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Buttermilk Rye Pancakes with Berry-Honey Syrup

March 10, 2012

The Midwestern Gentleman and I have been enjoying our continued foray into traditional Icelandic cooking via The Jungle Effect recipes.  This surprisingly nutritious breakfast is one of our favorites.  These thick, hearty pancakes are filling and delicious, and leave us feeling energized instead of slipping into a sugar-coma (unlike many sweeter, white-flour based pancakes).  That’s an important feature for our Sunday brunch tradition, since the Gent usually has a long training run in the early afternoon.  He claims that these pancakes are the perfect fuel for his longer runs.  (For more of the Gent’s thoughts about running, training fuel, and gear, check out his blog, Chasing 42: Life, the Universe, and Running.)

The original recipe calls for blueberries, but any dark berry rich in antioxidants will do.  We tend to use whatever frozen berries are on sale, and for this batch we used blackberries.  I also like to simmer the syrup with cinnamon, both for its taste and its health benefits.

Buttermilk Rye Pancakes with Berry-Honey Syrup

(recipe modified from The Jungle Effect)


1 cup rye flour

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1 Tbsp baking powder

dash of salt

2 eggs

1 3/4 cup buttermilk

1 Tbsp oil or melted butter

Berry-Honey Syrup

2 cups fresh or frozen berries

2 Tbsp lemon juice

1/2 cup honey

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

For the pancakes: Sift the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.  In a smaller bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, and oil (or melted butter) until smooth.  Pour the wet ingredients over the dry ingredients and whisk until combined.

Heat a skillet over medium heat.  Lightly oil or butter the skillet, and ladle out about 1/4 cup – 1/3 cup of batter per pancake.  Cook until the batter is bubbly and the edges appear dry.  Flip the pancake and cook the other side until golden brown. Keep the pancakes warm under a cloth napkin or in a low oven until the entire batch has been cooked.

For the berry-honey syrup: Bring the berries, honey, lemon juice, and cinnamon to a boil in a small saucepan.  Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.  Serve warm.


Icelandic Split Pea Soup

March 3, 2012

Iceland is an epidemiological “cold spot” for depression, meaning that the incidences of depression are significantly lower in this far-northern nation than in most other parts of the world.  According to Daphne Miller, MD, author of The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World and How to Make Them Work for You, the reason for Icelanders’ lack of depression — despite living in near-darkness for a portion of the year — is their diet.  Rich in omega-3s, antioxidants, fermented foods, and slow-release carbohydrates, the traditional Icelandic diet holds the dietary keys to warding off the blues.

I used to think SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) was a myth until I moved to Texas, and year-round sunshine helped me fend off what I had come to think of as the “winter blues.”  Now that I live up North again, I turn to diet and exercise to keep my spirits buoyed in the dark winter months.  Deep in the February doldrums, it seemed like a good time to explore the Icelandic diet.

This split pea soup is good, hearty comfort food, especially with a few thick slabs of well-buttered Icelandic Thunder Bread on the side.  I whipped up a batch last weekend to bring to our friend Kori’s house, and we enjoyed a cozy winter evening with our humble soup and bread dinner, a bottle of good red wine, and some vintage ’90s vampire movies.  Now that is a way to comfort the spirit during the dark days of winter.

Icelandic Split Pea Soup

[Modified from The Jungle Effect]

1 cup dried split peas (yellow, green, or a mix of both)

1 large, sweet onion, chopped

1 1/2 tsp dried thyme (or 1 Tbsp fresh)

9 cups cold water, divided

1 1/2 lb ham shanks

2-3 cups root vegetables, chopped (I used 4 rainbow carrots and 1 small rutabaga)

freshly cracked black pepper to taste

Makes 4 to 6 servings.  Combine the dried split peas, chopped onion, thyme, and 8 cups cold water in a large Dutch oven.  Bring to a boil, then partially cover and lower the heat to a simmer.  Simmer for about 1 hour, until peas are tender.  Skim foam off the surface as necessary.

Add the ham shanks to the pot, along with an additional cup of cold water.  Return to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook uncovered for 20-30 minutes.  Meanwhile, chop or slice the root vegetables into bite-sized chunks.  Add the chopped root vegetables to the soup and simmer for another 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.  Remove the ham shanks and set them aside.

Using a stick blender or regular blender, puree some or all of the soup, depending on how chunky you would like it to be.  (I used a stick blender and pureed until the soup thickened, but still left lots of vegetable chunks for texture.)

Shred the meat off the ham shank bone and add the meat to the soup pot.  Season with freshly cracked black pepper to taste.  Serve with Icelandic Thunder Bread, or another hearty-grained bread.

