It seems that the casual drop-in visit is something of a rarity these days. Aside from our next-door neighbors, who are so close they nearly share a common wall, we rarely host an impromptu guest. Which is a shame, because such drop-ins can be the nicest of surprises.
A few days ago a friend found herself between appointments in the neighborhood, and gave a last-minute call. I happened to have a pot of homemade vegetable soup in the refrigerator, and a slice of fresh honey oatmeal flax bread to toast up and serve with it. I fed her, and we caught up on the several weeks that had passed since we'd talked. It was such a nice highlight to the afternoon, all the sweeter for its surprise.
Now I realize that I am more likely to have a fresh-baked treat on the counter than a lot of people. But it's also possible that my friend could have phoned when all I had in the house for snacking were some limp carrots and the leftovers of a disastrous cooking experiment. For times like those, there are a few secret weapons I keep in reserve. There are jars of dilly beans and pickled asparagus in the basement, and often some slices of crusty bread in the freezer and cheese in the fridge. And there's pannukakku.
Finland, like much of Scandinavia, is a country with a strong tradition of hospitality. Nearly a religion, in fact. You will be fed by your host before you depart, and you will be fed by your host when you arrive. Even if the two should occur in the space of a few hours. Coffee flows freely, and a spread of little snacks and delicacies is brought out. Even if it's just casual friends, you can't get away without something to nibble with your coffee.
Pannukakku is an ideal dish for the impromptu guest. It's a tender, puffy pancake, like a Dutch baby without the staggering amount of butter. It's easy to mix together from pantry staples of milk, eggs, and flour, and it bakes in the oven while you chat with your guests (or prepare a pot of coffee). It can be sweet or savory, topped with a puddle of jam or used to fancy up a slice of cheese or smoked salmon. I recently spent a full day picking and jamming strawberries with my sister (in Houston, where it's already 80 degrees and well into strawberry season), and her friend suggested pannukakku to enjoy with the fruits (jams?) of our labors. She called her Finnish husband, translated a recipe from deciliters, and before we knew it we were enjoying the eggy, pillowy pannukakku with our still-warm jam. But even if you don't have fresh syrupy strawberries, pannukakku will still make for a welcome treat. It's warm and inviting, with minimal fussing. Like the best of hosts.
Pannukakku (Finnish Oven-baked Pancake)
Adapted by Rebecca Rautio, from the classic Finnish cookbook Kotiruoka (Home Cooking), and her classic Finnish mother-in-law. This is best enjoyed the day it's made.
serves ~8 as a snack, ~4 as a light meal
3 1/4 cups milk
1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 tsp salt
toppings of choice (jam, cheese, smoked fish)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a jelly-roll pan (or similar pan with a thick rim) with overhanging parchment paper, if you have, and grease the parchment paper. Otherwise grease the pan liberally, and hope for the best.
Beat the eggs for several minutes, until thick and light. Mix together the remaining ingredients in a separate bowl, and then mix into the pannukakku. Let the batter rest 10 minutes, then pour into your prepared sheet pan. Bake 30 minutes, until fluffy and lightly golden in some spots. Cut into squares while still warm, and serve.