Ástarpungar ( Love Balls) & Our Icelandic Holidays in July and December

February 27, 2016

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So I’m not sure if you know it or not, but I am pretty much obsessed with Iceland. I absolutely love it there. I just can’t seem to get enough of it! The husband and I originally visited in December of 2012 and we have been back three more times since then. In fact we went twice last year and I must confess, I’m in the midst of planning our next visit! But it wasn’t until our third trip around the country that I discovered Ástarpungar aka Love Balls. A Love Ball is the Icelandic version of a doughnut, though they are completely round (ball shaped in fact) and do not have a hole in the center. I’ve read that they get their quirky name from an odd legend. Seems once upon a time there was a very beautiful, but rather unfaithful woman who was married to a very jealous and vengeful husband. And, oh yeah, there is also a very unfortunate lover involved who soon found himself to be missing bits of his anatomy! Yeah, I’ve also heard these little delicacies referred to as “Lover Balls”. Hmmm…So there you go!  I’m not sure how I missed out on them in previous visits, but now I’m in the know. So, being a fan of all things Icelandic, and these pastries are no exception, I thought I might share the recipe with you as well as some pictures from both of last year’s trips. (At this point, if you hate looking a vacation photos, you can scroll down to the end and just get the recipe. I’ll get over it, I’m sure. But if you think you might want to visit Iceland someday, and I highly recommend it, I hope that I can give you some useful tips and inspiration for your upcoming trip!)

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It was on our July 2015 visit that I first encountered Ástarpungar. We were on our way up to the Westfjords and stopped at the Geirabakarí in Borgarnes. (I’ve just gotta say here, if you are visiting Iceland and are in the Borgarnes neighborhood, this bakery & cafe should be a must for you. Everything I have tried there is out of this world. The husband and I were able to stop by twice in July, once on the way north and we made a point to stop again of the way back to Reykjavik. Really top notch pastries, bread, sandwiches, coffee…etc. And if you are at all interested in movie trivia, the Geirabakari is disguised as the Papa Johns in the Secret Life of Walter Mitty). I already knew that I loved Kanilsnúðar and had read that Geirabakeri did snúðar that could not be beaten. So of course, I ordered up one of those, but rather than the cinnamon variety, I had one with chocolate topping. It was superb! As I was trying to decide what other of the delicious looking pastries I was going to sample, one of the helpful folks working in the bakery suggested the Ástarpungar (Love Balls) and I am so glad they did.

Geirabakari Astarpungar

Geirabakari Astarpungar

Basically it is a slightly sweet, deep-fried ball of dough shot through with plump juicy raisins and a hint of cardamom. It was crispy on the outside with a light fluffy center. Yum! We found ourselves wishing we had gotten a bunch to go as we continued our journey up to the Westfjords.

Gerðuberg Basalt Columns

Gerðuberg Basalt Columns

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Stykkishólmur harbor

Stykkishólmur harbor

Stykkishólmur harbour

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And the Westfjords? The husband and I were completely smitten. Absolutely stunning no matter which way we turned!

Crazy Icelandic fog!

Dynjandi Waterfall

Dynjandi Waterfall

Dyandi heights

Westfjords Church

One of the highlights of the visit was The Under the Cliffs tour that we took with Wild Westfjords. This tour took us way off the beaten track along the rugged Svalvogar Peninsula trail. This road is inaccessible for most of the year and we certainly would not want to have attempted it on our own, even though we had rented a 4×4.

Skinny trail!

Skinny trail!

So we were very happy to have our experienced tour guide, Magnus, take over the driving. Friendly and entertaining, he imparted a local’s knowledge of the area to us and told us all about the history of the road, the local wildlife, legends and tales of the area, while we sat back and enjoyed all of the inspiring beauty surrounding us. Quite an unforgettable day! (O.k. – time for another endorsement. If you are planning to visit this area of Iceland, I can not recommend the folks at Wild Westfjords travel agency (especially Halldor) highly enough. Not only was their Under the Cliffs tour breathtaking, but Halldor helped arrange most of the details of our Westfjords visit, from the hotels, to ferry bookings, to the daytours. He gave us advice on driving times between areas and the sights to see along the way. His attention to detail was amazing, all of his recommendations were right on target. I found him simply indispensable!)

