Four grains are generally used in Nordic baking: wheat, rye, barley and oats. But walk into a Swedish supermarket and you may find 150 types of soft bread, more than 50 varieties of crispbread and as many as 20 different flatbreads.
If that doesn’t sound enough, imagine traveling across the entire Nordic region in search of the best breads, pastries, cakes, cookies and other treats: From Icelandic Happy Marriage Cakes to Finnish potato chocolate balls; from Danish marzipan Napoleon hats to Mother Monsen’s cake, a Christmas staple in Norway.
That’s the culinary journey chef Magnus Nilsson undertook to write The Nordic Baking Book. He started out from his Fäviken restaurant in central Sweden and traveled throughout Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland and Norway, exploring all aspects of home baking and collecting more than 450 recipes along the way.
And after all that, he decided that one of the very best was back home in Sweden. It’s called Prinsesstårta, a green marzipan layer cake first documented in the 1948 Swedish cookbook Prinsessornas Kokbok (the Princesses’ Cookbook).
“The princess cake, which is incidentally also my favourite birthday cake, is one of the most iconic Swedish cakes,” Nilsson said in an interview. “It just doesn’t exist in any of the other Scandinavian countries. It is very typical like for the period of time when it was invented, which was like the early mid-20th century, when sugar became very cheap and where imported things like almonds also became much cheaper than before and therefore available on a broader front for more people.
“So we have this wave of pastries, predominantly sweet pastries, that were invented from the mid -1920s until 1960 roughly that dominate the sweet pastry culture, especially in Sweden today. Before then, I don’t think that people actually made the kind of layer cakes that we see in Scandinavia today. It was just too expensive when you had to import sugar from the West Indies, for example. And when you had to buy almonds essentially by the piece, you bought it from Spain.”
Baked goods are particularly important in Sweden, which has a tradition of between-meal snacks called fika. “It is a specifically Swedish thing that has been hijacked culturally by a lot of other countries,” Nilsson said. “It originates in the agrarian times before industrialization. Because of the climate you had to work very, very long days during summer to produce an excess of food to store for the winter and you had to have frequent food breaks during the day. It wasn’t enough for just breakfast lunch and dinner because when you were doing a 16-hour day in the fields, and that's where fika originated.”
Prinsesstårta traditionally consisted of three layers of light sponge sandwiched with thick layers of cream, topped with a green marzipan dome. These days, you’re likely to find chefs sneaking in a layer of raspberry jam. Nilsson likes this innovation and also favors a heavier cake than the original “airy, dry ‘styroform’” sponge.
If you have a birthday coming up, or just fancy a fika, here’s Nilsson’s recipe for the perfect Prinsesstårta.