Semlor (Swedish Cardamom Cream Buns)

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Happy Mardi Gras!

If we were still living in New Orleans, this day would have looked much different. I still can’t believe that Chicago hasn’t discovered Mardi Gras: 1) a huge party, 2) costumes, 3) parades, 4) drinking! We like all of those things! I mean, I guess the parade part is the biggest hindrance. We got a foot of snow here in Chicago last week. Most of the cars on my street are still buried. No parades or floats here. And I almost miss getting hit in the head with beads–almost. Because I would always, always, once a year, get hit in the head with beads. For me, it was a Mardi Gras tradition.

Anyway, the snow has kept us indoors for the most part and it has us both going stir-crazy. But the good part of being snowed in is the baking! I never feel like baking more than when it’s cold and snowy outside. And, since it’s Mardi Gras, I thought I would celebrate with the baked goods of the season!

Last year, I made King Cake Paczkis, with moderate success. This year, I took my inspiration from the Swedes and made semlor: Cardamom-scented buns, filled with sweetened almond paste and whipped cream.

Semlor are eaten in Sweden (and throughout Scandinavia) to celebrate Shrove Tuesday (a.k.a. Mardi Gras), known to the Swedes as Fettisdagen, or “fat day”, the last day before Lent. Like king cake and paczskis, the dish was originally created as a way to use up fats and sugar in the house, before the fasting that accompanies Lent. However, you can now find the buns on bakery shelves from January through Easter. It’s estimated that 20 million semlor (the plural of semla) are eaten in Sweden every year. Semlor are sometimes eaten in a bowl of hot milk, which is known as “hetvägg” or “hot wall.” And, though this might be rumor, it is even said that the Swedish king, Adolph Frederick, died in 1771 of digestion problems after eating, in addition to many other things, 14 semlor!

I tried to make these semlor several times. I used a few different recipes from around the internet. My friend Rasmus said that the most important part was that each semla should be light and airy, rather than bread-like and hard. And my first two tries did come out more like bread. Then I thought of the lightest and airiest rolls that I ever made: A Cozy Kitchen’s Everything Cloverleaf Rolls! Even though these rolls aren’t meant to be dessert, I used the base of that recipe to create the bun for the semlor. The result was super soft semlor buns, obviously a little sweeter and spiced with cardamom, ready to be filled with almond paste and cream! Semlor

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Semlor
Makes 8-10 buns.

Ingredients:
For buns:
5 tbsp sugar
3 tsp active dry yeast
1 cup whole milk, warmed to 115-120 degrees
1 egg yolk, beaten
4 tbsp unsalted butter, softened, plus another 1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 1/2 cups, all-purpose flour, plus another 1/2 cup for kneading
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp-1 tbsp vegetable oil for oiling the bowl
For filling:
3/4 cup almond paste, sweetened
1/3 cup whole milk
2 cups heavy cream

Confectioner’s sugar, optional, for sprinkling over the top

Instructions:

In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, yeast, and warm milk. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes to activate.

In a small bowl, whisk together 1 cup of flour, the salt, and the cardamom.

Stir the beaten egg and melted butter into the yeast mixture. Add the flour mixture and stir until completely combined, then add an additional cup of flour and stir until combined, then add one half a cup of flour and stir.

Lightly flour a surface and scrape the dough out onto the flour. Knead the remaining half cup of flour into the dough, for about 5 minutes.

Oil a large bowl with vegetable oil and add the dough, turning over in the oil to coat.

Cover with dishtowel and place in a warm area for an hour and a half, until double in size.

Divide the dough into 8-10 balls and place at least 1-inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover with a dishtowel and allow to rise for another 30 to 60 minutes. The dough should double in size again.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Brush the top of the buns with a little cream, or a beaten egg, before baking for 15-20 minutes, until slightly golden brown.

Remove from oven and allow to cool.

As the buns are cooling, whip the remaining whipping cream with 1 tsp vanilla extract.

Mix 3/4 cup of almond paste with 1/4 cup whole milk.

