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.