Have a ball with Danish ebelskivers
By Tim Carman,
The ebelskiver that I’ve just plucked from its special pan is smiling at me. There’s a wide, crescent-shaped “mouth” on the bottom of the cooked ball, grinning wickedly and exposing a soft, gooey filling. It looks like an edible Pac-Man or that motor-mouthed blob voiced by Billy Crystal in “Monsters, Inc.” — minus the Cyclops eye, jagged teeth and flailing appendages, of course.
This is my first stab at ebelskivers — the Danish pancake balls — and I’m breaking all kinds of rules, written or otherwise. First off, my ebelskivers aren’t racquetball round; they look more like a cross between an unshelled walnut and a hamburger bun. Second, my “rounds” have been stuffed with fig jam and prosciutto, not the traditional apple that gives the snacks their name (“sliced apples”). And finally, the calendar on my kitchen wall reads June, not December just before Christmas, when Danes traditionally serve ebelskivers with raspberry jam and mulled glogg wine.
After speaking with Lars Beese, executive chef to the Danish ambassador at the Royal Danish Embassy in Washington, I’m beginning to feel a little like the freak who wants to eat Thanksgiving turkey with cranberry sauce in August. Although Beese says he loves ebelskivers enough to “eat them all year-round,” he concedes that “it seems odd” to sell or chow down on the sweet little snacks outside the holiday season.
“I’m used to only having it for the Christmas season,” he says.
Then again, this is Washington, D.C., not Copenhagen, and if we want to eat dessert balls in summer, who’s going to stop us? Who outside of Danish expats, in fact, would even know it’s appropriate to stop us? Kera Carpenter, chef and owner of Domku in Petworth, has been serving ebelskivers on her Scandinavian and Slavic brunch menu for years now, and she’s heard barely a peep from customers, save the occasional Denmark native who shakes his head in disapproval.
Carpenter, like me, has an outsider’s appreciation of the Danish treats, and no cultural baggage that would prevent her from enjoying them (or selling them) year-round. She’s originally from Seoul but was adopted at age 7 by a couple in Missouri. She knows the Kansas City, Mo., dining scene like an employee from the visitors bureau.
In a way, Carpenter, 46, has spent most of her life learning to appreciate other people’s cultures. That includes the cuisines that fall under the broad category of “Scandinavian food,” such as the cooking of Denmark. Carpenter traveled to Sweden once in 2004, but being a high-functioning Harvard grad (master’s in education policy) and a former KPMG consultant in the public sector, she fills in the gaps of her knowledge with books. Lots of books, such as Beatrice Ojakangas’s “The Great Scandinavian Baking Book,” which is largely responsible for Carpenter’s ebelskiver education. She has distilled all this information into her own variations on Scandinavian dishes, which she introduced in 2005, when she ditched the corporate world for good and opened the funky Domku.
When I tell her that I’m on a mission to make ebelskivers, she barely lets me finish the sentence before informing me that I need to buy a special cast-iron ebelskiver pan. The pan, she notes, has deep batter wells, which make for more-rounded ebelskivers; the cast-iron pan also cooks a little faster than nonstick cast-aluminum ebelskiver pans, such as the one sold by Nordic Ware. I ask Carpenter if she’ll give me a demonstration.
When I arrive at Domku a few days later, I tell Carpenter about my smiley-faced ebelskivers. She laughs appreciatively, as only one who understands the tribulations of learning to make the dough balls would. The most important technique to master, she informs me, is the rotation of your ebelskivers in their wells. Don’t rotate them once with a bamboo skewer, as I did, and consider your job done; the batter will set with all its cracks and smiles firmly in place. It’s better to take your long skewer and rotate the ebelskiver little by little, so that the batter incrementally conforms and sets to the rounded molds.
The technique makes such a difference that I found I could adopt it even to my inferior Nordic Ware pan at home. I turned out perfect two-inch balls in only my second batch of ebelskivers. I have to admit, the process of transforming this lumpy batter into sweet golden globes is the kind of kitchen-chemistry prestidigitation that transfixes my geeky little soul. At this point in my ebelskiver obsession, to paraphrase the Beatles, I want to know how many it takes to fill the Albert Hall.
Here in the States, we take more liberties with the poor ebelskiver than serving it out of season. We like to treat the lightly sweetened batter as a canvas for our God-given right to free-form kitchen experimentation. The ebelskiver becomes a vessel for chocolate chips, jams, jellies, cheeses, corn, smoked salmon, scallions, pears and too many other ingredients to enumerate here. The ebelskiver is Zelig: It can assume the personality of a jelly doughnut, scallion pancake, strawberry shortcake, deli sandwich, poppy-seed muffin, polenta cake, even peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.
“Doughnut holes,” says Carpenter, “that’s what people call them [at Domku].”
But as author Kevin Crafts points out in his cookbook “Ebelskivers” (Weldon Owen, 2009), the traditional ebelskiver is a snack perfectly suited to Denmark, a country steeped in the production of dairy, grain and apples, the principal ingredients of the classic pomme-stuffed ebelskiver recipe. The basic batter is essentially milk (or buttermilk), eggs (separated, with the whites whipped to stiff peaks and folded in), flour, melted butter, sugar, baking powder and salt. There are numerous variations even with these limited ingredients (such as yeast instead of baking powder), and some Danish cooks incorporate a dash of nutmeg or cardamom to add a festive touch. But no matter the recipe, all ebelskiver batter is best used quickly, within two hours.
The origins of the ebelskiver are a mystery. A number of sources, including Crafts’s cookbook, enjoy regurgitating a Viking myth. “The invention of ebelskivers is much debated,” Crafts writes, “but one story tells of the Vikings returning very hungry from a fierce battle. With no frying pans on which to cook, they placed their damaged shields over a hot fire and cooked pancakes in the indentations.”
Yeah, and moose fly south for the winter.
Regardless of its murky origins, the ebelskiver has become one of the more recognizable Danish dishes, though I think it would be a stretch to say it has entered the American dining mainstream. Sure, Carpenter sells hundreds of ebelskivers during weekend brunches, but they’re only the sweet, unstuffed variety with a small air pocket inside. She says it slows down the kitchen to offer ebelskivers crammed with all manner of fruit, cheese and whatnot, which is the exact reason that Beese offers to defend his decision to keep the stuffed balls off his menus at the Danish Royal Embassy.
“It’s too much work,” he says. “It’s a lot of work to make 24 of them.”
Which is why I think ebelskivers are ideal for home cooks, who can devote as much time as necessary toward creating the perfect little popper, whether for breakfast, dessert, amuse bouche or appetizer. The sugar in the batter can be increased or decreased to meet the demands of the dish, sweet or savory, and the ebelskiver can be filled with just about anything, as long as it’s doled out in sparing amounts (about a half-teaspoon) and not too watery. As Carpenter notes, the more moisture in the batter, the harder it is to cook ebelskivers.
But when you’ve reached ebelskiver Valhalla and you’re popping out one miniature sphere after another from the pan, each golden round can feel as valuable as a Tahitian pearl. People literally coo over them, based on appearance alone. Then they bite into an ebelskiver and discover that this tiny pancake ball can conceal a mountain of flavor. They may ask you again how to pronounce the name of the dish — say it aloud: “ABLE-skeever” — and start to repeat the vowel-rollercoaster of a word over and over. Ebelskiver, ebelskiver, ebelskiver.
It’s a dish, and a name, that should bring a smile to your face. Not to your ebelskiver.