Cut a tiny cone shape in the top of each bun. Fill the space with about 2 tbsp of the almond mixture, then top with whipped cream. Place the lid of the bun back on top of the whipped cream and dust with powdered sugar.

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With their little powdered sugar party hats, they look a lot like every single round, snow-covered surface in Chicago right now, and they were a big hit in this house. I don’t know where to acquire a semla in the city of Chicago. There is stiff competition with paczkis and king cake here. I assume the old Swedish Bakery used to make them, but, alas, the Swedish Bakery is no more. If you find them, please let me know!

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Toll House Inn Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Did you Super Bowl on Sunday? For once, we went a Super Bowl party. A very special one, too, because our friends Jen and Rasmus hosted, and we made Korean dumplings and gimbap while watching the game. Then we got to enjoy the labor of our work during the last two quarters for the traditional commercial-judging and nail-biting.

Sadly, this post–about the super cookie, the champion cookie, the chocolate chip cookie–would have been even more special if the Patriots had won on Sunday, because February 6 marks the 230th anniversary of Massachusetts becoming a state, and because the recipe was invented in Massachusetts. In fact, the chocolate chip cookie is the official state cookie, after being nominated by a class of hungry third graders in 1997.

The Toll House Cookie–now known simply as the chocolate chip cookie–was invented in 1930 at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. The owner of the inn, Ruth Graves Wakefield, is given credit for the creation. It’s often said that she invented the cookie by accident, having added chopped chocolate to create a chocolate cookie. Grave Wakefield disputed this later in life, claiming that she hadn’t meant to make a chocolate cookie at all, but was instead trying to change up the butterscotch nut cookie recipe that was already made at the inn. She even called it the Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie, which would imply that she planned for the chocolate chips to remain in pieces. (In fact, while Graves Wakefield was not a professional chef, she had attended the Framingham State School Department of Household Arts, and worked in the 20’s as a food lecturer and dietician. Before her chocolate chip cookie recipe took off, she was known for her lobster dinners and other dishes created around historical New England culinary traditions.)

For the first version of the recipe, Graves Wakefield simply chopped up pieces of a Nestlé semi-sweet chocolate bar. As chocolate chip cookies increased in popularity, rumor has it that she worked out an agreement with Nestlé: Her recipe could be printed on their chocolate bar, if they would provide her with all the chocolate she needed. In 1939, one year after her recipe for the Chocolate Crunch Cookie was published, Nestlé began selling their chocolate in tiny pieces, the first version of what we now know as chocolate chips. It’s likely that, with the onset of World War II, chocolate chip cookies became even more popular, with soldiers regularly requesting them in their care packages. While it’s fair to say that Ruth Graves Wakefield was probably not the first person to throw chocolate pieces into a cookie, she is responsible for making the chocolate chip cookie a household name and one of America’s favorite things. A figure from 2013 puts annual American chocolate chip cookie consumption at around 7 billion.

While the Nestlé chocolate chip packages still print the “original” chocolate chip cookie recipe on them, I found that on October 5, 1939, newspapers in three different states all published the recipe for Grave Wakefield’s Original Toll House Cookies (I couldn’t confirm that this was the exact original recipe from Graves Wakefield’s 1938 Tried and True cookbook). That recipe varies slightly from the one now found on Nestlé products. And even though this is one of the most basic recipes there is, I suspect you’re going to like it.

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Toll House Inn Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes about 24 2 1/2-inch cookies.

Ingredients:
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups flour, sifted
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp hot water
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
7 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chips or chopped into small pieces
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped, optional

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, beat with hand mixer until the butter and both sugars are fully combined. Add egg and beat until combined.

Sift the flour and then measure out 1 1/2 cups. Add the salt and stir together. Set aside.

In a small cup, combine the hot water and the baking soda. Stir to combine.

Add 1/3 of the flour mixture and 1/3 of the hot water mixture to the butter-sugar mixture. Beat with a hand mixer until just incorporated. Add another 1/3 of flour and hot water, beat, and continue with the last 1/3 of each.

