The original North Oaks restaurant was started in 1992 by Soile Anderson and has since expanded to Little Canada and Bloomington. Anderson also founded the Art Deco restaurant in St. Paul.
Lauri Youngquist and Marie Aarthun, who also own Festival Foods, purchased Taste of Scandinavia 12 years ago. The change in ownership and expansion hasn’t changed the restaurant’s commitment to quality northern European treats.
“I think the inspiration [behind the restaurant] was just good Scandinavian cookies and cakes in Minnesota,” Dan Johnson, director of operations, says. And that starts with the recipes. “Most of them were family recipes belonging to someone, whether they belonged to Soile’s family or someone who might work in the building,” he says. “It’s always a good place to start.”
And they make everything from scratch—the same as Grandma. Lefse is made with “hand-peeled potatoes, hand-mashed. And we use the best ingredients we can find,” like Schroeder gourmet whipped cream from just down the road, “and real butter,” adds Johnson. “It makes a difference.”
While many of their treats are sold year-round, during the holidays “our cookie selection doubles,” Johnson says, and they do special cakes for the season as well.
Most of these holiday cakes aren’t just sweet treats; they’re beautiful holiday centerpieces. For starters, there’s the traditional Christmas log. It’s a rolled Scandinavian sponge cake filled with chocolate mousse, raspberry jam and whipped cream, topped with turtle icing, and decorated to look like a holiday log. Similarly, they make a birch log. “It’s a Yule log that’s kind of flavored after our chocolate symphony cake, with cream cheese and chocolate icing, and it looks like a birch log. So it’s a good Scandinavian, northern Minnesota thing,” Johnson says.
Another centerpiece is the kransekake, or ring pyramid cake. Rings of almond cake of different sizes stack to form a pyramid. The cake is decorated either traditionally, in Scandinavian flags, or holiday-style, with pearly-white icing. “We’re one of the few people in town who make it anymore,” Johnson says.
There are the cookies, representing traditions from northern European countries and cultures. “Lots and lots of Christmas cookies,” Johnson says. Rugelach, a crispy, flaky cookie with a sweet fruit filling of walnuts, raisins and apricot, is a favorite. “We tend to sell that also for the Jewish holidays, for Hanukkah.” Scottish spiced-shortbread angels are, well, Scottish nutmeg-spiced butter cookies with nutmeg frosting. Russian teacakes are another big seller—butter cookies with walnuts rolled in powdered sugar, looking like a perfect snowball on your cookie platter.
On the strictly Scandinavian side, the Norwegian almond kringler is a favorite year-round, “but we sell a lot of it for the holidays,” Johnson says. The Scandinavian holly berry sandwich consists of two shortbread cookies with a raspberry filling and holly decorations.
Not all of the holiday treats are covered in icing. The julekake, a Scandinavian Christmas bread, is cardamom bread with candied cherries, citron and raisins. And pulla braids and pulla bread are also a big item for the holidays, Johnson says.
All of these treats can be found at the restaurant and bakery, but you don’t have to assemble your cookie tray alone. “We do gift baskets for the holidays,” Johnson says. Whether it’s the bread or cookies you’re after, you can get an assorted basket or tray to bring to holiday parties. Plus, if you’re in charge of bringing an appetizer to share, you can always pick up some Swedish meatballs. “We do tons and tons and tons of Swedish meatballs, to go, for Christmas Eve,” he says.
“The holidays for us tend to be steeped in the tradition of lefse, kransekake and pulla. I think that’s really what people come to us for,” Johnson says. “It’s the stuff they know they can get that Grandma used to make, and a lot of people just don’t make anymore.”
(A sampling of Scandinavian sweet treats: white holly berry cake, yule log, almond kringle, snickerdoodles, and Scandinavian holly berry sandwich cookies.)
*Holiday orders should be placed at least three days in advance.