I'm having a Beatrice Ojakangas moment. Or maybe two. The latest volume by this prolific writer, "The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever" (University of Minnesota Press, 624 pages, $29.95), has me hungry and curious, feet firmly planted in the kitchen, the appropriate container ready for action as I set out to cook my way through the book's 500 recipes.
Well, not in the same day, nor the same week, of course. Not even in the same month. That would be crazy because I still have more Ojakangas recipes to try — or cook again — among the 30 other books to her name, which fill their own shelf on my bookcase. They include her first volume, "The Finnish Cookbook," published in 1964, and continue through the new "Casseroles," first published in 2009 and on shelves again March 15.
In her hands, the recipe not only gets a makeover, but the concept of "casserole" also gets a reboot. She starts with the dictionary description, which denotes both the name of the physical dish used, as well as whatever cooks within. What we're talking about, then, is the baked version of a one-pot dish, which is easy on the cook.
The expanded interpretation means you'll find recipes from appetizers (Roasted Garlic and Onion Bean Dip) to egg dishes (Eggs Benedict Casserole), a kids' pizza-like fondue and everything in between (Cinnamon-Chocolate Nut Bread Pudding, I'm looking at you).
"Casserole" is one of 13 volumes by Ojakangas published by the University of Minnesota Press, many from earlier editions that had gone out of print, bringing those treasures back to life for new generations of cooks. The roster of reprints includes "The Great Scandinavian Baking Book," which gained Ojakangas recognition on the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2005. Her connections to the Beard Foundation didn't end there. Both "Casserole" and "Light and Easy Baking" were finalists in the past James Beard Cookbook Awards.
"We have a long tradition here at the [University of Minnesota] Press of bringing cherished books by regional authors back into print, and getting to have a hand in keeping Beatrice's beloved books in print is a real joy to all of us at the Press. And we always end up with so many new favorite recipes in the process," noted Erik Anderson, senior acquisitions editor.
A go-to resource
This Duluth writer with the beaming smile and dry sense of humor has made her mark on the national — and international — culinary scene over her 58 years as an author, despite her distance from the trendsetters and publishers on either coast. When Magnus Nilsson, the globally acclaimed Swedish chef, came to Minneapolis for an appearance at the American Swedish Institute several years ago, he had one request: to meet Ojakangas (he did, and asked for her autograph).
Her unofficial title may well be baker laureate of the nation, based on the topic of many of her books. With a focus on Nordic cuisine, she became the go-to resource on Scandinavian food for Julia Child and Martha Stewart, with whom she appeared on television, as well as for the editors of Bon Appétit and Gourmet magazines and other publications. So, too, for the congregation at First Lutheran Church in Duluth, where her Lenten dinners and lutefisk meals are legendary, as is her hospitality.
In 2016, she joined such luminaries as Knute Rockne, O.E. Rolvaag and Walter Mondale as she was honored — and inducted into — the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame at Norsk Høstfest in Minot, N.D.
But her culinary skills go far beyond Nordic and baking. Ojakangas' Midwestern roots are reflected in the content of her other cookbooks (think "casserole" and "soups" and "pot pies"). As for her name, though it may have caused confusion among those outside the Finnish community, it's pronounced just as it appears (oh-jah-KANG-us).
Now 88 and still living in Duluth, Beatrice Luoma was born to be linked to food. Her Finnish immigrant grandfather misunderstood the name to be "Peaches." "You named her after a fruit?" the story goes. And Peaches she became to friends and family.
The eldest of 10 children, cooking became second nature as she helped her mother in the kitchen and garden at their family farm in Floodwood, Minn. She picked up her early training in cooking demos through activities in 4-H, practicing her delivery while milking cows and pitching hay, an effort that led her to county and State Fair competitions.
As a high school graduate, rebellion served her well by what she didn't do: take a job at a local bank, which her parents endorsed, instead heading to the University of Minnesota, Duluth, to earn a home economics degree. There she met Richard Ojakangas, a budding geologist, the start of a team that would traverse the globe. They married and headed to London, where Richard was stationed in the Air Force.