Beat in the vanilla with a hand mixer, and stir in the chocolate chips and nuts (optional) with a wooden spoon until evenly distributed.

Scoop 1 1/2 tablespoon dollops of dough onto the cookie sheet, 12 per sheet, spaced about 2 inches apart.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating the pan 180 degrees halfway through baking.

Remove from oven, allow to cool for five minutes on the pan, then remove to a cooling rack and enjoy!

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I’ll admit it, I am such a boring cookie eater. As a child, I would painstakingly avoid both the nuts AND chocolate chips in chocolate chip cookies. That’s right, the only part of the cookie I was interested in was the cookie part. However, these actually might be one of the best chocolate chips cookies I’ve ever had. First, they are thin, which I love. And the best part is they are not super crisp. There is slight crispiness around the edges, and the centers stay nice and chewy. Perfect!

So, happy birthday, Massachusetts. You may not have another Super Bowl win this year, but you’ll always have chocolate chip cookies.

Norwegian Dakotan Lefse

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It’s the beginning of November, so I assume we can dive straight into preparing for the holidays. When it starts to get cold and dark outside, I can’t help but remember the family recipes of my childhood that used to light up these winter months. My grandma’s lemon meringue pie, my mom’s mashed potatoes… Maybe it’s my Hoosier roots, or my Midwestern roots in general, but I’m a big fan of mashed potatoes. By some magic, my mom would make them perfectly smooth and fluffy, without a hint of gumminess, the best in the world. I’ve tried using a hand mixer like she does, but it just never works out for me. But with winter almost upon us, I know I’ll have another five months of practice.

While I myself am a fervent lover of the foods I had growing up, for most of my life I thought of Midwestern cooking as one bland white-bread-white-flour-white-cake category that was historically insignificant compared to other, more seemingly exotic regions. And while it’s true that our foods tend to be on the carbier side, historically insignificant they are not. If you’ve read even a few posts on this blog, you know that I’m a sucker for dishes that tell a story about where they came from. Regional dishes are by far the most interesting posts for me to do, and I’m particularly interested in foods that are considered “Midwestern” but that I’ve never tasted, or even heard of. For example, the fabulous Molly Yeh, who lives in North Dakota, has recently been gracing the Internet with photos of her hotdish. I had certainly never heard of hotdish, even though it’s technically a “Midwestern” dish. (Answer: It’s basically a casserole that you would traditionally bring to a social gathering. In more recent times, tater tots have become a common topping. Who’s the Upper Midwestern genius who decided to load tots on a casserole? Get that person a medal.)

And, speaking of Midwesterners, their love of potatoes, and winter: For those in North and South Dakota, the first snow and the beginning of the holiday season traditionally meant that it was time for another dish I had never heard of: Lefse, a Norwegian flatbread consisting mostly of mashed potatoes.

Last Thursday was the 126th anniversary of both North and South Dakota becoming the 39th and 40th states (though no one knows which is which, because President Benjamin Harrison shuffled the papers and signed them blindly). The Upper Midwestern States, the Dakotas and Minnesota, have very large Scandinavian populations. Norwegians began settling in the Dakotas before they were even states, and between 1860 and 1880 the population of Norwegians in the Dakotas increased from 129 people to one-tenth of the population. Now, one in three North Dakotans claim Norwegian descent, which is the highest for any state, although Minnesota and South Dakota are close.

Lefse is a Norwegian dish, which, like other old world traditions, found new life in America. There are lefse recipes dating back to the 1600s in Norway, though those traditional recipes would have used only flour, as potatoes did not make their way to Norway until about 250 years ago. To find an authentic, Norwegian-Dakotan lefse recipe, I reached out to Erin Zieske, who I featured in a post a few months back. She lives in South Dakota and had mentioned lefse when we were discussing her post. She immediately directed me to her mother, Tonna. Tonna told me that she often uses a recipe featured on NPR, in place of her grandmother’s recipe. However, it appears that there is little variation to the few ingredients that make up lefse: Potatoes, butter, salt, sugar, cream, and flour—ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen, which is likely what makes this is an enduring recipe.

