Swedish Potato Cakes
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This recipe for Potatisbullar (Swedish Potato Cakes) is brought to you in collaboration with BC Egg, who have financially compensated me to produce this recipe. All opinions are my own.
With a crispy exterior and a soft, creamy interior, potatisbullar (Swedish potato cakes) are a fantastic and easy-to-make dish made with simple ingredients. They're wonderful on their own (especially with good quality, flavourful potatoes), and they're perfect for personalizing with sides and add-ins.
I love what I do, but I don't think food writing and blogging is the kind of job that would appeal to people who like a bit of predictability in their work. Predictability can be a very nice thing after all; knowing when your day will start and end, what you'll be doing, and being forewarned about the challenges you can expect to face can take a lot of the stress out of our days. But predictability and I don't get along all that well. Predictability turns to boredom, which leads me to attempt either tune out (bad), or completely attempt to reinvent what I'm doing (sometimes awesome, often disastrous). Unpredictability is, oddly enough, a whole lot better for me. In the last month, for example, I've had to reorganize my post schedule to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, adjust to working with three kids around at all times, learn to use three new and very complicated Adobe programs, and build a new ecommerce website from the ground up. I wasn't really anticipating having to do any of this. While it makes me want to tear my hair out sometimes, I've always had the most success in jobs where I have to be able to adapt and change on the fly. I thrive on the challenging and ever-changing nature of this work. Yes, it can be frustrating, stressful, and downright exhausting at times, but nothing keeps me engaged and excited like this. I never know what I'm going to need to learn, cook, see, or write next - and I love it.
You would figure then that I'd know better than to think that a simple little recipe would come together without any major challenges. I've made plenty of pancakes, plenty of potato dishes, and there are only a handful of ingredients, so... simple, right? Hah!
It turns out that this recipe presented me with two distinct challenges. First, getting the texture and consistency right. It turns out that potatisbullar are one of those highly variable, highly personal dishes that can vary enormously, both in terms of preparation and the texture of the finished dish. This is great for you readers, as it means that you can easily try out a whole bunch of lovely variations (I'll get to these in more detail in the Recipe Notes section below). That being said, it meant that I had to make some pretty major adjustments to the early iterations of this recipe in order to understand how to get it to turn out properly (and, more importantly, how to make sure that you'd be able to adjust and troubleshoot on your own). That first challenge made for a long, tiring session in the kitchen - but the second challenge ended up occupying my mind for several days: I had no idea what I was going to call this recipe. Yes, I well and truly fell down the rabbit hole on that one - or, into the potato patch, perhaps.
LÄTT SOM EN PLÄTT
"What could be easier than coming up with a name for a simple little potato recipe?" I thought. "Most Swedes speak English - surely there's a widely-known English name for these things!"
Nope. Wrong, and wrong again.
It's fun to learn how idioms and expressions translate (or don't) between languages, and I was amused to learn during the course of recipe development that the Swedish equivalent for the term 'easy as pie' is lätt som en plätt - meaning 'easy as a pancake.' I'm not sure how I feel about that expression now. I mentioned above that these simple and savoury pancakes weren't exactly easy to get right (and I'll get to that again in the Recipe Notes below), but it turned out that even coming up with a title proved particularly tricky. Easy as pancakes indeed.
I spent eight years at University, on three degrees. It was a lot of school, but I do miss being able to devote my time to learning in such an immersive environment. If I had the time, money, and freedom, I'm sure I'd be tempted to go back. Most of my education was in biology, but I've often said that if I could study something completely different out of pure interest, it'd be linguistics. It's an endlessly fascinating subject, and one with some surprising overlaps with my other passions of food and science. I've touched on the curious intersection of food and language many times before, but I didn't actually set out to do that again with this new recipe. I actually talked quite a bit about language and translation in another pancake recipe on the site, and I didn't want to risk coming across as redundant. But sometimes you encounter unexpected complexity - and inspiration - in the strangest of places. Like Swedish potato recipes.
