By Susan Able, Photography by Nicole Crowder
The life of an embassy chef is a busy one. Just ask Chef Frida Johansson, the Executive Chef to the Ambassador of Sweden to the United States. We meet Frida where she spends her working hours: the kitchen in the residence of Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter, Sweden’s first female ambassador to the United States.
As I arrive, Chef Frida is prepping dessert, a white chocolate cheesecake with cloudberry sorbet. On the stove is the main course, a Swedish crawfish soup, where stock made with crawfish shells that have been roasted and torched with cognac is bubbling away; cream and crawfish meat will be added in before serving. Just another dinner at the Residence, that night for 16. She cooks for parties for two to 500; it varies week to week, and with big events it totals over 7,000 people a year. She laughs as she tells me, “You gotta remember that I’m only one person.”
Even in mid-October, Frida was already well underway with plans for her biggest party of the year, the St. Lucia’s Day celebration held at House of Sweden in Georgetown. And since Chef Frida has raised the bar on herself for this already popular event, she is committed to making each year even more magical and exciting than the ones before.
The 32-year-old culinary powerhouse tells me she is from a “super super small place in western Sweden, about 70 kilometers outside Gothenburg,” and decided to go to culinary school after thinking about fashion design. Her creative expressions are as strong as her chops in the kitchen and she tells me, “What is important to me is putting my signature on every dish from Sweden, taking something traditional and making it modern, or giving it something unexpected.”
Equally unexpected was her journey to the Embassy and the United States. Frida worked abroad after graduation, including a stint cooking in New Zealand. She returned home to Sweden for a month, only to be involved in a near-fatal car accident which required extensive recovery, waylaying other plans.
Frida laughs, “It was the right place at the right time. Because of the accident, I ended up staying in Sweden, cooking for a very well-known chef who was good friends with an even better-known chef, Leif Mannerström. The Ambassador [then-Ambassador Jonas Hafström] was friends with Chef Leif, and he recommended me from knowing my work. They trusted his opinion and hired me. I came to the U.S. in 2010 to spend what I thought would be one exciting year. As you see, it is now eight and a half years later.”
“I’ve stayed because I love my job. It is up to me to be creative, to come up with new ideas and try them. Obviously, I also like living in DC; this is such an interesting multicultural city. I take very seriously that I have a great opportunity to represent Sweden and Swedish cuisine. People think Swedish food and think ‘meatballs at IKEA,’ that is all that we have. But it is not. Our day-to-day food culture is so fabulous and healthy—the Nordic diet is just a healthy way of eating. Vegetables and lean protein, the way you should be eating. Sustainability is big for us and eating seasonally is just something we do. The winter for me means root vegetables and game, winter seafood.”
Frida talks about ingredients too. I taste a cloudberry marinating in a spiked punch; it looks like a golden raspberry but tastes so different. She explains, “I use things like produce and meats produced locally here all the time, but there are certain things that are only in Sweden, like cloudberries, tiny North Sea shrimp, sea buckthorn, crawfish, wild Norwegian salmon, and herring. These are things I have to bring over, mainly for the big holidays or in season, because they define our cuisine. For a Swede, what is a party without pickled herring?”
Frida’s Saffron Buns
By Frida Johansson
Your journey to the world’s most delicious saffron buns starts the day before you actually put them in the oven by letting the saffron infuse the milk you will use in the sponge. This is my take on a traditional holiday bun that everybody makes at home and you will love it. Our cuisine has been very influenced by international trade for centuries, so that is why you will see spices from the Silk Road and Asia in our food like saffron, cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon.
Makes 40 buns.
2⅛ cups milk
¼ cup fresh yeast
1.2 grams saffron (1 hearty pinch or 1 packet)
520 grams all-purpose flour (3.6 cups)
10½ tablespoons butter, at room temperature
¾ and 2 tablespoons sugar
2 grams salt (2 hearty pinches)
320 grams all-purpose flour (2.3 cups)
300 grams almond paste
2½ tablespoons sugar
1 vanilla bean OR 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
9 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon water
1 pinch salt
Swedish pearl sugar, available at Whole Foods (or regular sugar)
Start with ¼ cup of milk, warming it gently without reaching a simmer. Add the saffron and let it infuse the milk for about 15 minutes. Then add the rest of the milk and put it in the fridge overnight, or for at least 12 hours.
The next day, warm up the milk to body temperature and dissolve the yeast into it. Add the flour and mix. Once it comes together, knead the dough for 5 minutes. Let it rest, covered by a dish towel, for about 15–20 minutes. If you are mixing with a stand mixer, you will want to use the dough hook for this. If you are mixing by hand, consider this recipe to be your cardio for the day!
Once the sponge has rested, add the ingredients listed under the “dough” section: butter, sugar, salt and more flour. Knead or mix until the dough is smooth, glossy and starts to release any hard edges. If you are kneading by hand, just keeping kneading until you can’t do it anymore!
Let the dough rest under a dish towel again for about 20–30 minutes.
While the dough rests, prepare the filling. Mix the almond paste with sugar and vanilla sugar. Add the butter gradually until you have a smooth and fully combined filling. Don’t forget that the butter needs to be room temperature.
Roll out the dough in a large rectangle on a lightly floured surface. It should be about 18 by 27 inches, and about .2 inch thick (half a centimeter). That’s about the size of a full-size sheet pan, for reference. Spread the filling evenly over the dough, all the way to the edges.
Now it’s time to knot your saffron buns. Step one: Looking at the rectangle of dough and filling in front of you, grasp the top edge of the dough and fold it toward you, so that you have a long, skinny rectangle in front of you. Try to fold it as smoothly as you can, with the edges from the top layer of dough matching the edges on the bottom.
Step two: Cut the folded dough into long skinny strands about 1½ inches wide. You can cut the strips with a knife, a pizza cutter or scissors.
Step three: Imagine you’re playing rock, paper, scissors. Make the “scissors” with your non-dominant hand, and then wrap a strand of dough around your 2 fingers twice. Then tie the dough into a loose knot by wrapping the dough around the middle of the loops you just created and tucking the middle into a loop. Overall, this action will remind you of wrapping up a pair of headphones.
Repeat with the rest of your dough pieces, placing each knot onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Once you’ve finished making all of your knots, cover the buns with a dish towel and let them rise for about 1–2 hours.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Now that your buns have risen, beat the egg with the water and salt to make an egg wash and brush each bun with it. Sprinkle the sliced almonds and pearl sugar over the buns. Bake 13–15 minutes, or until your saffron buns are golden brown. Alternately, bake without the topping, let cool, then brush with melted butter and dip in sugar.