On the Svalvogur Trail

On the Svalvogur Trail

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Another fun stop for us in the Wesfjords was the town of Hólmavík. Talk about quirky! This town’s claim to fame is that it is the home of the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft. Fascinating!

The Husband casting spells

The Husband casting spells

We stayed just outside of the town in Hotel Laugarholl. The hotel is a converted school and that school-house vibe is still charmingly present. There is a Sorcerer’s Cottage on the grounds of the hotel which is part of the afore-mentioned museum. But hands down, the highlight of our stay here was the dip we took in the geothermal swimming pool as well as the time we spent soaking in the natural geothermal spring.

Hótel Laugarhóll hot pot

Hótel Laugarhóll hot pot

But our adventures in July were not over yet. We headed back to Reykjavik and on the Inside the Volcano tour were able to actually able to descend into the magma chamber of a dormant volcano! Iceland’s Thríhnúkagígur volcano is the only place in the world that you will find this unique natural phenomenon. After a short, relatively easy hike across a lava field, we arrived at base camp, where we were served a delicious and welcome traditional Icelandic lamb soup while we waited our turn to descend 120 meters (395 feet) down into the volcano.

Geared up & ready to go!

Geared up & ready to go!

Long way back up to the surface!

Long way back up to the surface!

volcano colors

The experience was awesome and I mean that in the truest sense of the word. There was a dazzling array of colors on the walls of the chamber from the mineral deposits which formed when the lava was present. We were lucky enough to actually meet Árni B. Stefánsson, the man who originally discovered Thríhnúkagígur, in the lava field on our hike out that day. He told us that he wanted everyone to have the opportunity to “feel small”. And standing there in such epic grandeur, we certainly did!

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The husband and I certainly enjoy heading off into the Icelandic countryside, but we also actually love the city of Reykjavik.

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In July I was able to book a walking tour of the city with I Heart Reykjavik. I have been following Auður who writes the I Heart Reykjavik blog for a couple of years now. Not only is she witty and entertaining, but her blog provides a wealth of information to anyone planning a visit to Iceland. When she started offering tours, I couldn’t wait to sign up for one! So, even though this was our third visit to Reykjavik, we took the tour and learned quite a bit from our fantastic tour guide, Ásta. Not only did she tell us about the history of the city but she also imparted a local’s insight on the best bars, restaurants and shopping that Reykjavik has to offer. She took us off the beaten tourist routes and back into the neighborhood streets to get a glimpse of a local’s life and to reveal some of the wonderful hidden street art.

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We loved the tour so much that when we returned in December, we took the Christmas Version of the I Heart Reykjavik walking tour and were actually able to meet Auður who was guiding the tour that evening. This special edition Christmas tour was full of valuable tidbits for the holiday season. Not only did we hear about the Yule Lads and my favorite – the Jólakötturinn (the yule cat who eats children who do not receive new clothes for Christmas),

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but we also got great insight into how average Icelandic families celebrate the holidays. We also received a wealth of information on all of the Christmas events happening around the city such as concerts, where to taste Christmas beers (For those of you not familiar with Christmas Beers, the breweries in Iceland produce a limited edition Christmas Beer every holiday season. The beers are generally a little darker, a bit spicier and somewhat higher in alcohol content.

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They are available in liquor stores starting November 15th, but are usually for sale in bars a bit earlier. Once January 6th rolls around, the Christmas beers are no longer sold and any beers left in the liquor store are shipped back to their manufacturer, at which point they are usually destroyed. Seems like definite alcohol abuse to me….just saying!) and the best restaurants for feasting on traditional Icelandic Christmas Dinners.

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And for those of you thinking….hmmmm…Iceland in December?! We actually love visiting in December. Folks in Iceland definitely get into the holiday spirit. Everything is decorated beautifully and if you don’t find yourself in the Christmas mood after a few days there, I must say, there is no hope for you. You’re a certified Scrooge!  Although we had visited twice before in December, the weather on this particular trip was remarkable. Reykjavik had just received a record amount of snow in the days just preceding our arrival and the snow just kept on coming!

