Sandwich Cake

While browsing through my old Time-Life Foods of the World cookbooks, I ran up on a sandwich cake, or smörgåstårta, a Swedish buffet standard made by layering bread with savory fillings. It seemed just the kind of thing to serve for a little holiday get-together. So I called my Swedish friend, Sven Larsson, for advice on how to make a smörgåstårta.

I met Sven when he worked at the Swedish consulate in New Orleans, “Issuing passports to stupid Americans,” as he put it. We met at a wedding party in the French Quarter well over a decade ago, and found common ground as mutual devotees of A Confederacy of Dunces. The consulate is on Prytania, and Sven would often make the long walk to the theatre where Ignatius railed against Doris Day movies. He had since married a girl from Texas, divorced, and moved back to Stockholm, but we’d kept in touch.

When I got him on the phone, the first thing he said was, “You can’t make a smörgåstårta. You don’t have the right bread. All you have is that stuff, what do you call it? Ja! ‘Wonderful Bread!’ Like little Styrofoam.”

“But we have much better bread here now,” I said. “I can even get locally-baked loaves of rye and wheat.”

Ach! And your beer!” he said. “Your beer is like a cat’s piss. UschI! How can you eat a smörgåstårta and drink that?” This is the way Sven and I always begin any conversation, but we always end up laughing.

Sven said a smörgåstårta can be as simple as three layers of rye with sliced cucumbers and smoked salmon as a filling, or it can be as elaborate as a wedding cake. Use a sturdy bread. Wonder Bread might be great for a finger sandwich, but it will turn into doughy mush in a smörgåstårta. The better the quality of your bread, the better your cake will hold up, and the better it will take. A sturdy rye, wheat, or sourdough is best. Remove the crust, then cut and slice your bread to the shape and size you like, round, square, or rectangle.

Use a seasoned whipped cream cheese spread for both filling and for a “frosting”; you can buy the Philadelphia blends, or make your own by thinning room-temperature cream cheese with sour cream. Do not use mayonnaise. Spread each side of your bread layers with a thin coating of the cream cheese spread. Be creative with your fillings: thinly-sliced vegetables, hummus, cold cuts, sliced cheeses, egg salad, tuna salad, chicken salad, smoked fish, pâtés, guacamole, sliced pickles, whatever you like, but vary your textures. Mix vegetables with your egg salad, add water chestnuts to your salmon; try to have a bit of crunch in each layer. Finally, coat with cream cheese, garnish lavishly, and refrigerate before serving.

About Mistletoe

Mistletoe is a hemiparasite that draws water and nutrients from its host plant, but has chlorophyll and produces its own food by photosynthesis. Mistletoe rarely affects trees that are healthy, but can harm those already weakened by root damage (as from construction), drought, or pests. The word mistletoe comes from the Old English misteltan, with tan meaning “twig” and mistel meaning “dung, filth.” This makes sense when you consider that the plant’s seeds are spread by bird droppings, but perhaps it’s best not to bear in mind that you’re kissing under a “shit stick.”

In a famous Norse myth, mistletoe caused the death of the god Balder, the best loved of all immortals, by the jealous Loki. When Balder dreamed that he was about to die, he told his mother, Freya, who went to all things and made them swear that they would never harm her son. But she thought the mistletoe too weak to hurt anyone, and Loki found this out, he fashioned a dart from the plant and put it in the hand of the blind god Hodur, who stood aside while others threw things at Balder for the fun of seeing them drop to the ground before they reached him. “Here is something for you to throw,” Loki said, “and I will direct your aim.”

No one seems to know where the kissing comes from, though some claim that after Balder’s death, Freya commanded that the plant must never again bring destruction, and that those who pass under it must exchange a kiss of love and peace. Washington Irving wrote that men commonly gave women as many kisses as there were berries on the mistletoe hanging above them, plucking off one per kiss. The English hang kissing balls made with cedar and mistletoe in their doorways.