IKEA Midsummer Smorgasbord

For many relationships, a trip to the sprawling Swedish furniture store IKEA (https://www.ikea.com/) is a gauntlet to run, a compatibility test, or an exercise in survival.  It may be the event that seals a couple’s fate, as to whether they should move in together or even spend their lives together.  I like seeing the different room layouts and knowing there are almost infinite options when it comes to affordable, whimsically-named Swedish home furnishings and accoutrements, even though I never seem to need anything there.  So I can dig that TORMUND, that EDDARD, scope out that cute YGRITTE or consider that intriguing BRONN, but I’m pretty good at avoiding unnecessary impulse buys (except for food).  It’s just neat to browse around there.  My wife, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with it.  She trusts me to be the hunter and the gatherer, and I am happy to have the adventure and save her the schlep.

But my favorite parts of a trip to IKEA are the cafeteria at the beginning and the food market at the end.  They have lots of imported Swedish foods that are tasty and cheap, most of which you can’t get anywhere else in the Orlando area, so that’s the big draw for me.  I love exploring new grocery stores as much as I love exploring new restaurants, especially international ones.  And as my wife has learned, I can usually be counted on to come home with new treasures and wonders, as well as new stories.

Even though I’m sure you’ve heard of IKEA’s super-cheap breakfasts and controversial Swedish meatballs before, you may not realize that every December, IKEA throws a traditional Julbord, an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord buffet.  It happens to have a lot of foods I love: not just the tasty meatballs, but najad salmon (thin-sliced, marinated, smoked salmon, similar to our nova salmon but with dill added), different kinds of pickled herring, cheeses, ham, sausages, desserts, and more.  It’s one day a year, and I’ve never been able to make it.  There is always something going on at work that day that keeps me away.

But this year, I heard about IKEA hosting a Midsummer Smorgasbord this past Friday evening, probably similar to their holiday Julbord, with a lot of the same dishes.  This one was another all-you-can-eat affair, for only $16.99, or $12.99 if you’re an IKEA member (which I am not).  Heck, I could easily eat more than $16.99 worth of smoked salmon alone.  That stuff is amazing!

A friend of mine was patient and cool enough to meet me there, and he even picked us up advance tickets.  Yes, IKEA was probably selling tickets for this buffet weeks in advance, and it got quite crowded the evening of the smorgasbord.  But my friend and I are old pros at this kind of thing.  We arrived early and lined up ahead of the growing crowd, because when it comes to buffets, early is on time, and on time is late.  We came to PLAY, to go big before we go home.

This was the bill of fare:
dsc02260.jpg

My friend had survived the holiday Julbord before, and he said tables were going to be at a premium.  He offered to hold our table to give me a chance to get through the line, and then he would go when I came back.  It was a self-sacrificing move, the epitome of taking one for the team, so of course I offered to do the same and let him go first.  But he is such a mensch, he held his ground and insisted.  I took him up on his generous offer, but in retrospect, I wish I had forced the issue and said we would brave the line together and take our chance finding a table at the end of our quest.  But more on that later.

This was the Swedish cucumber salad — thin-sliced cucumbers in a vinaigrette with pickled red onions.  I always say that I’m trying to develop my palate for pickles, so I took a healthy scoop.DSC02261

I’m a sucker for potato salad — one of my favorite ways to eat potatoes.  Baked?  Boring, unless you load them with more and more unhealthy toppings!  Mashed?  Often boring.  Smashed?  Heeeey, those are just mashed, but you left the skin in there!  Fries?  Sure, but you have the shortest window to finish them before they become inedible.  Chips?  Okay, I’m always on board for chips.  Hash browns?  Perfection.  But serve them soft and chilled, tossed in some mayo or vinegar, add finely-chopped vegetables, herbs, and spices, and I’m down.  DSC02262

This was a cabbage-based salad — essentially cole slaw, both creamy and vinegary at once, with a nice coolness and a refreshing crunch.DSC02263

Hard-boiled eggs (not actually deviled eggs) topped with that wonderful thin-sliced, marinated, smoked najad salmon.  I could have happily eaten nothing but this and gotten my money’s worth.  DSC02264

More hard-boiled eggs, topped with red seaweed pearls that serve as vegetarian caviar.  In my haste of making my way through the buffet line, I took this photo but forgot to take any of these.DSC02265

Here’s that good stuff: a huge platter of the marinated, smoked najad salmon, served chilled and thin enough to melt in your mouth.  DSC02267

At this point, I had moved my tray past the cold items and was in front of the hot stuff.  There were attendants asking everyone what I wanted, so it was harder to photograph everything as I worked my way through.  But they had three different kinds of Swedish meatballs: the classic beef-based, chicken, and vegetarian.  I asked for some of all three kinds, with a bit of gravy.  DSC02268

They also had shrimp salad, boiled and mashed potatoes (I opted for boiled), and steamed vegetables, which heavily featured asparagus, one of my faves.

