The Wedding Cake Table, Day 2
I know what they say about Scandinavian winters driving people to madness, but southern Norway in summer is quite possibly one of the most heavenly things you might ever hope to experience. Sparkling blue fjords reach like willowy fingers through the landscape, lush forested hills roll gently down to greet them at rocky outcrops and golden beaches, crystal blue skies glow warmly into the night, and on the cool breeze floats the scent of hundreds of thousands of flowers blooming furiously as they attempt to make up for lost time. And all this is not lost on Norway's inhabitants, who basically spend the summer outdoors fishing, cycling, slow-baking themselves to various shades of deep golden brown, and of course celebrating every last thing that can be found to celebrate - preferably with copious amounts of food and even more copious amounts of drink.
Naturally summer is also the perfect time to get married in Norway, which explains why I had a good excuse to spend the better part of last week there. Guro and Nash were two of the first friends I made when I moved to Edinburgh, when we all lived together in University accommodation and cooked together and ingested frightening amounts of chocolate as an antidote to the miserable Scottish weather. I had been looking forward to their wedding for months, and when Guro called me up a few weeks before the wedding and asked if I might be interested in helping out with the food, I naturally fell over myself with joy. The wedding reception was going to take place in the garden of her parents' house, and they were planning to serve a mixed Norwegian-Lebanese buffet (to honor the couple's respective home countries) which would be mostly catered by a local restaurant. "But we were wondering if you would mind making something as well" she inquired. Was she kidding? "Of course, anything!" I hastily responded, starting to sift through my mental lists of canapés, dips and party snacks. "Oh I'm so glad! Would you make your chocolate cheesecake?"
Of course I was happy to make my chocolate cheesecake, as I knew the cake had sentimental value for all of us. Back when we lived together I made this cake on such a regular basis that some people in the building knew me only by its reputation. I stopped making it when I moved out of the residence hall because I realized that not having an eager group of mouths around to help me finish it was far, far too dangerous, considering how wickedly good it is. Yet although I agreed without hesitation, her request that I make a cake, even if it was this one, left me slightly confused. I knew already that they had ordered a traditional wedding cake, and as far as I was aware, wedding etiquette dictated that no one should even dream of making a cake that might steal some of the limelight away from the wedding cake. Especially not a rich cheesecake, which, heaven forbid, might fill people up before they even have a chance to sample the wedding cake. But I figured the cake had probably been requested for sentimentality's sake, and chances were it wouldn't even find its way onto the wedding buffet table.
What I was soon to learn is that Norwegians come from a very different school of wedding cake philosophy. Apparently, while every wedding has the 'traditional' wedding cake, no one in Norway would dream of providing only that to their cake-hungry guests. In fact, I gathered that the abundance of wedding cake offerings has some kind of direct correlation with perceptions of the host's generosity and wealth, and even at a modest wedding the hosts will strive to have as many cakes on the table as possible. And it soon became clear that I was not the only one making a supplemental cake. Guro's mother, father and sister were all making cakes. In fact, they were all making TWO cakes. In addition, friends and relatives had been commissioned to bake cakes which would be dropped off the morning before the wedding. "We ask them to bring one but sometimes they bring two, just to be generous," Guro's sister informed me. "And besides the wedding cake and the homemade cakes don't forget the Kransekake, which is traditional at any Norwegian celebration. We've ordered a 24-ring version." I was feeling weak at the knees. A quick count told us that there would be minimum of sixteen cakes for approximately 45 invited guests, or around one-third of a cake per person. And this would all come after a buffet dinner. "Oh, and the caterer's menu includes dessert, which is a chocolate cake with blueberry sorbet." This was madness.
