Bring simplicity, sharing plates and good friends to your Christmas table for a truly hygge experience
Photography: Nassima Rothacker
It’s my first Christmas in Denmark and powdery snow is falling outside as our guests chat around the kitchen table. The aroma of mulled wine wafts towards us and I’m overwhelmed by a warm, fuzzy feeling. It’s like It’s A Wonderful Life meets Elf. This is hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) – the Danish phenomenon that can best be explained as, ‘taking pleasure from the presence of gentle, soothing things’ – and you’ll have noticed that it is huge right now.
The word originated in Norway but the Danes got hold of the idea in the 1800s. It might just explain why Denmark has often been voted the happiest country in the world.
As a Brit who relocated to Denmark three years ago, I’ve learned that the phenomenon comes into its own at Christmas when we have the time and the opportunity to gather friends and family around us. “The most important contributor to our psychological wellbeing is the strength of our relationships – and hygge encourages more intimate time with loved ones,” explains Dr Mark Williamson, director of social movement Action for Happiness.
Food has been a fundamental way of bringing people together since time immemorial but in Denmark, communal eating is non-negotiable. “Having meals together is a very important part of life,” says top Danish chef Trine Hahnemann. And they may be on to something. Yale researchers have discovered that not only is eating with others good for us but it actually makes food taste better because the social interaction intensifies our experience. Robin Dunbar, professor of psychology at Oxford, explains, “The act of eating together triggers the endorphin system in the brain, which plays an important role in social bonding. Eating together helps create social networks that have profound effects on our health.”
But in the UK, it seems, we’ve lost our way. Recent research showed that 78% of Brits no longer sit at a dinner table to eat and the average adult now eats half their meals alone, with increasingly hectic lives to blame. This leaves us feeling emotionally isolated, Dunbar concludes. So now is the perfect time to embrace your own version of hygge.
First up: find yourself a table. In Denmark, every home is centred around a large dining table, “which means there isn’t the same culture of grabbing food on the go and eating in front of the TV,” says Hahnemann. Next: take your time. “It’s really hygge to spend a whole day planning a meal, cooking and entertaining – then we just sit and talk for hours,” says Hahnemann.
Food-wise we’re talking warm, comforting dishes created from local ingredients. Think hearty pies, slow-cooked meats, anything involving gravy or meals your grandmother used to make.
It seems the simple rule to making a meal more hygge is: add carbs. Danes have a joke that a meal’s not really a meal unless there’s at least one type of potato involved. These carbohydrates are proven to raise levels of serotonin, the chemical in the brain that elevates mood, so a rise in happiness levels naturally follows.
While you’ll want to put your own spin on it, the traditional Danish Christmas dinner, served on the 24th, consists of boiled and caramelised potatoes along with roast duck and red cabbage, making it the ultimate hygge fare. As well as simple cocktails, Danes leave jugs of warming gløgg (mulled wine) or wine on the table for everyone to help themselves to.
“At mealtimes everyone’s expected to help out and do their bit,” says Danish cultural sociologist Emilia van Hauen: “That way, there’s less stress for the host.”
So invite everyone round, bring out the sharing platters and warm the mulled wine. Turn over for six recipes and four warming cocktails to get the hygge Christmas spirit flowing.
Helen Russell is the author of The Year Of Living Danishly (£8.99, Icon) and Leap Year (£16.99, Two Roads) out 15 December
Thrice-cooked pork loin
Neil Rankin says: “I much prefer joints of pork or beef at Christmas. With a roast, it’s all about the sharing element. Plus, you can make a club sandwich with the leftovers on Boxing Day with added bacon and maybe some smashed roasties.”
Preparation time: 30 minutes plus overnight chilling. Then 40 minutes and 2-3 hours chilling
Cooking time: 70 minutes
Ingredients (Serves 4-6)
1.5kg boned and rolled pork loin
Start this recipe the day before you want to eat it. If this were for me, I’d knock a few minutes off these timings, but I don’t want to get into trouble, so this recipe cooks the pork loin to medium. The big difference here is that loin can’t be cooked as much as belly, so you have to reduce the end roasting time. But you add an extra low oven drying time so the crackling cooks faster.
Step 1: Put the joint in a pan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to cool in the water for 15 minutes. The pork should reach an internal temperature of around 55°C.
Step 2: Place the pan in the sink under running cold water. When the pork has cooled down so it can be handled, lift it out and dry with a tea towel. Salt the skin, then leave in the fridge overnight, uncovered, to dry slightly and chill.
