As the weather cools and I can turn on the oven without heat blasting myself out of my kitchen, I get the urge to bake bread. The feel of the soft, silky dough between my hands, the long slow relaxing rises, the heady aroma that overtakes my apartment are delightful sensations that serve as a reminder to slow down. I love baking bread. I’ve made many wonderful loaves in my tiny kitchen but today I wanted something different, one particular memory that I’ve been pushing about for some time. Finnish Pulla.
When I was in pastry school early in the last decade, I learned all sorts of breads from baguettes to sourdough to croissants and everything in between. One day, the chef wrote a recipe for “Finnish Pulla” on the board for us to copy. I’d never heard of it but the recipe sounded great – a simple, slightly sweet dough enriched with butter, eggs and a good shot of ground cardamom. I was intrigued. The method was a bit odd and not one I’d seen before or since. It started like a cake batter; the butter and sugar were creamed together, eggs were added and only then were the yeast and flour added. Curious. I’ve looked at other pulla recipes since then and none use this method so I’m not too sure where this comes from or why, but it’s just how this one is and I know better than to mess with something that works.
The soft, slightly sticky dough is left to rise then divided into three pieces and braided into a loaf, much like a traditional challah. I have to admit, I’ve always liked braiding bread dough and this is no exception. Taking fat, non-descript doughy ropes and turning them into a beautiful loaf, watching as it puffs and pulls during baking, is extremely satisfying. It doesn’t hurt that braided loaves are oh so pretty too. Sure you could bake this in a loaf pan or make buns, but why would you miss out on all the fun? In school, my table partner and I had no trouble with the braiding but a fellow student wasn’t so lucky. We carefully talked him through the process from across the table expanse, assuring him it was just like braiding hair. He snorted and replied, “I’m a single dude. Where the hell would I have learned to braid hair??” He had a point.
After the braid rises, it is brushed with an egg wash to which I’ve added a bit more cardamom and then sprinkled with sliced almonds and pearl sugar. In class, we just used almonds but I really like the addition of pearl sugar and it is traditional. You can find the sugar online or, not surprisingly, Ikea carries it too. I’m still working my way through a box my friends bought while we were in a Stockholm grocery store not realizing it wasn’t sugar for their coffee. I’m still appreciating their mistake.
The bread is slightly sweet and eggy, tender and delicately spiced with that wonderful, elusive flavor only cardamom can bring. It’s like a spiced up challah. A slice with a slight smear of butter is outstanding with your morning coffee. If you want to try something really delicious and a bit unexpected, the bread makes a fantastic ham sandwich and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what it does to French toast.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: SUURI! (google translate tells me that means “great” in Finnish. I really hope that’s true.) This has so many of the elements that I most enjoy in bread baking: than zen-like related feeling that comes with kneading a soft, silky dough; a chance to braid dough which is always fun; that incredible yeasty, bready scent that can fill a house with warmth and make you smile from 2 flights down and last but not least, the immense satisfaction of removing the most beautiful loaf from the oven. It’s a win win all around and I didn’t even get into how great the thing tastes.
Other yeast bread recipes: Strecca di Nonna, Cheddar Monkey Bread, Classic White Sandwich Bread, Sticky Bun Bread, Giardinara Cheese Bread, Onion Rye Berry Bread, Classic Foccacia, Fig & Goat Cheese Foccacia, Easy No Knead Olive Bread, Multigrain Bread
Seven years ago: Lattice Love, Lessons in Pie Crust
Six years ago: Radishes, Butter, Sea Salt
Five years ago: PB&J Bars
Four years ago: Kale & Squash Salad
Three years ago: Muhammara – the best sauce you’ve never heard of
Two years ago: Whole Wheat English Muffins
Last year: Simple Pear Tart
FINNISH PULLA (FINNISH CARDAMOM BRAID)
Makes one large loaf
for the bread:
1 cup whole milk, warmed to the touch (110°-115°F)
¼ cup warm water (warm to the touch, 110°-115°F)
2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (one package, not quick rise)
8 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature (4 ounces/1 stick)
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ½ teaspoons ground cardamom
2 large eggs
5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
for the glaze:
1 Tablespoon whole milk
1 large egg yolk
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
Swedish pearl sugar, for garnish
Sliced almonds, for garnish
- For the dough: In a medium bowl, combine the milk, yeast and water. Set aside for 5 minutes, or until the yeast becomes foamy.
- Meanwhile, in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter until softened then add the sugar, cardamom and salt in a slow, steady stream, beating until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
- On medium-low speed, add the eggs, one at a time, beating until combined.
- Add 2 cups of the flour and mix on medium-low to make a batter.
- Change to the dough hook attachment and on low speed, add the yeast mixture and the remaining 3 cups of flour.
- Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the dough comes together and is smooth and silky, about 5 minutes. You may have to stop and scrape the bowl to help the dough come together. The dough will be soft and a little sticky.
- First rise: Transfer dough to a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap; let sit until doubled in size, about 1 ½ – 2 hours, depending on the warmth of the room.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F with a rack in the lower third.
- To shape: Transfer dough to a work surface and divide into 3 equal portions.
- Roll each portion between your palms and work surface to create a 16” rope.
- Braid ropes together to form a loaf. First, arrange the three ropes of dough side by side, perpendicular to you, and pinch the ends farthest from you together.
- Slide the left-hand rope and middle rope away from the right-hand rope at a 45°
- Pick up the left-most rope and cross it over the middle rope, laying it down next to the right-hand rope.
- Pick up the right-hand rope, cross it over what is now the middle rope, and lay it down next to the inside of what is now the left-hand rope.
- Repeat with the new outside left-hand rope, taking the outside rope of each new parallel pair and crossing it over the new middle rope to create a braid.
- Continue braiding in this fashion, making sure to keep even tension in the dough throughout the process to avoid creating sections that are either too tight or too loose, as these may misshape the loaf.
- Once you reach the end of the braid, pinch together the loose ends and fold them under the loaf; pinch and fold the other end in the same fashion.
- Transfer the braided loaf to a parchment paper–lined sheet pan.
- Second rise: Cover loaves with plastic wrap and let sit until puffed, about 30 minutes.
- For the glaze: whisk together cardamom, milk, and egg yolk in a small bowl; brush over loaf.
- Sprinkle with the sugar and almonds; bake until golden brown, 20–25 minutes.
- Transfer to a rack; let cool 10 minutes before serving.