Rugbrauo: Icelandic Thunder Bread

February 25, 2012

One of my favorite things about living and traveling in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia is the prevalence of dark, hearty grained breads and crackers.  I was recently attracted by a recipe for rugbrauo, or Icelandic steamed rye bread.  (It’s also called “Thunder Bread,” because of what happens if you eat too much of this high-fiber bread at one sitting…! Or perhaps because it is served at Thorrablot, the Viking festival honoring Thor, the god of thunder.)  Traditionally, this bread was steamed in bowls in Iceland’s geothermic springs.  Since I love Steamed Boston Brown Bread, but hate the hassle of babysitting the cooking pot to prevent the water from boiling off during its four-hour cooking time, I was also intrigued by the idea of using a slow cooker to steam the rugbrauo.

The recipe below combines the cooking method and ingredients of several other recipes with a recipe collected by Daphne Miller, MD, for her book The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World and How to Make Them Work for You.  Tailor the ingredients to your own preferences (or what you have on hand in your larder).  I highly recommend the slow cooker steaming method; it was effortless and produced delicious results.  Using whole wheat instead of all-purpose flour will result in a bread with a coarser texture, but more nutrition and fiber.  Rye flour is what Daphne Miller calls a “slow-release” grain, which means it doesn’t cause the spikes in blood sugar that other quick-absorbing grains can.  Rye may be such a prevalent grain in Russian, Scandinavian, and Icelandic baking because it is so cold-weather tolerant.

This slightly sweet, dense bread is delicious warm and spread with butter, but my favorite way to enjoy it is cold from the refrigerator, spread with cream cheese and layered with smoked salmon.  The bread’s dense, nutritious grains and the salmon’s protein and omega-3s make this a perfect breakfast sandwich for a wintry morning.  The Midwestern Gentleman, true to his Midwestern roots, does not believe in fish for breakfast, but he agrees that this bread is delicious topped with butter, jam, or soft cheese — think goat cheese and honey!  (Scroll down past the photos for the recipe.)

Icelandic Thunder Bread

1 1/2 cup rye flour

3/4 whole wheat or all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

2 tsp molasses

1/4 cup brown sugar or honey*

3/4 cup warmed buttermilk*

(*If using honey instead of brown sugar, decrease buttermilk to about 1/2 cup)

Makes 1 round loaf, about 8 slices/4 servings.  Set some water (about 2-3 cups) to boil in a tea kettle.  Butter the inside of a ceramic or Pyrex bowl that has an approximate 3 cup capacity.  Set aside.

In a medium-sized bowl, sift together dry ingredients.  Stir in the brown sugar (if using).  In a measuring pitcher or another bowl, combine the warm buttermilk and molasses.  If using honey instead of brown sugar, then stir the honey into the buttermilk as well.  Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir to combine into a thick dough.  Knead the mixture for a few minutes, until all of the flour is incorporated, and the dough is soft but not sticky.  Shape the dough into a ball and place it in the buttered bowl.

Tent a sheet of foil over the bowl, and secure it tightly to the bowl with a rubber band or some twine.  Place the bowl into the slow cooker, and add enough hot water to the slow cooker to come about halfway up the outside of the bowl.  Put the cover on the slow cooker and set the temperature to “high” or “4 hours.”  Steam the bread in the slow cooker for about 2 hours plus 30-45 minutes.

When the bread is done, turn off and unplug the slow cooker.  Remove the lid and let cool for a few minutes.  Carefully lift the bowl from the slow cooker (use potholders!), remove the foil, and tip the bread out of the bowl.  If you do this while the bread is still warm, you shouldn’t have any trouble with the bread sticking to the bowl.

Let the bread cool completely before wrapping it tightly and storing it in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.  Because this is a quick bread, not a yeast bread, it will not keep well at room temperature.  However, it does freeze well.

Orange Pistachio Biscotti (with a Smidge of Chocolate)

February 19, 2012

I love biscotti.  Traditional recipes contain no oil or butter, making them a low-fat treat with lots of flavor.  (Of course, loading them with nuts and candied fruit doesn’t exactly make them low-calorie…)  Settling down to a cup of coffee or tea with a biscotti always feels like a special moment to myself in an otherwise hectic day.  Orange and pistachio is one of my favorite biscotti flavor combinations.  I especially like to use chocolate-covered candied orange peel in these biscotti.  The candied peel adds a bit of chewy texture to the cookies, while the smidge of chocolate gives them an extra special taste.

