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bread baking

Finnish Christmas bread and the most amazing bread-baking smells ever

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Pulla is a traditional Finnish sweet bread that is flavored with the unique scent of cardamon. Your kitchen, whole house actually, will be filled with the scents of yeasty bread-baking with an amazing cardamon finish. It makes a stunning braided loaf, or can be baked into individual rolls for easy eating. Finnish Pulla is very similar to challah, with its eggs, milk and butter additions but interestingly fragrant with a warmth of spices. It’s fascinating how Scandinavians have the tradition of pulling cardamon, a spice native to India, into their bread baking. It was the Vikings who brought back this spice from their plundering expeditions. How cool is that?

This is my dad’s recipe, scrawled rather cryptically on a hard-to-read recipe card. After some code-breaking and further research, here it is. The recipe originated from a Finnish friend of the family who not only made us Pulla but made it at our house, hence my strong scent-filled memories of this wonderful bread.

Side note about Cardamon

Scandinavians not only use cardamon in their breads, but also in mulled wine, cookies, cakes, pastries and meatballs too.  Cardamon, the third most expensive spice after saffron and vanilla beans. My small bottle cost $10.95. It is a part of the ginger family. Indigenous to South India, and according to some accounts to Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal as well, it was brought to Scandinavia by the Vikings, a thousand years ago, from their travels to Turkey. Cardamon appears in written Nordic cookbooks as early as 1300AD.

Side note about Finnish swearing

This recipe makes two braids. One I’m bringing to Master’s Swimming this morning to present to a Finnish swimming mate, Jarkko. Every swim practice I google a Finnish word and try it out on my pal. Today’s is “jumalauta” which translates to holy shit, or God help me, a good word to use after a tough kick set. (Jarkko hates kick.)

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Ingredients

  • 2 cups milk, heated to 115°
  • 1/2 cup warm water (110 degrees F)
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 2 tsp ground cardamon
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 9 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1 (2.5 tsp) packages active dry yeast
  • 1 egg yolk
  • Sliced almonds
  • 1 tbsp heavy cream
 Directions
Warm the milk in a small saucepan until it bubbles, then remove from heat. Let cool until lukewarm. Dissolve the year in the warm water. Stir in the lukewarm milk, sugar, salt, one teaspoon of cardamon, 4 eggs and enough flour to make a batter (about 2 cups of the nine). Beat until the dough is smooth and elastic. Add about 3 more cups of the flour and beat well, the dough should be smooth and glossy in appearance. Add the melted butter and stir well. Beat again until the dough looks glossy. Stir in the remaining four until the dough is stiff.
Turn out the bowl onto a floured surface, cover with an inverted mixing bowl and let rest for 15 minutes. Knead the dough until smooth and satiny… at least 10 to 12 minutes.
Transfer dough to a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap; let sit until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
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Risen dough after an hour

 

Punch down dough; cover again with plastic wrap and let sit until fully risen, 30 minutes.
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Who needs a proofing drawer when you have a warm spot in front of the fire.

 

Heat oven to 400°. Transfer dough to a work surface and divide into 3 equal pieces. Set 2 pieces aside and divide other piece into 3 equal portions. Roll each portion between your palms and work surface to create a 16-inch rope. Pinch the three strands together and braid ropes together to form a loaf.
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Transfer loaf to a parchment paper–lined baking sheet. Repeat with second and third dough pieces. Cover loaves with plastic wrap and let sit until slightly puffed up, about 20 minutes.
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Whisk together remaining 1 tsp cardamon, cream, and egg yolk in a small bowl; brush over loaves. Sprinkle with almonds and a bit of white sugar.
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Bake, one loaf at a time, until golden brown, 20–25 minutes. Transfer to a rack; let cool 10
minutes before serving. (Pulla makes wonderful toast too.)
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A Julia Child Throw Down or 10 reasons to tackle a 21-page recipe with four ingredients

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Don’t be intimidated, make Julia proud

Julia Child was the rocket scientist equivalent in the cuisine world. Every ingredient, every step of every recipe was researched, tested, re-tested for, “those who like to cook and/or want to learn, as well as those who are experienced cooks, including professionals,” Julia said as she slaved for years on her cookbooks. “So we have to keep the dumb debutantes in mind, as all as those who know a lot…” (I land somewhere in the middle).

 

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As you can see, I’m a bit of a Julia Child freak

Her biggest challenge was the French bread recipe that takes up 21 entire pages in Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume Two. My throw down to you is to give it a whirl. Here’s why:

IMG_85071.You need Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume Two if you don’t already have it in your cookbook collection. You can’t claim to be into cooking without it.

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2. You need a peel. It’s handy for pizza too.

IMG_86673. Bricks are cheap.

4. Julia and her husband Paul spent more than a year to perfect a French bread recipe that could be duplicated at home with American ingredients.  The couple used 284 pounds of flour to develop the master bread recipe in countless experimental batches.

IMG_86815. French bread has these four ingredients: Flour, salt, yeast and water. Julia and Paul experimented with fresh and dried yeasts, various flour mixtures, rising times and trickiest of all, how to get moisture into the oven to simulate a French baker’s oven and to give it the right golden colour and crispness of French bread.

IMG_86926. With the help of Professor Raymond Calvel, the head of the state run École Professionnelle de Meunerie in Paris, the world’s leading authority on French bread, they cracked the code. A brick in a pan filled with steaming water coupled with a pre-heated clay (or pizza) stone to cook the bread on were the winning techniques. Lucky me, with my new wood-fired oven, I just steam it up with a spray bottle and pop my loaves onto the hearth and no longer need the brick trick.

IMG_86827. The directions in Mastering Vol. II are unbelievably detailed and include little sketches of exactly how to shape the loaves.

IMG_86868. Julia and Paul did all the hard work and loaf burning for us. See my post…Things I lost in the fire…so we don’t have to. If you follow the supremely clear and detailed directions your loaves will turn out…perfectly.

IMG_8693IMG_86409. You will get so cocky you might even make brioche.

10. What better way to honour Julia’s legacy than bringing out three, golden, fragrant, perfectly crusty loaves that are even better than boulangerie bread. You can do this even if you are a dumb debutant. Pretty good bragging rights re the 21-page recipe as well.

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