I spent a lot more time than I'd care to admit trying to decide what to call this recipe in English. I only knew of the little potato patties by their Swedish name potatisbullar, but I figured there'd be an easy English translation out there. There isn't. The word potatisbullar occupies a peculiar space formed but the intersection of language and food culture. It can be understood easily enough through description, but it lacks a singular and succinct translation of its own. Let's take a look at the options to show you what I'm getting at:
- Potato buns - this is the literal meaning of potatisbullar, but you can quickly tell that something important is lost in translation. The word 'bun' suggests a bread-like characteristic that definitely doesn't apply here. Add in the fact that potato breads (and buns) are something else altogether, and you've got a confusing situation on your hands.
- Potato pancakes - somewhat accurate, but insufficient and confusing. Swedish potato pancakes are something else entirely (raggmunk), and they're much more similar to the flat, shredded potato pancakes many of us are familiar with.
- Potato dumplings - once again, not quite right. The soft, creamy interior and crispy exterior has a certain dumpling-like quality, but Swedish potato dumplings are, once again, something else entirely. If you Google that term, you'll invariably find kroppkakor, which are delightful potato-and-meat filled dumplings. Very tasty, but very different from this recipe. Part of the problem here is that dumpling is a wildly confusing term in English, but that's a whole other linguistic rant.
- Potatisbullar - yes, we're just sticking with the Swedish name here. It's obviously accurate, and English does this a lot (think sushi, pierogi, bratwurst, etc.), but it has to reach a certain tipping point to be broadly understood. Potatisbullar alone isn't anywhere near that point, so it's a bit of a non-starter. Fun to say though.
- Tom Hanks cakes - my lovely wife's idea. Sure, there's no mention of potatoes, and Tom Hanks isn't Swedish, but she chose the title because a) everybody loves Tom Hanks, and b) everybody in our house loved these. Solid reasoning, though a bit tricky to implement from a search engine optimization standpoint. We might use this term on an informal basis moving forward.
This might all seem a bit pedantic, but it's genuinely important stuff in the world of food blogging. If you give a recipe the wrong name, nobody will know how to find it. If I called these potato pancakes or potato dumplings, I'd be attempting (and most likely failing) to wrestle the translations away from raggmunk and kroppkakor respectively. Hijacking search terms isn't exactly recommended if you're looking to succeed at food blogging - if someone is looking for a filled potato dumpling, they're not suddenly going to switch tracks and click on your recipe just because you tried to borrow the terminology. I was beginning to think that the untranslated Swedish name was my only remaining option when my mom suggested 'potato cake' (thanks Ma!). Cake is, of course, another broad and confusing term in English, but it works perfectly here in the same sense as fish cake or crab cake, i.e. a batter-like mixture of ingredients, fried in a pan to make a tender, savoury patty. Perfect! I'm actually a little embarrassed I didn't think of it myself - after all, potato cakes (which look an awful lot like these) are already a fairly common thing in English. And yet, as soon as you start clicking through links, you quickly realize how much crossover there is between the notions of 'cake' and 'pancake.' Regardless, I'm going all-in here and staking my claim. As far as I'm concerned, Swedish potato cake should be THE go-to English-language translation for potatisbullar. Let the pancakes be pancakes and the dumplings be dumplings. These are Swedish potato cakes.
Lätt som en plätt.
Potatisbullar are one of those recipes that you can master and adapt to your own tastes quite easily - BUT... they can easily turn into a frustrating mess if you're not familiar with the enormous culinary variation in potatoes. I've broken the Recipe Notes down into two sections below: the first (immediately below) covers the details on how to choose your potatoes. The second (after the next image) goes into how to personalize the recipe with variations and serving suggestions. Enjoy!
If you only read one recipe note, make it this one! The type of potato you use makes a HUGE difference in this recipe. Before we get to far into the details, let's go over the basic categories of potatoes as they relate to this recipe.
