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Tusind tak: Scandinavian sweets spread to U.S.

LOS ANGELES — They come in slippery, tongue-twisting names such as "spandauer," "hyldeblomst sorbet" and "gelehallon." And they are spreading across America.

They are the sweets of Scandinavia, treats once relegated mostly to the Midwest, where Norwegians and Swedes have settled for generations. But in recent years, stores specializing in the confections have increasingly shown up in urban areas, such as Los Angeles and New York City, ushering in a growing curiosity among foodies.

These stores represent the exotic new kid on the block in places long dominated by Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai and Indian foods.

"My thing, when I opened, was that everybody here knows what a 'Danish' is, quote, unquote, but they don't really know what a real one is," said Copenhagen-born Rasmus "Ray" Lee, 41, co-owner of two-year-old Hygge (pronounced "hyoo-geh"), believed to be the first Danish bakery to open in Los Angeles.

"A real one has marzipan in it. It's got custard," he said. "Normally, a 'Danish' here is very heavy and kind of glutinous. The flour we use is local flour, lighter."

What Americans call "Danishes," Scandinavians call "wienerbrod" ("vee-nuh-bro"), which means "Vienna bread," since the pastry style has Austrian roots. "Hygge" is a concept central to all Scandinavian cultures: a focus on relaxation and enjoyment, also related to eating and food.

Scandinavians, when asked why sweets are so popular in their part of the world, may chalk it up to needing comfort through long, cold winters. But they also have an appreciation for whole, natural ingredients and smaller portions. Ice cream is made from fresh fruit, and candy is sculpted out of real sugar instead of corn syrup. It's common for people to munch on sweets with almost every meal.

Lee wanted to create what he's always loved in Denmark. When he moved to the U.S., he couldn't find worthy pastries or cakes, he said. Visiting his family, he used to go straight from the Copenhagen airport to a bakery. In Scandinavian countries, he also noted, an active lifestyle offsets an active sweet tooth.

"Also, this stuff isn't too fattening," said Lee. "It's low gluten, low cholesterol."

At Hygge, a large glass display case boasts dozens of pastries ranging from kringle bars — square and crisp, also popular in Norway — to round vanilla-, raspberry- and apple-filled spandauer ("span-dow-uh").

The pastries are made from a combination of dough and softened margarine which then is flattened and folded into 27 thin layers, frozen overnight, then steamed, shaped and baked. Hygge sells several hundred pastries a week, said Lee, who plans to open satellite shops.

In Manhattan's West Village, six-month-old Scandinavian bulk candy store Sockerbit Sweet & Swedish carries 140 different types of colorful candy and chocolate in bins contrasted by sleek, white walls. Offerings include classic Swedish raspberry gelatin bits dusted with sugar, called gelehallon, and banana marshmallow dipped in chocolate. Everything comes from factories in Sweden, Denmark and Finland, said co-owner Stefan Ernberg, 36. He plans to open more stores, including in Los Angeles.

Licorice is popular, he said, with sweet flavors for American customers, such as Finnish red licorice, and salty, traditional flavors for Scandinavians, such as black Danish licorice. A much wider variety of nonpackaged candy exists in Scandinavia, said Ernberg, a Swede.

Native Dane Mia Pedersen, 30, opened the first U.S. offshoots of the Danish ice-cream chain Paradis in Southern California two years ago with her brother and her boyfriend. They had fallen in love with the product back in Denmark and approached the company about bringing it to America.

Made on site, the low-fat ice cream includes traditional Danish flavors, such as elderflower, known as hyldeblomst ("hyoole-blomst"), with its light, flowery taste, and orange-buttermilk.

"In some ways we educate people a little bit," said Pedersen. "A lot of my customers ask about the black dots in the vanilla. They're used to artificial vanilla. In Denmark, people know ingredients because you grow up seeing your parents cook. The kids here learn a lot from coming here. I bring out a bag of vanilla beans from the kitchen, let them smell it and see it."

As for why Scandinavian sweets stores have just started to reach out to coastal urban centers, Lee has one theory, citing "Jante law," a Scandinavian concept of self-deprecation and modesty.

"Danish stuff should be all over the world. Thai food, pizza, is all over the world," said Lee. "But you have to be 'Jante law.' You're not supposed to stick out. You're supposed to blend in. You can't be too ambitious, or people start ridiculing you. People have very high skills, but they're not allowed, culturally, to admit it."

Rasmus Lee works in his Hygge Bakery in Los Angeles, where he sells several hundred Scandinavian pastries a week. - AP photo