The art of living cosily
Until a couple of days ago, I imagined writing this column in a few weeks’ time. After all, last weekend we were still sunning ourselves on the beach and the weather forecast was guaranteeing a late heatwave (often referred to as an “Indian summer”, obviously by people who’ve never experienced an actual Indian summer). However, Edinburgh didn’t get the memo about temperatures over 30 degree Celsius and we’ve been plunged into a bizarre week of thick drizzle and fog. In the kitchen I’ve suddenly been dragged kicking and screaming out of my languid Provençal period and thrust into full autumn comfort food.
Actually, much as I love summer, I also love the turning of the seasons—the falling leaves, huddling round an open fire and wearing Fair Isle sweaters. I discovered recently that the Danish even have a name for this: hygge, pronounced “hue-gah”. It is part of the reason, apparently, that despite enduring almost eight months of winter every year, and 200 days of rain, during which they can have up to 17 hours of darkness, Danes are among the happiest people on the planet.
There’s no exact translation but it could be summed up as “the art of living cosily”, spending time with family and friends and taking pleasure in the little things in life. Happily, there’s a clutch of books out this autumn to help us all become more hygge, including one by someone who works at Denmark’s Happiness Research Institute, Meik Wiking (pronounced Mike Viking). In his The Little Book Of Hygge, Wiking tells us that “hygge is about atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things. It is about being with the people we love. A feeling of home.” It also seems to involve eating lots of cake and lighting a lot of candles. Count me in.
A lot of hygge has to do with cooking and eating (otherwise, why would I be bothering with it?). The hyggeligt approach urges us to take things more slowly in the kitchen, to honour traditional rituals like pickling and preserving and cooking for friends. I felt very hygge in the kitchen today. I made a big batch of panch phoron and used up all the vegetables lurking in the bottom of the fridge to make stock for soup. Then I roasted some sweet potato with the spice mix and blended it with the stock to make soup. Finally, I used up some sour milk to make a traditional soda bread, although if you’ve been making butter, use the buttermilk instead. That would also be very hygge. Long, cold, dark winter? Bring it on.
Panch Phoron-Spiced Sweet Potato Soup
1kg sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 2cm cubes.
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp ‘panch phoron’ (my mix contains 1 tbsp each of cumin, mustard, nigella, fennel seeds and half tbsp fenugreek seeds)
2 onions, finely chopped
1 litre vegetable stock, homemade (see below) or good-quality stock cube
Preheat the oven to 200 degree Celsius.
Put the sweet potato pieces, panch phoron and olive oil in a large bowl and mix well to coat the sweet potato in spices and oil. Bake for about 30 minutes until the sweet potato is very tender and a little charred around the edges.
In a large pan, melt the butter, then add the onions and cook gently until completely soft and lightly browned. Add the cooked sweet potato and stir well. Add the vegetable stock, then blend, adding more stock if desired.
Serve with dollops of yogurt and chilli flakes.
200g onions, peeled-cut into four pieces each
1kg chopped vegetables (for example, carrot, leek, celery, green beans, leeks) cut into equal-sized pieces
A handful of mixed fresh herbs (for example, thyme, rosemary, marjoram)
6 whole peppercorns
3 bay leaves
A good pinch of salt
Put everything in a large pan, add 3 litres of water, bring to the boil, then simmer for about 3 hours. Strain, cool, then refrigerate or freeze the stock until needed.
225g wholemeal flour (atta)
225g plain flour (maida)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
350-400ml soured milk or buttermilk. If you have neither, put a couple of teaspoons of lemon into the same amount of fresh milk, then warm it to blood temperature
A few pumpkin and sunflower seeds to sprinkle on top (optional)
Sprinkle some flour on a baking tray.
Put the flours, salt and bicarbonate of soda into a large bowl and mix well with a whisk. Make a well in the middle of the flour, then pour in enough of the soured milk/buttermilk to make a fairly wet dough (the wetter it is, the better it will rise). Mix well with a wooden spoon but don’t mix for too long (a bit of science: When the soured milk hits the bicarbonate of soda, it starts to get to work raising the dough. Bicarbonate of soda has limited energy so you need to get the bread in the oven as soon as possible).
With damp hands, put the dough on to the floured baking tray and shape it into a rough round, about 5cm high. With a sharp knife, make a deep cross on the bread. This helps the bread cook all the way through.
Bake for about 30 minutes until the bread has risen and is well browned. Remove from the oven, then wrap the bread in a tea towel—this stops the crust from becoming too hard.
Eat the bread warm with huge amounts of salted butter—it is the hygge season after all.
The Way We Eat Now is a fortnightly column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains. Pamela Timms tweets at @eatanddust and posts on Instagram as Eatanddust.