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We even had a Winter hurricane show up while we were there with winds topping 65 mph in the city (30 mps)!

Sorry for the blurry pic, but I think it captures the moment & wind speed perfectly!

Sorry for the blurry pic, but I think it captures the moment & wind speed perfectly!

And I can’t forget to mention that most elusive of natural phenomena – the Northern Lights. We were actually lucky enough to get a glimpse of them one evening. It was a bit cloudy and the lights were not as strong as the first time we saw them back in 2012, but it was still an amazing experience.

lights – Version 2

lights – Version 2

So there you have it! A recap of our 2015 Iceland adventures! And it is true, I am in the midst of planning the first of our 2016 visits. So I hope you will stay tuned to see what we’ll get up to in Iceland this year. For those of you interested in experiencing Iceland for yourselves, at the bottom of this post, I have listed some other links to our favorite Icelandic businesses which may be useful in planning your trip. In the meantime, perhaps you can whip up a batch of these tasty little Love Balls to inspire you!

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P.S. On Tuesday March 1st, I will begin my annual St. Patrick’s Day blog-a-thon of Irish-y recipes. I hope you’ll check back in to join in on all the fun!

Ástarpungar aka Love Balls or Icelandic Doughnuts

  • Servings: 15
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Recipe adapted from: Tasty Trix

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups pastry flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/2 cup caster sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup raisins, plumped with Brennivín (Having no Brennivín on hand, I actually used Rum)
  • zest of one lemon
  • canola oil for frying

Directions:

Place raisins in a small bowl. Cover with boiling water or if you’d like to add a bit more flavour to the fruit, you can add some liquor to the water, or replace the water for liquor all together, depending on the day you are having. If you want to be very Icelandic, you can use Brennivín (Icelandic Schnapps, also known as “Black Death”). I went with good old dark Rum. Let the raisins soak for 15 minutes. Drain liquid away and gently pat raisins dry with paper towels.

Combine the pastry flour, baking powder, cardamom, caster sugar and salt in medium mixing bowl.

In another small bowl, whisk the buttermilk, egg and vanilla extract together.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until they just come together. Gently fold in the plumped raisins and the lemon zest.

Heat 2″ of oil in a deep pan to 350°F. Drop large cookie scoop (size #30, approximately 2 tablespoons) full of Ástarpungar batter into the oil. Fry, occasionally turning the balls so that all sides cook, for about 5 – 6 minutes.

Remove Ástarpungar from oil with slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels. Serve warm.

Enjoy!

Ástarpungar brought to you by: Runcible Eats (www.leaandjay.com)

Links to Useful Kitchen Tools & Ingredients for Ástarpungar:

Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Sauce Pan

Thermoworks Super-Fast Thermapen Cooking Thermometer

Norpro 2 Tablespoon Cookie Scoop

Additional Links for Planning your vacation in Iceland:

Blue Car Rental: The husband and I have rented our car from Blue on three different trips now and wouldn’t consider renting from any other company at this point. Every single time, their service has been fantastic from the first email until we drop the car back off to them. The cars have always been very clean, low mileage, newer models. We also love that the quote you get from them on their website includes everything: unlimited mileage, taxes and all of those pesky insurances like CDW, TP, GP etc.

The Black Pearl Reykjavik – Reykjavik’s Finest Apartments – We have stayed in their luxurious apartments twice and love them! The apartments are fantastic, location perfect and the service is absolutely top-notch.

I Heart Reykjavik: I know I have already linked to this blog above, but I can’t emphasize enough how helpful this travel blog is in planning your Icelandic vacation. Such a wealth of information it is an essential!

Grillmarkaðurinn – (The Grill Market) Our favourite special occasion restaurant in Reykjavik!

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur – Legendary Icelandic Hot Dog stand in Reykjavik. A one a day must for the husband while we are visiting the city!

Sandholt Bakery – If you are not headed out of Reykjavik – get your Ástarpungar here! Along with a plethora of other tasty treats!

SuperJeep – These folks will whisk you away from Reykjavik’s city lights into the darkness of the countryside to chase down the elusive Aurora Borealis. We have been on two of their Northern Lights Tours and were very pleased!

