Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Fabulous Finnish Foodstuffs Part 1 - Salmiakki

Salmiakki - a foodstuff so loved by Finns and Scandinavians, it's hard to think that many people in the UK have never heard of it. Fortunately for me, I have.

I've been a big liquorice addict since my Mum bought me sickly sweet panda sticks to chew on, in the vain belief they were healthier than sweets, just because the health food shop sold them. Over the years I moved on to harder stuff - the catherine wheels with their brightly coloured centres, the Bassets sticks so hard you can chip a molar on them and finally on to liquorice root. A chance encounter with a Finnish Landscape Architect on a train to Liverpool (true story) introduced me to the wonder than is Salmiakki - or salty liquorice as it's known (or as it's easier to pronounce!).

Salmiakki and vodka - what perfect combination!

Salmiakki isn't just liquorice and salt, it's actually flavoured with aluminium chloride - hence the moniker, a take on sal ammoniac, which is the chemical's Latin name. The addition of the chloride has been described as 'like licking the sea' 'stinging' and 'tongue stripping' amongst other things. It's definitely an acquired taste, I'm just happy I acquired it.

I'm actually a huge fan, something that tickles my Finnish friends as they're not used to Brits liking this - indeed our first night in Helsinki was rounded off by them buying us salmiakki shots and laughing to themselves as they expected us to spit it back out. They weren't too pleased when I a) already knew what it was (thanks Finnish Landscape Architect) and b) really enjoyed it, ordered another round and beat them in a drinking competition. Whoops.

Visiting or living in Finland you see there's more than just salmiakki in vodka and chewing gum - it's in ice cream, chocolate, drinks, sweets and probably lots of other things I don't realise because I don't read Finnish very well. If you're in Helsinki, pop along to the little coffee hut on the lush green corridor of the Bulevardi and pick up a salmiakki cone, the cream sweetness balances out the salt perfectly. However if it's the middle of winter with a thick blanket of snow of the ground then you can just pop in to the local supermarket and pick up a salmiakki ice lolly - yes indeed - but unless you're a salmiakki addict this might be a step too far, as for me this gets overpowering and almost tastes like licking hair dye once you're about half way through.

Hair dye on a stick - I mean salmiakki ice lolly
There's a lot to be said to the astringent salty tang, especially when paired with the milky sweetness of chocolate - we had a brilliant dessert at Mami in Turku, which paired chocolate ice cream with salmiakki sauce and toffee shards - inspired. So much so I've created my own Salmiakki sauce at home, so I can recreate this pudding and many others like it.

Scandilicious - first attempt at salmiakki sauce

I started off using Signe Johansen's (Scandilicious) recipe for salmiakki caramel - which includes melting down salmiakki sweets and adding them to the caramel recipe. However I'm not very patient and these took forever, plus they didn't yield the right flavour for me, so I reverted back to my Mum's recipe for caramel (which is actually my grandma's and could actually be my great-grandma's) and then popped in salmiakki vodka and some salt to get the right taste.

Melting the salmiakki sweets - didn't work

Salmiakki Caramel Sauce

1 1/4 cups unrefined caster sugar
2 1/2 cups boiling water
1 dessertspoon full unsalted butter (the salmiakki is very salty so unsalted is best here)
1 tbsp cornflour
50ml salmiakki
Pinch of salt (optional)

1. Melt the sugar in a heavy based pan until it has turned an amber colour (keep your eye on it so it doesn't get too brown or catch)

2. Take off the heat and very carefully add the boiling water - but be very careful as it will spit at you

3. Put back on the heat to boil, until all the sugar has dissolved

4. Cream the butter and cornflour together and then stir into the caramel mixture until it thickens up slightly

5. Take of the heat and add half the salmiakki, stir and VERY CAREFULLY taste (watch out, caramel is extremely hot - I tend to keep a little glass of water by the stove, put some sauce on the spoon, dip it in the water to cool and then taste it). I usually use about 50ml of salmiakki, but it can be more/less so just keep adding, tasting and stirring in

6. Once the taste is right, add a little salt if you think it's necessary

7. Add back on to the heat to get it to the right consistency - but be careful not to ovrecook as you don't want toffee, but a pouring caramel

8. Enjoy over ice cream or on bananas or with chocolate mousse - or however you fancy it!

NB - the sauce will keep in a jug in the fridge (covered) for about two weeks, but will solidify a bit, so you may have to take it out a long time before you want to use it and then pop it back on the heat for a minute or so.

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