When I studied abroad in France, I tried to start most mornings with a visit to the patisserie. On late nights out, my friends and I would end up at the window of a bakery that would hand us croissants right out of the oven. I love a pain au chocolat. A good brioche suisse is a thing of beauty. A croissant and a cafe au lait are a match made in heaven. So it is with the most thorough consideration and deliberation that I have come to a sure-to-be-unpopular conclusion: Scandinavian pastries are the best ones on earth. Yes, better than French pastries, the ones that usually bear the superlative.
When offered the choice, I will always choose the cardamom roll, or the tebirke, or the cinnamon bun over the kouign-amann or the canele. French pastries come out swinging: packed with luxurious amounts of butter, sweet as all get out, boasting chocolate or almond paste or caramelized fruit that—if you’re doing it right—spills out unapologetically. They will cover you in buttery flakes and make your fingers slick, leaving grease stains on your morning newspaper. They are delicious, but they are, frankly, a bit much sometimes.
I prefer a gentler start to the morning. Scandinavian pastries—much like that region’s heavily Instagrammed minimalist interiors—are more subtle. They offer herbs and spices and nuts: things that smell and taste amazing without cloyingly coating the tongue. The pastry is a bit lighter, sometimes with a crunch instead of a crackle, more of a crumb instead of a flake. Often, they are less laminated dough, and more like cakes and sweet breads and rolls. They seem meant to accompany strong coffee instead of compete with it. Scandinavian pastries don’t show off.
I had had limited exposure to Scandinavian pastries before I went to Amsterdam last fall around this time. I was traveling alone—blissfully so—in a time of some personal tumult, and was near giddy at the prospect of being able to wile away some afternoons drinking coffee and reading and people-watching in a place that was not New York and therefore a place in which I had no real obligations to attend to besides my own whims.
It turns out that I am not very good at wiling away afternoons in a new city. Those non-obligations become hard to ignore when they’re small beautiful streets to explore and canals to walk by and museums to linger in, but I did still seek out coffee (of course) and a few minutes of calm. I found it most every day at a cafe called Scandinavian Embassy in a neighborhood called De Pijp, right around the corner from my AirBnB. The space was sparse and bright, with weathered wood counters and metal stools and white walls. They had strong black coffee and a counter filled with pastries. Over the course of my week there, I tried their cinnamon buns and their cardamom rolls and their carrot cake. I sat at the counter and drank and ate slowly and quietly. On my very last day, before going to the airport, I ate a cardamom roll and asked them to box up a slice of carrot cake. I dropped it in my carry-on for safe-keeping.
I arrived back home in Brooklyn as the clock struck midnight, officially ushering in my 25th birthday. Early the next morning, I woke up to a New York that had turned into chilly fall while I’d been gone, only to find that—despite my weeklong escape—I still was not quite on steady ground. But I padded to the kitchen, found the white Scandinavian Embassy box, grabbed a fork, and climbed back in bed. There are not many better ways that I know of to fortify oneself on one’s 25th birthday than carrot cake from Amsterdam for breakfast.
Now happy and resettled—tumult more or less passed—Scandinavian pastries and a cup of coffee are still the gentle escape I need. I’ll eat tebirke with a friend for an early breakfast before work or a cinnamon roll for an afternoon snack after a long day of walking, and have a flicker of that feeling of relief I felt on my own in Amsterdam: cozy as a warm cardamom bun, and just as necessary.