Step 3: Set your oven to 140°C. Cook the loin from fridge-cold for 40 minutes. On a probe thermometer it should read no more than 60°C internally.
Step 4: Remove the pork from the oven. Cool slightly, then leave it in the freezer for 2-3 hours, to chill completely.
Step 5: Preheat your oven to 220°C. Roast the pork from fridge-cold for 30 minutes, placing the meat on a rack with a tray to catch any fat underneath. The skin should puff up like a balloon. If it goes too dark, pull the pork out and turn down the temperature, then put it back in. The final internal temperature should be no higher than 63°C – if it’s lower, don’t worry as the core temp has already been reached during the previous cooking stages. Serve with roasted vegetables.
From Low And Slow by Neil Rankin (£25, Ebury Press), out now
Torta rustica di patate (rustic potato cake)
Antonio Carluccio says: “When we were children, if we had this rustic potato cake for lunch or dinner, we knew the larder had been thoroughly raided. A piece of salami or ham here, a piece of cheese for flavour there, eggs, parsley, salt and pepper. It’s all about simplicity and this is not very expensive but it’s highly rewarding in taste. I would cook it on Boxing Day – it’s like an Italian version of bubble and squeak. You’re not just reusing leftovers, you’re making a delicious new dish out of them.”
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Ingredients (Serves 6)
1kg floury potatoes
55g cooked ham, cubed
25g buffalo mozzarella, cubed
150g provola cheese (or mozzarella), cubed
55g parmesan, freshly grated
4 medium eggs, beaten
2 tbsps fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
A knob of unsalted butter
4 tbsps white breadcrumbs
4 tbsps extra virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F/Gas Mark 4).
Step 2: Boil the potatoes in salted water until tender, then drain and peel. Pass them through a potato ricer to make a purée, then mix with the ham, cheeses, beaten eggs, parsley and some salt and pepper.
Step 3: Use the butter to grease a round 25cm cake tin, and dust with some of the breadcrumbs. Spoon the potato mixture into this, and press gently with a fork to give some shape. Sprinkle with the remaining breadcrumbs, then trickle over the olive oil.
Step 4: Bake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes, until browned on top. Serve in slices. The cake is very good warm, but also tastes excellent served cold.
From Vegetables by Antonio Carluccio (£25, Quadrille), out now
Chocolate parfait with strawberry sauce
Kirsten Tibballs says: “This is one of my favourite desserts, because of its elegant shape. You can make it in stages over a few weeks and share out the various tasks among your friends to create a real sense of producing something beautiful together.”
Preparation time: 1 hour plus 3-4 hours freezing/simmering time
Assembly time: 20 minutes
Ingredients (Serves 8)
For the parfait:
35g caster sugar (a), plus extra for holding the cones in place
75g egg whites
Pinch of cream of tartar
40g egg yolks
55g caster sugar (b)
105g dark chocolate, chopped
For the strawberry sauce:
250g strawberries, hulled
200g caster sugar
½ tsp vanilla bean paste
For the spun sugar:
300g caster sugar
60g liquid glucose
100g strawberries, diced
Step 1: For this parfait I have used cones created from baking paper triangles. Cut eight individual paper triangles for each parfait, approximately 32 x 24 x 23cm and roll them into a cone shape, ensuring the tip is closed. Fold the ends of the paper into the cone to secure it. Pour some caster sugar into a bowl big enough to stand eight cones in. Ensure the cones are secure.
Step 2: Whisk the cream to a semi-whipped consistency. Set it aside in the refrigerator.
Step 3: Put the sugar (a) and 35ml water in a small saucepan over a medium heat and create a syrup by cooking until the temperature reaches 117°C. (Alternatively, use a teaspoon to take a small amount of the syrup and drop it into a bowl of chilled water. If it is the correct temperature, it will create a pliable ball when you pick it up.)
Step 4: When the sugar syrup starts boiling, use a mixer with a whisk attachment to beat the egg whites and cream of tartar on low speed until medium peaks have formed. When the sugar syrup reaches the correct temperature, pour it directly into the egg whites, still whisking, to make an Italian meringue. (Ensure the syrup doesn’t hit the whisk.) Continue whisking the meringue until it cools slightly, remove from the mixer and set aside.
Step 5: In a clean bowl using the same mixer, beat the egg yolks and sugar (b) on high speed until aerated. Melt the chocolate in the microwave then fold into the meringue with a spatula. Fold through the egg yolk mixture and finally the semi-whipped cream.
