Crave: A Scandinavian spread

photo by: Courtesy of Mother Earth News

In colloquial English, the word “smorgasbord” is used to describe “a delightful (if not overwhelming) array of choices,” and rightly so. The true and original meaning of the word relates to the traditional Scandinavian smörgåsbord that originated in Sweden, where myriad dishes were laid out buffet-style for guests to help themselves, with frequent trips to the table encouraged. Nowadays it’s typically prepared as a celebratory meal, as at Christmas, when it’s known as the julbord (yule table).

Smörgåsbord translates to “sandwich table” and is found in all five Nordic countries. In Denmark and Norway, it’s known as the koldtbord; in Finland, it’s the voileipäpöytä; and in Iceland, it’s the kalt bord or hladbord. Despite the different names, the customs, etiquette and menu are similar, yet each is enriched with the local delicacies of the country.

The hordes of Scandinavians who immigrated to the Midwest sections of the United States in the 19th century brought their culinary traditions with them. The smörgåsbord was enjoyed in their new country, though only officially since the 1939 New York World’s Fair, when it was offered at the Swedish Pavilion’s Three Crowns Restaurant. After that, the diacritics were dropped from the term, and the buffet-style meal became known all over America as simply “smorgasbord.”

History of the Smorgasbord

The origins of the smorgasbord date back to the 14th century when members of the Swedish upper class would serve a small buffet table (brännvinsbord) of schnapps and hors d’oeuvres prior to a meal. Consisting usually of bread, butter, cheese, herring and liqueurs, the brännvinsbord was meant to be a light repast for guests, served two to five hours before dinner, and eaten while standing. This custom expanded in the 17th century when the “Lord of the Manor” invited folks from all over Sweden’s sparsely populated countryside. Cold dishes – like salty herring, potato and vegetable salads, hard-boiled eggs, smoked salmon, sausages, cold cuts and bread – were prepared several days in advance in order to feed the arriving guests.

Through the centuries, the smorgasbord tradition continued to evolve until it became the main course rather than just the appetizer. Hot dishes were added to the traditional cold ones, and a dessert table laden with Scandinavian specialties eventually became the norm for special occasions.

The smorgasbord grew in popularity, and in its most lavish form was served in restaurants, hotels, railway stations, and the big passenger ferries crossing between Finland, Sweden and the other Nordic countries. Informally, it was a popular way to serve guests at home, whether it be an intimate gathering or a large party. Today, the smorgasbord is prepared mainly for special occasions, from a house warming to an anniversary, but mostly at Christmas, Midsummer (late June) or Easter.

If you’d like to start a new holiday tradition this year, keep in mind that smorgasbord delicacies are meant to be eaten in a special order, each course on a clean plate so flavors do not combine in an unpleasant way (think of herring). Keep lots of plates stacked up for guests (see “Setting the Smorgasbord Table” on Page 29) and don’t hesitate to add your own favorite dishes, regardless of origin. From start to finish, the smorgasbord is a work of art, lovingly created and shared among neighbors, families and friends.


* Recipe follows


Breads: Swedish Rye Bread*



Swedish crisp breads: Swedish Almond Toast*

First Course

Pickled and preserved herring (with sour cream and chives)

Salmon (lox, gravlax)

Aquavit and beer

Second Course (Cold)

Smoked fish and meats: cod, trout

Christmas ham with mustard

Homemade sausages: Easy Swedish Sausage*

Salads: Cucumber Salad, Beet and Onion Salad, Danish Braised Red Cabbage

Potatoes: Finnish Potato Salad, boiled potatoes with dill

For sandwiches: thin slices of radish and cucumber, parsley, watercress, dill, chives, mayonnaise, cream cheese, raw onion rings, bacon, lettuce

Third Course (Hot)

Meatballs: Finnish Meatballs

Fish dishes: Danish Poached Fish

Roast beef

Spare ribs

Casseroles: Potatoes Browned in Sugar,

Turnip Casserole

Dessert Table


Cookies: Christmas Ginger Cookies

Cakes: Swedish Sour Cream Cake

Puddings: Rice Pudding

Lingonberry preserves


Swedish Rye Bread


1 package active dry yeast

1⁄2 cup warm water

1 tablespoon fennel seeds

1 tablespoon anise seeds

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons butter, melted

2 cups milk, scalded and cooled

3 cups rye flour

3 to 31⁄2 cups all-purpose flour


1. Dissolve yeast in warm water; set aside 5 minutes.

2. Crush fennel and anise seeds into a powder. Add powdered seeds, salt, sugar, butter, milk and rye flour to yeast mixture; beat well. Add enough all-purpose flour to mixture to make stiff dough. Let rest for 15 minutes.

3. Turn dough onto floured surface and knead until smooth, about 10 minutes. Grease large bowl. Place dough in bowl and turn once so greased side is up. Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.

4. Punch dough down and divide into 4 parts. Shape each into a ball. Place balls on 2 greased baking sheets. Let rise about 1 hour. Bake at 375°F for 25 minutes or until done. Cool on racks.

Swedish Almond Toast


1 cup butter

2 cups sugar

2 eggs

3 1⁄2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup sour cream

1 cup finely chopped almonds

2 teaspoons ground cardamom

1⁄4 teaspoon salt


1. Cream butter and sugar together in large bowl. Add eggs and beat well. Add dry ingredients, sour cream, almonds, cardamom and salt. Mix well. Spread in ungreased jellyroll pan.

2. Bake at 350°F for 35 to 40 minutes, until brown. Cool in pan. When cool, cut into small squares. Place squares on cookie sheet and bake at 200°F for about 1 1⁄2 hours until crisp.

Easy Swedish Sausage


1 pound ground beef

1 pound ground pork

3 or 4 boiled and mashed cold potatoes

3 teaspoons salt

1⁄2 teaspoon ground white pepper

1⁄2 teaspoon ground cloves

1⁄2 teaspoon ground ginger

7 fluid ounces milk

1 tablespoon potato flour


1. Mix ground meat with mashed potatoes. Stir in remaining ingredients to make a nice dough. Let stand in refrigerator 30 minutes. Make sausages 1 1⁄2 to 2 inches in diameter and not longer than the diameter of the pot to be used to boil the sausages.

2. Wrap piece of cling-wrap plastic two or three times around meat. Make certain there is enough cling wrap at the ends. Tie a string around ends and edges of sausages. Put sausages in boiling water and simmer 12 to 15 minutes. Don’t boil.

3. To serve warm, cut cling wrappers on each end and press out sausages. To serve cool, refrigerate in plastic wrap. Remove wrap and cut into slices. Cooled sausages can be reheated if desired.

NOTE: Uncooked sausages can be frozen, but not longer than 2 months. Cooked sausage or leftovers should not be frozen; keep in the refrigerator and reheat to serve.


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