Kraum & Foa – Great shops in Reykjavik for quality, unique handmade Icelandic souvenirs.

Laundromat Cafe (yup…there really is a laundromat here in addition to all the great food and drink),

Kaldi Bar (Fun & hip Bar featuring beers from the Kaldi Brewery)

Ölstofa Kormáks og Skjaldar (Kormakur’s and Skjöldur’s alehouse) – Or just plain Ölstofan (house brew Brío is not to be missed!)

The Reykjavik Grapevine: A witty English language Icelandic magazine. Great read whether or not you’re planning a visit!

Our December 2012 visit blog – Full of useful links, pretty pics & a recipe for Kanilsnúðar

Our December 2013 visit blog – Full of useful links, pretty pics & a recipe for White Chocolate Skyramisu

 

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Kanilsnúðar (Cinnamon Snails) & Iceland in December

January 8, 2013

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Happy New Year Everyone! The busy holiday season is finally over and I guess everyone is starting to get back into their old routines. Our holiday season was made particularly hectic due to our decision to go on a spur of the moment trip to Iceland. We had always wanted to visit Iceland and had briefly looked into flights, hotels etc., but it had always been a bit on the pricey side. When we arrived back from our October Ireland trip, I had read an article which claimed that this winter, visitors to Iceland would be much more likely to see the Northern Lights due to the current cycle of increased solar flare activity. That’s when I checked flights on a lark and found that not only were flights cheaper, but all of the hotels seemed to be running off-season special rates. I must admit, a few times I did think “Who the heck goes to Iceland in December?! Are we nuts?!”

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But I’ve got to tell you, it is fantastic!. We LOVED it! Actually, I probably should tell you it’s dreadful, cause we are definitely going back and I don’t want to let too many folks in on the secret. Sure, it is chilly, though not awfully so. It hovers right around freezing but the temperatures are often accompanied and shall we say enhanced by ever-present, kicking winds. There is also not a great deal of daylight. Although you will find 24 hours of daylight if you visit in July, in December it got light around 10:45 a.m. and was dark again around 4 p.m. Such limited daylight definitely forced us to plan out what we wanted to do during  the day and get to doing it before it was dark again. And we did get in quite a few adventures. We went horseback riding at Hestheimar Horse Farm.

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Icelandic Horses were initially introduced to the country by Norwegian Viking settlers and the breed has remained pure for about 1000 years. These sturdy and hardy horses are very friendly and personable. They have an extra gait called a tölt which is essentially a fast walk. Tölting is a pleasure! Very smooth, much more comfortable for the rider than a trot.

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Super Jeep next to a crater created when Eyafjallajökull volcano erupted a couple of years ago.

We went on a Super Jeep tour of Þórsmörk (Thor’s Forest) with South Iceland Adventure Company (Thanks so much to Magnus, our guide) and saw waterfalls, and hiked through gorges, mountain passes and around on a glacier.

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Inside a glacial ice formation.

We chilled out at the Blue Lagoon. Not the one from the 80’s with Brooke Shields, but a surreal geothermal pool and Spa located in a lava field in Grindavík about 40 minutes from Reykjavik. No description from me will do it justice. It really is other worldly. But let me just say… imagine a huge hot tub in the middle of a lava field with a swim up to wine/beer bar located in the center. Are you getting the picture?

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We went Snowmobiling with Mountaineers of Iceland on Langjökull glacier, the second largest glacier in Iceland. Very exciting, but even with the copious layers of thermals I was wearing, it was the absolute coldest I’ve ever been in my entire life! Though what would you expect, we were traipsing about on a huge slab of ice!

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We stayed at Hotel Rangá. This gorgeous, cozy hotel, which is located out in the country (hence no light pollution), about two hours from Reykjavik, caters to folks hoping to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights and will give you a wake up call should you desire if the elusive lights do make an appearance. (seems like they mostly show up around midnight to 2 a.m.) We were actually lucky enough to see the Aurora put on a great show.

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Northern Lights and a meteor from the Geminid meteor shower which was happening on the same night!