Now a list of things I didn’t have when starting this process: A lefse stick, a lefse griddle, or a lefse pin. The stick helps to flip the rather large flatbreads, the griddle is extra-large and flat, and the pin has deep grooves in it, which give the lefse a waffled appearance when you roll it out. Have no fear. If you also don’t have these things, you can still make yourself some delicious lefse, though slightly less authentic. But after you taste your inauthentic lefse, and decide you love them more than anything else in the world, you can make the decision to invest in specialized lefse equipment.

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Norwegian Dakotan Lefse
Slightly adapted using this recipe, as well as the recipe from Miss Anna Berg, of Bismarck, North Dakota, in the December 22, 1948, issue of The Bismarck Tribune. Makes about 40 sheets of lefse.

Ingredients:
9 cups of potatoes, mix of red and russet, mashed
1 1/4 cup unsalted butter
4 tsp salt
4 tbsp white sugar
3 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour, plus 1-1 1/2 cups more for rolling out the dough

Instructions: 

Peel and cube potatoes, add to a large pan, cover with water, and boil for about 20 minutes, until soft enough to mash.

Mash potatoes in the pan and then measure out 9 cups into a very large bowl. Add the butter, cream, salt, and sugar and mix thoroughly.

Allow the potatoes to cool.

Press a paper towel onto the top of the mashed potatoes and then cover the bowl with a towel. Refrigerate for at least three hours, or overnight.

Using your hands, in the bowl, mix the flour into the potato mixture, beginning with a full cup, and then about 1/4 cup at a time, until everything is thoroughly mixed.

Pinch off pieces of the dough and roll into a ball, slightly larger than a golf ball. Place on a cookie sheet or plate. You can stack them on top of each other if you run out of space.

Refrigerate for about half an hour.

Place a towel folded in half near your work space. Place two pieces of wax paper between the folds of the towel.

Heat an ungreased large griddle or skillet up to about 500 degrees.

Liberally flour a work surface and a rolling pin. Begin rolling out the dough, adding more flour as needed to your work surface, the dough, and the rolling pin (you may need a lot, and that’s OK). Roll until very thin, into a circle about 10 inches in diameter.

Using a spatula, transfer the dough circle to the preheated griddle. Cook for about 1 minute, until light brown spots begin to form on the bottom. Then flip and cook the other side for about one minute.

Remove the lefse from the griddle, fold in half, and place between the two pieces of wax paper in the towel.

Continue until the dough is gone, laying the complete lefse on top of each other.

Allow to cool completely, fold into a quarter, and eat immediately or freeze for later use.

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Often, families will make dozens of lefse at a time, eating them throughout the holidays. (I now understand why, since making them is time-consuming and rolling them out is tedious). As with most flatbreads, they are amazingly versatile. Some families stick to adding only butter, or butter and sugar. Others go savory by filling them with lutefisk (!!). I’ve generally gone the butter-sugar route. Long story short, butter, potatoes and sugar together are tasty.

Chocolate Krispy Treat Sandwiches

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My favorite human turns 30 years old today! I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love birthdays (my birthday! friends’ birthdays! strangers’ birthdays!). I also believe that birthdays should be celebrated for no less than a month, particularly if they are 30th birthdays! Alex doesn’t agree. He doesn’t like celebrations, particularly if they are celebrating him. He also doesn’t like cake, which I will never understand.

So, instead, we started celebrating last week, a whole three weeks shy of full birthday celebration. Per his request, we saw the anxiety-inducing Dunkirk on opening night at the Music Box. (Really, truly spectacular, if your heart can take it.) Tonight, we will have a nice dinner and some drinks. Tomorrow, we’re both taking off work and making a special trip to Werewolf Coffee Bar, and going to Sunset Pho Caffe for dinner with Alex’s dad. This weekend, we’ll probably make our way over to the Newberry Library’s Book Fair and celebrate with some friends. And, before the weekend is over, I suspect we’ll eat more than a few hot dogs. (Alex claims to never have food cravings, but this man has been talking about hot dogs, like, a lot.) For dessert, we will not have birthday cake.