Step 6: Transfer the parfait mixture to a piping bag with a 1cm plain nozzle (or use a spoon), and fill the prepared paper cones. Immediately place the cones in the freezer for 3-4 hours to set. This parfait can be made up to 3 weeks in advance if kept frozen, wrapped and stored in the freezer.
Step 7: For the strawberry sauce: roughly dice the strawberries and put them in a bowl that fits snugly over a medium saucepan. Cover with the caster sugar and add the vanilla bean paste. Half-fill the saucepan with water and simmer over a medium heat. Place the bowl of strawberries on top of the saucepan and simmer for 3-4 hours, stirring regularly. Top up the water in the saucepan as needed. (The sugar will extract all the juice from the strawberries.) Leave the strawberries and juice together until required. This can be made up to 2 days in advance and stored in the refrigerator.
Step 8: Prior to serving, pass the mixture through a sieve, pressing with the back of a spoon to remove all the juice from the strawberries. Discard the strawberry pulp and keep the sauce aside ready for assembly.
Step 9: For the spun sugar: put the sugar and 120ml water in a pan over a high heat and bring to the boil. Add the glucose and continue boiling until the temperature reaches 162°C or as soon as the bubbles on the surface of the caramel take on a light golden colour, then remove from the heat. Have a bowl of iced water on hand and if the caramel starts going too dark after you have removed it from the heat, submerge the base of the saucepan into the iced water. Sit at room temperature until the bubbles completely dissipate.
Step 10: Spray two wooden spoon handles with vegetable oil and rub it into the surface. Cover the floor with old newspapers (or do this outside). Lie the two wooden spoons on a work surface, approximately 30cm apart, so that the handles are sticking out from the edge and hanging over the paper. Place two forks into the prepared caramel and use a flicking motion to create thin strands between the spoon handles. Continue to flick until you have enough sugar to bunch together to make a sugar ribbon approximately 30cm in length. You can fold it in half if necessary.
Step 11: One at a time, take each parfait out of the freezer and unmould it, leaving the others in the freezer. Wrap the sugar ribbon around the cone in a spiral and cut off any extra with oiled scissors. The parfait can either be placed directly on a plate for serving or placed back in the freezer to store for up to 6 hours. Repeat the process until each parfait has a spun sugar ribbon. The spun sugar, when left at room temperature, will dissolve in 20 minutes due to the moisture in the atmosphere. Freezing as soon as possible will make sure the ribbon stays intact. You can reheat the caramelised sugar over low heat as needed until it becomes liquid again.
Step 12: Place a parfait with the spun sugar ribbon in the centre of each plate, trim the base if needed so it sits flat. Drizzle strawberry sauce around the outside of the plate – this is sometimes best done at the table so the sauce doesn’t run. Scatter the diced strawberries into the sauce and serve.
From Chocolate by Kirsten Tibballs (£20, Murdoch Books), out now
Trine Hahnemann says: “I love fish soup, but it takes some preparation to make it at home, so it becomes very special. Soup is comforting to eat, it spreads a warm feeling in your body. Then with the table set, candles lit and home-baked bread to share: that is “hyggeligt” (cosy). It’s perfect for a New Year’s dinner. This recipe brings back memories of my first visit to the Brøndums Hotel in Skagen – an iconic place where Denmark’s most famous painters and writers would stay and eat. A place like that carries its stories, so when you visit you can be part of it.”
Preparation time: 2 hours (including making the stock)
Cooking time: 55 minutes
Ingredients (Serves 6)
For the fish stock:
2kg fish bones
4 garlic cloves
1 fennel bulb
1 leek, with green tops
A few parsley sprigs
2 tbsps olive oil
3 bay leaves
10 whole black peppercorns
1 tbsp sea salt
For the soup:
½ tsp saffron strands
500g clams, preferably Venus clams
400g white fish
2 tbsps butter
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 leeks, thinly sliced
1 carrot, finely diced
200g celeriac, diced
2 tbsps plain flour
200ml dry white wine
2 litres hot fish stock (see below)
200ml double (heavy) cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
50g dill, chopped
Step 1: To make the fish stock, rinse the fish bones and place in a stockpot. Roughly chop the garlic, onions, fennel, leek and carrot and add to the bones with 3-4 litres of cold water. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and let it simmer, uncovered, for 2 hours, then strain, discarding the bones and vegetables. Use right away or freeze for later use.
