One of the traditional Scandinavian dishes we receive the most questions about is Janssons frestelse, or Jansson’s Temptation, which is a staple of nearly every Swedish smörgåsbord, and a popular late-night nosh, or vickning, as the Swedes would refer to it.

We turned to Professor Jan Öjvind Swan in Lund to learn a bit more about Jansson’s, which can best be described as an anchovy-laden potato casserole. The dish appears as “anchovy casserole” or “Anchovy dish à la Irma” in early hand-written recipe collections; the name Jansson’s didn’t appear until the late 1930s.

So who was Jansson? What was the occasion for the very first temptation? Food writers argued for years over the origins of the name. But in 1989, writer Gunnar Stigmark revealed what might be the final answer to the enigma.

The casserole had been a popular dish with the rich ladies of Östermalm, in central Stockholm, for quite some time when, for a New Year’s party in 1929, Stigmark’s mother came up with the idea of making the dish somehow sound a bit more compelling. One of the blockbuster movies at the time was a film with Edvin Adolphsson called “Janssons Frestelse.” Thus, Jansson’s was born.

Whether the story is true or not, which sounds more tempting to you: anchovy-potato casserole, or Jansson’s Temptation?

You’ll find Jansson’s on the menu of most Nordic or Swedish restaurants in America near any of the traditional holidays. And it’s easy to make at home. Most recipes differ little — how thinly you slice the potato strips, how much cream you use or whether you add anchovy brine or not is mostly a matter of taste. Similarly, the more you rinse the potatoes and let them rest in water to remove some of the starch, the thicker the sauce will be. Here opinions part on whether one way is better than another, so don’t be afraid to experiment on your own.

What is an absolute are the salty, Swedish-style anchovy fillets you can get only through a specialized Scandinavian store or one of the IKEA stores throughout America. The much sweeter American or Italian anchovies just aren’t the same. (New York-based chef Ulrika Bengtsson sometimes combines 50% Italian anchovies with an equal amount of the Swedish matjes spiced herring, reportedly with good results.)

Janssons frestelse (Jansson’s temptation)
Serves 4-6

1 kg (2 1/4 lb.) potatoes (Do not use new potatoes)
2 onions
Butter
100 g (3 1/2 oz.) Swedish-style anchovy fillets and brine
4 dl (1 2/3 cups) whipping cream
2 tbsp. breadcrumbs

The Scandinavian style anchovy fillets - can in the East be bought at Sweden’s Best, www.swedensbest.com, Scandinavian Butik, www.scandinavianbutik.com, in the west at Scandinavian Specialties, www.scanspecialties.com among others - they all do mail order.

Instruction:
Preheat oven to 250ºC (425ºF). Peel and cut potatoes into strips. Peel onions and cut into thin slices. Sauté the onions in 1 tbsp. butter until soft. Generously grease a deep, straight-sided ovenproof dish with butter. Layer potatoes, onion and anchovies, ending with potatoes.

Press down lightly to even out surface. Pour cream over the casserole, almost to top of potatoes. Sprinkle with anchovy brine. Finally, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and dot with butter. Bake about 45 minutes.

This recipe comes from Served from the Swedish Kitchen, published by ICA-Förlaget Sweden.

And here is a slight variation in a recipe from Jan Wikström, a former Executive Chef at the Swedish Consul General’s residence in New York:

10 raw, peeled potatoes
2 yellow onions
Approx. 20 anchovy fillets
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
Plain breadcrumbs
1/2 stick of butter
Butter to grease the pan

Cut the potatoes into fine strips, do not rinse.
Cut the onion into thin slices.
Grease a straight-sided ovenproof pan. P
ut layers of potatoes, onions and anchovies, ending with a layer of potatoes.
Pour cream and milk over together with some of the brine from the anchovies. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs and dot butter on the top. P
ut in a pre-heated oven, 400º F and bake for approx. 45 minutes. Serve hot with beer, snaps and Swedish knäckebröd and Västerbotten cheese. Delicious!
Jan Wikström

Another must on the table (and this one for the brave among American readers, is the pickled herring. The Classic Glassblower’s herring, recipe: http://www.nordstjernan.com/articles/3/25/ or Matjes cakes (where canned matjes spiced herring works really well – also links to where you get them): http://www.nordstjernan.com/articles/3/24/