Since cake was off the table, I tried to plan a celebratory dessert that captured the genius that is my wacky husband. Things I know about Alex are this: He is particularly fond of chocolate. A chocolate fiend, in fact. He’s been known to devour entire bags of semi-sweet chocolate chips. So, chocolate, sure, we’re getting somewhere.

The sandwich cookie is also a favorite. Alex’s love of cookies, particularly cookie sandwiches, knows zero bounds. His Instagram handle is @eatingcookies. No joke. (Don’t go looking for cookies there, though. He mostly takes pictures of garbage during our walks around the city.)

Finally, when I ask him about desserts he would like to try, they are almost never fancy. A while back, out of the blue, he mentioned he had read an article about an Australian snack called Chocolate Crackles. Essentially, this is a cupcake-shaped, chocolate Rice Krispies treat.

So, I combined the three, chocolate, cookie sandwiches, and Crackles, into a dessert truly fit for a 30-year-old man’s birthday.

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Chocolate Krispy Treat Sandwiches
Makes 24 rounds; 12 filled sandwiches. Slightly adapted from this recipe.

Ingredients:
For krispy treats:
6 tbsp unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the cookie sheet
1/8 tsp salt
10 1/2 oz bag of marshmallows
6 oz semi-sweet chocolate, roughly chopped
3 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
7 cups rice cereal (like Rice Krispies)

For filling:
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 tsp salt
5-6 tbsp powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup heavy cream

Instructions:
For krispy treats:
Butter a 12″ x 18″ cookie sheet.

In a large saucepan, melt 6 tbsp of butter over low to medium heat.

Once melted, add the salt, marshmallows, semi-sweet chocolate, and cocoa powder. Stir until combined and the marshmallows have completely melted. Remove from heat. Add the vanilla.

Add the rice cereal and stir until completely coated.

Immediately pour onto the buttered cookie sheet. Using your hands, or a spatula, press the mixture into the pan, filling to the edges. If you have a bit of leftover butter from the stick you used, you may find it helpful to cover your fingertips or the spatula with a bit of the butter while pressing to keep the mixture from sticking.

Once you have completely filled the pan with an even layer, refrigerate for about 15 minutes.

Using a 2 1/2-in round cookie or biscuit cutter, punch out 24 circles and move to another cookie sheet or plate.

For filling:
In a small bowl, beat the peanut butter, salt, powdered sugar, and vanilla until completely combined and smooth. In a separate bowl, beat the heavy cream until it forms stiff peaks. Add the heavy cream to the peanut butter mixture and fold together until combined.

Fill two rounds with peanut butter cream, press together, and enjoy!

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So, to recap–Rice Krispies Treats are good. Chocolate Rice Krispies Treats are better! Chocolate Rice Krispies Treats, filled with peanut butter cream are the best of all! Maybe they’re not the most grown-up dessert. No, they’re definitely not. But, being a grown-up is overrated anyway. Even as I was writing this last sentence, my brain was thinking, “You know what would be really good? Some peanut butter ice cream smooshed between two chocolate Rice Krispies Treats!” Omg brb gtg make some ice cream sandwiches!

Happy birthday, my love. Welcome to your 30’s!

Mandy Ross’ Sweet and Salty Chex Mix

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I’m very excited to be joined by Mandy Ross, the woman behind the very popular Instagram account, Paper of the Past, where she shares her collection of vintage scrapbooks dating from the 1850s to the 1940s. Each post beautifully displays a few pages from the collection, alongside the name of the owner, and often some details about them and even some of their own words. When I asked how she got interested in collecting scrapbooks, Mandy told me, “To me, old scrapbooks are time capsules in book form. They combine stories and mystery with a bit of an underdog vibe. For one reason or another, they have been discarded or lost, and need a good home. Each book tells a story, but I have to dig around to piece that story together.” I have my friend Sarah to thank for introducing me to Mandy’s Instagram, but many more discovered her before I did. She started her account in the summer of 2016 and now has over 16,000 followers, who enjoy her glimpses into personal pasts. Mandy adds, “Not only do I enjoy the investigative process of unraveling the story, but also putting those memories back out in the world via Instagram.”