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What is the food like you might ask. As you can imagine, the seafood is really outstanding! My husband, who is allergic to seafood, was not left wanting. There were plenty of non-seafood options available for him to choose from. One of his favourite meals of the trip was reindeer meatballs. All that being said, one of the most popular “restaurants” in Reykjavik, really isn’t a restaurant at all. It is a hot dog stand called Bæjarins Beztu which has been selling hot dogs or pylsur to Icelanders and tourists alike since 1935. Apparently Icelanders LOVE hot dogs and claim that theirs are the best in the world. Indeed, The Guardian designated Bæjarins Beztu as the “best hot dog stand in Europe”. Of course we made a beeline for the place as soon as we arrived in the city (as well as paying it a couple more visits while we were there). We weren’t disappointed! They serve some excellent hot dogs. These dogs have lamb added to the usual pork and beef and are smothered with ketchup, mustard, raw onion, crispy onion and a spicy remoulade. Delicious!

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We are already planning our trip back this year and yup, in December! I’m sure at this point you are wondering if we are ever going to talk about the Kanilsnúðar recipe I’ve dangled so temptingly before you. So I’ll get right to it. Icelanders are really into Christmas. Christmas music plays non-stop. All the houses are completely decked out with lights. Everywhere we went, shops, bars, you name it, had Christmas cookies out for all to enjoy. I think I first tasted a Kanilsnúðar at the Heistheimar riding stables. It reminded me of a Snickerdoodle, but better, much more exotic and with a fun shape. Then I was able to find a bag of these darling little snails, the first of many bags consumed on the trip, in a local market and my obsession began.

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Once I got home, I looked about online and was able to find a couple of recipes. The one I really wanted to make called for the ingredient “Hartshorn” which I had never heard of. Further internet research revealed that Hartshorn is a rather old-fashioned leavener also known as Baker’s Ammonia. It is supposed to make baked goods rise higher than baking powder and make them extra crispy. I read that it was available in most Scandinavian shops. These establishments are a bit thin on the ground in Virginia, so I checked the King Arthur Flour site and sure enough they had it, so I placed my order. (If you would like to make these cookies without the Hartshorn, you can substitute 1/2 teaspoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda for the 1/2 teaspoon Hartshorn called for. This is said to yield similar results, but I did not try it.) For those of you who do manage to procure some Hartshorn, don’t freak out when you mix the cookie dough up. It will have quite a whiff of ammonia about it, but it goes away once baking is complete. I was quite happy with my little “cinnamon snails”.

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They are great with a cup of coffee or tea in the morning or as an afternoon snack. My husband likes them because they are not overly sweet, a quality which he seems to prefer in a cookie. I’m sure they have secured a permanent place in our Christmas cookie repertoire because they will always be a pleasant reminder of our dreamy first trip to Iceland.

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Kanilsnúðar (Cinnamon Snails)

recipe adapted from: Jo’s Icelandic Recipes

yield: approx. 12  cookies

Ingredients:

  • 175 grams flour
  • 100 grams  unsalted butter  plus 1 Tablespoon salted butter, melted
  • 1/2 tsp hartshorn powder (baker’s ammonia) * or 1/2 tsp. baking powder and baking soda
  • 60 grams sugar
  • 1 egg
  • healthy pinch of salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cinnamon Sugar:

  • 2 Tablespoons Sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Cinnamon (or extra if you’re really into cinnamon)

Directions:

Mix cinnamon and sugar together until thoroughly combined. Set aside.

Place flour and hartshorn, sugar and salt in food processor. Pulse to mix. Cut cold butter into 1″ cubes and scatter over  the flour mixture. Pulse a few times until mixture resembles coarse little pebbles. Remove flour/butter mixture from food processor and place in bowl. Add the egg and vanilla and knead mixture until it just comes together to form dough. Pat dough into square shape and wrap with plastic wrap.

Place wrapped dough in the refrigerator for a couple of hours at least.

Remove dough from refrigerator. Flatten the dough quite thin and roll out evenly. Try to keep it an approximately square or rectangular shape.

Brush dough with melted butter.

Sprinkle cinnamon sugar mixture evenly over top of dough.

Roll the dough up into a roll, then slice into approx. 1 cm thick slices.

Arrange slices on a cookie sheet and bake at about 200°C (392 ° F) until golden brown.

Enjoy!

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