Americans would call her the Martha Stewart of Sweden; us Brits would call her the Nigella Lawson.
She seems to have the culinary Midas touch. Since winning "Female Chef of the Year" in 1999, Leila Lindholm has starred in numerous TV shows, sold countless cookbooks, launched a successful line of cookware, and started her own publishing company. Her latest book, The Fresh Foodie, was shot by the celebrated photographer David Loftus
All over Sweden and beyond, Leila is celebrated for her colorful blend of Swedish and global flavors, as well as her encouragement of home cooks to explore their talents. Cooking skills, she professes, are something everyone has in them. It’s just a matter of encouragement. “Cooking is very personal. Everyone can do it. They just need a little push.”
Leila lives west of Stockholm, in the impossibly Swedish locality of Mariefred, with her husband and their two children. The town is on the southern shores of Lake Malaren, its red and yellow wooden houses overlooking the carpet of trees beyond. Fittingly, Leila’s house is about as whimsical as they come, powder blue and facing out over the water.
As well as being a celebrity chef, Leila is also a committed interior designer. She recently published a home decoration book, Welcome Home, and her own house is an inviting mix of antiques, varying textures, and family relics. In the kitchen, a busy collection of pots and pans hangs over a marble island.
“I travel a lot, so it’s always special to be at home. We love it here so much. They actually shot Pippi Longstocking here! We love the lake especially. You can drink the water, and in the summer we swim in it most days.”
Leila’s kitchen is full of color, artwork, and cooking equipment, but the glass-fronted pantry is perhaps the best part.
“The kitchen just grew around me. It was a lot more simple than this when we were first here. I always wanted a kitchen space that would feed into a dining room. I have a lot of spontaneous dinner parties. We’re not very good at planning stuff, but we have a lot of friends in the town so we often end up having big dinners on a whim!”
There are also a few pieces of pastel-colored enamelware from her own brand, Leila’s General Store. “I love cooking with enamelware. It’s so durable, and lasts forever.”
The lunch Leila served us at her home was a perfect taste of classic Swedish flavors. The potato salad—the backdrop to so many Swedish lunches—was creamy, with a punch of mustard, and zingy pickles offset soft, flakey fish.
Pickles are a central component of any Swedish meal; Leila even has an underground pickling storeroom: “It’s a very Scandinavian thing.”
“Most typical for Swedish food is the combination of sweet, sour, and salty. That balance is very important for a traditional Swedish cook.” The pickles that day were Leila’s “fast track” version: finely chopped cucumber with salt, sugar, and a very pungent vinegar.
“The staple ingredients of Swedish cuisine are very classic: potatoes, butter, milk, flour, and of course, fish. Smoked fish is a great delicacy here.”
Leila also made classic cinnamon buns, rolling, cutting, and shaping the dough with practiced ease. Cinnamon buns are integral to Sweden’s famous “fika”: afternoon tea or coffee, always accompanied by a pastry.
She pulled the buns out of the oven just before they had fully crisped up, leaving the dough soft and moist. We ate the warm, spiced buns with a cappuccino, scooping up the froth with each bite. Leila’s two-year-old daughter Olivia joined us for fika, with her own little mug of cappuccino froth to accompany her bollar (bun).
Through giant mouthfuls of cinnamon bun, we ask Leila her trick for making them so perfect: “A lot of cardamom is an absolute must for me. And I take them out of the oven before they are fully baked, so they are very soft.”
What has made Leila such a famous name in Sweden is her dedication to the traditional food of the country. Though she has explored foods from all corners of the globe (she was preparing for a visit to Morocco as we spoke), a passion for Swedish home cooking is at the core of what she does.
“I don’t really do chef-y stuff,” she explains. “My type of cooking has always been very simple. Even though I’ve worked in fancy places, I write recipes for people who are not professional chefs. I don’t really feel like I need to flex my muscles: I just want to inspire people to cook their own food. I cook the things I like to eat at home. I’m not here to chase stars.”
“Competitive food comes a lot from men,” she continues. “The high-end restaurant scene is dominated by men in Sweden. It’s always exciting to see women coming in.”
For the dough:
- 1 tablespoon cardamom pods
- 300 milliliters (1/2 pint) milk
- 135 grams superfine sugar
- 7 grams (1 packet) fast-action dried yeast
- 150 grams unsalted butter, softened
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 egg
- 660 to 720 grams bread flour
For the cinnamon filling:
- 200 grams unsalted butter, softed
- 90 grams superfine sugar
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- Beaten egg, for brushing
- Golden syrup and water, for brushing
- Ground cardadmom, for sprinkling
- Superfine sugar, for sprinkling