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Simple cooking leads to success

Beatrice Ojakangas stands in her home kitchen in Duluth. She will be inducted into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame on Tuesday. (Photo by Teri Cadeau)1 / 3
Beatrice Ojakangas examines a book in her large cookbook library. "I don't collect them," she said. "They just accumulate." (Photo by Teri Cadeau)2 / 3
The simple birthday cake Beatrice Ojakangas will demonstrate next week at Norsk Hostfest. (Photo by Teri Cadeau)3 / 3

Duluthian Beatrice Ojakangas is about to be inducted into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame. And she's really not sure what to say about it.

"I'm sure I'll think of something to say when I'm called to the stage," she said.

But, true to her nature and career as the author of 30 cookbooks, she knows exactly what she's doing for her Nordic Kitchen demonstration at the same festival.

"I'm making Finnish pancakes, popovers, and simple sponge birthday cake," Ojakangas said. "All of those recipes have similar ingredients in similar proportions so it'll be nice and simple."

Ojakangas is one of three names being added to the Scandinavian-American Hall of fame later this month at the institution's annual banquet held in conjunction with Norsk Hostfest, North America's largest Scandinavian festival. Since being established in 1984, the Hall of Fame has recognized notable people of Nordic descent who have achieved greatness in their fields of endeavour and/or whose efforts have contributed significantly to the betterment of mankind. Previous honorees include Bobby Vee, Walter Mondale, Kris Kristofferson and Buzz Aldrin.

"How they decided on me, I have no idea," Ojakangas said.

It might have something to do with the fact that Ojakangas has authored 30 cookbooks, one of which is "The Finnish Cookbook." Her other best known cookbook, "The Great Scandinavian Baking Book" won a James Beard Foundation award. She has also appeared on television programs with Martha Stewart, Julia Child and her own program on WDSE. Her recipes have been featured in magazines such as Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Woman's Day, Family Circle and locally in The Woman Today. But she doesn't let any of her successes give her a big head.

"Being a Finn, I have a hard time selling myself. I just worked hard and happened to make it," she said.

Ojakangas grew up in Floodwood, the daughter of Finnish parents. She graduated from Floodwood High School and went to the University of Minnesota Duluth for home economics.

"A nonexistent field these days, which is too bad. If there's anything people need to know, it's how to cook," Ojakangas said.

At college she met her husband, Dick Ojakangas. The couple traveled and lived in many places over the years before setting in California for a few years. There Ojakangas worked for Sunset magazine and found her passion for writing about cooking.

"That's what I always wanted to do. I was in the food department, of course. I got a job there as a typist and that was a great learning experience," she said.

While at Sunset, Ojakangas wrote her first book, "The Finnish Cookbook." She hasn't stopped writing and publishing cookbooks since. Her latest book, a partial memoir and cookbook, "Homemade," releases in October with the Minnesota University Press.

What's the secret to writing a good cookbook?

"Every cookbook I wrote had a theme to it. Every recipe has to really fit that theme," Ojakangas said.

Homemade focuses on recipes and stories that hit close to home with Ojakangas. Simplicity has become her theme.

"I get exhausted when I try to read these recipes that have 32 ingredients and have six pages of directions. To me, that's a waste of time. I don't do those. I do simple stuff," she said.

And although she creates recipes for a living and has accumulated a significant library of cookbooks over the years, Ojakangas said she usually cooks without a recipe.

"I just get creative with the ingredients I have around me. You can always make something," she said.

Simple is also her theme for her Nordic kitchen demonstration. The cake she plans to make is a recipe she learned from a Finnish exchange student she hosted a few years ago.

The student came home from East High School and wanted to make a birthday cake for a friend. Ojakangas showed her where she kept all her measuring equipment and kitchen utensils. The student ignored the measuring spoons and cups.

"Instead she took down three tumblers. She cracked eggs into the first tumbler, she measured sugar up to the same amount in the second tumbler and measured flour to the same amount in the third tumbler. My mom used to make cakes like that." she said. "It was so simple, but it turned out wonderful."

The 2016 Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame banquet takes place Sept. 27 in Minot, ND.

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

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