Megan Abbott

At Home with: Leila Lindholm

Megan Abbott
At Home with: Leila Lindholm

Originally published on food52.com

Leila Lindholm is one of the shining stars of Swedish cooking. Since winning ‘Female Chef of the Year’ in 1999 she has starred in numerous TV shows, sold countless cookbooks, launched a successful line of cookware shops and started her own publishing company. Americans would call her the Martha Stewart of Sweden, us Brits would call her Scandinavia’s answer to Nigella Lawson. Whatever she is, she seems to have the culinary Midas touch. Her latest book, The Fresh Foodie, was shot by the celebrated photographer David Loftus. All over Sweden and beyond, Leila is fêted for her colourful blend of Swedish and global flavours, as well as her encouragement of home cooks to explore their talents. Cooking skills, she tells us, are something everyone has in them. It’s just a matter of encouragement. “Cooking is very personal,” She tells us, “Everyone can do it. They just need a little push.”

We travelled west from Stockholm to the impossibly Swedish locality of Mariefred, where Leila lives with her husband and two children. The town laces the southern shores of Lake Malaren, and is a toy town of red and yellow wooden houses overlooking a carpet of trees beyond. Fittingly, Leila’s house is about as whimsical as they come. It is a picture-perfect powder blue creation, facing out over the water. She greets us at the front door wearing an apron she designed herself, and takes us through to her kitchen. As well as being a celebrity chef, Leila is also a committed interior designer. She recently published a home decoration book, Welcome Home. And inside her eye-poppingly beautiful house, this other talent of hers is clear to see. Her home is an inviting mixture of antiques, textures and family relics. She leads us through to the kitchen, where a busy collection of pots and pans hang over a marble island. “I travel a lot, so it’s always special to be at home” Leila tells us, “We love it here so much. It’s a truly blissful world. 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 is the kind of kitchen that has your eyes wondering, taking in all of the colors, artworks and eye-popping cooking equipment. The glass-fronted, domed larder is the part we are most envious of. “The kitchen just grew around me. It was a lot more simple than this when we were first here.” She tells us, “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-coloured enamelware from her own brand, Leila’s General Store.  “I love cooking with enamelware.” She says, “It’s so durable, and last forever.”

Our lunch at Leila’s was a perfect taste of classic Swedish flavours. The potato salad – the backdrop to so many Swedish lunches - was creamy with a punch of mustard. A pile of zingy pickles offset the soft, flakey fish. Like smoked fish and potatoes, pickles are a central component of any Swedish dish. Leila even has an underground pickling storeroom. “It’s a very Scandinavian thing.” She laughs. 

“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.” Leila tells us, “Potatoes, butter, milk, flour, and of course, fish. Smoked fish is a great delicacy here.”

We ask Leila if she could make us some classic cinnamon buns. Mostly because, after a week in Sweden, we were aggressively addicted to them. Leila rolled, cut and shaped the dough with practiced ease. Cinnamon buns are integral to Sweden’s famous ‘Fika’ culture. Fika refers to afternoon tea or coffee, always accompanied by a pastry. It is a culture we have fully embraced on our trip. Come 3pm, we joined the throngs of Swedes in coffee shops across the city for a cup of coffee and a warm cinnamon bun. As expected though, Leila’s were the best we have tried. Ever. She pulled them from the oven just before they had fully crisped up, leaving the dough soft and moist. Plumes of spice filled the air each time we tore a new piece. 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). “This is a very typical thing to do with your kids.” She says, “This morning Olivia said ‘I want to make cinnamon rolls!’” It is largely down to Leila that Sweden has experienced a revival in home baking. “I did a few shows that started a baking revolution in Sweden.” She tells us, “Swedes are very comfortable baking at home. Especially cinnamon buns. They grow up eating them and watching their parents make them, so they are very happy to make them themselves.” Through giant mouthfuls of cinnamon bun, we ask Leila what her trick is to 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. Eating well relies on knowledge, so I want to pass that on. 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.”

“I have a very intense life, so the weekends are very special.” Leila tells us, “Being here and cooking with my family is the best relaxation I can think of.” We finished off lunch at Leila’s round dining table, looking out over the calm waters of the lake. It is easy to see how she finds it hard to leave Mariefred. Homes don’t come much more idyllic than this.