The Roundness of Life
Story by Matt Low|Photography by Linda Gentry
One of my earliest memories is sitting in the green kitchen of my grandma Ano’s house in Onawa, Iowa, watching her deliver another batch of small, round pancakes from the stove to the table where my brothers and I await, prepping our mixtures of hot chocolate and sugar. In this memory, it’s winter, but Grandma made these little Danish pancakes, called ebelskivers (or æbelskivers, if English hadn’t misguidedly dropped the ash from its alphabet), almost every time we came to visit. Regardless of the season, our strategy was always the same: load a few ebelskivers onto our plates, tear them in two, dip the steaming side down into the hot chocolate mixture, and finish each half off in a single bite.
The Danish have a word for finding comfort and contentedness in life’s simple pleasures, “hygge” (pronounced hoo-guh), that has been receiving a great deal of attention lately. As a result, an array of uniquely Danish customs—including traditional foods—have entered the American mainstream, meaning that there’s no shortage of websites and recipes for ebelskivers. But they have been in my life for as long as I can remember, courtesy of my grandma’s strong ties to her Danish roots. The special ebelskiver pan, a round cast-iron (or more recently, cast-aluminum) skillet with seven three-inch divots, can be found in the homes of most of grandma Ano’s children and grandchildren. My mom made ebelskivers for us at home periodically, and now I make them with my daughters (who are fifth-generation Danish) whenever we have friends and family over at our house.
The funny thing about ebelskivers is that, etymologically speaking, the key ingredient should be apples (æbel in Danish), but it wasn’t until well into adulthood that I realized we might have been eating them the wrong way. We’d only ever eaten them in the manner described above: with no filling and dipped into the mixture of sugar and hot chocolate.
Asking my mom and my aunt Delores about how the apples came to drop out of our family recipe, they both recall having ebelskivers, sans apples, on New Year’s Eve at their grandparents’ house. This would be grandma Ano’s parents, Sigurd and Agnes Hansen, my great-grandparents who were always just called Mom and Papa by all generations. Papa immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century. Our best guess is that the tradition of hot chocolate with ebelskivers came over with him, and apparently, the apples stayed behind.
This isn’t to say that ebelskivers aren’t still delicious when made with an apple filling, especially those prepared with butter, cinnamon and sugar. In fact, ebelskivers lend themselves to experimentation with a variety of fillings: chocolate chips, different types of jam, or fresh berries for sweeter variations; and an array of cheese fillings, or even something like sautéed spinach or mushrooms, for savory ebelskivers. As my aunt Delores says, “Everyone can adapt these to what their family likes and what their traditions are.”
For those concerned that foods like ebelskivers stray too far from a sustainable, healthy diet, it’s worth remembering that most Danish immigrants who settled in the Midwest, like my own great-grandparents, were farmers, making this a food largely prepared with ingredients that would have been easily accessible to an early 20th-century farm family—flour, eggs, milk and butter.
The second rule in Michael Pollan’s Food Rules (2009) states, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Of all the rules Pollan offers, this one has always stood out to me as a simple guideline worth following. On one hand, the rule presents an alternative to the “foodish products” that have become ubiquitous at supermarkets and fast-food chains. On the other hand, it hearkens back to a time when people had a more direct relationship with their food, almost always knowing where it came from, what ingredients it contained, how it was prepared and who prepared it.
Making ebelskivers at home with my daughters circles us back to grandma Ano’s kitchen, and her mother’s kitchen before that, a continuous wheel that, hopefully, will continue rolling on into future generations looking to stay connected to the food traditions of generations past.
In the Omaha area, the best place to find ebelskiver supplies is Little Scandinavia, located in Olde Towne Elkhorn, Nebraska. In addition to selling pans, batter mixes and jams, Little Scandinavia also prepares ebelskivers twice in the fall, typically on the third Saturday of October and on Black Friday in November. For more information, visit LittleScandinavia.com.
Matt Low lives and teaches in Omaha. He enjoys spending time in the kitchen learning the food traditions handed down from generations past, especially with friends and family.
Yield: 21 individual ebelskivers
¼ cup butter, melted, plus another 1 tablespoon unmelted for the pan
2 eggs, separated
1¾ cups milk (or buttermilk)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Powdered sugar for dusting (if desired)
Melt and slightly cool ¼ cup butter. In a small bowl, combine egg yolks and milk. In a larger bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt.
Once butter has cooled, stir into egg mixture until fully combined. Slowly add egg mixture to flour mixture and stir until smooth.
Beat egg whites with sugar until soft peaks form using an electric mixer or, more traditionally, by hand. Gently fold egg whites into batter, one-third at a time, until fully integrated.
Set a burner to medium-low and heat ebelskiver pan on stovetop. Place a small amount of the remaining butter into each divot. Once the small portion of butter melts easily, fill each divot with roughly two tablespoons of batter (but not spilling over the top). Once the bottom has turned golden brown, after approximately 4 to 5 minutes, use a bamboo skewer (or anything with a sharp point) to turn each ebelskiver over. Cook for another 4 to 5 minutes, until cooked through.
If using a filling (such as apple slices, chocolate chips, jams or fresh berries), it works better to start with one tablespoon of batter, add a small amount of filling, and then top with batter.
While the first round of ebelskivers cools on a plate, dust lightly with powdered sugar, and then fill up the pan with more batter, perhaps trying a different filling.