Pulla: Finnish Cardamom Sweet Bread

My good friend Lisa recently got back from a trip to Estonia where she was visiting some relatives. Most people, when they go on a trip, might bring you back a post card or a knick knack. You know, something that says, “I thought of you when I was in the airport coming home”.  But not Lisa! Nope.  She’s one of those incredibly endearing people that are so thoughtful, beatifically patient and compulsively compassionate that she makes Mother Theresa look like an angry old cow.  So, in true Lisa fashion, she brought back gifts that people would want and enjoy.  Lucky me, she arrived at the homestead bearing a sack full of Estonian beer, hazelnut dark chocolate, and the most delightful liqueurs in a chocolate bottle.  The beer are tall boys, so if that gives you an idea of the size of the chocolate bar….and Mike and I ate it in a week, gluttons that we are.  The beer was ice cold and it didn’t last the night.

Anyway, a few nights ago Lisa and her partner Resh dropped by to check out the new house and share a glass or two of wine.  We got to talking about this, that and the other, and she mentioned that she sometimes brings an elderly Estonian friend (more like a lonely widow who became adopted family that she visits every week, because I told you – she’s That Nice) sweet bread from a local bakery.  She said that it was scented with cardamom and baked in a braid, at which point I got really excited and said that the Finns make a similar bread called Pulla.  It’s a family favorite that my Mom makes every Christmas, and my recipe is the same one that she uses from a dog eared old Finnish cookbook that was printed in 1964.  Lisa said that it was one of her favorites, and since Lisa is one of MY favorites, that’s how I came to be baking bread in a semi-intoxicated state at 1:30 in the morning.

I LOVE BAKING BREAD.  I just thought I would tell you again.  I do, I LOVE IT.  I love watching yeast bloom and swell. I love kneading dough and feeling it get elastic under my fingers.  I love watching the bread rise and puff in the oven as it starts to develop the first tinges of golden on the top.  And, most importantly, I love giving people thick slices of fresh buttered bread, still warm from the oven.

Finnish Cardamom Sweet Bread – Pulla

This recipe makes 3 loaves, which seems like a lot but works out quite splendidly because 1 is to show your Scandinavian hospitality and give it as a gift, 1 is to eat immediately – which you will – and the last you can tuck in the freezer until you’re ready, which will likely be in 2 days time.

  • 1 tbsp yeast
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 2 cups milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 8 whole cardamom pods or 1 tsp of ground
  • 5 eggs, 1 off to the side
  • 8 – 9 cups sifted white flour
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1/2 cup slivered almond

Microwave your milk for about 2 minutes, and then take it out and let it cool on the counter.  

While it cools, find a smallish bowl and dissolve the yeast in the warm water.  Now you may ask, “what does WARM mean?”  Warm means that it’s hotter than room temperature, but not scalding.  Warm is like the bath that you were sitting in which was blistering hot 20 minutes ago and is now just making you sleepy.  Let the yeast wake up in it’s warm bath and start to bloom/froth for about 5 minutes.

At this point I find it perfectly acceptable to counterfeit an absolutely AWFUL Scottish accent and start talking about “te BLOOMIN’ yeeeast!”.  Mike never finds this as funny as I do.

I use a mixer to make this dough because I’m lazy.  However, if you don’t have a mixer and you DO have a particularly strong arm, feel free to make this in a large bowl.  Pour in the yeast, milk (which should be mostly cooled by now), ONE (1) cup of sugar, the salt, cardamom (I used ground because I did not have whole), FOUR (4) eggs and only TWO (2) CUPS of the flour.  Sorry if that was loud, I needed to make a point.  The Finns are very superstitious about their breads, and the ordering of things is very important to them.  On the plus side, this makes it easier to incorporate the mixture so take it as a blessing.  

Beat this mixture into a batter, or combine it on low speed in your mixer.

Add 3 more cups of flour as well as your melted butter and stir this until it is combined.  

