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by Bernie Brown
“You know Dwayne Applegate fell out of bed the first time he had aebelskiver, so you better be careful how many you eat.” So went the myth about the first time a family friend ate aebelskiver at our house. My dad repeated this story each time we had the little Danish dough balls. Although we knew exactly what Dad was going to say, we laughed anyway because we loved Dad.
In Southwest Iowa, a hundred miles from any major city, a pocket of little towns and farms sits among hills that roll invitingly as a pile of pillows. White houses stand next to red barns. The blonde population admires these hills with eyes as blue as Danish china. Their names end in sen or son or some syllable involving repeated vowels. Petersons, Andersens, Kjergaards. Danes. All Danes.
And every one of them knows what aebelskiver are, and the women all know how to cook them from a batter involving the same ingredients as pancakes, but with beaten egg whites. Piles of these delectable spheres get eaten as fast as they can be made. An aebelskiver pan weighs about as much as a bowling ball and has eight indentations like half moons. When the pan is the exact temperature that only Iowa farmers’ wives of Danish extraction can measure, they fill the half moons to the level that results in a sphere as perfect as the aforementioned bowling ball. Too little and the result is akin to a football, too much and they acquire a frill around the middle like a dancer’s tutu.
½ cup all purpose flour
Separate the eggs. Beat the whites to stiff, but not glossy. Set aside. Mix all other ingredients together. When they are well mixed, gently fold in the whites. Heat a skirted aebelskiver pan to medium high heat and generously oil all the indentations with vegetable oil. Drop the batter into each opening to half full. Using a wooden skewer, turn the aebelskiver a quarter turn when the batter starts to bubble, then gently turn it all the way so that the cooked part is up. When the bottom half is done, serve. Enjoy split in half, smeared with butter, and covered in syrup.
Aebelskiver suppers at the Lutheran church peppered my childhood. Armed with their own pans and turning instruments, which varied from hatpins to knitting needles, all the churchwomen would fire up the burners on the church kitchen’s many stoves, and the stove tops would glow with promise. Bowls overflowing with golden orbs of steaming pancake balls passed among the children and menfolk. The men piled high their plates while discussing the price of beef. We kids counted our consumption in competition for most devoured. A passing thought of Dwayne Applegate didn’t slow me down.
When, as a young bride, I attempted to make aebelskiver for the first time, I bought a pan, mixed the batter and proceeded to make some squishy-shaped objects, burned on the outside and doughy on the inside. These dough bombs bore little resemblance to what graced my childhood supper table. My husband, being the kind man that he is, ate them and said, “Can I have a few more?” It was years before I tried again, and then I called my mom for advice. She said that all the church ladies were using a new recipe that involved Bisquick.
I was shocked. I’d idealized these Danish women as purists. Once I recovered from my shock, I mixed the recipe using the once-despised ingredient. Granted, the shape of the finished product improved, but there was still the matter of mushy insides and black outsides. And they had that bland dusty Bisquick taste.
Back to my mom for advice.
“What’s your pan like? Is it skirted?” she asked.
Skirted? I didn’t know. “What’s skirted?”
“Is there a sort of wall on the outside? That keeps the circles from resting directly on the burner and makes the heat even.”
No. No wall.
On my annual trip back to Iowa, I made a pilgrimage to the Danish store in Elk Horn and purchased one of those skirted babies for about $45. I packed it in my checked luggage for the flight back home, and Lord knows what the security people thought when it appeared on the x-ray.
My new pan waited at the back of my pots and pans shelf.
Time passed and Facebook entered my life. My California cousin posted a recipe he discovered in a post WWII cookbook he found at a garage sale. This recipe called for buttermilk.
Armed with my skirted pan, a recipe without Bisquick and with buttermilk, I approached my next effort like a scientist in a lab. All ingredients lined up. Burner adjusted between 5 and 6. A pastry brush to oil the half spheres with just enough oil. Beaten whites, rich buttermilk, and all systems Go.
Lo and behold, those little guys emerged done all the way through. A few practice balls and I got the hang of the right amount. There was still a variance in color, not all the golden toast of an Iowa cornfield ready for harvest, but close enough.
We ate, and my husband asked for more. I smiled, feeling unreasonably proud. And neither of us fell out of bed that night.
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