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SQUEAKY CHEESE & SAUNAS IN THE MIDWEST’S “FINNISH TRIANGLE”

Source: Surrounded by snow, this woodfired clay oven is the vessel of choice for baking rustic rye bread.

I’m in the middle of the area known locally as “the Finnish Triangle,” sampling a highly unusual yogurt whose active culture arrived here 100-some years ago on a sun-dried rag.

Every surface in Miriam Yliniemi’s bright kitchen is covered with a bowl or platter wearing a crinkled beret of aluminum foil. The bluish February sunshine shoots low through the large plate glass window, jumping from foil top to foil top and lighting up her kitchen like a disco.

Even though I’d asked Miriam to just make the karjalan piiraka, traditional rye hand pies, she’s chosen to override me and instead make a feast that charts a day in the life of a Minnesota Finn, from morning to midnight snack. There’s a pile of flour-dusted ruis, Finnish rye bread; joulutorttu, flaky cream-rich star-shaped pastries with prune jam centers; a towering whipped cream cake topped with a mosaic of fresh fruit; and in the center of her stove, a large disk of “squeaky cheese,” fresh curds broiled to a speckled brown, still warm and weeping whey at the edges.

Before I can wedge off my winter boots, she peels a soft plastic lid from a skyblue Tupperware container and hands me the traditional Finnish breakfast: a cup of homemade yogurt dusted with a flurry of cinnamon sugar. “This is villi. Our yogurt. It sets at room temperature.”

In snowy northern Minnesota, Miriam Yliniemi perfects her karjalan piiraka, ruffled rye pies with a rice pudding filling.

The has the consistency of custard but falls from my spoon in a long slithering cord. Stretchy like mastic, it has a disarmingly glutinous quality—a muscularity to it that suggests it might just keep on moving on its own. But that tension-hold breaks in the mouth, where it dissolves in a sweet puddle, its tartness soft like background noise.

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