Finally, you can add your remaining 2 – 3 cups of flour. So how do you know how much to add?  The dough will tell you.  Start by adding 2 cups, and let it mix for a few minutes.  If it is still sticking to the beater and the sides and looks a bit like a thick batter, you need more flour.  

Maybe the Finns have moister houses than I do, because I needed all 9 cups of flour to make my dough. You can tell that there is enough flour when the dough comes together in a ball and has a relatively smooth surface. Turn the dough onto a floured surface, and knead it for about 10 minutes.  You will feel it change in your hands, becoming smoother and more elastic.  It will have an almost silky sheen and then you know you’ve done your job and it’s ready.

Lightly oil a bowl all over, and drop the dough in there to rise.  Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel so that it can breathe.

After about an hour the dough should have doubled in size.  I know, the pictures aren’t great today.  I usually use Mike’s camera (aka, The Good Camera) but since he’s away right now you get my little Sony point-and-shoot which is perfect for taking candids at a party, but maybe not so great for a cooking site.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface (again) to punch it down.  Punching down is basically a nice way of saying, “and knead again for another 3 minutes”.  I’ll spare you the pictures, because it looks exactly like the ones above.  Let this rise, with a cloth cover, for another 30 – 60 minutes until it has doubled in size again.

We’re in the final stretch!  Turn the dough out (last time, I promise) onto a very lightly floured surface and divide this into 3 parts.

Divide each part into 3 more parts.

Pretend that you’re in kindergarten making plasticene snakes, and roll each part out into a tube about 18 inches long.  Now, I’ll be honest – I can’t tell with any accuracy how long 18 inches is.  I will also not tell you the joke about how women can’t measure because of the way in which we learned how long ‘8’ inches is, because this is a family-friendly website.  Anyway.  Each string is roughly the length of my forearm from elbow to finger tip.  Braid 3 strips together.

…if you’re trying to recreate my cooking experience and it is now 3 am for you, you have likely forgotten (like I did) how to braid.  Here is a reminder:  cross the left strand over the center so it is the new center.  Cross the right strand over the center (which used to be the left strand) and it is now the center.  Repeat, until you have a braid.  Pinch the ends together to seal them, and tuck them under the loaf.  

Lightly grease 2 large baking sheets and transfer your loaves.  It will be one sheet with 2 braids, and one sheet with 1 braid.  Let this rise for about 20 minutes until it is larger but not doubled in size.  While it rises, preheat the oven to 400.

Has your dough risen a bit?  AWESOME!  Beat the last egg, and have your slivered almonds and sugar handy.

Brush each loaf thoroughly with egg, sprinkle 1/3 of the almonds on top of each one, and then sugar each loaf.

Bake in a hot oven for 25 – 30 minutes until they are slightly brown on the darkest parts, mostly golden, and still a light fawn color where the dough was creased.  If you overbake the loaves they will dry out, and you want a cooked but moist loaf.  My new oven is tiny (I mean, TINY.  This will be Appliance Improvement #1 if I have my way) so I baked them on separate racks and rotated the position after 15 minutes. This is the final product.  Tell me that wasn’t worth the effort, seriously.  My Mom likes Pulla in slices with thick slabs of cold unsalted butter.  I like it with a thin coat of room temperature salted butter.  Mike likes to pull it off in chunks and eat it plain.  Do whatever suits you!! 

I should also mention that ‘sweet’ bread is not entirely accurate.  It’s really rather more like, ‘sweetened’ bread, or ‘bread with some sugar added’.  I love eating this for breakfast or a snack, and it is definitely not in the same sweet realm as turnovers or the like.

Music to match your late night baking:  I Found a Reason by Cat Power….I’ve been on a bit of a Cat Power kick lately…..

This bread is a great match with your morning tea and coffee, or a sweet light lager in the afternoon.


  • Alison

    Is this new counter? In the new kitchen? In the new house? I love it! I still need to see way more pictures. And I’ve never baked bread before (cause I suspect breadmakers don’t count) and the more you post, the more I think about baking! It’s bad!

