Magnus Nilsson’s ‘The Nordic Baking Book’ Is a Bible for Bakers

BAKE-OFF A variety of cookies and shortbreads.
BAKE-OFF A variety of cookies and shortbreads. Photo: magnus Nilsson

FROM THE KITCHEN of his two-Michelin-star restaurant, Fäviken Magasinet, set in a farmhouse on a 22,000-acre plot of land in the Northern Swedish countryside, chef Magnus Nilsson presents a tasting menu of nearly 30 courses, inspired by Nordic rusticity, to 24 diners on a nightly basis. He exerts full control over his dishes and the experience surrounding them. One night in September, Nilsson, 34, who cooked in Paris at the three-Michelin-star Astrance before taking over at Fäviken in 2008, explains why the restaurant’s butter is intensely yellow: The local cows have been grazing on the summer’s flowers, and the ingested blossoms have brightened their milk. Nilsson lectures his cooks as they move around the tight quarters in his kitchen, adamantly reminding them to consider the angles at which they carry trays and turn corners. “It’s all about the gestures,” he says.

Nilsson shot all of The Nordic Baking Book’s imagery.
Nilsson shot all of The Nordic Baking Book’s imagery. Photo: erik olsson

For course number 10, Nilsson serves a steamed fillet of perch, a freshwater fish not typically celebrated in fillet form in the context of fine dining. Amid the buzz of the kitchen, if Nilsson sees that a candle goes out on a special one-top table set a few feet from the grill, he’ll relight the candle over and over again. “I want it to burn all the time,” he says, smiling.

Over the past decade, Nilsson hasn’t limited his focus to cooking at Fäviken, despite its considerable demands. In addition to working on an encyclopedic writing project on the cuisine of his region, he published the Fäviken cookbook in 2012, four years into his run at the restaurant. In it, he revealed some of the distinct ways in which he combines contemporary culinary thinking with an older way of life. There’s a method in Fäviken for aging vinegar in the burnt-out trunk of a spruce tree and a treatise on why Nilsson prefers using “a loudly creaking, hundred-year-old, hand-turned ice cream maker” tableside in his dining room to serve a dessert of milk sorbet with whisked duck eggs and raspberry jam. Nilsson knew Fäviken was the kind of monograph that a singular, fine-dining restaurant like his must produce as part of its raison d’être, but he was also keenly aware that a book like that exists mainly to look at and not to use.

Nilsson calls the act of writing “very enjoyable,” and he wanted his follow-up book to be more practical and populist. He suggested a chronicle of the history of Swedish cuisine to Phaidon, his publisher. The recipes would not come from any restaurants of international acclaim. Rather, Nilsson would source them from families, villages and mom-and-pop operations from throughout Sweden. Nilsson would drive across the country collecting recipes and photographing landscapes and portraits. But Phaidon proposed something more ambitious: a volume that would cover traditional cuisine from the entire Nordic region, from Greenland to Finland and everywhere in between.

KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL Interior of a traditional north Sweden mountain farmhouse, summer 2014.
KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL Interior of a traditional north Sweden mountain farmhouse, summer 2014. Photo: magnus Nilsson

At first Nilsson resisted, bitter that his own proposal wasn’t given an automatic green light. As he thought about it further, however, the opportunity to explain how an entire region eats—how his region eats—was one that he couldn’t turn down. In 2015, after years of travel, research and writing, Nilsson published The Nordic Cookbook, 767 pages of dishes such as mutton and herring casserole from Finland, boiled pilot whale from the Faeroe Islands and Swedish Christmas ham. Nilsson shot dozens of the images in the book himself (some of them became a stand-alone book of photos published by Phaidon in 2016 called Nordic: A Photographic Essay of Landscapes, Food and People).

“Before The Nordic Cookbook, if you looked up Nordic food online, you would get 1,000 articles about Noma, 700 about Fäviken and 500 about Frantzén,” says Nilsson, “and then you would find a handful of articles about gravlax, meatballs and herring.” He’s proud to have sold more than 100,000 copies of a book that he believes has expanded the global understanding of Nordic cuisine beyond the dishes and the current crop of fine-dining establishments that merely draw the most attention. “I think it’s very important to document regional variations,” Nilsson says, “because otherwise social media will make the information far too streamlined.”

