Hot Pockets

Behold the savory breakfast pastry, the antidote to too many sugary muffins and danishes

Finnish Bistro
2264 Como Ave.
St. Paul
651.645.9181
www.decocatering.com

 

Milda's Café
1720 Glenwood Ave.
Minneapolis
612.377.9460

Hold the sugar: Darcy Johnson of the Finnish Bistro, one of the Twin Cities' options for non-sweet breakfast pastries
Craig Lassig
Hold the sugar: Darcy Johnson of the Finnish Bistro, one of the Twin Cities' options for non-sweet breakfast pastries

 

Russian Tea House
1758 University Ave. W.
St. Paul
651.646.4144

 

Franklin Street Bakery
1020 E. Franklin Ave.
Minneapolis
612.879.5730
www.franklinstreetbakery.com

 

Chocolate cake for breakfast. It sounds like a good idea--at least until the reality of all that sugar and the impending forehead-on-keyboard crash hits home. Yet that's what you find in pastry cases all over town--chocolate cake and banana-nut cake and lemon-poppyseed cake, all disguised as muffins and trotted out for breakfast. Who can eat like that in the morning? Not me. How could that possibly sustain me until lunch?

No, when I'm about to invest a few hundred calories in an indulgent breakfast, I want savory. I want salty, buttery, filling. Flaky or doughy, spicy or comfortably bland--either way. A ham and cheese croissant. Something gooey with a little Gruyère. Roasted, earthy mushrooms are nice in the mornings. And--you may just have to take this one on faith--minced meat, rice, or even cabbage would often hit the spot. Yes, at 8:00 a.m.

In northern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, and the Baltics, pastry cases are a different story. They'll wrap anything you might find on a dinner plate in pastry and call it breakfast or lunch: meat, cheese, mashed potatoes, rice, cabbage, even carrots. Once upon a time, this simplified the lunch pails of field workers and school children. Now it makes it easy for modern urban dwellers to get a real meal on the run. Even the sweets are a little less sweet, based on heartier flavors like cardamom, poppyseeds, and tart berries. Chocolate, you learn in this part of the world, belongs in a chocolate bar or in a dense sliver of Sacher torte, not in a breakfast pastry.

So, in an area settled largely by Scandinavians, you would think--or, rather, I often ruefully think--it shouldn't be so hard to satisfy my yen for the savory. Even a couple of promising prospects disappoint in this department: Blackey's Bakery, offering Polish and Danish specialties in Nordeast, and Scandia Bake Shop in the Nokomis area both come through with fantastically authentic loaves on the bread shelves, but their pastry cases are dominated by the usual doughnuts and Danishes. No savory pastries.

This is why the very words Finnish Bistro warm my heart. Soile Anderson, who founded the Taste of Scandinavia bakery and now owns Deco Catering, has transformed the former Taste of Scandinavia space in Saint Anthony Park into the sort of healthy salad-soup-and-sandwich spot that you might find near the waterfront in Helsinki. (Taste of Scandinavia continues to operate shops in North Oaks and Little Canada and to sell baked goods wholesale.) In true Finnish fashion, nearly every menu item, from sandwiches to salads to "calzones," is offered with salmon as an option.

"In Finland we eat a lot of little pies," Anderson confirms, "with salmon, with lots of vegetables, with rice or potatoes."

Some of these savory Finnish favorites are particularly time-consuming to make, like the Karelian rice pies, karjalan piirakkat, which practically qualify as Finnish national treasures. These are little rye boats holding a thick, savory layer of rice pudding. The dough is a miracle of gluten and handicraft, a testament to what can be made from nothing but soft rye flour and water. It's rolled thin as paper and crimped up in a flat oval around a few tablespoonfuls of rice pudding. Neither the pastry nor the filling is flavored with anything but a tiny pinch of salt, so all you taste is creamy milk, toothsome rice, and the slight tang of rye. You eat them warm, topped with a chopped boiled egg mashed up with an equal volume of butter. The butter melts, the egg softens and warms, and the second and third little pies will disappear in your mouth before you've had time to count.

Anderson makes the piirakkat with both rice and potato filling, but on the days I visited, the pastry case was filled with frosted cookies, poppyseed rolls, and other delectable sweets. When she does put the savory pastries in rotation in her bakery, she reports, "They fly off the shelves. People who know I make them usually call." I'm not going to take my chances on lucking into them at the Finnish Bistro; next time I'm going to take her advice and call ahead.

The savory pies that Anderson does make regularly she calls Scandinavian calzones ($5.95 for chicken, beef, or vegetable, $6.95 for salmon). These are big enough to be eaten with a knife and fork, and make a fabulous lunch: eight-inch half-moons of flaky, golden pastry dough filled with salmon, chicken, beef, or vegetables. The filling makes a gooey, light sauce as it cooks, keeping everything inside moist and flavorful.

Minnesotans from the Iron Range might see these and shout, "Pasties!" in gleeful recognition. Indeed, the Finnish miners brought the idea of wrapping your meal up in pastry to the northland, but they adopted the English or Cornish name for it. (Pasty rhymes with nasty, not hasty. That's something else.) While the Finnish Bistro version is a little gussied up--healthy, light, generous with the vegetables--you can get a real Iron Range pasty in Bryn Mawr at Milda's Café. Milda's pasty ($5.95) is a full pound of food, a dome of pie dough packed with cubes of potato and layers of pulled meat. The flavor is nicely peppery, but you might want to accept the offer of gravy on the side to combat any dryness. Pasties are only available in the restaurant Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and Milda's is only open for breakfast and lunch, but you can always get a fully cooked, frozen one to go.

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