The Swiss Family Carlson goes to Iceland!

We are on our way out here in Europe and are cramming in so many trips we are going to need to move back to the US just to rest.

Living life to the fullest and planning for physical collapse!

Part of our quest was a trip to Iceland.

So, Iceland. Here is what I know about Iceland.

“Iceland is green; Greenland is full of ice!”

And that’s it.

Oh, and vikings.

And that’s it. Really.

So this is where our guidebooks came in handy.  Iceland is just a smidge smaller than the state of Iowa with 1/10th of the population.  It was settled in the 700s by Germans and Celts and then abandoned probably because there is no food there and the land is barely tillable. Then the Swedish vikings came and, because they are hardier than just about any other people in the ancient world, settled there and made it work. (With the help of plundering and a bunch of Irish slaves to do the hard work.)

They did pretty well until the Black Death came on through.

Twice.

The first wave killed up to 60% of the population and the second wave about 50 years later killed up to 50% of who was left.

And yet the people remained and more people came to stay on this lava rock up in the Arctic Ocean.

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The landscape isn’t exactly screaming, “Come here and prosper!” is it?  I did find it pulling on me, though. Black lava rocks covered in celadon green moss and dotted with white lichen lined the highways as we drove from Reykjavik.

IMG_5015A few words struck me was we enjoyed the view from our rental house and on our drives around the country.

Awesome. Awe-inspiring. Grand. Stark. Empty. Peaceful. Beautiful.

We made this trip with our friends Liz and Alan and their two children. They currently live in America and Iceland seemed like a perfect almost half-way point. Plus only Alan had been there and even that was on business (meaning it involved hotels and only seeing downtown Reykjavik for an hour or two) and so this was going to be a new experience for all of us.

Our first stop was to the coast south of Reykjavik in search of puffins and the Arctic Ocean.

IMG_5006Iceland is chilly most of the year. We went at the beginning of May and found it windy and a bit “fresh,” but nothing we couldn’t handle. It felt more like early March than early May.

The coastline was filled with tide pools, red seaweed, and lava rocks. Even Hawaii didn’t have a coast like this. The boys bounded from rock to rock and tempted fate. Liz and I called everyone back just in time for sandwiches and our experiences at The Blue Lagoon.

Everyone goes to The Blue Lagoon Spa. It is conveniently located 20 minutes from the Keflavik airport and 40 minutes from the Reykjavik airport and has a large and sleek-looking luggage storage building right off the parking lot. With Icelandic Air offering free stop-over opportunities for passengers flying through Keflavik, tourists routinely get off the bus from the airport, stuff their suitcases in the storage room, and walk up the little path to the spa.

It is everything you would hope an outdoor geo-thermal spa would be.

It is warm. Very warm. Hot, in fact. The water is this milk-glass blue color because of the silica in the water.  It’s the same silica that spas everywhere use for facial treatments. Indeed, they had a whole vat full of silica mud for the people soaking in the hot water to spread on their faces and necks as part of the admission price.

We paid for the premium package and got the algae mask, too, after our silica mask. With our premium package we also got reservations at their excellent restaurant, LAVA, and a glass of sparkling wine each to start the meal. They were awesome with the kids, bringing them a fruit cocktail in a champagne glass and getting their meals to them first.

It was a perfect afternoon and a great evening.

We drove home at about 8pm. It was still light. We put the kids to bed and it was still light. We went to bed at 11pm and it was just barely still light.

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And then the sun came up at 3am.

So there was plenty of light at 6am to take a quick hike out on the steppes of our backyard and see what Iceland looks like close up.

And since we were up so early it was a great day to go into Reykjavik and see what the city was all about.

IMG_5036Reykjavik and its suburbs house about 2/3rds of the entire population, but you’d never know it from the city center. It’s clapboard townhouse buildings all around the semi-quiet old town that hold restaurants, independent boutiques, and chain souvenir shops.

IMG_5033Firstly, the city was about fresh fish and chips.  FRESH.

This is Fish Restaurant Reykjavik. It is right on the corner across from one of the parking lots by the harbor. It is THE BEST fish and chip restaurant in all of Reykjavik.

Not only does it serve the best fish and chips I have ever had along with cold Viking beer, it serves some of the classic Icelandic dishes.  Things like hákarl which is rotted shark and plokkari, traditional fish and potato stew/pie filling served with a dense brown bread.

This is a place not to be missed. If you aren’t a fan of fish they also have chicken dishes and a whole lot of delicious sides that can make up a great vegetarian platter.