While The Nordic Cookbook may seem like a complete work, Nilsson felt something was missing. “We couldn’t fit all the baking that should have been in there,” Nilsson says, “but, at that trim size, the book could not have possibly been any bigger.”

Crisp waffles.
Crisp waffles. Photo: magnus Nilsson

Nilsson immediately started the three-year process of putting together the 450-recipe, 575-page Nordic Baking Book, published in October. It’s the first of his cookbooks for which he’s done all the food photography himself. His wife, Tove—a graduate student in clinical psychology, who recently gave birth to their fourth child—did much of the recipe development in their home kitchen near the restaurant.

Pulling up to a friend’s farm in Mörsil, about 30 minutes from Fäviken and a few minutes from his home, Nilsson explains the significance of baking culture in the region and how it rivals any in the world. When he grew up nearby in Östersund, he says, it was expected that seven kinds of sweets would be put out during one of the day’s several coffee breaks. In Sweden such a break is called fika. (“It’s like a nap, with eating,” Nilsson says.) The elaborate regional culture of desserts includes cookies (there are 15 shortbread recipes alone in the book) as well as spiced cakes and buns, which draw from Scandinavia’s centuries-long history of bringing cardamom and cinnamon home from trade routes in warmer territories.

Like its predecessor, The Nordic Baking Book— which also ventures into breads, sandwiches, porridges and pancakes—aims to document traditions that may be phased out by modern convenience. “It’s mind-blowing to write books like this and to run that incredible restaurant,” says Olia Hercules, a London-based cookbook author whose own books chronicle the foodways of Ukraine and the Caucasus and who has stated that she hopes to write a sprawling Nilsson-style book about the cuisine of Eastern Europe. “People get excited about these recipes,” she says. “They suddenly remember what’s been, and they start trying their traditions again.”

Norway’s Vega Archipelago, May 2014.
Norway’s Vega Archipelago, May 2014. Photo: magnus Nilsson

One recipe in The Nordic Baking Book shows how a community in Iceland bakes rye bread in the ground using geothermal energy. “Each family gets their own hole,” Nilsson says. Another recipe documents the age-old method for making wood-fired flatbreads, which Nilsson’s own family follows twice a year as they have in previous generations. “I’ve never done this before by myself,” Nilsson says, getting ready to make a batch. “Usually it’s collaborative, a production line. I do the rolling.”

The wheat dough Nilsson is working with includes golden syrup, aniseed, fennel seeds and coriander seeds. He divides it and then rolls out a portion on a wooden peel until it’s flat and around 18 inches in diameter. Nilsson finishes off the rolling with a special studded pin that prevents the dough from pocketing like a pita when it bakes.

FAMILY MATTERS Nilsson’s mother, Anki Lundstedt Nilsson, cutting cardamom cake, winter 2015.
FAMILY MATTERS Nilsson’s mother, Anki Lundstedt Nilsson, cutting cardamom cake, winter 2015. Photo: magnus Nilsson

Before putting the dough into the oven, Nilsson uses a soft brush to sweep any remaining flour off its surface, explaining that excess flour will burn and result in a bread that’s the wrong shade of brown. After baking for 20 seconds at around 800 degrees, the flatbread is done, but Nilsson is critical of his first attempt. “This is not big enough, not thin enough and not round enough, but it is acceptable for the first of the day,” he says, putting it off to the side. “When I manage to make one that’s perfect, we’ll taste it with a shameful amount of butter.”

Nilsson’s next try draws a satisfied smile. At Fäviken, his own vision dominates. But here, history sets the tone. “A flawed bread tastes the same as a perfectly round one, but it’s not the same,” he says, buttering the flatbread. “There’s a feeling of importance to know it’s done how it’s always been done. There’s a feeling of importance to know it’s done right.” •

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