Eleven years ago, around this same time of year, while living abroad in Sweden, I made a decision that would haunt me for over a decade. I was in my first semester studying Swedish language and culture in Växjö, when my professor suggested I visit Öland, the country’s second-largest island. Öland was about to host its annual harvest festival, Skördefest, and my professor thought I would enjoy the cultural experience. To me, making the decision to go was easy. I loved my hometown autumn festivals back in the Washington, D.C. suburbs where we would eat fried apples and roam around corn mazes for hours. Skördefest would be a great chance to see how Swedes celebrate the changing seasons.
A friend, Suvi, and I hopped a train to Kalmar and then went by bus across the Ölandsbrun, Öland bridge, to the town square in Borgholm. Greeted by a towering figure comprised of various gourds, squashes, and pumpkins, Suvi and I joined the thousands of other visitors to the narrow island in the Baltic. We walked to Borgholms Slott, Borgholm Castle, the ruins of a twelfth-century fortress. It was like stepping back in time, or stepping into the pages of one of Elsa Beskow’s beloved children’s books. Throughout the inside of the fortress ruins, craftsmen and craftswomen gathered creating a wool market. Spread over their tables was an impressive assortment of wool clothing, textiles, and sheep and tomte decorations. Little old ladies sat at aged spinning wheels, their feet gently bobbing in silent rhythm, their waxy fingers twirling raw wool into fine yarn. Many people were dressed in traditional costume. There may have been folk music playing in the air, or it might have been all in my head. Whichever it was, there was a magic in the air of those ruins, a magic that translated to a call for celebration. Summer was over, the autumn harvest was in full swing, and the Swedish people were rejoicing in the last cool days of 2015 before winter fell upon the land.
After Borgholms Slot, Suvi and I went back to the town square where we joined others in Skördefest merriment and stopped for a quick lunch, hungrily devouring a kebab pizza. It was only after my belly was full of kebab pizza that I saw other festival-goers eating something I had never seen. Everyone in the streets held cardboard bowls of something. What was it? I had to ask.
“Kroppkakor med lingon,” a man informed me, taking a large bite. The meal looked and smelled heavenly. But what was it? Potato dumplings filled with diced ham and served with lingonberries, he said and encouraged me to try some for myself. But I was already too full.
I promised myself that before I left Sweden, I would find kroppkakor again. But I simply had no idea the delicacy would be so difficult to find. Instead, I left the country the following June without ever getting to sample this native cuisine. That’s how a simple decision—to eat kebab pizza—became one of the greatest mysteries of my youth, and a regret I held deeply in my heart for eleven years.
When I asked my Swedish relatives about the dumplings, they said the dish is famous in Öland, but that it is very difficult to make. My cousins told me I had to find the right type of potato, or the dumplings would fall apart when I boiled them. They told me it wasn’t worth it. Make meatballs, instead. But I didn’t want meatballs. I wanted kroppkakor. For eleven years, I’ve wanted kroppkakor. Wondered about kroppkakor. Yearned for kroppkakor. Until now.
Last week, I leafed through my copy of Our Beloved Sweden, an old Swedish Lutheran cookbook published in Hastings, Minnesota, in 1996, whose introduction reads, “We dedicate this book to the honor of our ancestors who came from Sweden with their hopes and dreams, and brought with them the Swedish ways that they cherished and hoped would be perpetuated.” I have no idea how this cookbook came into my possession, but I’ve had it for as long as I can remember, and amazingly, it contains four recipes for kroppkakor. I chose to make the first recipe, and eagerly went to the grocery store to buy everything I would need. My husband, I should add, who has heard me talk about the illusive kroppkakor since he and I married in 2012, was both excited to get to taste the end product and to get me to finally shut up about the potato dumplings. But he was also skeptical of my ability to accomplish the task. He’d heard my Skördefest story and my relatives’ warnings about the difficulties of preparing the dish, and with some playfulness, he portended, “You’re going down like the Vasa.”
My husband’s warning only urged me on. I would not sink like the 17th century war ship! I would prevail and prove my worth as a Swedish cook, as I had done time and again with my family’s recipes for kåldomar, köttbullar, and others.
