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February 23, 2017
During Denmark’s Dark and Hungry Winter, Hygge Is More Than a Cozy Sweater

The thing about traveling from New York City to Denmark in February to experience hygge, the trendy Scandinavian lifestyle concept most frequently (though not entirely accurately) translated as “cozy,” is that in order to do this, you will be forced to engage for almost eight hours in just about the least hygge activities imaginable: flying overnight on an airplane, alternating between watching, say, Two Weeks Notice and Unlikely Animal Friends, praying for sleep, mentally rehearsing the right way to say “hygge” (it’s “hoo-geh”) so that you don’t embarrass yourself, and contemplating the morality of leaving America during a time of political unrest, when airports have become ground zero for protests against immigration bans. See? Not so cozy.

And yet, despite all that, I knew it would still be worth the effort to go to Copenhagen and participate in the hygge phenomenon firsthand instead of just reading the often simplistic—and sometimes just plain snarky—takes on hygge that have been populating pretty much every media outlet you can think of, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, People, and even The New Yorker. And it’s not just articles; there has also been a preponderance of books released on the subject, like Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living and the just-published The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort, and Connection. So, yeah, I’d been assured via multiple articles that hygge was as simple as pulling on a pair of warm, snowflake-patterned woolen socks, nestling up in a big down blanket, and eating a steaming bowl of Danish gronkaal (a hearty potato-and-kale soup studded with salty bites of ham) while, I don’t know, staring out my frosty window upon the gray winter wasteland that is Brooklyn in February. Oh, and lighting a candle; hygge is nothing without candles. But it seemed to me that hygge must have a deeper meaning.

Don’t get me wrong: This type of coziness can be a wonderful thing. Who doesn’t occasionally want to retreat to a womb-like atmosphere (well, if wombs had really flattering lighting and gronkaal) every once in a while? But the trappings of hygge that have been so frequently reported upon by American and British journalists salivating at the thought of finding the next Konmari have felt off to me, perhaps because they are so clearly superficial, as if hygge were something that could easily be achieved from the outside in, like it has no more weight conceptually than a featherlight down blanket, the Ur-hygge accessory.

I wanted to see how to reach a state of hygge from the inside out, to find an inner coziness. And how better to do that than through food, which plays a starring role in a Dane’s life, particularly during the dark days of Danish winter. So it was off to Copenhagen, where, rather than basking in sunlight and blue skies (there are only about eight hours of sunlight in early February), I would be cozying up in the warm glow of candlelight and eating the kind of food that would make me forget about the depressing weather.

So Danish: A dip in the icy harbor waters.

We descend through a thick cream of clouds; it was impossible to know we were approaching the ground until the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac. Copenhagen itself is suffused with a dim silver light, as if the shades had been drawn against the sun. It’s noon; the sky would be blue-black in just four hours’ time.My hunt for hygge begins at Brdr Price, a restaurant located in the city center, just south of Kongens Have (the “King’s Garden”), that has the feel of a grand country estate. The ceilings loom high overhead, the white walls are liberally lined with framed oil paintings depicting everything from seaside landscapes to John Singer Sargent–esque portraits.

It’s a place redolent with history, though it is only a handful of years old; this is due to the fact that many of the paintings were done by the owners’ father, and the food itself speaks to traditional Danish cuisine, the kind that embodies the spirit of hygge. There, I speak with James Price, co-owner along with his brother, Adam, of several restaurants in Denmark. As we talk, Price sets about making an off-menu meal for me of the official national Danish dish, stegt flaesk, comprising crispy pork belly and creamy boiled potatoes married with a bright parsley béarnaise. (Verdict: delicious. Would eat again. And again and again.) We speak about everything from Price’s upbringing as the son of well-known Danish actors to the rise of new Nordic cuisine. And, of course, the concept of hygge.

Price’s response to my interest in hygge proves to be one I would receive again and again from various people in Copenhagen. Professional chefs and restaurant owners, high school students and recent college grads and Danes old enough to find the current fervid interest in all things Scandinavian surprising all thought the same thing: What’s the big deal? “It’s just people getting together around something,” Price tells me as he chops parsley. “It doesn’t have to be food. It probably involves coffee, though.” (We don’t have coffee with our pork belly; we have beer.)

A criticism of hygge (every trend has its corresponding backlash, after all) is that it is inherently insular, and that it can only be practiced by a privileged few who can afford to hunker down and escape from the woes of the world under $400 dove-gray bamboo blankets while the rest of society suffers. This is definitely on my mind during my weekend in Denmark, this notion that hygge isn’t about surrounding yourself with good things, but rather pretending that the bad things don’t exist. This dichotomy, though, strikes me as something very American in nature, premised as it is on conditions of the extreme. Of course hygge can seem like an elitist pastime when it exists in a population with a very small but powerful class of the ultra-wealthy. And of course when hygge is presented as something that can be achieved by purchasing this speckled ceramic coffee mug and that hand-carved oaken serving bowl, rather than by just hanging out with friends and cooking and eating and talking, then, yeah, cynicism will abound.