But what delicious madness it was. After a beautiful ceremony in the church, and a long and leisurely buffet served under the airy marquee in the garden, and after the chocolate cake with sorbet and tearful speeches and lots of wine, just shy of midnight the cake table was laid. It was stunning. The wedding cake, three tiers high, contained marzipan-covered sponge cake filled with strawberries and cream, and had been decorated with tiny blue borage flowers from the garden. The Kransekake, ordered from the same bakery, was a towering pyramid of thin brown rings of baked almond paste, deliciously soft and chewy on the inside and crusty on the outside, all decorated with white icing and tiny Norwegian flags. Guro's mother had made two Norwegian cakes: a Mandelkake, a flourless almond cake with yellow buttercream frosting, and a Firkløverkake, which had layers of chocolate cake, whipped cream, hazelnuts and melted hazelnut-praline milk chocolate. Guro's father made two versions of his famous Bløtkake, which consisted of light-as-air sponge filled with fresh strawberries and peaches and more fluffy cream. Guro's sister made her favorite recipes for carrot cake and lemon cheesecake. Apart from that there were brownies, more cream cakes, mousse cakes, cakes I couldn't identify, and of course my very own chocolate cheesecake. It was a veritable cake orgy, and I ate until I could barely stand upright.
However, in spite of our valiant efforts to eat the table clean that evening there was barely a dent made in the sugary bounty. The next night brought a second effort as guests were invited back to help finish the leftovers, but still far too much cake remained. Looking sadly at the table I asked Guro's sister what would happen to the leftovers after we'd all gone home. She shrugged casually. "I suppose we'll have to throw some of it away." It broke my heart to think of all these painstakingly-made creations ending up in the trash, and so later that night in the grips of my own madness (for I couldn't have eaten another bite of cake if someone had held a gun to my head), I snuck back out to the marquee and uncovered the remains of my cheesecake. Glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one was witnessing my gluttony I wrapped and stowed a mushy piece into my bag for the flight home the next day. After all, I rationalized, I surely needed a souvenir of this wonderful if slightly crazy tradition to take home with me, now didn't I?
Amazing Chocolate Cheesecake
Amazing Chocolate Cheesecake
Serves: 12 easily
Source: This is one of the few 'old family recipes' I possess. Actually, I seem to recall that it's an adaptation of a cheesecake in The Vegetarian Epicure (by Anna Thomas) which my mother wrangled from an old cheesecake-conoisseur colleague of hers. At any rate, it's been around as long as I can remember and is one of those rare recipes that I have never felt the slightest need to tinker with.
For metric conversions, please see my links on the glossary page.
1 1/2 c. fine graham cracker or digestive biscuit crumbs
1/4 c. melted butter, or as needed
1/2 t. cinnamon
3 T. brown sugar
1 1/2 lbs. cream cheese, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
8 oz fine bittersweet chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)
4 tablespoons heavy cream
1 cup sour cream
4 tablespoons liqueur of choice (I used Bailey's this time; Cointreau, Amaretto, Frangelico etc. are also fabulous) - optional
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sour cream
3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar (or to taste)
2 tablespoons liqueur (same as above)
Crust: Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Work the ingredients together with a fork until they are well blended. Press evenly into the bottom and up the sides of a 10-inch springform pan and press it flat.
Cheesecake: Beat the cream cheese with an electric beater or food processor until it is fluffy, then gradually beat in the 2 c. sugar and the eggs. Continue beating until perfectly smooth. Melt the chocolate with the cream in a small saucepan over low heat (or the microwave), then beat into the cheese along with 1 c. sour cream. Add the liqueur and vanilla, and beat a few minutes more. Pour the cheese mixture into the springform and bake for about 1 hour, or until the center is slightly puffed (it will seem very jiggly, but it shouldn't seem liquid). Cool completely in the pan for several hours (this is important to get the right texture), then refrigerate until completely cold (at least six hours - overnight is best). Carefully run a knife between the crust and the pan to loosen and remove the springform. With a long bread knife trim the top and sides so they are smooth and uniform (these trimmings are the cook's sneak-preview!).
Topping: Beat together the sour cream and sugar. Add the liqueur and carefully pour over the top of the cheesecake, so it completely covers the top. Let it spill over the edge in a few places to create a decorative effect*. Chill 90 minutes before serving. Just before serving, sift some dutch cocoa over the top and decorate with fresh flowers.
*Alternatively, you can place the springform back around the cake before pouring on the topping (so it all stays on top) and put it back in a preheated 375F/190C oven for 10 minutes. This creates a firmer top layer.