Æbleskiver (Danish Ball Pancakes)
"If I'm going to have a business, I want to use and highlight . . . hi, sweetheart . . . what we have here and I think that's important."
There's little doubt as to what Chad Gillard considers important. I had reached the co-owner of Aunt Else's Æbleskiver, a fledgling Minneapolis specialty-food company, on his way home from work and as we discussed the firm's commitment to using local sources, a child's faint yet unmistakably excited shout came over the line. Without missing a beat, Chad neatly slipped the little endearment in the middle of his sentence - after all, answering a blogger's questions isn't nearly as important as greeting your little girl when she welcomes you home.
Chad Gillard, President of Aunt Else's Æbleskiver
and Æbleskiver Daddy
This small snippet is one moment in the life of Æbleskiver Daddy, as Chad calls his blog - an apt name for someone who has deftly folded his family life and an entrepreneurial endeavor into a generations-old recipe for a Danish pastry with a singular name and universal appeal.
You Say 'Skiver, I Say 'Skwyr
A-bell-ski . . . ah-bless-kiv . . . eh-bluh . . . Thank goodness æbleskiver are a lot easier to eat than they are to pronounce. "Depending on where you're from in Denmark, [EB-el-ski-ver] is a perfectly fine pronunciation. We say [EB-el-sku-wyr]," explained Chad. "People say them both ways - you can't go wrong."
Indeed, it's hard to go wrong with a food that is (name notwithstanding) simplicity itself: a batter of flour, eggs, buttermilk, and a few other ingredients, is poured into deep, circular wells of a specially-shaped pan to make what are basically pancake balls, which are then topped with powdered sugar, jams or syrup. But simplicity doesn't necessarily mean simple; when Chad first heard about æbleskiver and how they were made, he was a bit perplexed. "The way [it was described to me], I was like, 'I don't get it'," he recalled with a laugh. "I had never heard of it before and I couldn't imagine how it was going to work."
Making 'skivers at the Mill City Farmers' Market
Puzzlement turned into total fascination, however, the moment he saw it done. The introduction came from close friend and co-worker Sarah Engwall, who wanted to make for the Gillard kids a special Danish treat that she had enjoyed as a child. "She came over and the kids loved them, and as much as they loved them, I loved how they were made. I let her make one pan and I shoved her out of the way of the stove and have been making them ever since."
[Watch as Chad demonstrates proper æbleskiver technique!]
As it turned out, Chad had been mulling ideas for a food booth at the Minnesota State Fair and told Sarah that æbleskiver would be perfect. "She just kind of laughed and said, 'Well, my mom and aunt have always thought it would be fun to get into the State Fair'," he said. Soon after, Sarah introduced him to her mother, Linda Engwall, and her aunt, Lisa Timek, and together they created Aunt Else's Æbleskiver in 2008.
Armed with a recipe from Linda and Lisa's aunt Else Andersen Jacobsen and a couple of æbleskiver-pande (pans) handed down through the women's family, Chad and his co-owners started making the pastries at local festivals and fairs. After receiving enthusiastic responses to the scrumptious little spheres, they decided to package the mix and sell the pans as well. Just over a year later, Aunt Else's Æbleskiver has become a fixture at the Mill City Farmer's Market, had its products demonstrated at the Minnesota State Fair, and now offers through their website Aunt Else's recipe mix and a local foundry-cast pan of their own design. That's quite a list of accomplishments since Sarah first turned out those little pancake puffs for the Gillard family, but Chad and his partners are keeping the pace steady and noted, "We've been figuring it out as things unfold, trying to be cautious because of the [economy] and taking things a step at a time."
Carrying on Aunt Else's legacy - Lisa, Amanda and Sarah
Whereas the story of Aunt Else's Æbleskiver roots is as solid as the cast-iron pans handed down through generations of a Danish-Minnesotan family, those regarding the origins of æbleskiver in Denmark are as light and fluffy as the pastries themselves.
Viking Tales or Just a 'Krok'?
One apocryphal tale put forth by Arne Hansen, former owner of Solvang Restaurant ('Home of Arne's Famous Æbleskiver') in Solvang, CA, surmised that weary Vikings looking for sustenance after a hard day of marauding used their battered shields to cook up some, er, batter. Yet another account comes from writer Marlene Parrish, who noted the strong resemblance between æbleskiver and a favorite Thai street snack:
"Across the world in Thailand, the identical pan is used in markets to make a grab-and-go savory breakfast food called kanom krok . . . So how do you suppose both Denmark and Thailand lay claim to the skillet-pan?"
(read the full article, The Pan Where East Meets West)
(Kanom krok, photo from Enjoy Thai Food)Parrish theorized that a 17th-century Danish missionary brought home a krok pan and, in an attempt to re-create the morsels without rice flour and coconut milk, came up with a wheat flour and buttermilk recipe resulting in æbleskiver. In fact, doppelgängers can be found throughout the global culinary scene, ranging from the aforementioned Thai kanom krok to Japanese octopus-filled takoyaki, Indian lentil-based ponganalu and paniyaram, and Dutch poffertjes, which were supposedly used by an abbey as a Communion host and thereafter called 'little friars' (possibly explaining the æbleskiver-pande's other name - 'monk's pan'). [sources: Wikipedia, absoluteastronomy.com]
Whatever their provenance, these particular pan-baked puffs have been a special occasion staple since the 1600s in Denmark, where they are traditionally served during Christmas and Easter holidays. Holding a dear place in the hearts (and appetites) of Danes all over the world, the pancake balls are Danish to the core - as in apple cores. Æbleskiver is the Danish word for 'apple slices', referring to the chunks of said fruit customarily added to their center. But as with many foods that have migrated to different lands and cultures, æbleskiver have found a new home, new flavors and new meaning in America.
