We’ve all gone very DIY about bread and cheese in the past few decades. Chances are, if you’ve visited a friend’s house for lunch or cocktails any time since the Reagan administration, and your host served bread or crackers with cheese, charcuterie or, say, smoked fish, you were expected to put the components together yourself.
You didn’t think twice about shouldering this burden. You simply selected a piece of bread from basket or board, sliced yourself off a couple wedges of cheese, speared a salami round, scooped up some bluefish paté, and went off to compose and consume your acquisitions. You host might have nudged you toward certain combinations — placing a fat wedge of blue cheese beside a cherry compote, for example. But the rest was up to you.
Last week’s profligate May sunshine got me thinking about a place and time when a different model prevailed — namely, my house in the 1970s. You may wonder what sunshine has to do with bread and cheese (besides the fact that one can now differentiate between Humboldt Fog and Summer Snow after 8 p.m.). Well, my mother is a Finn, and, like most Scandinavians, she feels the approach of midsummer the way an old sailor feels an oncoming storm: deep in her bones. The weeks clustered around the solstice are a time when her entire spirit goes into celebration mode. Scandinavia also happens to be the home of exquisite, open-face sandwiches. Pretty as majolica tiles, these stunning smorrebrod treats (known in Finland as voileipa) are ubiquitous, and a key part of any festive gathering.
When I was growing up, my mom would have no sooner expected her party guests to compose their own hors d’oeuvres than asked them to belly up to the stove and cook their own meatballs. I suspect many 1970s hostesses felt similarly. Back then, you couldn’t assume your guests were confident enough around food to participate in its construction.
Echoes of the era persist to this day, of course, in the canapes and crostini passed at catered gatherings. But for the most part, hosts no longer presume to know how many cornichons a guest likes with her ham, how much membrillo to put with Manchego.
Even my friend Annette, a host of breathtaking grace and virtuosity, now serves cheeses etc. on their own boards and platters, and breads etc. on others. But when she first came to the U.S., after growing up in Germany and Sweden, she recalls, “I thought my guests would consider me lazy if I made them do the work themselves.” Eventually, she overcame these qualms.
Now that the vaccine has allowed us to begin connecting with friends again, entertaining can feel a bit like moving to a new country, or at least like moving back to an old country after a long time away. There are days when hugging an old (vaccinated) friend or talking face-to-face (outdoors) makes me feel as awkward and amazed as a traveler in a foreign land.
But even as we resume our strange, atrophied habits, we well hesitate before diving back into certain customs. For example, the one where everyone sticks their fingers into the same chip bowl, and double-dips their carrots into the dip. Maybe this is the perfect moment, in other words, to revisit the era of composed sandwiches.
I have another reason for championing these treats: butter. Excellent butter is essential to any true Scandinavian voileipa/smorrebrod. It’s pricey, yes, but no more so than a half-decent cheese. And while most everyone secretly loves superb butter, few guests would be caught dead in public smearing it on their bread. It’s up to you, as host, to perform this kind and generous act for their benefit — as a gift to their bright, summer spirit.
Scandinavian-style Open-Face Sandwiches
These sandwiches have only a few essential components:
- Dense, nutty rye, pumpernickel or whole grain bread
- The best cultured butter you can afford
- One protein (meat, cheese, fish, egg). Note: In Scandinavia, proteins are rarely combined — you wouldn’t layer a meat and a cheese, for example.
- One or more vegetable (cucumber, onion, lettuce, asparagus, sliced beets)
- One or more flavorful herbs, sauces, sprinkles or toppings, to taste (the mustard aioli recipe goes well with all the combinations featured here)
- Generously spread four slices of bread with butter. If the butter is unsalted, sprinkle with a little sea salt.
- Fresh goat cheese, thinly sliced roast beets (recipe below), orange slices, fennel, mustard aioli (recipe below)
- Crème fraiche, smoked salmon or gravlax, steamed asparagus, lemon zest, mustard aioli
- Cucumber, medium-boiled egg, dill, mustard aioli
- Ham, cornichon slices, red onion, pea shoots, mustard aioli
I like to roast beets in a small Dutch oven; if you don’t have one,
use a small pan, like a brownie pan, and cover tightly with tin foil instead. The beets can be made up to two days in advance and stored between layers of wax paper or parchment in an airtight container.
- 1 bunch small beets
- ½ teaspoon olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Splash of mild vinegar, such as white wine or cider
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Clean and trim the beets, leaving about 1 inch each of leaf stems and “tail” attached. Place in Dutch oven, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Transfer to oven and roast until a sharp paring knife easily penetrates the flesh, about 40 to 50 minutes, depending on the beets’ size and freshness.
Remove beets from oven, turn oven off as usual, but leave its door closed; you’ll use the residual heat later. When the beets are cool enough to handle, slip or peel away the skins and cut off the stems and tail.
Using a mandoline or sharp knife, thinly slice the beets. Spread the slices on a sheet pan, sprinkle a little vinegar and salt over them and return to the still-warm oven to dry out.
- 1 teaspoon finely minced shallot
- 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar, or other light vinegar, plus more to taste
- 1 egg yolk separated from a very fresh egg (see note)
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
- Up to 1 cup canola or other mild oil
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, plus more to taste
- Salt and white pepper, to taste
Combine the finely minced shallot and vinegar in a teacup or small dish and set aside.
In a very large bowl using a large balloon whisk, whisk together the egg yolk and half the lemon juice until pale and slightly thickened, about 1 minute. While whisking continuously, drizzle in the canola oil in an extremely thin stream, no thicker than a pencil lead (if you can get a partner or kid to help with this, I recommend you do so). Once the aioli begins to emulsify and thicken, you can pour the remaining oil a little faster.
When all the oil is incorporated, add the mustard, reserved shallots with their vinegar and salt and pepper. Mix to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more lemon, mustard or salt as needed. Store, refrigerated, in an airtight container and use within 2 hours.
Note: Pregnant women, small children and anyone with compromised immune system should avoid raw eggs. Everyone else should only use them if you know and trust the farm where they came from.