But in my time in Denmark, I see little to be cynical about. Instead I see a couple in their late 60s take a quick jump in the crystalline harbor water (it’s fed by the North and Baltic seas and is approximately 40 degrees Fahrenheit in February), then head into the charming café La Banchina for breakfast with their children and grandchildren. I also jump in the water for a moment. My lungs contract so abruptly that I cannot draw breath as I swim back to the dock while two swans laugh at me in the distance; I’ve never felt more achingly close to death while life is still in plain sight. (I’d do it again tomorrow. And I’d especially do it again in the summer.)

Winter potatoes at the Torvehallerne market.

I see children in snowsuits trailing their parents in Torvehallerne, the beautiful and idiosyncratic food hall in the center of the city. I see countless people on bicycles even though the weather while I am there is never anything other than grim, alternating between snow and sleet and oppressively low-hanging clouds. I see clutches of friends walking down the street laughing and shouting, ducking into doorways, their arms laden with canvas tote bags filled, I imagine, with bread and wine, undoubtedly headed for their weekly standing dinner party. I go to a big communal dinner in an old church called Absalon, where for just 50 kroner (about eight dollars) hundreds of people feast on platters of jewel-toned salads showered with feathery hills of dill and enormous bowls of hearty, still bubbling vegetable soup; I see everyone there making new friends and connecting with old ones in a gloriously cacophonous room. While wandering the city on foot and on bike (and I am lucky enough not to be alone; I coerced my boyfriend into snagging the last seat on my Norwegian Airlines flight just one hour before we had to be at the airport), I feel cozy not because I am retreating from the world but because I am connecting with it. I am not just practicing hygge; I am living it.

After my icy dip I’m off to meet with Trine Hahnemann, who is sort of the Danish Ina Garten, having published several successful cookbooks centered around things like Scandinavian home cooking and baking, operating a renowned catering company, and owning the kind of home that you just want to move right into. Hahnemann and I meet at Torvehallerne to pick up some ingredients for the dinner party she is throwing that night at her home. As we peruse the rows of luridly red radishes, dirt-flecked potatoes the size of ping pong balls, and darkly ruffled heaps of kale, Hahnemann explains to me that while organic is very important in Denmark, living by the law of “local and seasonal” is not as much of a priority, particularly in winter, when it would be wildly limiting. This means there are tomatoes from Spain and oranges from Sicily and strawberries from wherever still grows strawberries in February, but for our meal, we hew close to the kind of produce that might still be stocked in a Danish cellar at this time of year: potatoes, onions, beets, parsnips, cauliflower, kale.

Trine Hahnemann

With these ingredients, we are planning a very traditional Danish meal: an appetizer of lumpfish roe, Danish smoked cheese, and home-baked spelt focaccia; a main consisting of bay leaf– and clove-studded roasted pork breast with cracklings over root vegetables; a cauliflower and kale salad with caper dressing; all finished off by a walnut-chocolate-orange cake and Danish “fromage,” basically a buttermilk panna cotta with crumbled almond meringue and a gooseberry compote. Delicious and not fussy. This isn’t food that needs to be intellectualized, just enjoyed. These are all dishes that stem from tradition; the fromage and pork cracklings are familiar to everyone at the table as childhood favorites. There is a lineage here, another opportunity for connection.

While certainly large by NYC galley kitchen standards, Hahnemann’s kitchen is not overwhelming in size, and it has been designed for efficiency, which, of course, gives it its own charming aesthetic. Open cabinets line one wall, and they are filled with spices, oils, vinegars, flours, and other dry goods; along the length of the well-worn wooden counter is ample space for two people to chop vegetables side by side, for a cake to sit cooling in wait for dessert time, for a stack of cookbooks (her own), for salad bowls. While she cooks, Hahnemann explains the provenance of each element of the meal, and though she puts me to work destemming kale and dill, it is impossible not to marvel at her total ease and grace in the kitchen. Not a movement is wasted as she sets about preparing this feast, pausing only to make me inhale the scent of the bay leaves pulled from her garden.

Hygge is more than twinkling candles, soft fabrics, and perfectly roasted pork. It’s an attitude (though the Danish pork was incredible!).

But the most hygge aspect of the evening is the company at the table. Hahnemann and her husband, Niels Peter, have assembled a group of friends that keep the conversation lively and, yes, topical. There is no hiding from uncomfortable talking points at this table; rather, there is a willingness to engage with the things that are the very opposite of hygge. But the mood isn’t ruined simply because a certain president’s name is invoked. Since the foundation for hygge is already laid, and since we are all drinking wine and enjoying the food, there is no fear of a conversation centered around controversy descending into chaos. Instead the whole experience feels sustaining, from the food to the drink to the people. This is how you stay cozy during Danish winters, I think. You fill yourself up with every last bit of warmth that you can, whether through candlelight, homemade bread, or lively conversation.

