatering pies). Damn she’s effective. I need to step it up to stay in her pace and not disappoint her. Even though I have the advantage of age, she would beat me any day in what she has been doing all her life. I simply have to hand it to her, respect!

Before I know it, her fingers are working the dough. It’s beautiful watching her work and soon I find myself utterly dazzled by both the speed and perfection that surrounds her culinary performance. “Earth to Edith! Did you come here to daydream or to work?” she asks. I love this woman! No time for apologies or unnecessary babbling, I have pies to make.

So this is the drill. The dough is rolled into a long slab about the thickness of a big carrot. Then, the slab is cut in small 2cm wide pieces. The pieces are then flattened with a push of a thumb. The stack of flattened round dough pieces optimizes the work. Logical and efficient, it all seems pretty easy and I’m, seemingly, doing a great job. I keep trying to lock eyes with Seija for her approval. She approves with a firm but encouraging “Hyvä!” (good). No need for nonsense and worthless praising. She’s happy with my work and that’s all I need to know.

When the stacks of flattened dough balls are done, we are all set to start rolling the dough pieces thinner than thin pie bases. Seija starts talking, “I used to hate this sound” (the karjanlanpiirakka roll pin makes a pretty distinctive and constant knocking sound as it hits the table when working the dough). “My mother woke up early on Sundays to make karjanlanpiirakka and on purpose made a terrible racket as to wake me up. I usually came home late from a dance on Saturday nights and making karjanlanpiirakka was the last thing I wanted to do. But I had no choice. Newly baked steaming karjanlanpiirakka were an integral and vital part of the Sunday lunch. That’s how it had to be and that’s how it always was”. All the while Seija talks, her hands work. A scoop of rice porridge on the thin dough base, fold the sides and do the “rypytys” (literally “wrinkling”) and voilà! Her reflexes and the technique lie on decades of experience. “I used to do much more beautiful pies and a lot faster. I’m old now and my fingers hurt”. So modest and unpretentious. I can only smile.

Seija made five Karelian pies or so and left the baking duty to me. After a few not so pretty ones, I start getting the right feel to it. Some of the pies were exquisite, if I say so myself. When the first oven plate has about a dozen pies lined up side by side, Seija puts them into the extra hot oven. “Be sure to have the oven as hot as possible”, I nod and register the information. A few minutes later her little kitchen smelled heavenly. My mouth is watering and I suddenly feel very hungry. Seija asks me to prepare the “munavoi” (egg butter – hard boiled eggs mixed with butter) and I obey her command.

When Seija opens the oven, the sight of beautiful, sizzling, golden brown Karelian pies made my legs weak. Psyched out of the feeling of joy, I start jumping around the kitchen like a little kid. “Now we dip them in a mixture of milk and butter and let them cool down”. Oh no, I still have to wait before I can sink my teeth in the most perfect karjanlanpiirakka I had ever seen.

I hate waiting and ten minutes felt like an eternity. When Seija finally told me to eat, I thought I’d explode of happiness. I took a warm and crispy karjanlanpiirakka in my hands and smeared a thick layer of egg butter on it. Orgasmic! Amazingly delicious! One pies, two pies, three pies, four… after that I stopped counting. Seija’s smile when she watched me eat was priceless.

Thank you Seija!

September 2, 2012

Sunday Yummy Sunday

After serving about 300 Finns as much booze as their system possibly could tolerate at Restaurant Kellohalli’s opening party and also cleaning after them until 4am last night, I slept like a baby to wake up to a marvelous, food-filled first Sunday in September.

Whether it’s the knowledge of the following day being a Monday or whether it’s just the “low-activity-mode” that Sunday tend to imply, Sundays are usually filled with blues and melancholy. Somehow, this morning, contrary to what I expected since I crawled into bed at 5 am, I woke up five hours later to the fresh autumn breeze that blew into my room through the open window. The air smelled of rain and sunrays. Already I knew, this Sunday was going to be a good one.

Because it has been a while since I’ve given in to pure hedonism, I decided that on this very Sunday, I’d do exactly that, and reward myself to the fullest. In my book this means taking the day as it comes, smiling a lot, laughing a lot and delighting my appetite with little treats all day long. But also, it means moving, biking, running, hiking – anything. Plus, writing about it all in the end – especially the food part. This, for me, equals a perfect self-indulgent day.

Still unwilling to test how my legs would carry my weight after running around non-stop for 12 hours at Kellohalli, I started teasing my hunger with thoughts of a scrumptious breakfast. Beautiful velvety biological yoghurt served with toasted almonds and apple mash that I made myself the other day. Top that with fresh coffee spices with cardamom and cinnamon… My smile was almost painful, that’s how big it was. Rise and shine! I was hungry.

Not long after I had thoroughly enjoyed my heavenly breakfast, I already started planning for the next meal.  Very typical of me, I have to say. But before I would get too tangled up in daydreaming about more food, I decided to enjoy the sunny Sunday outside and go for a bike ride by the sea. The nice thing about Sunday early afternoons in Helsinki is that there’s hardly anyone around and the city feels all yours. And there was the huge smile again. I couldn’t help but laugh when I thought about all those people from last night with a dreadful krapula as we say Finnish, who’ll barely make it out of bed by the time the sun goes down…

On my way back home, I stopped at the better food store close to my home. I decided to not count pennies this time and help myself to delicious raw materials without limits. The total sum of my groceries almost gave me a heart attack, but as I got home and unloaded my prey onto the kitchen table, I had already forgotten its painful price. Also, the smile was there again and that was what was crucial.

Since breakfast, I had had cravings for juicy meatballs in tomato sauce. My cravings were about to be satisfied: Chopped caramelized onions, fresh biological minced meat, rosemary, salt, pepper and a little twist for taste, fresh mint. My love for raw meat took over me for a second and I couldn’t resist eating the first meatball raw. Delicious! And they weren’t even done yet. I obviously need to exercise self-control more, by the way.

I managed to prepare the meatballs, brown them in butter and pour mashed tomatoes over them. My little one-room-apartment got filled with the luring smell of a perfect home-cooked meal. I just couldn’t feel happier. Or at least that’s what I thought.

With the meatballs still simmering on the stove, my mind was already racing to yet another cooking endeavor. I had invited my parents over for a little Sunday afternoon tea party. And even though I had promised to “keep it simple and brief”, I just couldn’t resist trying out a recipe that came to my mind the other day when peeling apples for my mash. Since one of the treats I bought at the store was a whole Camembert, I really wanted to try to replace the raspberries in my Raspberry-Camembert Tart with apples. I also wanted to try something new with the tart bottom: Toasted oat flakes and almond flour would do the trick, I thought. And it sure did, the tart was exquisite, even if I say so myself. The fresh rosemary I sprinkled on top fit the sour apples and the smooth Camembert divinely! I’m sure my parents left my home happy.

It’s almost midnight and my lovely September Sunday is coming to an end. But my smile remains. I’m sitting on my bed typing – the final part of my perfect day. My fingers smell of garlic and my room of baked apples. My belly is full and I’m ready to start a new week.

In the end, I don’t really know what made this Sunday so perfect. I guess it’s the simple little pleasures that make it all worthwhile. I can guarantee that Mondays won’t feel half as dull when you prepare yourself for them with an enchanting Sunday filled with good food, big smiles and simple pleasures.