You can buy chocolate-covered candied orange peel from your favorite candy shop, but I decided to make my own using a tutorial over at Smitten Kitchen.  Once the candied peel had dried overnight, I dipped most of it individually in melted Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate.  When I had about a handful of candied peel left (i.e., enough for the biscotti), I got lazy and put them all into the remaining melted chocolate together, tossed with a silicone spatula until all the pieces were well coated, and then poured the whole mass out onto a sheet of parchment paper to set.  When it was cool, I used a large chef’s knife to dice up the chocolate-coated candied peel mass.  Perfect.

If you like your biscotti hard and crunchy — perfect for dunking in a cup of hot coffee — then make sure to let them cool completely, on a rack, after the second baking before sealing them up in an airtight container.  If you don’t like to dunk your cookies, and the traditional biscotti texture is a little too challenging for your teeth, then seal the biscotti in an airtight container when they are no longer hot, but still very slightly warm from the oven.  The tiny bit of steam this will create in the airtight container will soften the cookies just enough for comfortable nibbling sans dunking.

Chocolate-Orange Pistachio Biscotti

2 large eggs

1 cup sugar

zest of 1 orange

juice of 1 orange

1/3 cup chocolate-covered or plain candied orange peel

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2/3 cup whole wheat pastry flour (or more all-purpose flour)

2 tsp baking powder

3/4 cup whole, shelled, unsalted pistachios

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Line a baking sheet with foil and lightly oil the foil with vegetable oil.

Beat the eggs and sugar together until smooth.  Beat in the orange juice and zest.  Stir in the candied orange peel, and then sift in the flour and baking powder.  Stir until well combined.  Gather the dough into a ball and place it on a lightly floured board.  Gently knead in the whole pistachios.  Divide the dough in half and shape each into a log on the baking sheet.  Bake 25-30 minutes until golden brown and firm to the touch.  Remove from the oven and let cool 10-15 minutes.

Using a serrated bread knife, cut the baked logs into 1/2″ slices.  Lay the slices flat on the baking sheet and bake for another 5-10 minutes until lightly browned.  Lay the biscotti out on a rack to cool (see note above).  Makes 2 dozen biscotti.

Pumpkin & Pea Risotto with Gorgonzola

January 28, 2012

Not long after we met, I invited the Midwestern Gentleman over for dinner and served a classic Italian risotto rich with mushrooms and onions.  He fell in love — with me, naturally, but also with the flavorful versatility of risotto.  Ever since, he has been mentally collecting different flavor combinations for us to try.  Our latest creation was a celebration of the deep, comforting flavors of winter: pumpkin spiked with gorgonzola. Madeira wine’s particular sweetness pairs beautifully with the pumpkin, while the topping of toasted pumpkin seeds adds a pleasing crunch.  Using canned pumpkin and frozen peas makes this an easy wintertime recipe; the ingredients can be kept on hand and pulled out at a moment’s notice.

Pumpkin & Pea Risotto with Gorgonzola

1 Tbsp olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 large, sweet onion, chopped

1 cup arborio rice

1/2 cup Madeira wine

2 1/2 cups chicken broth, heated

1/2 tsp dried sage

freshly ground black pepper

1 cup peas, fresh or frozen

1 cup pumpkin puree

1/3 cup parmesan cheese, grated

Topping: gorgonzola crumbles & toasted pumpkin seeds

Heat the olive oil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat.  Add the garlic and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to soften and turn translucent (about 3 minutes).  Add the rice, and stir well to coat.  Stir in the Madeira wine and cook, continuing to stir, until the wine has almost completely evaporated.  Stir in 1/2 cup of the hot broth and cook, stirring, until most of the broth has evaporated.  Continue to add the hot broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly, until the rice is cooked al dente.  When you add the last 1/2 cup of broth, also add the sage, black pepper, and peas.  When the last of the broth has evaporated, stir in the pumpkin, heat thoroughly, and then remove from heat.  Stir in the parmesan cheese.  Garnish individual servings with gorgonzola crumbles and toasted pumpkin seeds.

Pumpkin Biscuits

January 21, 2012

Seriously, who wouldn’t want to wake up to these on a snowy Sunday morning?  Well, someone who doesn’t like biscuits or pumpkin, I suppose.  But the rest of you?  You love these.  So do I.  These biscuits manage to be flaky and moist at the same time, with a pleasant if non-assertive pumpkin flavor and just a hint of cinnamon.  I think they taste especially scrumptious with a hot cup of coffee or cocoa.  The Midwestern Gentleman agrees.

Pumpkin Biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp salt

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/3 cup shortening, frozen

1 cup pureed pumpkin

1/4 cup buttermilk plus more for glaze

1/2 cup confectioners sugar or 2 Tbsp vanilla sugar

Preheat the oven to 425 F.  Sift the first 5 ingredients together into a medium-sized bowl.  Whisk together the buttermilk and the pumpkin puree in a small bowl or 2-cup measuring cup.

