The first time I remember having Kransekake was at the 50th wedding anniversary party of my paternal Grandparents Leslie M. Gravesen and Ethel Firing Gravesen (as I write this, Grandma Ethel turns 96). Leslie, of Danish heritage, and Ethel, of Norwegian heritage, were married in Chicago in 1940; I was eight years old during their golden anniversary celebration in 1990. The cake was decorated with equal amounts of Danish and Norwegian mini flags (in Danish, where the tower cake is less popular than Norway but still very common, Kransekake is called Kransekage). I don’t remember exactly how many flags there were, but in my mind there were 50 of each to commemorate the occasion. To be frank, I didn’t particularly like the almond-based tower cake. In fact, most traditional Scandinavian confections weren’t appealing to me as a youngster—I considered anything involving marzipan to be taste-bud hell.
But Kransekake also looks as interesting as it tastes, which to me—as an artistically-and creatively-oriented kid—was appealing. Not only can it be made to almost any reasonable height, it can also be decorated in countless ways based on the occasion, as well as filled with other treats and gifts specifically meant for the recipient of the cake (sometimes a bottle of wine or champagne). At Scandinavian weddings, Kransekake sometimes serves as the primary wedding cake and is often decorated with mementos of particular significance to the bride and groom. There’s also a tradition in which the bride and groom grab the top ring of the cake and pull upwards; the amount of rings that stick to the top ring are said to predict how many children the couple will eventually have.
Unfortunately, the year 1990 ended far more tragically than it began. After suffering a series of strokes which left him partially paralyzed, Grandpa Les passed away after a fatal heart attack only a couple of days after spending Christmas with our family in Virginia Beach.
Traditions based on national heritage had always been very important to the Gravesens, but to my young mind became even more vital after Grandpa Les’ passing. One major way we’ve kept tradition flowing through four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren has been through food.
Cooking and food preparation run in our family. Grandma Ethel’s father, Norwegian-born Otmann (“the eight man”—he had eight siblings) Firing, was a student at the Norwegian-Danish Seminary in Evanston, IL and later served as its president for 20 years when the school gained its current title, Kendall College. Kendall, of course, is home to Chicago’s top-ranked culinary institute as well as the institute’s Michelin Guide-recommended “Dining Room” restaurant, a living classroom and fine dining experience (the school and restaurant were recently relocated to Chicago’s Goose Island from the original Evanston location). Otmann himself learned to cook while putting himself through seminary as a chef on a variety of Brooklyn yachts owned by New York investors and importers/exporters. In fact, his yacht-born cream-of-fish soup won an award from the Chicago Daily News while he served as President of Kendall College.
Otmann and his wife Evelyn survived the Chicago Fire in 1917 and Ethel was born in Norway, IL in 1919 (the second of six children). Of course, by the time Ethel was a young girl, the Firings, like the rest of the nation, were doing their best to survive the Great Depression.
Grandma Ethel has often told me of what it was like to cope with the Depression as part of a large family. In addition to a slew of other struggles, one of the biggest problems was providing proper meals. Grandma and her siblings, for example, used to go to a diner not far from their house and order Depression-style tomato soup—they would ask for a free cup of boiling water, pour in (also free) ketchup, stir, and eat the concoction with a spoon.
It was only a short time after Grandma Ethel married Grandpa Les that they started a family and began spending summers on Hamlin Lake in Ludington, Michigan with relatives and friends. I bring up Hamlin Lake again because throughout my childhood and into my (now) thirties, “Gravesen’s Grand View” along the lake is where I learned many of our family traditions, the majority from Grandma Ethel. Sure I fished, waterskied, swam, and boated, but I also rode along with grandma when she picked fresh blueberries and strawberries from the orchards that dot Ludington, followed along as she set pristine tables, said the Lord’s Prayer in Norwegian prior to every meal, repeatedly read the well-stocked Hans Christian Andersen collection, and learned about our Danish and Norwegian ancestors through oral histories accompanied by photographs, collectibles, and souvenirs acquired over decades.
Each and every meal of the day was a feast, particularly when I was young. In the morning the entire family would discuss the previous night’s dreams—noises heard in the dark woods or across the lake—or that day’s plans while enjoying a spread of scrambled eggs, coffee cakes both sweet and savory, seemingly countless varieties of fruits, coffee, milk, orange juice and—because this was the lake house and not the real world—various types of cookies. At lunchtime, we’d all usually be down by the lake. With help from a couple other family members, Grandma Ethel would descend the steep easement with trays of deli fresh cold cuts, cheeses she sliced herself, and pieces of baked bread from one of the local markets or restaurants, more orchard fruits, potato salad, homemade egg salad (a recipe I will never get right), a tray full of water, iced tea, soda, and my favorite, a can of black olives. We’d all stop our lakeside activities for a quick bite. Grandma would usually remain “down below” to tend her garden and watch her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren explore all Hamlin Lake had to offer. After a while, Grandma Ethel (usually accompanied by my aunts Evie and Carol) would ascend the easement to prepare supper for the entire family. Each dinner was well-rounded and freshly prepared; some of Grandma’s favorite mains and sides include: roasted turkey with giblet gravy, grilled steak with corn on the cob, creamed spinach, and her famous roasted lamb.
