A Luddite Gets Over Fear of Technology (and Baking)

Nissu, Chai Tea, Cardamom, Saveur Magazine recipe

I shouldn’t be so surprised by my fear of advanced food technology in my home kitchen. I come from a long line of starving artists that have—for generations—spent their money to pursue their art, rather than feather their home with modern gear. My people—the poet, the angry writer, the famous illustrator and writer, the sculptor, the painter, the silversmith—weren’t interested in a gourmet life. They were artists that ate what they could afford and stocked their kitchens with simple items like rolling pins and cast iron skillets, jelly jar glasses and chipped china

And so it is with me. I’ve built my life around writing and food, and yet my kitchen lacks any sign of modern gourmet trends. I don’t own a microwave or a food processor. I hand whip my whipped cream, muddle herbs with a mortar and pestle, and generally do things the old fashioned way.

It wasn’t until I decided to face two fears at once—baking and technology–that I was able to attempt to make Saveur Magazine‘s recipe for a traditional Finnish sweet bread, called Pulla, with my brand new (and untouched) KitchenAid. Even though I’ll be working at the restaurant this Easter/Passover weekend, I thought I should do some culinary celebrating before hand.

It’s fitting that it took a recipe reminiscent of my grandmother’s signature Finnish sweet bread to get me over my fear of the KitchenAid and pastry making.  Like me, she was a hard working artist and Luddite. But rather than relishing in the joys of cooking savory, she loved creating Finnish pastry, flaky pies, and fruit cobblers–all from the belly of a four-footed kettle stove that ran on firewood.The promise of freshly ground cardamom and the scent of freshly baked bread was the thing I needed to motivate me to up my game, embrace the “on” switch, and start baking.

Finnish Pulla bread recipe, Nissu bread recipe
A tale of two doughs

To tell you the truth, once I got past the anxiety of ruining a couple loaves of bread, I really enjoyed the process. I watched the comma-sized particles of yeast grow and bubble in a bowl of warm milk, and felt like a child witnessing a chemical reaction in a Petri dish for the first time. I marveled (blushed really) at the texture of the yeasted bread—soft and alive like a loved one’s skin—as I rolled it out with my fingers. I watched the miracle of baking with awe as the hot oven turned my braids of soft dough into a golden loaf of bread.

Finnish Pulla bread, braided sweet bread
The successful vs. the not-so-successful Nisu

Even the mistakes held some satisfaction, because they taught me what not to do. When I found out my yeast hadn’t activated quite enough, I started a small batch and added it to my dough mixture and saved the bread. After a full day of baking, that little success felt like a major victory.

Though I can’t promise I’ll be baking another loaf of bread any time soon, I can guarantee I’ll be using that KitchenAid to make some pastries shortly*

Finnish Nisu

Every holiday my grandmother would bake a traditional Finnish sweet bread she called Nisu. I later learned this braided bread is also called Pulla, referring to the genre of sweet and cardamom spiced bread.

The unmistakable perfume of cardamom and the scent of freshly baked bread is one of my favorite memories of holiday baking.  At Easter, my grandmother would bake this bread with an egg in the center to represent new beginnings.

Braided Nissu: a Finnish sweet bread with cardamom
Finnish Pulla Bread
Finnish Pulla (Nisu)
Makes two loves
Adapted from Saveur Magazine (April 2010, Issue #128)
1 1/3 cup milk, heated to 115˚

2/3 cup sugar

6-8 tablespoons of fresh cardamom pods (to make 4 teaspoons of ground cardamom)

2 ¼ ounce packages of active dry yeast

3 eggs, lightly beaten

6 ½ cups flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in to ½ inch cubes, at room temperature

1 tablespoon heavy cream or whipping cream

1 egg yolk

2 tablespoons turbinado sugar (for garnish)

1. Remove the oily cardamom seeds from the dried green shells using the back of a knife. Grind by the fragrant seeds by hand with a mortar and pestle.

2. Combine yeast, warm milk (be sure it doesn’t reach a temperature above 115˚ or you will kill the yeast), sugar, and 3 teaspoons of cardamom in a bowl of a stand mixer. Using the mixing paddle, stir together until mixed well. Let sit until the yeasts are activated and foamy, about 10 minutes. Add eggs; mix to combine ingredients. Add the salt and slowly add the flour one cup at a time. Stop mixing when a dough forms.

3. Replace the paddle with the hook attachment. Knead dough for two minutes. While the hook kneads the dough, add the butter in batches, being sure to only add more butter when the previous bit has been incorporated, about 3-4 minutes total. Continue kneading for 4 more minutes after the last bit of butter has been added.

4. Making sure your kitchen is nice and warm (turning on the oven to warm is a good way to warm things up), transfer dough to a greased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit covered for about an hour. Punch down the risen dough and cover again with plastic wrap, let rise fully for 30 minutes.

5. Heat oven to 375˚. Transfer dough to a work surface and divide it into two equal wedges. Working with the first wedge, divide the dough into three equal pieces. Using the palms of your hands, roll each piece into one long strand (or 16″ rope).