Plus it’s right next to the harbor in case you are catching a whale watching boat and a short walk from the old town of Reykjavik. And, you know, parking is right there.

Secondly, there is the church.

IMG_5041I thought it looked like it had come directly out of the movie Thor, but given that Hallgrímskirkja was finished in 1986 and Thor didn’t come out until 2011 I am betting they modeled the main Asgard palace after the church.

Hallgrímskirkja is the newest/youngest church that we’ve visited yet. The modern lines and concrete materials attest to that. The inside is stark white with very little decoration of any kind that aren’t architectural features. There is only one stained glass window and that is the entry way.

We were lucky enough to hear a choir practicing for Pentecost service. The acoustics were wonderful. They routinely have choir and organ concerts here. The pipe organ is also incredible and the organ console sits in the back of the congregation. The pew backs can actually flip over so the entire seating area and face the back of the church and watch the organ concert.

Out front is a grand statue of Leif Eriksson. It was sculpted by the great Alexander Stirling Calder (father of the Alexander Calder that does the mobiles sculptures) and was gifted to Iceland from America in 1930 to honor Iceland’s thousand year anniversary of its first parliament in Þingvellir, a full 7 years before the church was even commissioned.

Hallgrímskirkja is kind of the center of the downtown. It’s up on a hill and a lot of the streets from the old town lead to the church. You have to try really hard to miss it. Basically our instructions to each other were, “If we get separated meet at the church.”

And outside the church was a waffle truck. Here in Iceland you have waffle trucks instead of taco trucks. The waffles are delicious. Chewy and sweet. You can get it topped with ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate, cinnamon and sugar, just sugar, or have it plain. You can find the trucks at various street corners around the city. They are worth it even if you aren’t a waffle fan. You just might be converted.

We saw the most amazing modern building. It’s call the Harpa. It’s a concert and conference hall. It was just opened in 2011 and it’s beautiful.

The building looks like its divided into three sections. Each of the glass panes are different colors and each section’s windows are a slightly different shape from the other sections. The light from the sun and then the light bouncing off the water gives it a sparkling quality. The shapes make it look almost like a 3-D honeycomb. It’s beautiful.

We ended up spending quite a bit of time at the harbor, what with parking there and taking off to do some whale watching.

A word on whale watching or any of the harbor cruises: if you are prone to seasickness or motion sickness do not go. Or medicate yourself heavily before you get on the ship. They have 3 water conditions there: rough, very rough, and canceled. We did see whales. Beautiful and wonderful humpback whales, but it was an hour out on choppy waters, and hour of watching the whales and then an hour back in choppy waters. Some of us fared better than others, so be prepared.

Reykjavik isn’t built around the harbor, but the new and more modern, hip Reykjavik is. 

There are open air and indoor flea markets in old warehouse buildings along the dock yard. Perfect for browsing around before or after you go whale watching or take a different boat cruise out of the harbor. Remember the fish and chip place I mentioned? There are about 50 other restaurants all around there to eat. Fancy places, burger joints, and at least 4 other fish and chip shops – including the not-to-be-missed Cafe Haiti. It is run by a Haitian woman and makes absolutely authentic Haitian coffee.

I can see why Icelandair is letting people have a little “try out” stop over.  (Heck, given that you can take up to 7 days as your stopover it’s a full-blown vacation inside your vacation!) Iceland is lovely.

Even if you don’t rent a house an hour outside of Reykjavik like we did you can easily get out to explore the countryside like we did on a variety of tour buses or buy renting a car.  Next time I will show you how lovely the countryside can be.

 

Strawberry Muffins

My boys love strawberries. Nothing delights them more than when strawberry season is in full swing and we can go berry picking.  For several days now the youngest has been asking for strawberry muffins. He’s gotten tired of the usual blueberry, my slam bang cinnamon muffins “aren’t spring muffins, Mommy,” and the chocolate chip variety is, shockingly, starting to lose its luster as well.

“But I don’t have a strawberry muffin recipe,” I said.

“Make one up!”

So I did.

I took a variety of fruit muffin recipes and figured out what they had in common that made them work. Then I road tested my own version with strawberries.  The results were amazing. A fluffy, moist, delicate crumb loaded with punchinthemouth strawberry flavor. And I used only fresh strawberries! No extracts or jams!