As instructed, I peeled, boiled, and mashed the potatoes and let them cool. Because I didn’t know what my cousins meant when they told me I needed to use the “right” potatoes, I used a combination of russet, yellow, and red potatoes. I then began to make the dumpling dough by adding three eggs and flour. The recipe didn’t indicate how much flour to use, it simply stated, “Make the dough by adding the eggs and flour to the potatoes until it will roll out without getting sticky.” I started with two cups of flour. And then four. And then six. And then I lost count. I used nearly two entire packages of all-purpose flour before the mixture became something resembling a dough.
For the filling, instead of using a pound and a half of salt pork, as the recipe called for, I used a pound of bacon and half a pound of salt pork. To me, salt pork is too fatty (and chewy) for my liking, and bacon—in my opinion—just makes everything better. The recipe suggested a quarter of a teaspoon to a full teaspoon of allspice. I love allspice, so I used an entire heaping teaspoon’s worth. The recipe also doesn’t tell me how much many dumplings it yields. I ended up rolling out eighteen dumplings.
“Are you planning to feed an entire church?” my husband smugly mused, as he helped line baking sheets with parchment paper so I would have somewhere to place the dumplings after boiling. He still had such little faith in me! But his teasing only urged me onward, ever the more resolute to prove him wrong.
Next came the true test: the boiling. Would the potatoes fall apart, as my cousins predicted? Would the dumplings float to the top once they were finished cooking, as the recipe implied they would? How would they taste? I was so close to finding out.
Gently, I spooned the large dumplings—indeed, they were nearly the size of baseballs!—four at a time into the boiling, salted water. And then I waited. And waited. My husband gazed into the pot, and I grew nervous. Had I failed? I pushed a dumpling with a wooden spoon. Immediately, it rose from the bottom and bobbed in the rumbling water. Soon, the others followed suit. They all floated! I’d succeeded! But how about the taste?
It was my turn to be smug, as I dished up two dumplings per plate and smothered them with butter and lingonberry preserves. My husband and I sat down at the table, and I took a deep breath. Eleven years of wondering, and now I’d finally know if kroppkakor was as good as it looked. I cut into one dumpling and allowed some steam and a bit of the filling to spill out. They looked good. They smelled good…I took a bite. They tasted good! Vasa Ship, I was not. I’d successfully prepared Öland’s unofficial dish. My curiosity was, at last, satisfied.
Sitting in our dining room after a long day in the kitchen, I reflected on this moment. My potato dumplings were probably not as good as they would have been under the Swedish sun on that crisp September day on the streets of Borgholm in 2005. How could they be? But for a thirty-one year-old-woman who will forever be fond of that transformative year of self-discovery when she was twenty years old, living away from home for the first time in her life, I think my kroppkakor turned out lagom. They turned out “just right.”
Recipe for kroppkakor, a contribution by St. Paul’s Luterhan Church in Galeton, PA, courtesy of the cookbook Our Beloved Sweden
10 or 12 large potatoes, boiled and mashed
Add a little milk and butter to the potatoes while mashing. Cool thoroughly. Make the dough by adding the eggs and flour to the potatoes until it will roll out without getting sticky. Roll out a square about 9-inches by 6-inches and cut this into 6 squares. Fill each square with the filling. Pinch together to make dumplings.
1 ½ pounds salt pork, cubed
2 or 3 onions, chopped finely
2 pounds lean ground beef
¼ to 1 tsp. ground allspice, to taste
Black pepper, optional
Fry the salt pork until golden brown and drain it on paper towels. Fry the onions in 1 tablespoon of pork fat until they are golden and tender. Drain. Fry the ground beef in a small amount of fat until thoroughly cooked. Drain, if the mixture is greasy. Combine the pork, onion and beef. Cool.
6 peppercorns or whole allspice
In a large kettle put water, a small chunk of salt pork and 6 peppercorns or whole allspice. Bring to a boil.
Add the potato dumplings, 6 or 8 at a time, to the boiling broth. Let them rise to the top and remove. Continue this until all the dumplings are cooked.
Start with the coolest ones and place them in the boiling broth until all of them have been cooked twice. Serve with butter or margarine.
“Good with cranberry sauce. Warm the leftovers in a skillet with a little butter or margarine.”
*This article originally appeared in the Swedish-American newspaper, Nordstjernan, vol. 141, no. 15.