Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Finnish Biscuit

I’ve recently become a raging fan of cardamom.  I loved it in my iced chai lattes (from Panera) where it lent an exotic floral aura to the other sweet and spicy flavors, and so I put it in things like curry spice mixes, spiced ice cream, and Mulled Apple Cider. It wasn’t until I had the absolutely fabulous cardamom-pear scone at Blue Heron (a local coffee house, and so much more) that I began to appreciate its peppery nature in addition to its floral qualities (and its affinity for pears.)

Not only is cardamom a staple spice in eastern cuisines, but it also seems to be quite popular in Scandinavian and Finnish baking.  While the whole cardamom pods are fine for steeping, and I’ve even been known to grind up whole pods as part of a spice mix, it’s the dark little jewels inside the pods that are prized for baked goods.  Recently, I cracked open all of my remaining cardamom pods, a bit of a labor of love, and ground the seeds into a coarse powder for use in baking.  This is approximately what you get if you purchase a jar or box of ground cardamom, but it is oh so much better - spicier, more aromatic, more peppery, fresher - if you can grind whole seeds.

And so I set out to use my freshly ground cardamom before it lost its flavor, and I decided to finally try to make a rich, slightly sweet, Finnish-style cardamom bread.  My mom grew up in a tiny town in northern Michigan that was largely populated by Finnish and Finnish-American folks (although her family is not Finnish).  There, and in other places in the northern U.S. with significant Finnish populations, this bread is known as “biscuit.”  I’ve also heard it referred to as “coffee bread.” Purists will call it pulla, its Finnish name, and, according to Beatrice Ojakangas in her Great Holiday Baking Book (this book appears to be out of print), it might be called nisu, which comes from the Finnish word for wheat. Pulla differs from “everyday” bread by being made with wheat flour, which was traditionally harder to come by and therefore worthy of celebration foods.

This bread definitely qualifies as celebration food, but, after making it once, I’d like it to become more “everyday” around here.  On its own, the dough is rich, sort of like challah, and a little sweet, but the cardamom makes it truly special.  There’s plenty of it in the mix and its flavor is not the least bit elusive.  It’s there, bold and unashamed, but working well with the sweetened richness of the bread, which is soft and fluffy in texture.  If you’re accustomed to lean or whole grain breads, this bread might just seem like a decadent dessert.  It’s just fabulous on its own alongside a cup of coffee or espresso or tea, lasts well when wrapped or covered, toasts nicely while still staying quite soft, and is not too darn shabby spread with a bit of jam or jelly.  I’m sure it would make a luxurious French toast.  I’ll have to try that next.

I made a big, fat, fluffy braided loaf (a little over 2 pounds or about 1 kilogram) with this recipe, which is lovely, but a bit difficult to store. I ended up wrapping it in plastic wrap and sealing it in my cake carrier.  You could probably make it into two smaller braided loaves with skinnier dough ropes, which is what I may do next time, or whatever shape suits your fancy.  Until then, I’m taking down this giant loaf by myself, proving that you don’t have to be the least bit Finnish, or even care whether it’s called biscuit, coffee bread, or pulla, to really enjoy a slice or two (or ten) of Finnish-style cardamom bread.

Finnish Cardamom Bread

Based on various recipes, including those from The Minnesota Ethnic Food Book by Anne R. Kaplan, Marjorie A. Hoover, and Willard B. Moore, and Beatrice Ojakangas’ Great Holiday Baking Book

2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (1 envelope-style package)
¼ cup warm water (about 100-110 F)
½ cup sugar, divided
1 cup milk
¼ cup (½ stick) butter
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups bread flour, divided
1 teaspoon ground cardamom seed (preferably freshly ground)
1 teaspoon fine salt
egg wash (egg beaten with a little milk or water), optional

1. In a large bowl, combine the yeast, water and 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Let stand 5 minutes or until foamy.

2. Meanwhile, add the butter and milk to a small saucepan. Warm over medium-low heat until the butter has almost completely melted, stirring occasionally to keep the milk from scorching on the bottom of the pan. Remove from the heat and aside.

3. Add the eggs, 2 cups flour, remaining sugar and the milk mixture to the yeast mixture in the bowl. Stir to combine well. Cover with a towel and let stand about 15 minutes. This will make a mini-starter that I find improves the flavor and yeast performance in most breads.

4. Stir in 1 cup flour, cardamom and salt. Flour a kneading surface with some of the remaining flour. Turn the dough out onto the floured surface and knead, adding as much of the remaining flour as needed to make a smooth, elastic dough that does not stick to your hands or the surface. (You may not need all of the flour.) This will take about 10 minutes. (Alternatively, you could knead the dough with the dough hook on a heavy-duty mixer at low to medium-low speed, for about 10 minutes).

5. Form the dough into a smooth ball.  Grease a clean, large bowl or spray it with cooking spray.  Place the dough ball in the bowl and grease or spray its top.  Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the dough and cover the bowl with a towel.  Let stand about 1 hour. It should roughly double in size.

6. Gently punch down the dough and form it into a new ball.  Cover with the towel and let it stand 5 minutes.  Cut the dough into 3 equal portions (I used a scale to measure them).  Roll each portion into a ball.  Roll each ball into a rope about 12 inches long.  Braid the ropes together, pinching the ends together to seal them. (Alternatively, you could cut the dough into 6 portions, create skinnier ropes and braid three together to make smaller loaves, or form the dough into whatever shape you like.)

7. Transfer the shaped dough to a greased or lined baking sheet. Cover with the towel and let stand about 1 hour, or until roughly double in size.

8. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Brush the risen loaf with egg wash if desired. Bake at 375 F 30-35 minutes or until the crust is dark brown and the bread passes your favorite test for doneness (such as an interior of 200 F). Cool completely on a wire rack.

Makes one large (2 ¼ pounds or 1 kilogram) loaf (or two smaller loaves if desired.)

Other recipes like this one: Baguette, Chocolate Orange Bread, Walnut Buttermilk Bread

One year ago: Potato and Celeriac Casserole with Baked Eggs


  1. My Finnish grandmother is also from the UP. When our family makes this, we brush it with a simple syrup after it comes out of the oven. It makes the BEST toast ever.

  2. I made this recipe, and realized at the end that you never accounted for the rest of the sugar. At what point do you add the rest?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Yikes! Sorry about that. Thank you for pointing that out.

    Add the remaining sugar with the eggs and 2 cups flour in Step 3. I have edited the recipe above to reflect this correction.

  4. I make this, but when it comes out of the oven, I brush the top with a thick syrup made of strong coffee and sugar.