So, here we go…

Strawberry Muffins

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil (or 1/2 cup butter)
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla or a packet (1 Tbs) of vanilla sugar
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 & 1/2 cups diced strawberries, fresh only, coated in 1 T flour

Preheat the oven to 375F/180C (170C if you have a fan oven setting). Line a muffin tin with paper liners. I don’t recommend buttering or spraying the tin instead of using the liners. These have a tendency to stick because of the strawberries and you will cry.

First cream the oil and sugar together. [Butter is fine as a replacement, but be aware that you won’t get the rise I did. And don’t add more baking powder because you will end up with a metallic aftertaste.]

Add the eggs, one at a time, blending very well between each. Then add the vanilla and cream it all together.

Add the baking powder and salt and give them a quick stir to incorporate them just a bit into the butter/sugar/eggs. Then add the flour and mix very well. As soon as it starts getting too thick to stir add the heavy cream.  Blend it together until just smooth. Mixing it too much will cause the gluten in the flour to activate and the muffins will be tough.

Add the flour-coated strawberries and fold them carefully into the muffin mix until evenly distributed. The flour will keep them from sinking to the bottom as the bake.

This batter will be thick. Do not panic and do not add more cream.  The strawberries will release more liquid into the batter as they cook. If you add more liquid they will just fall apart when you unwrap them. Again, you will cry.

Fill the muffin tins to a generous 3/4 of the way full and bake for 25-30 minutes or until the tops are golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the muffin comes out clean.

Once done remove them from the tins and cool on a rack.

These are so delicious. They are almost into cupcake territory with how good they are. And like all muffins they are best enjoyed at all times of the day.

Today the boys are getting them as a snack. I hope they are as delighted with them as I was. Let me tell you, there won’t be leftovers.

Mrs. Winters’s Snickerdoodle Cookies

Snickerdoodles. The cookie with the name that is just as fun to say as it is to eat. It’s a cookie of every Iowan’s childhood.

Today it is supposed to be spring. Yet, it is 50 degrees outside and rainy and crap-tastic. There is only one remedy and it is the snickerdoodle.

When you bake a snickerdoodle it brings the smell of cinnamon and coziness into your home. It automatically pushes out clouds and rain and brings in sunshine.

So today this is a mandatory cookie baking and is, therefore, almost calorie free. I’m saving lives, people.

So, from the 1978 Cowbelles are Cookin’ cookbook I give you Mrs. Gladys Winters’s recipe for Snickerdoodles

Snickerdoodles

  • 1 cup vegetable shortening or butter
  • 1&1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2&3/4 cup flour
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Cream together the shortening and sugar. Beat in the eggs until light and fluffy. Add the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt and mix well.


If it hot outside chill the dough for about an hour. If it’s cold out, like today, skip the chilling and form them into 1-inch balls. Roll them in a mixture of 2 tablespoons of sugar and 2 teaspoons of cinnamon.  Place them about 2-inches apart on a greased cookie sheet of on one of those neat Silpat mats like I have.

Bake at 400F (200C) for 12-15 minutes or until set.

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And enjoy!! They are crisp on the outside with a bit of chew on the inside with a lovely hint of cinnamon.

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Mrs. Ritter’s Honey Drop Cookies

Every so often (usually on days ending in Y) I look for new things to bake.  I have about 3 or 4 old cookbooks that belonged to my mom and Grandma Genvieve that I especially like to flip through.  One of my favorite is the 1978 edition of the Floyd County CowBelles Cookbook, CowBelles are Cookin’.

It has my go-to recipes for banana bread, pumpkin bread, and meatloaf.  Today I was searching for a new cookie recipe. Something not quite chocolate chip and more exciting than sugar cookies. I didn’t have any cream of tartar so I couldn’t make snickerdoodles, but as my eye cruised past names in the cookbook like Black Walnut, English Toffee, Lace, and Confetti I was suddenly drawn to Honey Drops.

Honey Drops.  It’s a name that sounds like Spring and is filled with the promise of a remedy for February.

I could use a little Spring.

Honey Drops

  • 1 cup butter or vegetable shortening
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 6 T honey
  • 1 tsp of vanilla (or half of one pod)
  • 2 tsp of baking soda
  • 3 & 1/2 cups flour
  • pinch of salt

The instructions in the recipe as printed are a scant 3 sentences. “Mix well and chill. Shape into balls; flatten slightly. Bake at 350F.”  I think I will expand upon that.

