A long time ago, back in another decade and life I worked for a company that was headquartered out of Norway. As luck was in my favor I ended up traveling to Norway to train some higher-ups on design programs. Funny enough, and I suppose tellingly, nearly every memory I have is steeped in food and two of my very favorite come from that beautiful Nordic country.
Every spring when the first batches of blueberries come to the markets I think, particularly fondly, of blueberry pie. My co-worker, Robin, had invited me to spend the day with her family. We put on some comfortable shoes and started our trip - hiking high into the mountains surrounding Oslo. Each person we passed exchanged pleasantries. Nearly everyone denied knowing where any mushrooms could be found while clutching bulging bags by their sides, a sweet little game of foraging and white lies, and nearly everyone had a morel or two in their possession.
When we finally reached our destination, a small grove tucked amongst the trees, laden with full blueberry bushes, Robin handed me a basket and a tool. The tool was essentially a box with metal fingers on one side and a handle on the opposite side - a blueberry or huckleberry rake. You slide the rake fingers through the blueberry bushes and the berries popped off into the box while the bush stayed in tact. We got to work picking berries and filling our baskets. My basket full I stood up and looked around: there I was, picking wild blueberries looking out on an astounding view from the top of a mountain in Norway. Astonishing.
We made our way back home, over felled logs that served as bridges and through the dense trees. There Robin made a fresh pie crust while we listened to the music from the newly acclaimed "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack and chatted. Blueberry pie for dessert, bluegrass in my ear, the sun setting over the Oslo skyline. Beautiful perfection.
My other memory was but a moment. I woke early one Saturday morning, popped into the pastry shop just down the street and picked out a few treats - some for breakfast and some for a snack. I made my way the the train station and boarded a train for Bergen, a town clear across the country. You have to keep in mind that I was fresh out of college and alone so this entire trip was a big deal for me, but even more so to take a day trip across the entirety of Norway by myself. I was a little scared but a lot excited.
Sitting in my window seat I was treated to what I would later find out is acclaimed as one of the best train journeys in the world, and for good reason. The landscape faded from urban to craggy gray rocks, then burst into lush verdant green hills dotted with bright houses, finally ending deep in the glacial bedrock of the fjords. From there we navigated through the fjords by boat, admiring the smallest towns in the world at the foot of some of the largest mountains and ice I had ever seen. Ultimately I traveled back to Oslo that same night, by train, and thus was the completion of my journey.
By the end of my train ride I had met some truly fantastic people but at the beginning, when it was me, alone, perched at the edge of my bravery, I ate one of my snacks. It was the most amazing almond cake I've ever had - as much a cookie as a cake, it was thin, light, and perfectly balanced between crisp and chewy. The top of the almond cake glistened with a shiny egg wash and was dusted with confectioners sugar, one almond standing in the middle. It was decadent.
I returned for my almond pastry a few more times - taking them with me as I explored the Vigeland park sculpture gardens and on the plane with me home.
Almonds and blueberries. They remind me of Norway. They take me back to a place where I felt fulfilled, excited, and began to feel truly confident in myself - in part because of the empowerment of the journey but also because of the people. Norwegians, in my experience, are incredibly kind, warm, and inviting. They opened their homes to me, shared their incredible artwork and treated me to a host of inspirations, culinary delights, and gorgeous memories.
As you can imagine, and as I think we all were, I was incredibly saddened to hear of the recent tragedies that befell Oslo. At first I couldn't tear myself away from the reports but then I realized that I wanted to honor the welcoming kindness that I remembered and not waste time thinking about fringe outsiders with malicious intents...and so I reflected on my favorite memories and decided to create something positive in honor of the Norwegian people, something that married the flavors and memories in my heart. So, without further ado, I give you Blueberry Almond Bars, a little bite of heaven. Enjoy them with full hearts and pass on the message of openness, tolerance, and kindness that inspired them.
Blueberry Almond Bars
Crust (adapted from pecan bars crust from The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook)
1 cup flour
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons (3/4 of a stick) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup crushed almonds (If you like you can toast the almonds but it is unnecessary)
1 teaspoon almond extract
1.5 pints (24 ounces or 6 cups) fresh blueberries
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup flour
Zest of a medium lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons butter
1 cup slivered or crushed almonds
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Line a 9 inch square baking pan with foil and butter or spray with cooking spray.
Place all filling ingredients in a food processor and pulse until a fine crumb. Pour into baking pan, spread evenly and press down firmly to create the crust.
Bake crust for 20-25 minutes until slightly browned.
In a medium-large pot combine all filling ingredients EXCEPT almonds. Cook on medium-high while stirring often for about 5-7 minutes - the filling will become very, very thick (peel from your spoon thick).
Once your filling has thickened remove from heat and pour over baked crust. Spread to distribute evenly. Cover evenly with slivered or crushed almonds and bake for an additional 20 minutes - when you remove from the oven the filling will be bubbling along the edges.
Let cool completely for about 2 hours. Use foil to lift bars from the pan onto a cutting surface, cut into bars and enjoy!