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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.
The Finns aren't the only ones who wrap their food in dough, of course. The Finnish word piirakka comes from the Russian pirog. If you want just a little one, it's a pirozhok. And if you want a couple, they're pirozhki. Nobody will blink, however, if you march up to the counter at the Russian Tea House on University in St. Paul and order "one pir-OSH-ki." There's a long line of people behind you doing the same thing.
While Russians will put just about anything in their pirozhki, the Russian Tea House makes the classic: a heavy golden oval of raised dough baked around a beef and rice filling. (Well, classic except for the addition of cheddar cheese. It works, though.) One of these, for just $2.50, along with a cup of tangy beet-and-cabbage borscht, makes a hearty workman's lunch, even if your work is bouncing e-mails back and forth with co-workers, rather than smelting steel. The Tea House is family-run, so it keeps family-friendly hours, serving only lunch and only Tuesday through Friday.
Which brings me back to breakfast. Salty, buttery, one-handed things I can have for breakfast while the rest of the world is eating cakey chocolate muffins. Which is where the Franklin Street Bakery comes in. Right there, alongside the ginger scones and the cinnamon rolls and the fruity Danishes, there is always at least one and usually a couple of savory choices ($1.25 to $2.50 each). Chef Michelle Gayer-Nicholson says she knows her savory selection is unusual, but, "It's what I would enjoy eating. And, of course, culinarily I have a savory side that I need to fulfill." The selection varies daily and she says there's often a bit of friendly competition in the kitchen over who gets to create that day's savory finds. Which, she adds, are the pastries she is guaranteed to run out of every single day.
These are a far cry from the hefty pasties, piirakkat, and pirozhki of northern Europe, but Gayer-Nicholson says they're not reliant on any particular cuisine. "I use flavor combinations that I've experienced and like to eat," she says. "I just see them as American, classic combinations."
That means she fills light-as-air turnovers with caramelized onions and Brie, adding a crunchy Parmesan crust; with oven-roasted tomatoes, goat cheese, and basil; or with a thick paste of curried mushrooms and cheddar cheese. These combinations are perfect for the flaky turnover dough and make every subsequent encounter with the sticky, gluey, fruit-filled version more than a little suspect.
The same flavors may also meet up on Gayer-Nicholson's little rounds of airy focaccia or buttery brioche, often with an added surprise: chives, poppyseeds, or sweet-tart currants that pop in your mouth and make you say, "Of course! Currants! That's what my Gruyère has always needed!"
On your own savory pastry hunt, or when you're looking for the perfect thing to serve next to your spaghetti al sugo crudo (that's a summery ripe tomato sauce), try the rosemary polenta cakes. Dense triangles with the nutty crunch of cornmeal, a pleasant grit, and a drizzle of honey across the top, these are what Gayer-Nicholson calls her "ode to Nancy Silverton," the renowned pastry chef behind California's La Brea Bakery, where Gayer-Nicholson apprenticed.
"We keep trying new things and new flavors," she says. "And we're glad when they're a hit." Like her recent Stromboli experiment. She rolled a batch of focaccia dough thin enough to cover a jelly roll pan, then rolled it up with tomato sauce, cheese, and herbs and sliced it on the bias. Hotcakes, she says. It just disappeared from the shelves. When it wasn't on the bakery shelf the next day, two people called to ask why they weren't making it any more. "Who knew there would be such a run on Stromboli in Minneapolis?" she laughs.
Me, that's who. I could have told her that her very own pastry case fills such a void in the Twin Cities bakery culture that, once word spreads among my fellow savory-breakfast-hunters that there is Brie with caramelized onions to be had before 9:00 a.m., she'll be able to double--no, triple!--her savory selections every day. And on indulgent mornings I'll be able to choose among focaccia, brioche, turnovers, filled croissants, polenta cakes, all waiting together, edging out the sweet stuff and ending the tyranny of the chocolate muffin.
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