In a medium sized bowl cream together the butter/shortening and sugar. Add the eggs and beat until a bit fluffy. Add in the honey and vanilla and mix well.  Then mix in the baking soda, flour, and pinch of salt until well incorporated.  The dough will be a pale beige color.

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Chill for about 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350F or 170C (150C if you have a fan oven)

Lay a parchment paper or a Silpat pad onto a baking sheet. Roll the dough into balls a little smaller than a ping-pong ball and flatten slightly into plump disks.  Place them about 2 inches apart. They won’t spread very much, but they do seem to double in size.

Bake for 10-12 minutes or until a golden honey color.

Even as the first batch baked I could feel February drifting away. My house smells like sunshine and honey.

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Honey Drops have a bit of crunch on the outside and they are soft and pillowy on the inside. They are not overly sweet. Surprising given how much sugar they contain. The honey flavor is subtle, but there and the vanilla gives the honey flavor a bit of lift.  They are the perfect antidote for February.

Enjoy!

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In Switzerland Know your Metric System

IMG_3116A word to Americans, brush up on your Metric System before you come to Switzerland, or go anywhere in Europe. Things here, especially food, are sold using metric system measurements. Fruit is measured in grams. Beer is in deciliters on the menu. Just knowing the basics and some conversion formulas will help keep you out of embarrassing situations.

Like this one.

For Christmas dinner last year I planned to make a roasted beef loin. My parents were visiting so I wanted to do something special. My American recipe called for 3 pounds of beef tenderloin. I had seen some wonderful beef loin in a butcher shop so I was confident that this was going to taste fantastic with my herb and spice crust on it.

I hadn’t had to deal in kilograms since my 9th grade science class with Charlie Hardt, Mr. Science. He was tough as nails with a voice that could grate carrots. He had fought in WWII and seemed to be a hundred years old to us “little punks,” as he called us. We adored him and did our best to learn what he taught.

[Fun story: One day he rolled up the sleeves on his lab coat to reveal some kind of wrinkly green blotch that covered most of his forearm and resembled South America. “What is that, Mr. Hardt?” we asked. He looked down and said, “That? Is a stupidity mark!” He pulled his flesh taught and South America became a smiling pin-up girl with one arm thrown jauntily into the air. “If I ever catch you little punks with a tattoo I will pound you into dust and keep you in a jar on my shelf!”  He is one of the reasons why my tattoo is strategically placed.]

So anyway, it had been awhile since I had to convert things between pounds and kilos. And I didn’t quite know what a kilogram of stuff looked like. Really, the only concept I had for what a “kilo” was came from foggy memories of drug bust news footage and episodes of Miami Vice.  In my mind a kilo was not a huge quantity.

I also knew that the number 2.2 factored in there somewhere. So knowing what a pound of meat looks like and “knowing” what a kilo of heroin looks like (only from TV, Mom), I decided that the conversion formula was probably multiplying the 3 pounds I needed by 2.2 to get how many kilograms I should order. And then of course I would round up. You never want to run out of food at Christmas.

Armed with this information I marched confidently into the butcher shop and asked for 7 kilos of beef tenderloin.

The butcher’s mouth literally dropped open. In utter disbelief he looked at his assistant who whispered, “Seben kilos?!?” as if no one in the history of the world had ever wanted 7 kilos of meat before. It was a minute or two before they spoke so to break the awkward silence I helpfully explained, “I have a lot of people to feed.”  What I actually said in German was “Ich habe viele Freunde essen.” (I eat a lot of friends.)

A conversation ensued between the butcher and his assistant that, I believe, went something like this.

“My God! 7 kilos?”

“Did you hear her awful German? She is clearly American.”

“Totally. And she wants 7 kilos? Americans are gluttons.”

“She can’t possibly know what she’s asking. Americans don’t bother to learn the metric system, you know.”

“Well then, I will not sell my meat to someone who can’t even do simple math.”

They turned back to me. I had a sheepish yet charming smile on my face. I had not yet learned the Swiss do not smile so I had unwittingly just confirmed all of their suspicions.

“Go!” they said. “Wir haben nichts für Sie!”

When I didn’t move they waved their arms at me in a “shoo-shoo” motion. “Auf Weidersein,” they said, probably hoping I understood a Goodbye when I heard it.

I slunk out of the store, my face burning with embarrassment.

I got a chicken instead. It was delicious and humiliation free.

It’s been over a year since this happened. I am now suitably handy with kilograms and conversions. I even have an app on my phone.

And I haven’t ever gone back to that butcher’s shop.