- Floury - These potatoes have higher ratios of starchy solids to water and tend to cook up to yield a dry, 'floury' texture. Picture an ideal baked potato, and you're probably picturing a floury type. As floury potatoes cook, their cells swell and burst, causing them to fall apart.
Popular floury potato varieties include:
- Maris Piper
- King Edward
- Russet potatoes (a category composed of many different varieties)
- Waxy - Lower in starch and higher in moisture, these potatoes hold up quite well when boiled, but their added moisture content can cause them to become especially pasty, even slimy when mashed. Waxy potatoes maintain their shape when cooked, making them ideal for roasting or boiling.
Popular waxy potato varieties include:
- Red Bliss (a common red-skinned variety in North American stores)
- New potatoes (a category of young potatoes that can refer to a wide range of varieties)
- Fingerling potatoes (again, a category that covers many varieties)
- Intermediate - As the name suggests, these potatoes land somewhere between floury and waxy, making them popular 'all purpose' potatoes. Many potato varieties can fall in this category, and the exact definition of what constitutes an intermediate potato isn't agreed upon by everyone. In general, intermediate potato varieties will still hold together well when cooked, but will be somewhat softer and starchier than waxy varieties.
Popular intermediate potato varieties include:
- Yukon Gold (used in this recipe)
- Blue and purple potato types
Potatoes are often categorized and sold based on variety and/or intended use in Europe (particularly in the UK and Ireland), but sadly we North Americans are often left to our own devices. Despite the fact that different potato varieties will cook up in vastly different ways, they're often lumped together and treated as a fairly uniform product. This can lead to a lot of frustration and confusion for home cooks, and a recipe like this one can vary enormously depending on the potato type you choose. I used Yukon Gold (a Canadian hybrid potato often considered the go-to intermediate variety). This type of potato yields a soft, sticky batter that can easily be dropped into the pan, but is too wet to be formed into patties. It also has an excellent flavour that's particularly nice in a simple recipe like this where potato is at the forefront. That being said, the batter that you get by using Yukon Gold potatoes is quite wet, and is best suited to dropping large spoonfuls into a pan. The potato cakes that you get are crispy on the outside and quite creamy on the inside. If you use a floury potato, you'll get a much dryer batter that can be formed into patties much more easily. These will yield a crispy exterior and a uniformly soft, airy, floury interior. I would avoid using a true waxy variety, as the batter will be extremely wet and will yield an overly soft interior to the potato cakes, even after substantial baking.
Note that your baking times may change considerably depending on the potato type you choose too. Yukon gold or similar intermediate-type potatoes require a 15-20 minutes baking time to help them firm up and shed some excess moisture. Floury potato types will require a much shorter baking time, and may not even require baking at all. The potatoes are fully cooked before being made into batter, so there's no problem with shortening the baking time. That being said, the diced onions will have a more pronounced (i.e. raw) taste if the cakes are baked or a shorter time, so you may want to factor this in depending on your personal tastes.
To sum up, you can go in two very different directions for this recipe:
- Floury potatoes - drier and fairly mild tasting, these will yield a firm batter that can be shaped into patties and fried. You may want to use a little less wheat flour in the recipe too. The fried potato cakes will require a short baking time, or no baking at all (try one to see how you like them). The interior of these cakes will be fairly dry and airy. They're also likely to taste fairly plain as-is.
- All-Purpose potatoes - moister and more flavourful (in general), these will yield a wet batter that's better suited to dropping in a hot pan. The fried potato cakes firm up and dry out a bit after a baking period. The interior of these cakes will be soft and very creamy. The firm nature of these potatoes also means that they can retain much more texture when mashed.
Variations and Add-Ins
I've kept this recipe in its simplest form so that you can try it and modify it to your own tastes. With good, flavourful potatoes, it's quite nice on its own, but it does lend itself very well to experimentation. Fennel seed, nutmeg, and chopped parsley are popular additions to the batter. Shredded cheese and crumbled cooked bacon or ham are also excellent ideas. Ultimately, you're really only limited by your own tastes, and the fact that the batter is partially cooked before going into the pan. The latter condition means that you'd do best to avoid adding raw ingredients that require a longer cooking time (e.g. raw bacon).