Braid ropes together to form a loaf. Transfer loaf to a parchment paper-lined baking tray and cover with plastic wrap. Continue process with the second wedge of dough. Cover the last loaf with plastic wrap. Let the two loaves sit until slightly puffy, about 20 minutes.

6. Whisk together the remaining cardamom, cream, and egg yolk in a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, paint on the creamy egg mixture. Sprinkle the loaves with turbinado sugar. Bake one loaf at a time, until golden brown, about 20-25 minutes. Transfer to rack to cool.

Serve toasted with butter. Or serve with eggs, smoked salmon, crème fraiche (and for bonus points, caviar!)

*I’ve got more to say about the National Food Blogger Bake Sale for Share our Strength, but I’ll leave that for an upcoming post!

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Brooke Burton nominated for best food writing

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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.

14 Comments

  1. April 1
    Reply

    Brooke,

    What a lovely story, and gorgeous bread.

    “At Easter, my grandmother would bake this bread with an egg in the center to represent new beginnings.”

    I love that! I woke up this morning thinking of eggs and new beginnings. How, exactly, did your grandmother place the egg in the center?

    • Food Woolf
      April 1
      Reply

      You know Steve-Anna, I don’t know. She never told me the secret. I think she probably put the egg on the bread at the beginning of the baking process. I’ll try it out myself sometime when I’m feeling adventurous and let you know how it works out!

  2. April 1
    Reply

    Great looking braids for your first time! The bread itself sounds heavenly!

  3. Brava, Brooke! Let’s hear it for getting over obstacles! My stumbling block was fresh pasta and, like you, I used a Kitchenaid to get past it. The revelation of making my own pasta, successfully, the very first time was very similar to what you describe with your Finnish bread.

    My husband and I try, every other Friday, to make something we’ve never made before. Your post was a great description of why that can be so very satisfying.

  4. April 4
    Reply

    Great job there, and I must say some fantastic looking bread! What I really love about trying something new is actually all the mistakes that are made. They, at the end of the day, are the things easiest to learn from.

  5. April 4
    Reply

    Looks fantastic! I have yet to get over my fear of making bread and i have yet to get a KitchenAid, but i feel inspired to do both!

  6. April 10
    Reply

    This looks great. I’ve been putting cardamom in everything lately. We recently made some Cardamom Biscotti and dipped them in Chocolate and I’ve been putting cardamom in my morning coffee too. Maybe I can persuade my wife to make these this weekend (I can’t bake worth a nickel).

  7. Louise Grace Lewis (your second cousin)
    April 14
    Reply

    Hi Brooke,
    I finally got to explore your site that Pam had told me about! – it’s wonderful and inspiring and you are so multi-talented!!
    I enjoyed your adventure with Nisu! I only recently read that Nisu is an old word and it’s now referred to as Pulla!……nope, can’t go there! It will always be Nisu to me.
    I was amused to hear that your creative Grandmother, dear sweet Lady, put an egg in the Nisu. It was never done by our Finnish relatives, but I wonder if she was inspired by Portuguese Sweet Bread. Along with nisu, my mother made it at Easter, a tradition inherited from my Grandmother Grace (Gracia). (She often gave some to your Grandmother. In making Portuguese Sweet Bread, two eggs are placed on either side of the round and two crossed strips of dough (The Cross?) were partially placed over them to hold them down and they baked right along with the bread.
    Speaking of bread, I always looked forward to the wonderful Greek bread that your grandmother made and brought to the picnics. Your Great Grandparents in Folly Cove had a Finnish cook – was her name Aune? – they taught her to make the bread and she taught your Grandmother. I tried to get the recipe from H. in later years, but it was too sketchy by then. But I’ve been making the “revolutionary” James Lahey bread using some grain flours, and it’s really very good! – reminds me somewhat of your Grandmother’s….nice memories…..

    • Food Woolf
      April 14
      Reply

      Louise, great to hear from you. I’d love to get that Greek bread recipe. Do you have it still?

  8. Virginia
    February 23
    Reply

    My mom used to make pulla all the time only, she made hers in a 4 section plait. To this day I don’t know how she did it. I’ll have to ask her, some time. She learned the recipe as an exchange student in Finland around 1960. I make mine in the bread machine. I’m a cheater! Really super good with Nutella, by the way.

    • Food Woolf
      February 23
      Reply

      Ooooh! I love the idea of nutella. Gotta try that. Do you have your bread machine version of the pullah bread on your website? I’d love to try it out!

  9. I love cardamom — I can’t wait to try this. As an aside, I think there should be some sort of group for cardamom addicts. They seem to surface on blogs. Fascinating.

    I have a fear, too: risotto.

  10. […] almost funny how I used to approach baking. I would reverse brag, and talk myself down about my inability to make a crust. I’d tell […]

  11. Tina Juvonen
    August 12
    Reply

    Well my braids are waiting to go into the oven as I write, unfortunately I don’t think they are going to turn out too well as you omitted to tell us when to put the sugar in the recipe. I have many choice words on my lips right at this moment but suffice to say you might want to amend you recipe.

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