Because I went away to New York City for college and graduate school, my visits to Ludington became very infrequent, something I’ve always regretted. In the summer of 2010, however, after I moved to Iowa City to pursue my doctorate, I was able to spend the entire summer on Hamlin Lake with Grandma Ethel. Besides her company, one of the best things about the visit was sitting together for hours in the kitchen, trading recipes, stories, and memories (and watching Days of our Lives every single weekday). Grandma still has a catalogued recipe rolodex, almost all of which she took the time to type out from original hand-written notes. In addition to a couple of the dishes mentioned above, we made slow-cooked stew, stuffed mushrooms, grilled onions and mushrooms, and rice pudding, a dish our family always makes at Christmas. It’s tradition that whoever makes the rice pudding hides an almond in the whole batch. Once the batch is distributed, whoever finds the almond receives a Scandinavian figurine as a gift. The catch: you have to wait until everyone is completely finished with their bowl of pudding before revealing you’ve got the almond. I purposefully do not call rice pudding a family “favorite” as, though the almond hunt is a tradition, at least half the family isn’t fond of bland rice pudding. Our family is very competitive, however, so Christmas is sort of like season 3 of Survivor.
One day in early August, about a week before I was set to leave Ludington and return to Iowa City for the Fall 2010 semester, I decided I would surprise grandma with a Kransekake. Grandma Ethel’s August birthday always falls during the week in which instructors are required to be physically present in Iowa City, so I knew I would miss her 91st birthday celebration. Unfortunately, my surprise Kransekake attempt failed, which was incredibly disappointing because I didn’t have any money at the time to actually purchase a gift for my grandmother. I’ll tell you about the failure as I explain some of the pitfalls of the recipe below (I have since successfully made one small Kransekake for a small group of friends in Iowa City). But first, allow me to pseudo-conclude with why I’ve chosen to commemorate a Kransekake recipe rather than, say, my grandmother’s blueberry pancake recipe or her roast lamb recipe—dishes I’ve eaten and enjoyed far more often than Kransekake.
First, it’s not because my family has some fantastic Kransekake recipe that will surprise and titillate those familiar with the cake (although on my mother’s side, the Lithuanian Linchester clan has a red velvet cake recipe that destroys all other red velvet cake recipes…I hope to share that in the future). Nor is it because we made Kransekake much as a family. In fact, I only ever remember seeing my aunts Evie and Carol make Kransekake once, and they used frozen rings from Anna Bach’s Danish Bakery in Gaylord, Michigan—the same bakery from which we usually order completed Kransekake for special occasions. Nor, even, is it because Grandma Ethel was known for baking Kransekake. It’s possible she baked a few before my time, but in my life I do not remember her making one, not even once. It’s not even because it’s my favorite Scandinavian dessert; that honor goes to whipped cream and berry-frosted sponge cake.
So, why Kransekake?
The main reason is that it’s one of the only traditional dishes that’s explicit purpose is to honor and celebrate someone else. While many dishes are made to share with others, Kransekake is a dessert that is made by someone with, traditionally, the express purpose of gifting it to another. And unlike other cakes, you don’t have to be an expert cake decorator to make a Kransekake extraordinarily personal. Yes, there is an icing component, but the decorating typically has nothing to do with the icing, with the exception of using the icing as “glue” to affix personalized mementos. I’ve seen Kransekakes with many small photos attached, seasonal candies for various holidays, flowers plucked from a garden, fishing lures, baby socks, fortunes, special notes, you name it.
The process of baking and decorating a Kransekake forces you to truly think about the person for whom it’s being created. And because Kransekake is a celebratory confection, the creation and gifting of the cake creates encouraging memories—when I think of my grandfather Les, I don’t think of his unfortunate Christmas-time passing. I think of his unwavering pride in his Danish heritage, his lengthy and very happy marriage to Grandma Ethel, their 50th and final anniversary celebration, and the Kransekake we decorated for Christmas of 1990 just before Les left us. If you make a Kransekake with loved ones, whether family or friends, I guarantee through storytelling and sharing you’ll find out something interesting about the person/people you’re baking with, and truly think about the person for whom you’re baking and decorating the cake.
Finally, here is the recipe with which I had success. This recipe is adapted and annotated from Kari Diehl, a Scandinavian food expert writing for About.com. The unannotated recipe is here. Throughout, I’ll use italics to emphasize certain things about Diehl’s instructions, including items to which novices need to pay careful attention (aka why my surprise Kransekake failed). As Diehl points out, Kransekake is a naturally flourless and gluten-free treat.