Then I made it to another chilled area with some cubed Swedish cheese, three different kinds of pickled herring, and four kinds of desserts.  As always, I tried to get a little bit of everything, and regular Saboscrivner readers know from my recent pilgrimage to New York’s Russ & Daughters Cafe how much I love pickled herring.  These were served straight out of the glass jars they sell in the food market downstairs, and I made a mental note to return and get some for the road if I liked it.  (Spoiler alert: of course I did!)

So this was the first heroic plate I assembled with all the cold items.  Loved the najad salmon, the three kinds of pickled herring, the potato salad, and the cole slaw.  If this was all I ate, I would have been totally content.  The cheese was sharper than I expected, which is rarely a bad thing.  The different herrings included one in a mustard and dill sauce (at 12:00), pickled with dill (at 3:00), and spiced matjes herring (at 9:00), which I tried at Russ & Daughters.
DSC02272

And this was my hot plate.  The white stuff in the top right was a creamy lemon caper sauce, maybe the only thing I didn’t love, because I just don’t care for capers.  The potatoes and vegetables could have been seasoned a little better, but they were okay.  All three kinds of meatballs were great.  Very tasty, with nice textures I enjoyed.
DSC02273

They were serving coffee, tea, and cola, but these were the Swedish fountain drink options.  I tried the lingonberry drink (very subtly sweet) and the sparkling lemon fruit water (quite refreshing).
DSC02270DSC02271

And finally, my desserts.  The angel food strawberry shortcake was a little bland, as angel food cake always is.  The chocolate dome on the top had a thin chocolate shell, covering sticky, gooey marshmallow filling.  It was just okay.  But the other two items were very good.  The wedge of chocolate cake was rich and gooey, like brownie batter.  I loved it, and I knew that even though my wife doesn’t share my love for the IKEA cafeteria, she would have loved that.  The chocolatey thing on the bottom was covered with coconut flakes and had a rich, gooey center that reminded me of cocoa, coffee, caramel, and spiced Biscoff cookies.  DSC02274

Well, as you can see, I ate like a king.  But this story doesn’t have the happiest ending because even though I made my way through the line pretty quickly, being near the front of it, my buddy who saved our table wasn’t so lucky.  When I returned, he went off to get in line, and I waited, doing my best to be polite and not eat without him.  But he came back empty-handed almost 15 minutes later, frustrated that the line hadn’t moved at all!  IKEA has two sides to its cafeteria, one on the left and one on the right.  But for this big event, which they sold advance tickets for and could have easily anticipated the turnout, they only had the left side open, leading to major slowdowns and delays.  After all that, my friend, a good enough friend to have picked up our tickets, didn’t get to eat!

Now, I offered to share all my food with him, and you can see how much I grabbed.  Hey, I always like to share my food with my friends, and I wasn’t sick or anything, but he wasn’t having it.  I offered to wait too, but he was frustrated and didn’t want to waste even more time getting into that unmoving line again.  I felt really guilty, and he tried to make me feel better by saying he had a huge lunch, but I still felt like a heel.  But it wasn’t my fault, or his.  Despite how good most of the food was, IKEA really needs to work on its organization and have enough people available to meet the demand if they’re going to host big events like this, especially when they have the perfect means of knowing how many people will be coming, and therefore, how busy they will be.

Anyway, we hung out and caught up, I ate, and then we headed downstairs to the market.  You can see they have four different kinds of pickled herring in small jars for a very affordable $2.99, including three of the ones I enjoyed at dinner.  DSC02256DSC02257

I picked two out of the refrigerated case, SILL INLAGD and SILL MATJES.
DSC02276

These were the two desserts I liked, including the gooey brownie-like thin chocolate cake.  Apparently KAFFEREP is memorable moments with laughter and cake and/or pastries.DSC02277

I also got a bag of frozen PANNKAKOR, Swedish pancakes that are more like crepes.  I made these for my wife on Saturday morning and served them with some good bacon, ricotta cheese, and blackberry preserves.  (PANNKAKOR totally sounds like a forgotten minor character from Masters of the Universe, which was not one of my favorite childhood cartoons.)DSC02278

My whole IKEA market haul:
dsc02275.jpg

So after years of trying and failing to make it to the IKEA all-you-can-eat buffet, I finally got to eat all I could eat, while my poor friend didn’t get any food at all.  It was good, but I don’t think I’ll rush back next Midsummer or lose any sleep when I inevitably can’t make it to the December Julbord.  I got it out of my system.  But if you go on a normal day, they really do serve some surprisingly good and cheap food at IKEA.  If you go with your significant other and eat first, you might forestall one of those infamous IKEA passive-aggressive fights.  And if you’re brave enough to attend one of the all-you-can-eat events, even after reading this, buy your tickets in advance, arrive early with your entire party, go through the line together, and take your chances getting a table.  The alternative is far, far worse.

