Keeping traditions alive
St. Paul, Minn.
From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people were gifted (or stuck) with a lot of time on their hands. Isolation offered a break to stop and think about life and how we spend our time. In our culture, we see time as a commodity, even the phrases we use, “spend time,” “save time,” signify how valuable it is to us.
For one family in New York, options were limited when the pandemic affected their jobs as a pilot, a wedding floral and decor planner, and a neurobiologist. The time mamma, pappa, and daughter spent together, enjoying cooking and baking, sparked an idea for a new business. This idea was just the beginning.
Margaret “Maggie” Aslaug Øyen was born in Connecticut and spent much of her childhood eating brunost and homemade bread at her pappa’s house in New York. The home was brought over from Telemark, and everything—inside and out—was Norwegian, from the nails to the toilet paper. Maggie is a dual citizen of the United States and Norway and, thanks to her husband, Ola’s, Norwegian citizenship, her daughter is as well.
Trips to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn were a big event in Maggie’s childhood. This was the center of the Norwegian-American community in New York, and until the late 1990s, the place to get a beautiful kransekake for special events. A kransekake (wreath cake) is a Norwegian cake made out of three ingredients: almonds, powdered sugar, and egg whites.
While it sounds simple, the execution of one of these cakes requires patience and practice, as you stack individual baked rings on top of each other and secure it all in place with piped icing. After Bay Ridge’s resident kransekake baker closed shop, there was a hole to fill. Maggie and Ola received many requests for kransekaker over the years and made them for holidays as a family, extremely proud of each one (as we all are of every homemade kransekake that makes it to the table).
It was during quarantine that the Øyen-Ustad family decided to begin research and development for how to make kransekake professionally and deliver them to the doorsteps of customers across the country. They put in seven months of trial and error, with no expectations and no guarantees. By the time they had passed every hurdle, they were renting a commercial bakery, designing award-winning packaging, and test shipping cakes!
“I spent every day for three months practicing my piping,” Maggie said. One of the early “hurdles,” she remembers, was the name “kransekake.” Mandel means almond, the main ingredient in kransekake, and is easier for English speakers to pronounce. So, the business was named Mandel and launched in June 2021.
Mandel is a small Norwegian family business that bakes the highest quality kransekaker (Norwegian plural) and ships them directly to you for any occasion. Maggie was inspired by the quality time she spent with her family making kransekaker for Christmas, birthdays, and anniversaries. About the customers that Mandel serves, she said, “they’re carrying on the tradition. We are so grateful just to help facilitate that. As far as I’m concerned [kransekake] is a Norwegian national treasure. Nobody [in Norway] has a celebration without a kransekake.”
On their website, Mandel is intentionally clear about the distinction between their Norwegian kransekaker and the traditional Danish kransekage. The Øyen-Ustad family set out to share a deeply rooted Norwegian tradition that meant so much to their own family.
“I think our mission and our goal is to not only keep the tradition alive but to reinvent and rejuvenate the tradition. I advocate anyone to make their own kransekake but really, who has time? I never would have had time if it weren’t for COVID. Not to get it to where I have it,” Maggie explained.
Mandel is dedicated to the Scandinavian-American community. They are preserving the tradition and taking it to new places with new goals and ambitions. Over 90% of their clientele are Norwegian, and Maggie put this fact into perspective: “We put ourselves on the line with every single cake that goes out, because everyone has their own memory of kransekake. Everybody. I equate it to an egg. When you open a diner, everybody knows how to make their eggs, exactly the way they like them. And so, you’re really putting yourself on a limb if you get those over-easy eggs wrong and that’s pretty much what kransekake is. There are three ingredients, that’s it. You either get it right or you don’t.”
Since June, while still in their soft launch, Mandel has grown exponentially. They are here to stay and are hoping to continue this trajectory and eventually expand into both fresh and frozen options. If there’s one thing Scandinavians are good at, it’s preserving food. “Norwegians have an uncanny way of preserving and reusing everything,” said Maggie. As a shelf stable dessert, the opportunities are endless, and Mandel wants to step up to the plate and expand the knowledge about this dessert by placing cakes onto new tables.
At the heart of this business is a family’s love of their heritage and the activities and tastes that bring them closer to each other. From baking these cakes in their home kitchen with their bestemamma’s recipe and individual ring forms to a commercial bakery space and professional standards, they have come a long way. Maggie said, “My daughter sent me a picture of our kransekake from Christmas 2019, which I keep very visible on the wall because we were just so proud of it. [And now] my Christmas kransekake, which we were so proud of, would never walk out the door.”
Alongside their fantastic cakes, they are adding new products to the Mandel website (mandelcake.com) on a regular basis. There’s still time to order one for your holiday table.
All images courtesy of Mandel.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 19, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE.