Discovering Hygge - Scandinavian Comfort Food - at Home

By Kate Shaffer / Photography By Russell French | Last Updated December 15, 2017
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scandinavian comfort food
For adults only: a shot of kahlua puts the "hot" in this chai hot chocolate


The first cool night usually comes towards the end of August. It’s not a commitment, but rather a suggestion of what’s to come. A breath of cool air passes through the windows that have been open for months to alleviate the brutal heat of long summer days. You reach for a blanket because you’ll sleep better with it draped over the bed.

When I moved to Isle au Haut as a fulltime resident in the early spring of 2004, it was to a tent, pitched on a carpet of soft peat, beneath a canopy of ever-dripping spruce trees. It was one of the wettest springs on record, and my husband Steve and I spent the month of April in a constantly soggy state while we got our tiny rented cabin into habitable condition.

It was also the beginning of what I consider to be my true life in Maine. A life that occurred primarily outdoors, preparing for our life indoors: cutting trees, clearing brush, splitting wood, hanging laundry, repairing shingles, cleaning chimneys, painting siding—and any number of other tasks required so that the long winter would be warm, safe, and manageable.

When I moved to Portland’s East End in 2015, it was to a basement apartment with a cement floor and barely large enough to require little more heat than what emanates from the building’s furnaces behind our living room wall. The only real preparation for winter we have to do now is scouting out a decent parking space for winter storm bans.

To my surprise, I’ve come to realize that my life outdoors on the island had more to do with completing necessary life tasks and less to do with the actual pleasure of being outdoors preparing for inclement weather. I know. Shocking. But seriously, it’s been a huge adjustment. Confectioners have a pretty intense work schedule much of the winter (Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter), and in two years I’ve gone from hearty outdoor islander, to an indoor city professional. I know there must be a healthy balance in there somewhere, but as our business goes through its own changes and growing pains, I have yet to find it.

So instead of forcing myself to spend more time I don’t really have trying to be outside this winter, I’ve decided to make my indoor life more pleasant. For instance, I’ve taken another look at my apartment. It’s not “small,” it ’s “cozy.” It’s not so much a basement, but rather it’s underground. Like a den. I’ve borrowed liberally from Scandinavian hygge (pronounced HUE-guh) traditions centered around creating comfort and coziness, and have implemented little things—like using candles (all kinds, everywhere), soft blanket throws, and cats (two of them, very cuddly)—that make our home life more hyggelig.

But most importantly, I’m taking time to prepare our too-small—oops! I mean cozy—apartment to welcome friends. This takes some doing, as we have barely enough room for two chairs around our tiny dining room table, and our galley kitchen doesn’t allow for much social cooking. But for me, food is how I welcome old friends, and make new ones, so serving a meal that takes intention and effort is non-negotiable.

The following chocolate-enhanced menu takes some time to prepare, but is perfect for convivial sharing. Each recipe can serve as a one-off or be prepared as a casual but intimate party. The chai-spiced drinking chocolate is rich but not too sweet and is appropriate for friends of all ages. For smørrebrød, dense, strongly-flavored pumpernickel bread is served in thin slices and then adorned with an assortment of toppings that have been prepared and arranged on a candle-lit sideboard for your friends to help themselves. And sweet, salty, extra-crunchy, cocoa-caramel corn can come to the gathering in a large bowl, for communal munching while playing cards, or watching a movie.

It’s a menu meant to please the senses. It’s aromatic with molasses, and yeast, warm spices, and caramelized sugar. It’s crunchy, and rich, and sweet, and salty. And it’s beautiful. It takes focus and time to prepare, but once it’s done, it doesn’t steal the spotlight. Rather, it makes room for warmth and conversation. For being together. For sitting back on the couch, with a cat on your lap, and watching your basement windows fill up with snow.

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