    The kitchen and the pulla look delicious.

  • Mom

    It looked and tasted delicious! Bravo, Bettina!

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

    Awww….do you see that? My Mom liked it! If Mom likes it, you know it must be good – after all, she’s the expert!

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

    And….PS: None of you are allowed to call me Bettina. Ever.

  • Teev

    Hey, just found your site via DHAK and made this straight off. It came out great, even with the changes I made (added raisins and had to sub crushed hazlenuts for sliced almonds). The only thing I’d add to the recipe is a sort of warning: these loaves come out humongous, which can be a shock (but it ended up ok because it was so delicious that they all got eaten anyway). Thanks for the recipe!

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

    Teev, I’m so glad that you liked the recipe!! I’ve only had this the traditional way, but the addition of raisins sounds delightful – I’ll have to try that. The loaves ARE quite large, but I’m such a glutton that I secretly find that to be a good thing 😉

    Oh, I’m just so delighted that you made these and liked them!! Thank you!

  • Nanco

    I’m so excited to see this recipe! I’m going to make some for our house warming. As Thunder Bay’s supposed to have the highest concentration of Finns outside of Finland, I think it will be appreciated! Thank you!

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

    That’s great to hear Nancy! Good luck! Remember that the key to this is knead, knead, knead. Oh, and do things in the order suggested. Also, if you have a small oven (like we do, now) you might want to cook them in 2 batches. I had 2 on 1 sheet and 1 on the other, and even though I rotated the pans at halfway, the one on the bottom was a touch more well done than I would have liked. And a housewarming is the perfect time to try this out, because as Teev says – it makes A LOT of bread!!

  • http://thespitefulchef.blogspot.com Kristie

    I’m pretty sure I hate cardamom. I don’t say this to belittle your post, but more because I’m not 100% SURE that I hate cardamom. All I know is that several years ago, when I was still a college student first learning the ropes of baking as taught by watching too much Food Network, I made a blueberry cake that had cardamom in it. The blueberries were expensive, thus meaning I couldn’t drink too much and show my boobs to frat boys that night, so I was already feeling resentful of my cake. But then when I bit into it, it tasted like dick. I blamed this on the cardamom. Then again, I usually end up pissed off when I try to mix spices with fruit. I don’t know why this is.

    Maybe I’ll give cardamom another try. And if I learn to love it, I will write you a heartfelt thank you email, though it will likely be in my head in the shower, never making it to actual email form.

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

    Kristie, cardamom is not for everyone although I have an almost upsetting affinity for it. I know at least 2 people who cannot stand the stuff though, particularly when they find whole pods in their curry and think it’s a cockroach. On the plus side, it’s not an overpowering flavour in this bread, so hopefully you’ll like it if you give it another shot! Because if not…well….that’s a lot of bread to pawn off on strangers and passersby.

  • Jan

    Made the pulla, finally (I waited until I could make it at a friend’s; he has a mixer, and I am lazy). We had the wrong kind of cardamom (black and green are NOT the same, as it happens), so we used cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger instead, but it was still delicious! We ate til we exploded, and then kept eating. I’ll try again with real cardamom.

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

    Jan – I’m so excited that you made this! And ENJOYED it!! Having a mixer definitely helps….I bet that the cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger were absolutely wonderful in there, and those are perfect seasonings for a coffee bread!

    And see? When it tastes so good, three loaves doesn’t seem like so much after all! 😉

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  • Nanco

    Haha, I just read the bit about cockroaches. Touché!

    I wasn’t sure where to post this question, but have you ever made a fondue with hot oil or broth? That’s my plan for Sunday, and I’ve only ever had it once… Any suggestions?

