Making The Case for Danish Dessert
A sweets skeptic, wooed by Nordic interpretation.
January 25, 2017 ● 4 min read
The days and nights of wintertime Copenhagen aren’t terribly different — days are gray, nights are black. Days are cold, nights are colder. The real difference lies in what you eat.
During the day, Copenhagen aligns with the rest of the world: there’s avocado toast, pastries, smoked fish and cured meat. There are even tacos. Nights are different: nights are for Nordic food. Nights taste like earth; deep and chalky, rich, gamey. Nights are for a minimum of four courses. Nights mean bread and hefty servings of protein. Nights — especially in the dead of winter — mean dessert.
We've come in search of newly-opened Restaurant 108. To find it, we pedal slick rental bikes across the quays and over a new bridge to the barracks of Christiania, silhouettes looming in the night. Inside, we enjoy a glass of crémant de Jura despite nostrils too frozen to smell, and follow it with beetroot, veal heart, salt-baked celery root, and caramelized milk skin — all leading up to an unspeakably large portion of monkfish, grilled on the bone and cooked in chamomile. We finish a bottle of wine, order coffee, and turn to the final movement of our jet-lagged dining symphony: sweets.
It should be noted that I hate sweets, categorically: caramels, chocolates, custards, cakes, cream puffs, the works. They don’t do it for me. If I order a final course, it’s a cheese plate. But something on this menu catches my eye: a sourdough cone, topped with blueberry sorbet. Sorbet screams sunshine; it screams daylight. I don’t think the sun has shone on Copenhagen for weeks, at best.
But this is the magic of hygge. 2016 was a big year for hygge (pronounced “hoo-guh”) a homey concept rooted in the idea of sheer coziness. It made the Oxford Dictionary’s shortlist for word of the year. Six books were published trying to parcel it out into consumable, reproducible chunks. The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Guardian all wrote pieces about it, paired with images of knitwear (typically, socks) before a roaring fire. When friends and colleagues asked with skepticism, maybe mild horror, why I had chosen to see Scandinavia in the dead of winter, I said: because it’s charming. Of course what I meant was: because it’s hyggeligt.
The best way to appreciate the freaky power of hygge is to imagine that you've just bicycled across a frozen city, bundled in three layers. You're sure you're facing hypothermia because your coat has become more like a cape, blowing open in the wind. But then you arrive safely at the restaurant and check said cape, and you are now tucked in a warm dining room flickering with candlelight. The windows are fogged and cloudy from all the warm bodies around you, your nose has finally defrosted after a few hours, you’ve momentarily stopped dreading the bike ride home, and you are considering — enthusiastically — ordering something like ice cream. You’re not nuts: that’s hygge.
So we order it. The cone is a thin, crunchy fold of rustic sourdough, baked in-house. The traditional toasty notes of a good cone are here drawn out into a soft tang; the sorbet has a softened sweetness, the kind you find in a peak-season blueberry picked from a warm hillside. The whole thing is crowned with electric green pine needles.
We’re so blindsided by the refreshing, herbaceous bravado of the thing that my very full dining partner and my dessert-despising self actually begin to fight, politely, over who will finish it. I watch as he takes another bite, the pine needles pressing perfectly in place, not a single one dropping off. He thinks I’m just lusting after the cone, but as this is the best dessert I’ve ever had — I want the entire thing.
When it’s over, we sit in a summery daze. The cone has single-handedly (single-conedly?) ferried us away from the damp, freezing night, and reminded us that spring was out there somewhere, that it would come as it does every year.
The next night, we pedal our way to the eight-course tasting menu at Höst, a Nordic haven of beige brick, wooden tables, sheepskins, and more hygge-inducing candlelight. The first six courses echo much of what we ate the night before: root vegetables, purple-hued meat, and seafood rippled with muscle. It’s an expression of Copenhagen's regionalism, worn like a badge of honor, endeavoring to provoke thought with its meal even more than pleasure. Eating here is a fiercely intellectual pursuit.
Finally, we reach dessert, and this time, we're ready. We’re brought “beer porridge” with white chocolate, licorice, junket, and rye. You’d be forgiven for getting the wrong idea about the porridge; it’s crunchy, almost like granola, served at room temperature, with a dollop ice cream made from junket — a sweetened, curdled milk — in the middle. The licorice and rye lend a bittersweet Amaro-like character to the swirl of flavors, and while this concoction is as transportive as the previous night’s cone, it alludes to something much closer at hand than spring. The textures and airy calm of the dish give a sly nod to the gentle meal that begins each day: breakfast.
Copenhagen’s savory dishes check many boxes: visual panache, pride, textural variety, aromatic appeal, all without any reliance on a cloying sweetness. They are firmly rooted in the reality of the outdoors, harsh as it is. Desserts are what carry the optimism of hygge, ensuring the final punctuation on a thoughtful meal is a positive one; they bring levity, and delight by alluding to the possibility of what lies ahead. Desserts offer up the woods when you don't expect the woods to be available.
And that is why you venture to Copenhagen in the dead of winter. Because it’s charming, because of hygge — and because of dessert.