This is the recipe of Mary Smeds (1893-2001). This treat was often known among her family and friends simply as Grandma’s coffee bread. Her sister Annie, who also baked it, tended to call it kaffeleipää -- a literal rendering in Finnish of “coffee bread.” However, the specific Finnish name for this type of bread is pulla. (Pronounced POOL-lah.) It is a traditional baked good of Finnish and Swedish culture, strongly resembling Jewish challah. Both pulla and challah are sweet glazed eggbreads formed into braids. The main difference is that pulla makes prominent use of the spice cardamom. Also, pulla is prepared year-round, not just for holidays, though naturally it was made more frequently back in the days when women were housewives first and did not have to deal with jobs outside the home. In Finland and northern Sweden, pulla is often baked on Saturday so as to be ready on Sunday for “after church” coffee.
It was a rare day at the home of Mary Smeds that pulla was not available. She must have baked it one to three times a week for well over eighty years -- from her late teens as a young bride until she was over one hundred years old. She may literally have made it close to ten thousand times. She is certain to have made over ten thousand individual loaves, given that one batch of batter makes three loaves. It may have been the secret of her long life. Eating it gives a person a reason to live.
If Mary happened to make more than could be eaten in a couple of days, she did not let any go to waste. Before it could go stale, she would slice what was left, butter both sides liberally, and bake the slices into hard toast, which she would keep like cookies in a tin. In this form, it was called korpua, and was perfect for dunking in a cup of coffee.
Mary knew the recipe so well that when she baked a batch, she simply grabbed what she needed without bothering with measuring cups or spoons. When her granddaughter Grace was being taught how to make coffee bread as a teenager in the 1950s, she wanted to approach the task systematically and asked how much of each ingredient to use. Mary could not say. Instead she went about the procedure the usual way, and just before each handful of flour or pinch of spice was added to the batter, Grace measured how much was going in.
Through trial and error and the help of a book of Finnish cuisine that Mary herself recommended, her recipe has been recreated. But matching the goodness of Mary’s version is a daunting challenge. It won’t happen on the first try. It is essential to use patience. Baking pulla takes at least five hours start to finish. (That is to say, until the third of the three loaves comes out of the oven.) There are “bread machine” versions that can be made in a fraction of the time, but once a person has had the real thing, it is extremely hard to be satisfied with such a substitute.
When you look at this recipe, you may think it has too many calories, and be tempted to cut down on the butter or the sugar, or use skim milk. Don’t do it. Pulla is not a bread. It is a dessert. Nor should you be tempted to make it “healthier” by using whole wheat flour.
A word about cardamom. This is an uncommon spice. In a typical spice section of a supermarket, the price per ounce of cardamom is usually exceeded only by the price of saffron. If you ever see it on special, stock up. This recipe calls for at least some of the cardamom to be freshly ground. This means you have to find a source of cardamom pods, which can be a challenge, unless you happen to live in Astoria, OR. If you search on the internet, you will be able to find fine “white” cardamom pods, but they will be very pricey. Green cardamom, used in Indian cuisine, is good enough, and can be found in small ethnic grocery shops frequented by Indian, Pakistani, and Hmong families -- the same sort of places you would go for authentic curry ingredients. In those places, you can probably find green cardamom in eight-ounce bags for as little as five or six dollars each -- a fabulous bargain. “Green” does not mean unripe. There are two kinds of cardamom, one with white shells, one with greenish shells.
Preparing the Batter
Warm up the milk until it is steaming, but not boiling. The point is to kill any natural yeast or bacteria that’s already there, so that the bread yeast has no competition. All that is necessary is to reach 165° for a few minutes. Then allow the milk cool to a temperature mild enough you can put your finger in and keep it there without pain.
While the milk is cooling, take out a moderately large mixing bowl, in which you will create the batter. Pour in the warm water, the yeast, and some of the sugar. Let the yeast chew up some sugar for at least ten minutes, so that it starts to get foamy.
