At Helsinki’s Café Ekberg, holding on to the past is a good thing. Here, coffee is still served from small china cups instead of big mugs (or venti take-away cups) and the coffee room — literally — is one big room with old-fashioned furniture and design. While this may sound like a negative, I can assure you it’s not. It is, in fact, part of the charm and attraction of this institution. This is, after all, Finland’s oldest café, still going strong after more than 100 years in business.
Old-time charm may be the theme of Café Ekberg, but it is not a place only for old-time customers. Here, you’ll see the stereotypical group of 80-something ladies chatting over a cup of coffee and a classic Napoleon pastry, while at the table next to them sit two teenagers gossiping over macarons and tea. The café has also become a popular spot not only for sweet treats, but lunch and breakfast. During morning hours a popular buffet-style breakfast is served; for lunch you can get salads, sandwiches or quiche. The café also has its separate bakery side for takeaway and advance orders, and the bakers are always updating their pastry selection.
Established in 1853, the bakery is now over 150 years old. While the location has changed and the assortment of breads and pastries has clearly grown, the bakery’s core values are the same. Using only natural ingredients and no artificial additives, Ekberg focuses on classic pastries and lets the quality ingredients speak for themselves. Inspiration for new bakery items is found in mainly France and Italy, while some of the oldest items at Ekberg include munkki, classic Finnish fried doughnuts with jam inside, as well as French classics like the Napoleon, also called mille-feuille (“thousand leaves”).
When it comes to traditional Finnish baking, Ekberg’s bakes several kinds of bread and sweet buns. What sets Finnish buns apart from the generic bun in other countries (except Sweden) is the use of ground cardamom in the dough. If you ask me, it is actually surprising that the use of cardamom isn’t more common in baking elsewhere, as it adds a layer of flavor and excitement to otherwise plain dough.
As I’ve always loved baking, and grew up in Finland, I’ve obviously baked buns plenty of times. To this day, my grandmother always has a batch of buns — if not freshly baked — waiting in the freezer, and she taught me how to perfect the classic korvapuusti, or cinnamon bun, and a plain version with a big dollop of butter in the center. But one thing I for some reason never attempted to make was the braided long bun — a classic bakery item I mainly associate with the coffee table in my high school’s teachers’ lounge. When I got the chance to bake this bun — as well as the classic cream-and-marzipan princess cake — in the bakery of Café Ekberg I was therefore extremely excited, and yes, slightly nervous.
To get a behind-the-scenes look into the baking process at Finland’s oldest bakery, and my struggle to perfect braided buns and a princess cake, click through the slideshow here.
Café Ekberg offers tours of their bakery for groups, and are planning on hosting more guided baking classes in the future. For more info, visit cafeekberg.fi.