Duluth author and Minnesota treasure Beatrice Ojakangas has published an astonishing 30 cookbooks (the first one, “The Finnish Cookbook,” debuted in 1964 and is still in print).
For her latest, she’s culled 13 of those titles for recipes — 250 of them — in a compilation titled “Breakfast With Beatrice” (University of Minnesota Press, $19.95), which emphasizes her Scandinavian roots — and expertise — as it covers all kinds of delicious, easy-to-prepare morning fare, from oven-baked skillet pancakes and almond-cinnamon rolls to egg casseroles and wild rice porridge.
It’s a busy time to be debuting a book. Ojakangas and her husband Richard, a retired University of Minnesota geology professor, are in the process of downsizing, leaving their rural Duluth home of 41 years — and its remarkable, designed-for-a-cookbook-author kitchen, complete with walk-in refrigerator — for an apartment in the city.
“It’s like we’re moving into a resort,” she said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
They’re well into the process of decluttering (“And boy, is there a lot to clean out,” she said with a laugh), including the 2,000-title cookbook collection she recently donated to the University of Minnesota.
In a phone conversation, as she readied for a Realtor home tour and researched the warranty on her treasured 17-year-old double ovens, Ojakangas — known to friends and family as “Peaches” — discussed wild rice as a morning ingredient, ripe bananas and what Americans can learn about breakfast from Scandinavians.
Q: Why do we need to have a good breakfast?
A: It’s that adage, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” All nutritionists will say that you have to start the day well, or you won’t be able to have sustained energy for the day. I’d say skip the frosted doughnuts, and stuff like that, because that’s just fuel that burns quickly. It’s like heating your house with newspapers.
Q: What can we glean from Scandinavia’s approach to breakfast?
A: They eat such balanced diets, and they eat healthy foods for breakfast. I think about a buffet we encountered in Iceland, which was fish, cold cuts, cheese and really crunchy whole-grain breads. We wouldn’t have thought of that here, but that all makes for a really great beginning of the day. It doesn’t have to be a big production, either. If you’re in a hurry, there’s nothing wrong with having fruit, granola, nuts and yogurt for breakfast. It’s appealing. It’s like dessert, but it’s not sweet.
Q: That reminds me of your ripe bananas story. What is it that you do?
A: When the peels are turning black, I remove them. Then I wrap the bananas — individually — in plastic wrap, and freeze them. Then, when I want to do a smoothie, I just pull the banana out — one for each person — chop up some fresh fruit, and maybe a carrot. I’ll add orange juice or some other juice, or milk, or yogurt, and throw it all in a blender, and blend it up. You get all this flavor, without sugar.
Q: Are you a breakfast-for-dinner kind of person?
A: It all depends, because I like a lot of variety. Sometimes I don’t think I’d mind a bowl of oatmeal, or granola in milk, or waffles. I have friends who have waffles for dinner, all the time. Dick probably wouldn’t go for something like that.
Q: Where do you fall on the pancake vs. waffle discussion? Is it an either/or, or both?
A: For me, it could be one or the other. I get impatient, waiting for the waffle iron to heat up. But I love to make oven pancakes, and serve them with bacon or sausage, or whatever we have in the refrigerator.
Q: That skillet pancake is the book’s second recipe, a pride of place. Why did you include it?
A: We’ve done that one so much over the years, in part because it’s so easy. You can make the batter the day before, and put it in the refrigerator. Actually, the pancake puffs up more nicely when you do that, rather than if you just mix up the batter and put it directly in the oven. I don’t have this in the book, but that recipe also makes really great popovers.
Q: What’s the secret to a good biscuit?
A: Whatever fat I’m using — usually it’s butter — needs to be kept really cold. That’s important. It’s also important to handle the dough as little as possible, so that you get the flakiness that you need. Otherwise, they don’t turn out; they get kind of tough. I used to mix them by hand, but I’ve gotten lazier as I’ve gotten older. Now I throw all of the ingredients in the food processor, but I use a minimum of processing. It’s on-off, on-off, and on-off, just until the butter is cut up into pieces about the size of kidney beans.
Q: According to your recipe, making English muffins appears to be fairly easy. Is it?
A: Oh, yeah, they’re really easy. I don’t know why they have this reputation of being difficult to make. It’s a no-knead yeast bread. You just mix it up, roll it out, cut into rounds, put the rounds in a pan and bake. Store-bought English muffins, they just don’t have much flavor. Anything you make yourself is going to have a whole lot more flavor.
Q: With several recipes featuring wild rice, you seem determined to make Zizania palustris a breakfast staple. Why?
A: Because I love the texture, and I love the flavor. There’s such an earthiness to wild rice. It has the whole grain-y appeal, and it goes well with fruits and nuts. I don’t always have cooked wild rice in the refrigerator, but when I do have extra, I’ll measure it out and put it in the freezer. It doesn’t take long to thaw, and you can use it any way you want.
Q: Is there another cookbook in your future?
A: I’m mulling it around. There might be another one. I can’t say “No” and I can’t say “Absolutely,” either.