Snowflakes and Schnapps by Jane Lawson has a Scandinavian feel about it, focused as it is on hearty dishes with a winter theme. But actually, Australian-born Lawson covers a much wider swathe of Europe in this tome.
The book's blurb invites us to "Join Jane Lawson as she takes you on a culinary journey through the magnificent cold-climate cuisines of the snow-cloaked regions of northern, central and eastern Europe. From the seaside towns of Scandinavia, to the alpine villages of Austria, from the ski fields of France, to the fairy-tale castles of Germany, and as far afield as the white-blanketed cities of Russia and beyond, comes this enticing collection of traditional recipes with contemporary flair."
All in all Lawson visited Germany, Austria, Hungary, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, France, Switzerland and Italy during the research for her book.
It's a beautifully solid, sturdy book with an elegant embossed and spot-varnished cover, with the occasional spot-varnished snow flake drifting subtly across the thick pages and vivid, slightly retro-styled food photography showcasing a wide range of intriguing recipes.
Many of these catch my eye – potato flatbreads with smoked salmon, doughnut balls with mocha soup, gingerbread-spice coffee, almond hot chocolate, spiced buttermilk waffles with rhubarb molasses and orange whipped butter, pork and cabbage cakes with sweet onion relish, garlicky pelmeni with brown butter, herbs and yoghurt, slow cooked lamb shanks with Janssen's temptation, coriander roast chicken with walnut sauce, quark fritters with honey syrup, balsamic-glazed veal sweetbreads with white bean and sage fritters, veal cutlet with wheat beer sauce and winter vegetable strudel, beef fillet in parmesan pastry with truffle butter sauce, molten black forest puddings with cherry compote and kirsch cream, prune filled pancakes baked in caramel with spiced cookie cream, roast goose with apple, cider vinegar gravy and golden potatoes…
But whilst the book is beautiful, I think the styling may have been taken a little too far. Chapter titles are a little too cute for comfort: Baby It's Cold Outside (snacks, soups, and warming drinks); Warmed To The Core (breakfasts and slow-cooked dishes); Diamonds And Fur (more decadent recipes, bringing out the bling for entertaining); and Dreaming of a White Christmas (presumably dishes fit for seasonal and celebratory feasting).
And it's disappointing, in a book described as a culinary journey, to find no introduction or even description of the recipes at all, let alone the places, peoples and cultures they hail from. Whilst it's clear that Lawson has taken broad artistic license with the recipes, taking inspiration from the cuisines of the countries she visited rather than producing a faithful record of authentic methods and ingredients, this lack of background information makes it much harder to connect to the recipes, to understand their textures and flavours and be drawn into making them.
Perhaps it's for this reason that I went for the familiar, a dish that I already associate with the snow-covered reaches of Northern Europe and remember from the many visits to Sweden I made during my childhood.
Lawson's meatballs with vodka dill sauce may not be exactly the same as Swedish köttbullar but they look pretty close.
Meatballs With Vodka Dill Sauce
160g fresh white breadcrumbs
185ml pouring (whipping) cream
350g minced beef
350g minced pork
1 large egg
1 onion, very finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
a pinch of ground allspice
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon oil
1 tablespoon plain flour
435 ml hot beef stock
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped dill (plus extra to garnish)
80 ml vodka
Lingonberry preserves to serve
- Combine the breadcrumbs and 125 ml of the cream and leave to sit until the breadcrumbs have absorbed all the liquid.
- Add the beef and pork mince, egg, onion, nutmeg, allspice, salt and white pepper and combine well.
- Roll the mixture into 3 cm balls and place in a single layer on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Cover and refrigerate for 3-4 hours to allow the flavours to develop.
- When ready to cook, heat half of the butter with the oil in a large heavy based frying pan over a medium-high heat (do not use a non-stick pan).
- Cook the meatballs, in batches, for 4-6 minutes each, or until browned all over. Remove and set aside.
- Add the remaining butter and the flour to the pan and stir.
- Gradually whisk in the hot stock and the remaining cream, scraping up any cooked-on bits.
- Add the dill and 3 tablespoons of the vodka, and bring to the boil, whisking continuously until smooth and thickened slightly.
- Return the meatballs to the pan, along with any resting juices, and cook for 10 minutes or until tender.
- Stir through the remaining vodka and season to taste.
- Garnish with the fresh dill and serve with lingonberry preserves as a condiment.
- Tip: Serve the meatballs over some sautéed or mashed potatoes or buttered noodles, with the lingonberry preserves on the side as a condiment. A shot of Vodka is a must!
We made a few changes to the recipe, mainly because we had 600 grams of minced beef and the same again of minced pork in the freezer. We scaled up the quantities of all the meatball ingredients, making a whopping 52 meatballs, 36 of which we froze for later use.
The remaining 16 (yes, we're greedy piggies) we cooked as per the instructions, the only omission being dill, which I don't like. Having forgotten to defrost any of our home-made stock from the freezer, we used a beef stock pot, which worked fine for this recipe.
Our sauce wasn't as dark as the photograph in the book, perhaps because we didn't brown the meatballs enough or maybe because our stock wasn't as dark as Lawson's. However, the taste of the meatballs and cream sauce were very much in tune with my memories of Swedish meatballs and gravy.
My only negative would be that adding so much of the vodka into the sauce right at the end gave the finished sauce a somewhat too astringent vodka taste. In future, I'll either add all or most of it before bringing the sauce to the boil or simply use less overall. (And this coming from someone who rather likes boozy sauces).
On the basis of this recipe, I'm hopeful about the success I might have if I tried some of the others, though many of them seem to be more complicated and time-consuming than I have patience for.
The problem for me remains the lack of any introduction to each recipe, and the lack of background information overall about the countries Lawson took inspiration from and the original dishes she used as a starting point for her own recipes.
That said, it is a beautiful book, the very epitome of coffee table food porn and the kind of book any food lover would surely love to receive as a gift, whether or not they go on to make many of the recipes. And I have always been rather a sucker for spot-varnishing, as my husband can attest – I've been known to sit stroking such varnish with a demented grin on my face. So you can only imagine how happy little dainty snowflakes of shininess have made me…
Many thanks to Murdoch books for the review copy.
Snowflakes and Schnapps, published by Murdoch Books, is currently available from Amazon for £14.99, cover price £25.