An audience with the queen of cakes: Monika Ahlberg
Publish date: 19 January 2021
Everywhere in Stockholm, you see the word fika, but what does it mean? Having coffee, the Swedish way is rapidly growing in popularity around the world, and has even been shown to increase workplace productivity!
A fika can be many things but at its simplest definition it's shorthand for “Hey, guys? Let’s take five and have coffee. I’m really running on fumes over here and need a break”. But while a coffee break can be hurried or solitary, fika usually means sitting down with your loved ones or colleagues and enjoying a hot beverage and baked goods while socializing.
Fika has become such an integral part of everyday social life in Sweden that no workday is complete without at least one fika break. In many workplaces, it's been elevated and institutionalized to the point where you always have fika at least once, but often twice a day at given times – once in the morning, once in the afternoon.
Swedish business economists have even credited fika with increasing workplace productivity and employee satisfaction. The fika breaks not only help people clear their minds and fill up with fresh inspiration and energy, but also allows for cross-department mingling and casual informal information exchange across hierarchies.
This Swedish coffee break-culture has started to spread around the world, with hip fika-cafés opening in metropolises like London, Berlin, Tel Aviv, and New York. Serving fika classics such as cinnamon buns, semlas, and meatball on beetroot mayo sandwiches, these establishments are steadily gaining popularity among scandiphiles and local bon vivants alike.
Stockholm itself is, of course, rife with cafés, ranging from distinguished cafés dating back centuries, like Sundbergs konditori and Vetekatten, to hip new spots with their modern, unique twists on the fika, like Johan & Nyström and Café Gast.
I had a fika with cookbook author Monika Ahlberg, often referred to as the queen of cakes, to talk about “fikabröd” (buns) and the importance of indulging in seven different kinds of cookies at least once a week. Praised by the Swedes, Ahlberg made a name for herself as a self-taught baker and café manager at the garden cafe of Rosendal in Stockholm in the early nineties.
Her 1994 cookbook debut became a smash hit, and her signature baked goods (carrot cake, anyone?) quickly became commonplace. Today, 22 cookbooks later, she is running a little café at the Thielska Galleriet, a renowned art museum in Stockholm. The homemade style of her pastries along with the colorful mismatched china and rustic ceramics has become part of Ahlberg's trademark.
How would you describe a perfect fika?
"Half the experience is how the baked goods are presented, how they look, and where I enjoy my fika moment. I eat with my heart and eyes, preferably in the company of friends. The cookies and buns must be homemade with real butter, and I have a weakness for whipped cream – one spoonful of cream goes splendidly with almost all pastries. We take baking seriously here, and we try to satisfy everyone's cake needs. It took us a long time to get that perfect vegan cake, but now it's absolutely wonderful. I'm proud of everything that we do here at my café".
Do you have any favorite cake?
"It's like asking which flower is the most beautiful and what love is the greatest, I think you should create a small palette of many cookies, preferably seven different kinds of cookies. I have a weakness for "syltkyssar" – they remind me of my childhood. My grandfather was a baker, and our fika moments were always very lavish, almost like a little cake ritual. He always served a little snaps (a small glass of liquor) with his coffee as well, something I also do today when I have guests".
What is your favorite local spot for a fika?
"Tössebageriet has always been a favorite of mine, a classic that delivers. Mr. Cake is also a gem. It’s owner, Roy Fares, is truly passionate about his work, so everything on their menu is top-notch. I can also recommend Ett bageri, not only are the cakes extraordinary to look at, they are equally as extraordinary to eat, without hesitation – the finest Prinsesstårta (Princess-cake) I have ever tasted. For those who prefer bread instead of sweets, I recommend the Valhalla bakery – their Levain bread is magical".