What you’ll need:
– 5 cups water
– raw whole almonds
– confectioner’s sugar
– 3 egg whites (Dana here: I recommend separating actual eggs yourself rather than using packaged liquid egg whites. I don’t know if my use of packaged whites contributed to the failure of my first attempt at Kransekake, but I wouldn’t leave anything to chance)
– almond extract
– 2 tbsp. potato starch (If you can’t find potato starch, you can use ground matzo which still keeps the cake flourless and gluten-free)
– 3-4 cups confectioner’s
– 2 egg whites
– almond extract
– lemon juice
(Completely read these instructions before you decide when to make a Kransekake. The dough absolutely needs to sit in the fridge overnight, so this is not a one day process.)
Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add ½ of the almonds and let them boil until they rise to the surface and the skins loosen, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat, drain and rinse the almonds in cold water, then remove the skins. Spread them to dry on a paper towel-lined cookie sheet (Note: you can speed this process by putting them in the oven at low heat (about 170º) for 15 minutes, but be sure not to let them roast).
The nuts need to be completely dry before grinding.
Grind the unblanched almonds (I did not know you were supposed to use both “blanched” [skinned] and “unblanched” [with skin] almonds my first go round) in a coffee or spice grinder to form a fine flour (Note: do not use a food processor, which will over-process the nuts). Next, grind the blanched almonds.
In a large mixing bowl, mix the two almond “flours” together along with the confectioner’s sugar. Then, grind this combined mixture a second time.
Once the almond flour is ground, place it in a large saucepan, stir in the 3 egg whites and almond extract, and place over a burner on low heat. Use a wooden spoon to knead the dough over the heat until it pulls away from the sides of the pan and shapes itself into a smooth, shiny mass (this step is exactly like making homemade play dough; the resulting almond paste is also the consistency of play dough [My dough was not the consistency of play dough, so this is a great texture tip]).
Place the almond paste in a bowl and refrigerate overnight. (I don’t remember where I found the recipe I used for my first try at Kransekake, but I have a feeling this was the most important part of the process and it was left out. My best guess is that skipping this step is what ultimately led my first attempt to fail.)
Preheat your oven to 400º. Flour a pastry board or clean counter with potato starch (or ground matzo), butter and dust six Kransekake forms (if using) with potato starch.
Roll the almond paste into 18 1/2” wide “snakes,” descending in length – in ½” increments – from about 20” long to 14” long. Fit the snakes into the forms, pinching the ends together tightly to form rings (Note: this dough is very forgiving, so you can easily reroll a few snakes if you’ve miscalculated the lengths so that they are evenly divided to fit the graduate rings of the Kransekake forms).
Alternatively, if not using Kransekake forms, shape each of the 18 lengths into a ring and place on a parchment or silpat lined baking sheet.
Bake in the center of oven about 15 minutes, until the rings turn a light gold. Watch carefully, as they will burn quickly if unattended. (Assuming my above mistakes are the culprits, even though I attended to my Kransekake dough, some pieces burned while others did not. Do not overcook at this point, otherwise you will need another whole day to start over).
Remove from oven and allow rings to cool in pans.
Rap the pans lightly on a counter to loosen, running a knife between the rings if necessary to separate. Then, carefully remove the largest ring, invert it, and place it on a serving or cake plate.
Mix together the confectioner’s sugar, 2 egg whites, almond extract, and lemon juice to make the frosting. Place into pastry bag (small tip) or in a plastic freezer bag with the end snipped off. Pipe the frosting in a wavy pattern around the circumference of the bottom ring (the frosting, while decorative, also serves as the glue that will hold the cake together).
Repeat this step for each of the remaining rings, working from the largest up to the smallest. The finished cake will look like a fisher price ring toy (but will taste far better!).
Decorate the completed cake (…any way you like).
Kransekake, like fine wine, improves by “aging” a day or two before serving. Store in a tightly sealed container with a slice of apple or bread in order to maximize this cake’s unique soft-yet-chewy texture. It can also be made ahead and frozen.
Alternate Presentations: The ring tower can also be built in reversed order, with larger rings placed upon smaller ones, to form edible baskets. Scandinavian bakers also often invert the tower to form a cornucopia, which they fill with specialty cookies and candies. (You can also cut the snakes in half rather than forming them into rings before baking, then dip the Kransekake “sticks” into any sweet topping you enjoy best).
Yield: 50 servings.
Dana Gravesen is a Ph.D. candidate in communication studies at the University of Iowa and holds an M.A. in cinema studies from NYU. He has assisted in teaching persuasive speaking and writing, television criticism and history, and general media studies courses. His current research interests include nationalism and identity with regard to Dominican American media, U.S. broadcast history, and critical cultural media theory. His favorite movie is The Celebration, a Scandinavian cult film about eating one’s self. Find him on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr @danarchisms.