While it is true that not every home cook will automatically and easily prepare a meal like Hahnemann did that night (though, really, while she is masterful at them, all the recipes were simple enough to follow, and two are included below), the spirit of hygge can be replicated at any dinner table, whether it is a party of 14, as Hahnemann’s was that night, or just a couple who are seeing each other after a long day at work.

Hygge is not, after all, so different from that other current popular lifestyle trend, self-care, in that it encourages an approach to life founded upon connecting—with those around you and with yourself. And there’s no need to go to Denmark to understand hygge (although, if you can go, do…it’s pretty special), but it is important to know that hygge might include plush blankets and woolen socks, but there’s no need to complicate coziness with consumerism. If you really want to practice hygge, simply have friends over, cook some hearty fare, crack a bottle of wine, and, yes, light a candle or two, and get comfortable living hygge instead of just accessorizing for it.

Photos by Rasmus Malmstroem; contributions by Thomas Høyrup Christensen and Jørgen Schytte

For the pork
1 lemon
1 whole head of garlic
10 thyme sprigs
6 pound pork loin, bone in and skin scored in a harlequin pattern
10 cloves
4 bay leaves
1¾ cups water
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the vegetables
2 pounds medium potatoes, unpeeled
3 onions, unpeeled
4 tablespoons lovage leaves, chopped
4 tablespoons parsley leaves, chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

2. Slice the lemon and cut the garlic in half. Mix the lemon, garlic, and thyme together and place in a roasting tin. Rub the pork with salt and pepper and place on top. Push the cloves and bay leaves into the scored skin incisions and pour half the water into the tin. Roast for 45 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, wash the potatoes and onion. Halve the potatoes and onion, leaving the skin on. Take the roasting tin out of the oven and place the potatoes and onions around the pork, mixing the fat that has run off the pork into the vegetables. Pour in the remaining water and roast a further 45-50 minutes. Check the internal temperature. A thermometer should read around 143°F at the thickest part of the roast; continue roasting if it has not reached that temperature. Leave to rest out of the oven for about 15 minutes before carving, keeping the vegetables warm.

4. Arrange the pork in slices on one big platter, with bones on the side, the crackling on top, and the potatoes and onions alongside. Velbekomme!

For the buttermilk fromage
4 sheets of leaf gelatin
1 vanilla bean pod
¾ cup double (heavy) cream
¼ cup granulated sugar
2½ cups buttermilk

For the gooseberry compote
14 ounces gooseberries
¾ cup granulated sugar

For the macaroons
2 egg whites
½ cup superfine sugar
¾ cup whole almonds, finely ground in a food processor

1. Soak the gelatin in a little cold water until soft. Split the vanilla pod (bean) in half lengthways and scrape out the seeds with the the tip of a knife. Place the cream, sugar, and vanilla seeds in a pan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and set aside for two minutes. Lief the gelatin out of the water and squeeze out the water. Add the drained gelatin to the cream mixture and whisk well to distribute it evenly. Pour the mixture into a mixing bowl, add the buttermilk, and gently mix.

2. Pour the tepid fromage mixture into a large serving bowl or six individual glasses, about 200 ml or ¾ cup each. Set aside until the fromage starts to set, then cover with cling film and refrigerate for at least six hours or overnight.

3. For the gooseberry compote, place the gooseberries in a pan and let them simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes, then add the sugar, stir well, and simmer for another 15 minutes. Leave to cool, then store in jars in the fridge. It will not keep for more than two to three weeks.

4. Heat the oven (not convection) to 225°F. Line a baking sheet with baking parchment. Whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, then add the sugar, one tablespoon at a time, whisking well after each addition, until all the sugar has been used and the mixture is smooth and shiny. Fold in the ground almonds. Use a teaspoon to spoon about 25 small mounds of the mixture onto the lined baking sheet, leaving a space between each.

5. Bake for about 50 minutes, then increase the oven temperature to 275°F and bake for about 10 minutes more or until golden. Carefully lift the baking parchment from the sheet with the macaroons still on it, and transfer to a wire rack to cool. When ready to serve, spoon some compote on top of the fromage, crumble the macaroons, and sprinkle over the compote. Serve right away.

Recipes courtesy of Scandinavian Comfort Food: Embracing the Art of Hygge by Trine Hahnemann, Quadrille Publishing, copyright 2016

Kristin Iversen

Kristin Iversen is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She's the digital deputy editor at Nylon and is very appreciative of the myriad lunch options near her office, though she also wishes she more often remembered to bring lunch from home.