What to make a birthday girl without a sweet tooth? Luckily, we're in Sweden, the home of smörgåstårta. "Sandwich cake," as it translates, is not only a traditional celebratory cake, it is also completely unique, semi-bizarre and so much fun to make and eat. Above, three small cakes make up our batch of smörgåstårtor. Why did we make three? Well, one is seafood, one is vegetarian and one is meat. Yes, those pretty little cakes are as savory as can be. Behold smörgåstårta.
Within an hour of arriving in Sweden, following a Tourist Information sign outside the train station in Göteberg to a shopping mall with a fish market right near its entrance, we'd seen smörgåstårta. A small white square covered in dill was covered in smoked salmon, tiny shrimp and hard-boiled eggs. We couldn't figure it out - what's the square made out of? About a week later, as one of our birthdays dawned, we searched "Swedish birthday cakes" and got our answer. Smörgåstårta is a layer 'cake' made of sandwiches, a pile-up of white or rye bread and spreadable fillings, frosted with mayonnaise, crème fraîche, yogurt, cream cheese or some combination of those.
With smörgåstårta, restraint is thrown out the window. The cakes, at best, are symphonies of flavor. At worst, they are sort of grotesque. When we researched smörgåstårta, there were some focused, elegant creations made of two or three ingredients at most: creamed spinach and salmon salad, pâté and egg salad. Those were not made by Swedes. Traditionally, sandwich cakes follow the smörgåsbord (Swedish buffet) all-in model: smoked salmon, shrimp, caviar, pâté, cold cuts, egg, cheese, mayonnaise, vegetables, some or all of the above. This is not a dish for the indecisive chef, nor the overzealous one - which is why we wound up making three.
The main decision/problem one faces when making smörgåstårta is choosing a bread. Conventionally, the answer is very simple. Sliced white bread, crusted, is employed most often. It is firm enough to provide a barrier between layers, sponge-y enough to help it all stick together and - conveniently - already split. However, we wanted ours to be round. Large hamburger buns work perfectly. Slice a little bit off the top half of your bun in order to create a flat surface. This will be your middle layer. Use the bottom half of your bun for the ground and top layers of your cake - that way you're ensured a level base and a smooth decorating surface.
Choosing your fillings is half the fun. It's a lot like designing the craziest club sandwich imaginable... with one catch. There won't be a toothpick holding these layers together and you'll want to be able to slice your finished product like a cake, so make sure not to choose anything that won't stay put. For example, anyone that's ever bit into a bagel and lox knows that a slice of smoked salmon can get pulled clean out with a single bite. So, as not to cause catastrophic dismantling, we chopped up our salmon with kitchen shears. This way, cutting a slice of seafood smörgåstårta would be clean and tidy and the fish would be evenly distributed.
We employed a tried and true salmon binding agent, cream cheese or "Philadelphia," as its called in Europe. To make it a little easier to work with, we mixed in Greek yogurt until the spread was a mayo-like consistency. Some chopped dill and shredded romaine lettuce completed the first layer of our seafood smörgåstårta. The second layer was filled with chopped räk (shrimp) and kräftor (crayfish) mixed with a spicy dijon mustard and diced chives. Mini shrimp and crayfish, both about the size of a thumbnail, are widely available in grocery stores around Sweden. Since they are packed in brine, it's best to drain and rinse off the excess salt. Thin slices of cucumber were thrown in for color and crunch.
Our vegetarian smörgåstårta consisted of a layer of hummus topped with shredded carrot and a layer of diced hard boiled egg and minced red onion mixed with tzaitziki (another common Swedish grocery store item). Again, cucumber and strips of romaine lettuce were added to the fillings, as well as a good dose of freshly ground black pepper. This smörgåstårta is, very literally, a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. We decorated accordingly, with sliced almond around the outside and a carrot on top.
While the veggie smörgåstårta looked the most dessert-like, the meat smörgåstårta was the sweetest. The bottom layer was liver pâté and lingonberry jam, a Swedish staple that often shows up alongside meatballs, black pudding, liver dishes and meat stew. The top layer was a healthy coating of our yogurt-cream cheese spread and a pile of paper-thin, bright pink roast beef. Inspired by all the rose hues, we mixed some chopped beet into our frosting to turn it a bright fuschia. The cake was jewel-toned and flavor packed thanks to the beets, berries and meat.
Before frosting, it's best to let your smörgåstårta refrigerate overnight or at least for a few hours. This allows the flavors to mesh and the layers to set. Frosting a firmer, cold-bunned cake will be much easier. Also, having an easily spreadable frosting is key. We added thick, plain yogurt to cream cheese until we attained the fluffy frosting texture we wanted. Make more than you think you'll need. It's just like frosting a layer cake, you know there will be some unevenness or protrusion that needs a little extra coating to smooth over. And then you get to decorate!
Making smörgåstårta is sandwich-making, no-bake baking, and a little arts-and-crafts rolled into one. It's also a cultural experience, a piece of Swedish culinary tradition and a wonderful way to celebrate a birthday. We highly recommend it.