Step 2: Place the saffron in a small bowl, pour over a little boiling water and leave to infuse.
Step 3: Clean the clams by thoroughly scrubbing them under plenty of running water, and discarding any that are broken or don’t close tightly when you tap them. Place the clams in a saucepan, cover and cook for 8 minutes, then set the pan aside, covered.
Step 4: Shell the langoustines and set aside. Cut the white fish into smaller pieces.
Step 5: In a big saucepan, melt the butter then sauté the garlic, shallot, leeks, carrot and celeriac for a few minutes. Add the flour and stir well, then add the white wine and stir well again. Add the stock and saffron, with its soaking liquid, and the cream. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat and let it simmer for 5 minutes.
Step 6: Add the clams with a slotted spoon, the langoustine and white fish, and let it simmer for 3-4 minutes more. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve sprinkled with the dill, and some bread.
From Scandinavian Comfort Food by Trine Hahnemann (£25, Quadrille), out now
Brussels sprout and goat’s cheese galettes
Donna Hay says: “I love the way food like this can make you feel. Uplifted, refreshed, cosy and indulgent. This recipe is enriched with nature’s sprouts in a filling and hearty pastry case.”
Preparation time: 20 minutes plus 30 minutes chilling time
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Ingredients (Serves 4)
300g Brussels sprouts, blanched and quartered
2 tbsps extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp finely grated lemon rind
¼ cup oregano leaves, plus extra for sprinkling
Sea salt and black pepper
2 tbsps store-bought caramelised onion
50g soft goat’s cheese
60g fresh ricotta
1 egg, lightly beaten
For the wholewheat pastry:
70g wholemeal spelt flour
150g wholewheat flour
20g psyllium husk powder
150g unsalted butter, chopped
½ tsp sea salt flakes
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp iced water
Step 1: To make the wholewheat pastry, place both the flours, the psyllium husk powder, butter and salt in a food processor and process until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
Step 2: Add the egg yolk and water and process until a soft dough forms. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface, divide in half and shape into 2 discs. Wrap in plastic clingfilm and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Step 3: Preheat oven to 190°C (375°F). Place the Brussels sprouts, oil, lemon rind, oregano, salt and pepper in a bowl and toss to coat. Roll out each piece of dough between 2 sheets of non-stick baking paper to form 2 x 20cm rounds. Place on 2 baking trays and remove the top sheets of paper. Divide the caramelised onion between the pastry rounds and top with the Brussels sprout mixture, goat’s cheese and ricotta.
Step 4: Fold in the edges of the pastry to slightly enclose and brush the edges with egg. Sprinkle the galettes with the extra oregano and bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden.
From Life In Balance by Donna Hay (£18.99, Harper Collins)
Gizzi Erskine says: “Seasonal celebrations offer me the chance to skip back to a more innocent time. Cooking parmesan in rounds makes the most beautifully lacy snowflake-like bases. Too Christmassy to ignore.”
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Ingredients (Makes 24)
For the pickled beetroot:
250ml white wine vinegar
100g golden caster sugar
30g sea salt flakes
1 thyme sprig
A pinch of chilli flakes
3 purple beetroots, peeled, diced
For the goat’s cheese:
220g firm goat’s cheese
100ml double cream
1 tsp truffle oil
Salt and ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
For the parmesan crisps:
A few thyme sprigs, leaves picked and chopped
120g parmesan cheese, grated
Chopped chervil and/or dill
Step 1: First make the pickled beetroot. Heat the vinegar, sugar, salt, thyme and chilli in a pan until the sugar has melted. Add the beetroot and simmer for 10 minutes, then leave aside to cool.
Step 2: To make the mousse, blend the goat’s cheese, cream, truffle oil, salt and ground pepper in a food processor until smooth and light. Transfer to a piping bag.
Step 3: For the parmesan crisps, preheat the oven to 190°C/Gas Mark 5. Line a baking tray with baking parchment.
Step 4: Mix the thyme and parmesan, then sprinkle on to the parchment in rounds, about 3cm in diameter and 2mm thick. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes, then remove and allow to cool. Step 5: Construct just before serving: lay the discs on a large serving platter. Pipe a little of the goat’s cheese mousse on to each disc, and top with half a tsp, of the pickled beetroot. Sprinkle a little dill or chervil over the top.
From Gizzi’s Season’s Eatings by Gizzi Erskine (£25, Mitchell Beazley)