Cut the frozen shortening into the flour mixture until the shortening resembles tiny pebbles.  Add the pumpkin/buttermilk mixture all at once, and toss with a wooden spoon just until the dough comes together.  Do not overmix or gluten will form, turning the biscuits into tough little hockey pucks instead of flaky bits of goodness.  Gather the dough into a rough ball, knead for about 30 seconds to even out the dough, and then roll out the dough to between 1/4″ and 1/2″ thick.  Cut into biscuits.

Lay the biscuits on a foil or parchment lined baking sheet and brush their tops with buttermilk.  (Optional: sprinkle with vanilla sugar before baking, or wait to glaze them with icing afterwards.)

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until tops are golden brown and edges look flaky.  Remove from oven and cool on wire rack so the biscuits don’t turn soggy.  Let cool slightly.

For Glaze: whisk buttermilk into confectioners sugar one teaspoon at a time, until glaze reaches desired consistency (pourable, but not runny).  Drizzle over warm biscuits and serve.

Potato, Prosciutto & Rosemary Pizza

January 15, 2012

For our first dinner of the new year, the Midwestern Gentleman and I picked a recipe from my new treasure-trove of culinary goodness (a gift from the Minnesota Mom), The Northern Heartland Kitchen.  One of the reasons I love this cookbook is that the recipes are based on fresh ingredients that are available in this part of the country, so I know I will easily find whatever I need in our local market.  The introduction to each recipe offers suggestions for other recipes in the book which would pair well.  My favorite attribute of this book, however, is the way the recipes are divided seasonally.  Instead of pining for fresh asparagus in the deep of January, I turn to the “Winter” section of the cookbook, and recipe after recipe based on locally available wintertime produce tempts my tastebuds. The Potato, Prosciutto & Rosemary Pizza did not disappoint.  I used my own recipe for pizza dough (although the cookbook offered a basic one that looked good, too), and then topped the pizza as directed.  You can mix up the dough about a half an hour before you want to use it, but to let it develop a more complex flavor, I recommend mixing it up the night before and refrigerating it (take the dough out of the refrigerator at least 1 hour before you plan to use it) or mixing it up earlier in the day, and letting it “proof” at room temperature for at least 4-6 hours.

As we sat down to our meal and dug into the hot pizza, its chewy crust piled high with savory toppings, the Midwestern Gentleman turned to me and said, “wow, when can we make this again?”  In my world, there is no higher praise for a new recipe!

Whole Wheat Pizza Dough

1 1/2 cups warm water

1 tsp honey

1/4 tsp active dry yeast

2 tsp olive oil

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp salt

Dissolve the honey in the warm water.  Add the yeast and let bloom for about 5 minutes.  Stir in the olive oil followed by the flour and salt.  Knead for 5 – 10 minutes, until dough is smooth and elastic.  If refrigerating, shape dough into a ball, place in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.  Remove from the refrigerator at least 1 hour before using.  If proofing at room temperature, shape the dough into a ball, place it on a board covered in cornmeal, flatten dough into a disk, cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel, and let rest at room temperature for 4-6 hours.  Roll out the dough to a 12″ – 16″ circle (depending on how thin or thick you like your pizza crust).  Let dough rest for 20 minutes, then top it with your desired toppings, and bake in a preheated 425 F oven for 15 to 20 minutes.

For the Potato, Prosciutto & Rosemary pizza, the first layer was a thinly sliced ball of fresh mozzarella:

On top of the mozzarella, I layered about a pound of Yukon Gold potatoes, thinly sliced.  I used a chef’s knife, but I recommend using a mandoline slicer for the thinnest, most even slices.

I then layered prosciutto on top of the potatoes.  I left a quarter of the pizza without meat, since the Midwestern Gentleman wasn’t certain he would like prosciutto (as it turns out, he does).

Over the prosciutto, I sprinkled a layer of finely minced fresh garlic (about 3 cloves).

The next layer was thinly sliced red onion.  Again, I used a chef’s knife, but would try a mandoline slicer next time.

At this point, I brushed a light coating of fruity, extra virgin olive oil all over the pizza toppings and exposed crust.

Finally, I topped the pizza off with about a half a cup of grated parmesan cheese, a few tablespoons of minced, fresh rosemary, a few tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley, and a dusting of freshly cracked black pepper.

Twenty minutes later, we pulled a delicious, homey, winter meal out of the oven.

This will definitely not be the last recipe we try from The Northern Heartland Kitchen!