I was a judge in the National Pie Championships! (Again!)

I like sweets and desserts as much as anyone, but I can usually stay strong in the face of  chocolate, candy, cupcakes, or cake, and turn them down without regret.  Even cookies have to be some pretty serious, next-level cookies to get me to indulge.  But one thing I will always choose and never refuse is PIE, that most humble and all-American of desserts.  Whether it’s a custard, cream, or fruit filling, a flaky dough crust or a crumb topping, hot or cold, sweet or tart or even savory, pie is everything.

There is a group called the American Pie Council that agrees with me.  From their website: “The American Pie Council Is The Only Organization Committed To Maintaining America’s Pie Heritage, Passing On The Tradition Of Pie-Making And Promoting America’s Love Affair With Pie.”  If that’s not a noble goal, I don’t know what is.  They publish a quarterly newsletter called Pie Times (I love it!), full of tips, tricks, recipes, promotions, and networking information for bakers.

But the American Pie Council’s most visible event is hosting the prestigious National Pie Championships in Orlando, Florida every year — a chance for the most gifted commercial, professional, and amateur pie bakers to prove themselves in the ultimate pie arena, like Pie Thunderdome. These brave bakers descend upon Orlando from throughout the United States to compete for those blue ribbons and bragging rights, mostly for the fun of it, and for the honor of being the best.  Here is a Bon Appetit article about last year’s National Pie Championships, and here is an essay on Taste by two bakers who competed last year.  Christopher Guest really needs to write and direct a mockumentary about the world of competitive pie-baking, something like Best in Show meets Iron Chef meets… I don’t know, The Fast & the Furious.  “I live my life one quarter-stick of butter at a time.”  “If your dough isn’t out of control, you’re not in control.”  And what good is pie if you can’t share it with family (including chosen family)?

Anyway, last year, a fellow foodie friend told me that she regularly volunteers to judge the National Pie Championships, and I could apply to be a volunteer judge as well.  What the–?!!  People actually do this?  You can get chosen to sample a bunch of delicious pies from some of the best bakers in the country — for free!! — and then evaluate and rank them and offer constructive feedback?  I felt like every event in my life to date, everything I’ve ever learned and accomplished, had brought me to that point, and it could be a lifelong dream coming true.  I’m not a baker on the level of these master bakers — I have one EXCELLENT pie recipe that everybody goes crazy for — but I thought I would be a great pie judge between my two Orlando Weekly best-of-the-year food lists, blogging here as The Saboscrivner, and having pretty good taste in general.  Luckily, the American Pie Council agreed.  I volunteered and served for the first time in 2018, and just did it again last weekend, this time with my best friend, who drove all the way up from Miami.

When you are a National Pie Championships judge, you get assigned to a table in a huge hotel conference room where all the judging takes place, and each table gets one pie category the entire time.  They judge the commercial pies (think supermarket bakeries, frozen foods, and restaurant chains) on the Friday, and then professional and amateur pies on the Saturday, which is what I did both years.  On your judging application, you can choose your top six categories, and hopefully you will be placed in one of those.  You can choose among apple, cherry, blueberry, pumpkin, sweet potato, chocolate, nut (expect to overdose on heavy pecan pies!), peanut butter, citrus, tropical fruit, “open” fruit, “open” cream, and more.  There are 16 professional categories, and even more in the amateur division.  There is even a savory pot pie category!  Last year, the APC included a category for Hollywood-inspired pies, and this year’s unique category was for pies inspired by special and memorable vacations.

In 2018, I got moved away from my top choice at the last minute and placed at the Comstock apple pie table.  Comstock is one of the National Pie Championships sponsors, the company that makes canned apple, cherry, peach, strawberry, and blueberry pie fillings that you can buy at most supermarkets.  I was skeptical, but I got to taste some really solid apple pies that day.  I was definitely burned out on apple pie by the end, but luckily we then got to judge the Comstock “Best in Show” pies — the best apple pie from our table (a maple praline apple pie), plus the winners from the other Comstock categories: a chocolate-covered cherry pie, a raspberry peach bellini pie, a classic, old-fashioned strawberry rhubarb pie, and the delightful blueberry lemon cream pie that we crowned the winner.  I still remember this one fondly, over a year later, so enjoy the recipe and this photo:
Image may contain: dessert and food

This year, which just happened to be the 25th anniversary of the National Pie Championships, my buddy and I made sure to fill out the same six categories, and I asked the powers that be to seat us at the same table so we could hang out.  And we were lucky enough to get placed at the Professional cream pie table, a highly-desirable category that was one of my top choices.