Her Chunk o' Cheese Bread recipe, a last-minute entry to the 1957 Pillsbury Bake-Off, sent from England, set the trajectory for her future and brought her the Second Grand Prize of $5,000 (worth $48,000 in today's dollars).
After a stint in Missouri, they were off to Finland on a Fulbright scholarship for Richard, with two young children in tow. There, determined to find her own outlet, she contacted the U.S. Information Agency and offered her skills, which were put to use traveling the country and demonstrating American foods to Finnish women. Meanwhile, she tasted recipes and heard stories that would become the basis of her first book, "The Finnish Cookbook."
The West Coast was the next stop, where the offices of Sunset magazine called Beatrice's name while Richard focused on a doctoral degree. A brief stint there as a typist served as a primer in recipe writing, which soon led her to a role as one of the magazine's food editors. Too soon for Beatrice, who remembers those years with great fondness, the Ojakangas family headed back to Duluth, where Richard settled into his role as a professor and Beatrice found her niche in the world of food. She would work on recipes that would define her for the years to come — Norwegian julekage, Swedish limpa, Danish kringle and Finnish pulla — all from a kitchen that would make a cook swoon (three ovens, two microwaves and a walk-in refrigerator).
Let's pause for a moment to consider the Finnish word sisu. There's no precise translation in English, but the concept is one that may be familiar — the sense of resilience. Think perseverance, grit or strength.
Ojakangas embodies all that and more (including "restless in the pursuit of recipes"). Not being in the hub of the food world didn't slow her down. It simply made her determined.
Beatrice's many chapters
A connection at Sunset had led to her first contract with a publisher for "The Finnish Cookbook."
"Once one book was published, the door opened for others," she said years later about the volumes that followed.
She developed recipes, including a legendary effort with major food retailer Jeno Paulucci of Duluth (owner of Chun King). Credit Ojakangas with the creation of the snack food of pizza rolls, the end result of 55 sample variations that would make use of his company's eggroll technology.
There was a stint as a restaurateur (Somebody's House, near the UMD campus, with its 36 recipes for dinner burgers). The Star Tribune claimed her as a columnist for several years, as did the Duluth Tribune, where she continues to write occasionally.
A few years back, she and Richard traded in their 40-acre Finnish-style homestead in the rural outskirts of Duluth for a modern condo in town. She donated her 2,000 cookbooks to the Kirschner Library on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota, where food science students and the public can browse.
Her kitchen is smaller now, as is the world, what with the shadow of COVID.
But some details never change. Her smile is still as welcoming as ever. Her sense of humor is intact.
And there's always a new recipe to try.
A prolific author
Beatrice Ojakangas has more than 30 titles to her name, including these volumes published by the University of Minnesota Press.
"The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever," available March 15.
"Breakfast With Beatrice"
"The Great Holiday Baking Book"
"Great Old-Fashioned American Desserts"
"Great Old-Fashioned American Recipes"
"The Great Scandinavian Baking Book"
"Great Whole Grain Breads"
"Homemade: Finnish Rye, Feed Sack Fashion, and Other Simple Ingredients From My Life in Food," a memoir
"The Soup and Bread Cookbook"
Rosemary Chicken and Rice
Note: From "The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever," by Beatrice Ojakangas.
• 1 (3 lb.) chicken, cut up, or 3 lb. chicken legs and thighs
• 1 c. long grain brown rice or basmati rice
• 3 garlic cloves, minced
• 2 1/2 c. homemade or prepared chicken broth
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1 tbsp. dried rosemary
• 2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
• 1/4 c. mayonnaise
• 1/4 c. fine dry breadcrumbs
• 1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 9- by 13-inch casserole dish with cooking spray. Wash the chicken pieces and pat dry with paper towels. Cut the legs and thighs apart.
Spread out the uncooked rice evenly in the bottom of the casserole. Sprinkle the garlic over the rice and pour the broth over all.
Arrange the chicken pieces on top of the rice. Sprinkle with salt, rosemary and lemon juice. Brush or spread mayonnaise over the chicken pieces and sprinkle with the breadcrumbs.
Bake, uncovered, for 1 to 1 1/4 hours or until the chicken and rice are tender. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese before serving.
Lee Svitak Dean is a former editor at the Star Tribune. Reach her at email@example.com.