If you use a more floury potato and you're able to form your potatisbullar (as opposed to dropping them into the pan), you might want to try dipping the uncooked patties in bread crumbs before frying. This adds a bit of extra crunch and flavour to the outside, and is a very popular variation. You could still try this with a sticky batter, though it might be a bit tricky.
Sides & Servings
I served my potatisbullar with a couple of the more popular and traditional sides, though I did have to make some Canadian modifications. I used a nice thick-cut smoked bacon, though you may also want to try an unsmoked salted/cured pork product (these types of meats are more popular in Europe than in North America, where smoked/brined bacon tends to reign supreme). In Sweden, you'd traditionally want to serve this with sylt lingon (lingonberry jam). You can make it very easily if you have access to lingonberries... or to an Ikea, where it's sold in jars. Here in North America, it's much easier to find the lingonberry's close relative the cranberry, which is what I used here. I should say, it's much easier to find cranberries on a commercial scale, but lingonberries are native to the entire Northern Hemisphere, including North America! I remember finding them in heavily wooded fens in central Alberta, so if you happen to be reading this from a semi-remote boreal cabin (presumably quite far from an Ikea location), you might want to try your hand at foraging.
If you want to switch things up, there are plenty of variations on the meat-and-fruit pattern that are worth trying. Firm white fish (smoked, preserved, or fresh) makes an excellent choice, as do ham and meatballs. Beans make an excellent vegetarian option. Apple sauce is a fantastic choice too, and one with a proven track record alongside potato pancakes. Blueberry preserves would make a lovely and somewhat unorthodox addition too. If you wanted to take things in a more savoury, breakfast-y direction, you could try sausage, shredded cheese and an egg on the side.
Note: Nutritional Information is given for a single potato cake (1/20th portion of the total recipe), and does NOT include bacon or any other sides.
Keep in mind that the nutritional information is for the potato cakes alone, and you'll almost certainly want to serve these with other ingredients and sides. You'll also want to have more than one!
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
Potatisbullar (Swedish Potato Cakes)
- 2 lbs Yukon gold potatoes or similar (see note)
- 1 large yellow onion (~250 g)
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour (60 g)
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 tsp salt
- pepper to taste
- 2 tbsp butter for frying
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil for frying
To Serve (All Optional)
- lingonberry jam or cranberry jam/preserves
- spring greens
- sour cream
- Peel and chop the potatoes into large pieces. Drop them over into a large pot filled with cold water and about 1 tsp of salt. Bring the pot to a boil and cook until the potatoes are soft and easily pierced with a knife. (large pieces) and boil potatoes; mash or grate coarsely (you want some texture). Allow to cool.
- Thoroughly drain the cooked potatoes, then coarsely mash them with a fork or potato masher (see note for variation). Set them aside to cool somewhat.
- Finely dice the onion. Add the onion, eggs, salt, and pepper to the mashed potatoes. Mix well.
- Preheat oven to 300°F (150°C).
- Heat about 1.5 tbsps of butter and 1 tbsp of oil in a a large skillet over medium heat on the stove top.
- Wet your hands thoroughly, then form the mixture into small balls (about the size of a large egg). Don't worry if they're particularly sticky. Drop the balls into the pan - and fry in butter until golden brown and easy to flip - about 3 minutes per side. Don't overcrowd the pan.
- Transfer the fried cakes to a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining batter, adding a little more butter and oil whenever the pan begins to get a bit dry.
- Place the baking tray in the oven and bake for about 15-20 minutes (but see note on potato varieties), or until the cakes are well-set but still creamy inside. If you cook a full batch, I recommend frying enough to fill a single tray, then placing these in the oven while you fry more cakes for a second tray.
- Serve the finished cakes warm, with prepared sides.