Ever since I was a little girl, Christmas morning always began with freshly toasted Nisu, a Finnish sweet bread, slathered in soft butter. My grandmother, Hilja, would put on a pot of tea and while she toasted thick slices of the spiced sweet bread for the family. Though the idea of opening gifts had us giddy, the smell of Grammie’s Nisu could entice us away from our presents and have us running to the kitchen for a fresh a bite of this special sweet bread.
Nisu, a Finnish sweet bread, is braided and blonde like a Finnish girl’s hair. The sweet bread (also called Pulla) is flavored with freshly ground cardamom and a touch of sugar. Every holiday my grandmother would bake us a loaf and smuggle it into the house and hide it, so that the family wasn’t tempted to tear into it before Christmas morning. The braided loaf is soft, like a delicate challah bread, but sweet and perfumed with the exotic flavors of cardamom. Of all the breads I’ve tasted, no other uses cardamom in such an intoxicating way.
Though it’s been almost a decade since I left my family home in Gloucester, Massachusetts (the town where my Finnish ancestors settled), I have never lost the taste for Nisu.
Living in Los Angeles, a city full of diverse cultures and bakeries that cater to practically every culinary tradition, I have yet to find a place that sells my traditional Finnish pulla (sweet) bread. In hopes of recreating the Nisu of my youth, I Googled my way through the blogosphere in search of the best recipe. I was lucky to discover Finnish Food Revisited, a foodblog written by a woman that lives in the my family’s hometown of Lanesville. Part Finnish (like me) Karen of Finnish Food writes about connecting to her roots through cooking traditional Finnish fare. The quintessential Finnish food that launched her desire to cook her grandmother’s traditional foods was Nisu. Karen’s recipe for Nisu originated from a cookbook written in the 1950’s by the local Finnish women of Lanesville.
After careful mixing and a few baking missteps, I pulled the final product from the oven. My home was filled with the sweet smell of freshly baked bread, sugar, and cardamom. Finally, I had baked myself a little bit of home.
Nisu, A Finnish Cardamom Sweet Bread
Adapted from a recipe from Finnishfood.blogspot.com. Makes two loaves of delicately sweet bread.
1 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
2 cups milk – scalded and then cooled to lukewarm
1/2 cup melted butter, cooled to lukewarm.
2 packages organic dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees Farenheit)
1 tablespoon crushed cardamom (use a mortar and pestle)
Approx. 6 cups flour – enough to make dough firm.
For wash: cold coffee and turbinado cane sugar or, for a shiny appearance, brush with egg whites and a touch of water.
Measure out 1/4 cup of warm water — Use an instant read thermometer to ensure that it is between 110 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Sprinkle the yeast in the water and stir gently to mix. Wait a few minutes to confirm that the yeast has been activated. Beat the eggs, sugar and salt together. Mix the scalded milk and melted butter together. Then add the milk/butter mixture to the egg/sugar/salt mixture and blend together. Add the yeast, cardamom seeds, and flour. **Before adding the yeast to the mixture, be sure that the milk/butter/egg/sugar/salt combination is cooler than 140 degrees Fahrenheit (use an instant read thermometer).
While you are mixing the dough, pre-heat the oven to 100 degrees Fahrenheit and then turn off. This will create a nice toasty environment in which your bread can rise.
Add the flour gradually –add the flour two cups at a time–with a mixing spoon. The dough should barely stick to the fingers — this may require more than six cups of flour. Once the dough reaches the desired consistency, knead the dough on a floured board until the dough comes off your hand.
Place the dough into a bowl, cover with a tea towel, and put it in the slightly warmed oven to rise. The dough should rise until it is double in size. This will take around two hours or more.
After the dough has risen for the first time, turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead. Next, divide the dough into six equally sized pieces and pull them into long strips (around 15 to 16 inches in length). Using three strips, braid the dough into a loaf. Repeat braiding to create a second loaf. Place the loaves on cookie sheets. Note that insulated cookie sheets will prevent the bottoms of the loaves from burning, when they are baked. Cover with a tea towel and return to the slightly warmed oven to rise again — to double in size. This will take an hour or two.
After the second rise, remove the breads from the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for approximately 30 minutes until golden brown. Then brush with a mixture of cold, brewed coffee and sugar, and sprinkle the tops with turbinado cane sugar.
Cooks’ note: Bread can be made 2 days ahead and kept, wrapped well, at room temperature or frozen 1 month.