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When Arne Hansen opened Solvang Restaurant in 1966, he had two things going for him: a knack for cooking aebleskivers and a genius for marketing.
Today, when you drive through the small town just north of Santa Barbara, you can see the result. The little Danish pastries are everywhere.
Aebleskivers are a type of pancake cooked in a special stove-top pan with half-spherical molds. The center is soft and fluffy, almost creamy. The crust is crisp and browned. In Denmark, aebleskivers are traditionally plated in threes, dusted with powdered sugar, topped or filled with tart jams of Nordic berries and served with mellow Scandinavian coffee.
There, aebleskivers (pronounced "able-skEEvers") have typically not been served in restaurants or for breakfast, but rather at the family table for afternoon coffee breaks. On long and cold Nordic winter evenings, they are served with glögg. In the wintertime, aebleskivers are often sold by street vendors. A symbol of community and hospitality, they are very popular at Scandinavian charity and open-air events.
For Danish expatriates, they have a strong pull. "When I was little, my mother used to make them for me, after a recipe from her mom," reminisces Rikke Christensen, who now lives in Los Angeles. "Just the aroma brings back memories of quality time spent with my mom."
Christensen's mom, Judy Malmberg, still lives in Denmark. Christensen fondly remembers cranking out many thousands of aebleskivers while volunteering at Lions Club fundraisers. Today, aebleskivers can even be found in frozen form in some markets (although purists scoff at the notion).
Quest for perfection
While mixing the batter is not difficult, the two most important keys to cooking aebleskivers are a good pan and the right technique. Hansen, who lives near Solvang, is a master of both. In fact, his home is a veritable museum to the humble pastry.
Displayed throughout the house and in lovingly preserved scrapbooks (compiled by Hansen's wife, Telma) are colorful postcards, letters, newspaper articles, an aebleskiver pan the size of a penny (for decorative purposes only), a big one made from hammered copper and other mementos dedicated to the famous family treat.
Hansen immigrated to the U.S. five decades ago. Affectionately known as "Mr. Aebleskiver" among his fans, he has been perfecting his tools and methods for more than 40 years, trying all kinds of pans and testing more recipes than he can recall.
But he really made his mark at his restaurant, where he turned out fresh aebleskivers for breakfast, lunch and dinner -- next to an open window, so that the scent would waft out into the street. "Soon the word spread and people lined up for them all day long," he remembers.
Hansen sold his restaurant 20 years ago and has since built a mini-empire of sorts around the aebleskiver. Over the Internet and in neighborhood stores, he sells a huge selection of pans as well as jams and a ready-for-use aebleskiver batter mix.
There are many recipes for the batter, but they generally fall into two categories: those made with baking soda (or baking powder) as a leavening agent, or those made with yeast. The batters vary in texture and flavor -- and yeasted batters take a bit more patience to prepare and will expand more in the pan -- and which you prefer is a matter of personal taste.
The pan's progress
The earliest known aebleskiver pans, Hansen says, are more than 300 years old and were made from hammered copper. But bare copper proved to be far from ideal and was soon succeeded by cast iron, which distributes heat more evenly and forms a natural nonstick surface. Today, pans are also made from aluminum with nonstick coating.
Treated properly, cast iron lasts for generations and produces a superior crust and texture. Unlike aluminum, it also works on induction stoves.
"If you don't want any hassle, if you want perfect results every time, if you are cooking on an electric stove, coated aluminum pans are your best choice," Hansen says. "But if you are cooking on gas and if you do not mind the special care involved with cast iron, a heavy iron pan will work for you."
Tested side-by-side, the differences were interesting. Hansen's nonstick aluminum model worked well. The aebleskivers were easy to turn and their crusts came out even, smooth and finely textured. Controlling the temperature was easy as well.
By comparison, the Lodge cast-iron pan proved to be more temperamental and challenging. But with practice, it did produce impressive results. The iron pan created a more aromatic crust with a rustic quality and an enhanced contrast between the exterior and interior textures.
On the downside, cast-iron pans must be carefully seasoned, and one needs to pay close attention to timing and temperature, adjusting as needed. This requires a bit of patience and practice.
But focusing too much on the details is a little beside the point. Old iron or new aluminum, yeast or no yeast -- even Danes will disagree. The one thing they can agree on, as Hansen found, is that when it comes to aebleskivers, what really matters is making them and sharing them.