The way it works is volunteer pie servers pass the unsliced pie around our round table so we can all ooh and ahh and photograph it if we wish, to evaluate each pie in its uncut state.  Then the server returns with one slice removed, so we can evaluate how the slice holds up on its own, as well as how the pie looks with a slice taken out.  Then we pass the one slice around the table and cut off small slivers for ourselves, so everyone just gets a tiny taste.  Believe me, we don’t each eat an entire slice from each of these pies.  That would be ill-advised.  Each pie judge fills out an anonymous scoring worksheet as we evaluate each pie, with our judging number and the pie’s identification number.  There is even math involved!

We ended up sampling 14 pies in all:

The first of many coconut cream pies:DSC02000DSC02001

The first banana cream, which included some pineapple and crispy banana chips:DSC02004DSC02003

A chocolate-mint brownie cream pie, which was a big hit at our table:DSC02006DSC02005

Another coconut cream:DSC02008DSC02009

This lovely coconut cream was extremely thick and firm, and it was my favorite of the many coconut cream pies we tried.DSC02010DSC02011

I felt so bad for this baker, because this beautiful berry cream pie was damaged when the slicers tried to slice it.  However, it was delicious, and I would totally buy one if I ever saw it for sale or on a menu:DSC02012

I think everyone lost their minds over this Oreo cookies ‘n’ creme cream pie.  I know it was my friend’s favorite.DSC02014DSC02016

WHO DAT?  This was a New Orleans Saints-themed banana cream pie.  It would have been a nice touch if the baker went full N’awlins and made it a Bananas Foster cream pie.  I still don’t know if the fleur-de-lis was edible.DSC02017DSC02018

I don’t even remember if this one was banana cream, coconut cream, or something else entirely, but it was good, because how could it not be?  Those things around the crust might have been candied nuts, so maybe banana walnut?DSC02019DSC02020

This hypnotically beautiful cinnamon roll cream pie won our superlative award for Prettiest Pie at our table.DSC02021DSC02023

Another coconut cream:DSC02024DSC02025

This strawberry cream pie was far and away my favorite, and the only one I gave a perfect score to.  It was a cross between a strawberry cream pie and a strawberry cheesecake.DSC02026DSC02027

I forget what this one was:DSC02028DSC02029

And this was a heaven-themed coconut cream pie to end our judging, with edible golden sugar “glitter” and sparkling whipped cream.DSC02030DSC02032

We probably each ate the equivalent of 2-3 slices of pie, passing all of those around the table and cutting off tiny tastes from each slice — but that’s still a lot of rich cream pie for a regular person.  We were the first table to finish, and it came as a relief.

The second-place winner from our Professional Cream Pie table was the “Sunsational Islandtime Coconut Cream Pie,” baked by Avon Park, Florida’s own Amy Freeze.  I don’t remember which coconut cream pie that was, so apologies to the talented Ms. Freeze, but I enjoyed every single coconut cream pie we tried that day.

The winner, as you might have guessed, was the “Double the Good Stuff Cookies and Cream” pie, baked by Michele Stuart, who traveled all the way from Norwalk, Connecticut and entered several pies, with a grand total of FIVE winning either first or second place in different categories!  Ms. Stuart is a PIE BAWSS.

When each table of judges is finished, the scores are tallied to select first and second-place winners in each category.  Then each of those first-place pies compete against each other for the Best in Show, in both professional and amateur categories.

I have been sitting on this review for a week, waiting for the American Pie Council to release a formal announcement of all the winners, and here they are.  The Professional Best in Show pie was Iceland’s Café Loki-Inspired Rye Bread Cream Pie, baked by David Eaheart from Kansas City, Missouri.  “Layered with a cream filling, toasted rye bread, piped meringue and a caramel sauce drizzle, this pie is based on Café Loki’s Rye Bread Ice Cream, which Eaheart discovered on a walking food tour of Reykjavik.”  I didn’t get to try this pie, but I would have awarded it a perfect score for creativity.

On our way out of the judging room, I couldn’t help but snap a photo of this gorgeous apple pie.  It has been over a year, so maybe I can start eating apple pies again, while taking a break from cream pies.  DSC02033

Being an official pie judge in the National Pie Championships two years in a row has been a great experience, and even a great responsibility, for which I have no regrets.  I’ll probably volunteer again, because it’s such a treat to sample so many delicious pies from bakers at the top of their game.  I’m just glad it only happens once a year!  DSC02046

EDIT (4/22/19): The American Pie Council posted hundreds of photos from the event, so feel free to spend some hours scrolling through beautiful pies.