Indian naan, chapati, roti, puri, paratha and parotta; Italian Focaccia and pizza, Greek pita; Egyptian balady, Armenian Lavash, Turkish bazlama, Mexican tortillas, Ethiopian injera; cuisines the world over have a flatbread. Some are leavened and some not. Most are circular and flat and typically made of a combination of flour and water. They are used as an eating utensil or plate, for sopping up gravy, dipping in olive oil, as a medium for toppings or stuffings, or for just enjoying with cold creamy butter. They are all delicious and I am sad for people who cannot for whatever reason enjoy them.
I had not heard of a Swedish flatbread until I met my husband and got to try his grandmother’s fabulous bread recipe. Her name was Esther Ingejerd (nee Swenson) Anderson Richtik. She was twice widowed but with the help of her mother raised two children on her own on the windswept marshy tundra that is Northern Manitoba, Canada. It was a harsh life but this bread which she called “Hulvchuck” (thanks to a reader of this blog I found out it’s spelled Halvtjock) was a comfort food for her family and she made bread a few times a week her whole life.
Esther’s parents Ingrid and Jonas Swenson came to Canada in 1904 as immigrant homesteaders from Blekinge County in the South of Sweden. Esther was born in 1909 and married Nils Anderson in 1930. Nils was from Hotagen in the North of Sweden.
The bread of Northern Sweden is known as Mjukkaka which literally translates to “Softcake”. It is a round flatbread, about the size of a plate and is typically baked in a brick oven. Nowadays a company called Polarbröd seems to be the main supplier of it. I wish Esther were alive so that I could ask why she called it Halvtjock which means “half thick” instead of Mjukkaka. When I look at the pictures of Mjukkaka on the internet, I’m sure I’ve found the right bread. I may never know why she didn’t call it that but maybe that is what her people in the south of Sweden were used to calling it and maybe her recipe is a bit different. It does have some sugar and oil in it and it is a soft cake of bread so I think it must be very close to Mjukkaka.
Regardless, my mother-in-law, Gail Anderson is an excellent bread maker in her own right and quickly picked up the technique from Esther. No one else in the family makes the bread anymore. It has come down to Gail to pass on the method. She tried to teach me once and I was not particulary adept at it (read: pathetic).
I decided it might be better if I invited a few bread making friends over to learn from the master while I recorded their efforts. This is how it came to pass that one bright and sunny fall afternoon found Gail teaching this heritage cooking skill to my friends Tilly Sanchez and Anne Tingley in my kitchen. Anne seemed to get the knack of it straight away and has gone on to make many batches. Though Tilly struggled a bit in the beginning, her mother was Tuscan and Tilly grew up making focaccia, so it only took a few tries on her own before she too had grasped the technique.
What follows are the instructions with some photos. The photos are mostly for beginners as experienced bread makers will think them redundant. Beginners however will value the photos ability to speak the 1000 words that are lost with the lack of a family mentor or teacher. Finally there is a video to show some of the techniques that give this bread its defining characteristic shape and dimples. The video is not the best quality. My apologies for that. I’ve gotten better at video recording since then but I still thought it helpful to include this video because it captures the passing of knowledge. It also shows that the bread is not as easy as it looks to make – even for a bread making proficient like Tilly. Tilly stuck with it and got it and you can too.
My mother-in-law Gail still treats us regularly by showing up at our door with big batches of Grandma Esther’s bread – now Grandma Gail’s bread – and we love it. I hope this post will give her some sense that her skills and knowledge are appreciated and will in this fashion be passed on for future generations. When her grandchildren are ready to learn they will have a family record to refer to and we’ll hope she’s still around to give her helpful pointers as well. This bread is a heritage cooking skill and a family legacy. By spending an afternoon helping my friends learn to make it Gail has passed her skills and knowledge down to future generations.
Thank you for being such an excellent baker Gail and for helping us savour our food. Love, Karen
Halvtjock Kakor -“Hulvchuck” – Half thick Swedish bread aka Mjukkaka or Polarbröd
Esther Richtik’s recipe via her daughter-in-law Gail Anderson via her daughter-in-law Karen Anderson
1 T yeast
½ c warm water
3 c water
¼ c canola oil
¼ c sugar
1 ½ t salt
4 c flour plus more for kneading
1. Put the yeast, warm water and 1 teaspoon of sugar in a big pan or bowl and let it activate until it becomes foamy (about 15 minutes)
2. Add the remaining ingredients but add the flour slowly and stir it in with a wooden spoon until there are no wet spots.
3. Turn the mixture onto a floured surface
4. Let it rest there for 10 minutes
5. Knead the mixture for 10 minutes and sprinkle it and the surface with flour frequently so it does not stick
6. Use ¼ turns and push away with the heel of your hand and then turn and pull back and knead out again. When it is getting close to done it will stop taking on flour
7. Put the dough in a large oiled bowl with a tea towel on top and put in an oven that has been preheated to 150°F (turn the oven off once you put the bread in to rise)
8. Let the dough rise for about an hour until double in bulk (go for a walk)
9. Punch the dough down and give it about 5 good kneads and turns
10. Let it rise again for 30 minutes and then turn onto the counter to form it.
11. Preheat your oven to 500°F
12. Roll the dough out onto a bread board and with a sharp knife cut it into disks (one at a time)
13. Slap the disk down on a floured counter, pick it up and slap down to form a round
14. Repeat this; you should get 6 or 7 rounds from your dough mound
15. Let the disks rest on the floured counter top for about 5 minutes
16. Use your finger tips to punch down the top of each disk making dimples in the rounds as you do
17. Let the disks rise another 5 to 10 minutes
18. Bake the disks 1 – 2 at a time on a flat cookie sheet with no rim for 5 to 7 minutes
19. Remove the pan from under the bread and give it 2 more minutes to cook the bottom
20. Let it cool on a rack and repeat the baking process till all your loaves are golden brown
21. Scrape any excess flour off the loaf bottoms.
22. Eat some fresh and freeze the rest in Ziploc bags. Keeps a few months without freezer burn.
Here’s the video which shows some of the techniques which are hard to describe in words and best learned with a visual aid. Good luck and I hope you enjoy my mother-in-law Gail’s bread as much as her lucky family does.