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

    I’ve made fondue with oil as well as broth. If you’re doing a cheese fondue as well you want 2 fondue pots for every 4-5 ppl. That’s 1 cheese and 1 ‘cooker’ (broth or oil). If you have more than 4-5 people dipping into a pot (particularly of the heated liquid) the temperature drops too much so the heat becomes less effective, so people leave their forks in longer and then it gets overcrowded. So…yeah.

    Broth: much healthier option but does not always cook things as quickly or evenly. Lends itself well to lighter water based vegetables, fish, seafood, etc.

    Oil: less healthy but easy. Also more versatile in terms of what can be cooked. Good option for heartier vegetables, beef and meats.

    Also, for the cheese: Don’t make this until you’re ready to serve it or just before. Keep the heat loooooow, stir it often, and encourage people when they dip to swirl their fork all the way down to the bottom. YOu don’t want it to stick or burn, which it will if you’re not careful.

    Also: figure on having about 4-6 forks per person, cut the meats and whatnot up into 1″ cubes (not too large or they take a long time to cook), and remember that VARIETY is the spice of life. And let me know how it goes!!!

  • Nanco

    Hi! (And happy belated birthday to someone special!) Of course, I read this AFTER we had our fondue party. I went with a broth fondue and things went well except that we only had one pot, and everything that you said would happen did. It became overcrowded and things had to stay in longer to cook. Other than that, it was pretty good! I pre-cooked some mini potatoes and sweet potato, had raw bok choy and broccoli, then shrimp, salmon and beef. We had chocolate fondue for dessert and used fruit, pretzels, candied ginger and sugar cookies. The broth fondue was time consuming (cooking times, as mentioned, and the level of broth was a bit too low so you couldn’t put many things on a skewer or they’d be above the broth line). It tasted good, though. Our dipping sauces were sweet Thai chili, Satay sauce, wasabi/mayo, and dill with sour cream.
    Thanks for the pointers. I’m sorry I didn’t check this message earlier! You’re my go-to gal for all things culinary (well, you and my sister-in-law cause she’s a Red Seal chef, but I always ask you first!)

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  • http://www.pot-puree.blogspot.com nandini.p

    how nice… i found a pulla recipe which is not very confusing and with step by step photo… i had this during my trip to finland in a farmers house and been on the lookout for this recipe ever since. Found many but nothing like urs … easy to follow . Thanks .. planning it to make it this weekend.

  • KKB

    I heart this bread! Last time I made it, I had a ground pecan/gingersnap mix left over from a pumpkin pie & sprinkled that on one of the loaves instead of the almonds. It was wicked good.

    Making some right now, actually. Thanks for my favorite bread recipe!

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      KKB – we’re so glad that you like this bread!! I wish that I could take credit for the recipe, but it’s all thanks to that almost-antique Finnish cookbook! This is one of my favorite breads too, and I actually really like knowing that there’s ONE MORE loaf waiting for me in the freezer 🙂

      The pecan gingersnap mixture must have been DIVINE instead of sugar and almonds. Oh, yum. That would go so well with the sweet cardamom flavor. Great idea, and thanks again for checking out our site!!!

  • Umme Kulsum

    Tina,

    I’m tempted to call you Bettina. haha. I know you are not finding it as funny. The Pulla is baking away in the oven. I halved the recipe, so tell me tell me I didn’t do it wrong. Because the aroma filling the house is awesome.
    And it must have been warm the time you made it. My yeast was a lazy ass who didn’t wanna wake up in an hr.Can’t wait to tell you how did turned up ! Tomorrow…. 🙂

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

    Don’t even think about it! But DO think about how good that pulla’s going to taste. Let us know what you think!

  • Umme Kulsum

    Tinaaa!!

    They rocked! Like imagine a first time at baking bread and they turned out so goood. But I halved the recipe and I regret. It made only two and only half of one is left !! But cheap that I’m I was scared I might do it all wrong and waste the flour, butter, sugar hahha ….see you are not as cheap as me. I won’t even spend more on flour. But truly , you changed the course of baking bread for me. I’m mailing you something. Do reply 🙂