A Swedish woman named Lotta once told me, ”I’ve been to the Philippines twice and the people are the friendliest, sweetest, most humble bunch I’ve ever met. Whereas people here can be so…” she gestured vaguely, ”cold.”
Let the record show that it came from a real Swede, and not from me; although sometimes I have to agree. My own personal experience with them has run the gamut of everything from “ice giants/Queen Elsa” to “way harsh, Tai” to “reserved/shy.” But at the end of the day, my most accurate description is this: Swedes are a lot like deer.
Their long, lithe beauty translates brilliantly to film and print, with stunning features that supposedly inspired Hitler’s Ubermensch vision. They’re a Childcraft book come to life. You just want to get close enough to touch their corn-fed beauty and see if it’s real; but you shouldn’t. Not the way you might approach another nationality, like say, an Australian. You can’t get too familiar too fast. No sudden movements. Do not try unleashing the full wattage of a Filipino personality on them because I can promise you they’ll bolt, or at the very least, stiffen up at the prospect of contact with a stranger.
Because by their own admission, Swedes are intensely private and prefer keeping to themselves. If Filipinos have no concept of personal space (I do miss queueing for the ATM. NOT), Swedes are all about respecting it. I think this meme says it all:
One Swede I met explained that this is because there’s too much land and not enough people. Historically, most people lived far away from each other and had to figure out how to fend for themselves. Their farmsteads became small worlds unto themselves and people just got used to living on their own, without any real need to go out and socialize if they didn’t want to. British journalist Michael Booth once described Swedes as among the rudest people he’s ever met; which is not completely fair – a lot of them are just introverts being forced to interact when they’d rather be curled up at home sipping their coffee in peace.
Hence their culture is built around expressions like “Do what you want,” “You can decide yourself”; essentially, “I’ll go my way, you go yours, and the twain shall meet only when it is absolutely necessary.”
While one may be tempted to write them off as cold and standoffish, I encourage anyone looking to socialize with Swedes to hold on and not to give up. Again, like deer, the trick is to stay quiet and still, and to let them come to you. While their personalities may skew individualistic, they do acknowledge the desire to umgås or hang out. And surprisingly, subsequent meetings with them may actually begin with them hugging you (okay, tentatively, but still. THEY’RE HUGGING YOU).
The best way to lure Swedes out is fika. It’s that social lubrication they need. There are several other methods to coax them out of their shells – which include sun, summer, sweets, alcohol. But of all of these, fika is the one that works for all families, workplaces, and all kinds of weather.
Fika is both a noun and a verb, similar to our merienda; but with a social twist to it. No matter how skittish Swedes may be around new people, few can resist the promise of coffee — black or with milk, no sugar. Because you’re also offering at the very least, a cookie on the side; and Swedes would consider pairing sugary coffee with even more sweets overkill.
Fika can help you leapfrog over any potentially awkward encounters with Swedes, and may even land you a rare invitation to visit a Swede at home. And if that happens, there are no questions – you just have to go because it takes a while before Swedes will invite someone over (even they themselves admit this ruefully). It takes a good long while for a Swede to suss out if you’re the sort of person they’re willing to invite into their own private hidey-holes, so fika is your ticket in.
I asked my friend Kajsa to describe the menu one might have for fika at home, and this is what she said: ”A regular fika would include coffee and for example, cinnamon buns or some sort of sponge cake; maybe some store-bought cookies too. But if I were to invite a foreign guest to a classic Swedish fika, I would probably offer homemade or bakery-bought classic small cookies like schackrutor (checkered cookies), drömmar (dream cookies), finska pinnar (Finnish sticks), and nötkakor (nut cookies). Cinnamon buns and a soft cake too. I’d probably bake the cake myself, one with a little more flavor than a sponge cake. And of course I would offer tea! Or juice, preferably elderflower juice.”
Among the classic cakes Kajsa might have opted for might be an apple cake, or a kladdkaka. A kladdkaka is a sticky chocolate cake that’s a cross between a brownie and an underbaked chocolate cake. Every café’s got their version, and it makes an excellent last-minute dessert because most homes have the ingredients anyway.
Pretty much everyone bakes here. Every home will have at least an electric hand mixer and a set of three mixing bowls – one mostly for whipping cream to accompany the aforementioned cakes or pies.
I made my husband buy this for my birthday so we could photograph it for this article. (I love you, Lori! Hahaha.) Editor’s note: Right back at you, Therese!
For a more formal fika, such as a birthday or a baptism, you’re likely to see the other classic Swedish cake – the prinsesstårta, or princess cake. According to food blogger Semiswede, it was invented by Jenny Åkerström, a Swedish home economics guru at the beginning of the 20th century who taught three Swedish princesses, Margaretha, Märtha, and Astrid. Inspired by her time teaching them, she invented what was originally called the green cake, but it later got its current name because the princesses adored it.
The prinsesstårta is composed of three layers of sponge cake with vanilla custard and raspberry jam, crowned with a dome of stiff whipped cream and cloaked in spring green marzipan. It’s usually finished with powdered sugar and a tiny marzipan pink rose with leaves; but during official prinsesstårta week in the third week of September, the rose is replaced with a miniature golden crown. For every prinsesstårta sold in Sweden during this week, 10sek ($1.50) is donated to Crown Princess Victoria’s Fund for chronically ill and disabled children and youth in Sweden.
It’s not as famous, but there are two cakes that I personally love. One is a variation on the prinsesstårta called the Karl-Gustav’s tårta, which is structurally the same, but is a shade of bright marigold. Instead of jam, thin layers of solid chocolate and peaches nestle between the cake and cream layers.
I order it for my husband’s birthday and tell him it’s because it’s a kingly cake, but I’m really just looking for an excuse to eat it.
The other is a Budapest roll, which sounds very bald and unromantic in print, but if you’re a Nutella fan like I am, you have to try making this. It’s a roll of hazelnut meringue hugging a whipped cream filling and mandarin orange segments hiding in there like small nuggets of juicy golden goodness.
Sorry, I know this photo isn’t up to the usual DCF standard, but we came late to this birthday fika and so all the cakes were somewhat decimated. From top to bottom: princesstarta, Budapest roll, and the brave remains of a brave kladdkaka, which was just no match for all these Vikings.
In the old days, these special fikas would also call for sju sorters kakor, or seven different kinds of cookies, such as the ones mentioned by Kajsa. There’s actually a book about this written by Birgitta Rasmusson, which is the second best-selling book in Sweden after the Bible.
Sju Sorters Kakor is now 70 years old and on its 6th reprint, which has been updated with recipes for cupcakes and macarons. My personal favorites so far have included the Finska pinnar, small elongated shortbread cookies sprinkled with sugar pearls. It’s another of those recipes that promote the use of the best ingredients you can find, because if you use really good butter, this cookie really sings.
(L-R). Hazelnut cookies, Finska pinnar, checkered cookies, and oat dream cookies.
If you ever do find yourself in Sweden, I highly urge you to look for one of the older konditorei (pastry shop) that still does old-school fika. Of course there are the new ones with the hipster-y Courier New menus and Pinterest-inspired décor, but for the singularly Swedish fika experience, go for the classics. Plus, sometimes when Swedes see how much you enjoy fika, they will actually overcome their shyness long enough to talk to you about this wonderful tradition.