Obviously, whenever I have a guest on the blog, I ask them to share a family recipe. When I first reached out to Mandy, she wasn’t sure which recipe she would provide, but she knew immediately it would be something that her grandmother made. I told her that the emphasis of my blog is always the significance of the recipe, meaning it’s often something so ingrained in a family’s life that it’s hardly noticed. After some thought, Mandy told me the story of her grandmother’s Chex Mix recipe. “I visit my grandparents in Phoenix before Christmas each year. We make Chex Mix, listen to oldies, and play cards for three or four hours a day. Actually, we play cards while we wait for the Chex Mix to bake. I keep my phone in another room (most of the time) and they don’t have internet. In winter, it’s sunny but cold in Phoenix. We watch birds and rabbits running around in their backyard. There’s a grapefruit tree, cacti, and hummingbirds. It’s very peaceful. Their house is full of antiques and old family photos. Throughout the years, it’s been the same relaxing visit. No matter how much my own life changes, the Chex Mix process and card-playing stays the same.”

“It’s very simple, but the process holds a lot of great memories for me,” Mandy says. She and her grandmother still make the mix every year. “We make a few batches for me to pack in my suitcase and share with the rest of my family in San Diego. So, even though it’s a recipe that my grandma and I share, my family enjoys the tradition as well.”

Sweet and Salty Chex Mix

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Mandy Ross’ Sweet and Salty Chex Mix

Ingredients:
3 cups Corn Chex cereal
3 cups Rice Chex cereal
3 cups Honey Nut Chex cereal
1 cup mixed nuts
1 cup pretzels
1 cup Cheez-It crackers
6 tbsp butter
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 tsp seasoned salt
3/4 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

In an un-greased large roasting pan, melt butter in the oven.

Stir in Worcestershire sauce, seasoned salt, garlic powder, and onion powder.

Stir in cereals, mixed nuts, pretzels, and Cheez-Its until coated.

Bake for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes.

Spread on paper towels or wax paper until cooled.

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Mandy’s grandmother “grew up in a big happy family in Southern California.” She owned and managed a beauty salon, and still does her friends’ hair. She also exercised her creativity through her hobbies of making porcelain dolls, sewing, and painting ceramics. Mandy says, “If she were in her twenties now, I think she would have a successful Etsy shop. My house is full of blankets, coasters, dishes, hanging towels, and bags that she made for me.”

Mandy says that her grandmother is partially responsible for her path. “She taught me the importance of having a lifelong hobby. Both her and my grandpa have creative hobbies that bring a lot of joy into their life. She also taught me it’s OK to have an entire room, or area, of your house dedicated to your passion. I live in a one-bedroom townhouse, with minimal space, but have converted my dining area into a scrapbook library. My grandma has a sewing room and a guestroom full of fabric.”

As interest in her work grows, Mandy is seeing more opportunities arise. “In the future, I expect to do more collaborations and tell the stories in more detail. I’d love to create a YouTube channel and share flip-through videos or un-boxing videos. My goal for the second year is to use Instagram to branch out into non-Instagram projects. I’d love to visit more library collections and also organize a small exhibit in San Francisco.” One particular scrapbook has already blossomed into its own research project—Mandy will visit Luxembourg soon to research the owner of the scrapbook, which contains love letters from a Luxembourger woman named Suzie to an American man. (You can even follow along with Mandy on her journey by searching #findingsuziekonz on Instagram.)

Mandy, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today and share you and your grandmother’s recipe! I can’t wait to see what’s in store for you next!