All in the Family
"As the Danes brought the tradition over, it really has become a family event - [not just during holidays but] anytime the family is together," explained Chad, adding that he often meets Danish-Americans who are surprised and delighted to find æbleskiver outside of its ethnic setting. "They'll say, 'I have never seen anyone make this outside of my grandma's or aunt's kitchen.' People are always really excited to share how to eat them. Everybody has their own way that they like to eat them."
Just as they are no longer reserved for special occasions, the many ways to eat æbleskiver have ventured beyond traditional apple fillings and powdered sugar toppings. At their Mill City Farmers' Market booth, the crew of Aunt Else's Æbleskiver have spiced up the apple with cinnamon and chai, or swapped it for blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. Savory centers have included bison sausage and bacon'n'cheddar, while many a sweet tooth have surely been satisfied by 'skivers filled with peanut butter cups or topped with ginger syrup. And of course, there are the different variations found throughout the world.
But for all the variety that æbleskiver offer for individual tastes, its true appeal lies in the universal theme of family togetherness that all of us can recognize. Chad is as enthusiastic about the pancake balls as Sarah, Linda and Lisa, even though his Irish heritage doesn't hold the same connections as his Danish-American partners. But making æbleskiver, he said, is also about making new connections and memories. "It's very meaningful to Danes but I love how their tradition of sharing it with those who are important to them translates to us," said Chad. "In our house, we [now have] 'Skiver Saturday and it's turned into a tradition."
"I feel like I'm sparking [in the kids] a lifelong interest of cooking which I grew up with," he continued, recounting how his 5-year-old son has gradually moved up in the æbleskiver process, first helping to break the eggs and mix the batter, then choosing toppings and now, rolling the puffs in powdered sugar. His ultimate goal: to turn the puffs in the pan. "He's too young yet," said Chad. "But he says, 'Dad! I'm going to help you make æbleskiver, then I can buy my own æbleski-van" (referring to his father's company-emblazoned vehicle).
For the partners of Aunt Else's Æbleskiver, the business is an extension of their families but they also want it to be a reflection of their community. From the beginning, they were determined to incorporate local sources - the æbleskiver mix is made with organic Minnesota wheat and Wisconsin buttermilk, while their own uniquely-designed pans are cast at a Minneapolis foundry. "We realized that we have this great hundred-year old recipe and the new thing that we're doing is making it organic and local," said Chad. "As soon as I uttered that for the first time, [I thought] 'Y'know what? That's not new.' That's how things were when they made this recipe."
"We're really coming full circle." And a delicious one at that.
Ready, Willing and Æbleskiver
[Disclosure: Per the recent FTC ruling regarding free products and bloggers' reviews, I hereby declare having received an Aunt Else's Æbleskiver pan and mix free of charge - and I'm not giving them back!]
"If an Irishman [like me] can make these, anybody can!" Chad declared. How about a pancake-loving Filipina blogger? You betcha.
I first read about æbleskiver in a post by Heather of Diary of A Fanatic Foodie, then came across another at Scate Bakes' site. To my delighted surprise, Chad e-mailed me after reading my comment on Scate's post and offered to send me Aunt Else's Æbleskiver's newly-designed pan. Needless to say, I accepted with gleeful anticipation. Before receiving the pan, I went to the Mill City Farmers' Market to watch the Aunt Else's Æbleskiver crew in action; their deft and effortless turning of those pancake balls was so much fun to watch. Unfortunately, in thinking it looked so easy, I embarked on my first batch with a wee bit of overconfidence.
When the æbleskiver-pande finally arrived, it was love at first sight: a gorgeous piece of cast-iron cookware that's simple in design and substantive of weight. It's easy to see how, with loving care, it can become a treasured family heirloom. I was so eager to try it that I gave short shrift to the accompanying instructions to season the pan before first use. As a result, my initial attempt at æbleskiver-ing was a total fail, yielding pale, squishy ovoids instead of the golden pancake balls I saw at the market. Thankfully, Chad assured me that it gets easier with each batch and he emphasized the keys to success:
- Season the pan well. Properly prepping the pan before your first batch is critical to achieving the almost-nonstick quality of aged pans;
- Heat up the pan completely before pouring the batter. It takes a while as it's done over low-medium heat (you don't want to burn your ba - I mean, your puffs) but it will ensure a lovely golden color and help prevent sticking;
- Make æbleskiver as often as you can! Is that really a hardship?
I'm happy to report that my æbleskiver are now recognizable as such. I started with plain and apple-filled pancake balls, but now that I'm more confident about the technique, I plan to try out new flavors (red bean! octopus! adobo!)
So stay tuned for more æbleskiver adventures . . . !
My take on toppings: creamy vanilla yogurt and wild huckleberry jam
If you're craving æbleskiver, please visit Aunt Else's Æbleskiver for more details on purchasing their pans and mixes.
Or head over to Zoe Bakes - she's giving away a complete Aunt Else's Æbleskiver kit! Hurry - I'm not sure when the giveaway ends! [UPDATE: Zoe's giveaway winner was Jaime of Sophistimom. Congratulations and happy 'skivering!]
Velbekomme! (Have a good meal!)