Add the rest of the sugar, about two cups of flour, all the cardamom, the eggs (beat the yolks and whites together first), and the milk to the bowl and stir until there are no clumps of dry flour remaining. Stir in the salt last. Direct contact with salt will kill yeast so you want to let the yeast get a proper start first.
Cover the bowl with a cloth and let this mixture sit for fifteen minutes, giving the yeast a chance to become better established. A slightly warm environment is best, say about 85°. Uncover the bowl, add about three more cups of flour, and stir until, once again, there are no clumps of flour left. You do not have to be obsessive about it. A power mixer is not necessary. A whisk and hand action are enough. Cover the bowl and let the batter rest again for fifteen minutes. While this is occurring, warm the butter until it is entirely liquefied, then let it cool a short while. (But not so much that it solidifies again.) Also, grease the inside of a very large mixing bowl, in which you will soon let your batter rise. Shortening is a handy substance with which to coat the bowl, but you can use other things such as butter or cooking oil.
The yeast will wake up nicely during this quarter-hour interval and when you take the cloth away you should see that the batter has expanded a little. Stir in the warm, liquefied butter. The oilyness will cause the batter to collapse a bit. This is normal. Add in three more cups of flour. At this point it is better to forget about using a whisk, because the lumps will only get tangled in the wires. Instead, use a large, stiff spatula or a wooden spoon. Stir until there are no more clumps of flour.
Congratulations. You have now created you coffee bread dough. Now let the yeast do the work for you.
Letting The Dough Rise
Pour the dough into the very large mixing bowl. The coating of the bowl will keep the dough from sticking to the bowl. Cover the bowl with the cloth and let the dough rise for about an hour. It should rise quite a bit. At the end of this hour, punch down the dough with a spatula or wooden spoon. Let the dough rise another half hour.
Your dough may be ready to make into braids now. This is not guaranteed. The dough will be more or less sticky depending on the temperature and humidity of your kitchen. Sometimes you need to let the dough rise longer. Otherwise the dough will be too sticky to work with. The danger is that by taking additional time, the yeast will eat up so much of the sugar that the bread will not be as sweet as it should be. You can only determine the right amount of time by trial and error. If all goes well, then the ninety minutes described in this recipe is sufficient.
Kneading is not recommended. To knead, you would have to add some flour, and this would make the final bread too dry. Pulla is meant to be a moist bread.
Making the braids.
You will need to prepare your surfaces. You will need a total of three cookie sheets. Grease them liberally -- the loaves are guaranteed to stick to the sheets if you skip this step. You will also need two large cutting boards or counter top areas, onto which you must spread flour.
Pour out the dough onto the floured surface you have prepared (as you see Mary doing in the upper photo). Turn the dough over one time in order to flour up both sides. Cut the dough into three equal parts.
Take one of these parts, coating the surface in flour, and move it to the other floured board. Divide this third into thirds. In other words, each new fragment will be equal to one-ninth of the whole batch of dough. Shape these pieces into thick ropes of dough, each at least a foot long. When all three ropes are prepared, arrange them on the floured surface and create a braid out of them. Place this braid on a greased cookie sheet and cover the loaf with a paper towel. Again, leaving it in a warm place is good. The dough will rise further while waiting to go into the oven.
You may find that the dough is too sticky to easily shape into ropes and wrap into the braid. If this happens, it means your dough may have needed more than ninety minutes to rise. You can compensate by coating the outer surface of the pieces of dough with liberal amounts of flour as you work it. This is why the recipe calls for eight to nine cups of flour rather than simply eight cups. However, as mentioned above, too much flour will render the final result overly chewy and/or dry, and extra flour is only to be added if absolutely necessary.
Repeat the process of braiding in order to create the second and third loaves.
You now have three braided loaves of raw dough. You are nearly ready to start baking.
Baking the loaves.
Pre-heat your oven to 400°. Allow at least twenty minutes from the braiding of your first loaf before beginning to bake it. If you don’t wait, the yeast may have a little too much rising power while baking.
Just before putting your loaf in the oven, take one egg, beat the yolk and white together in a bowl, and use this as your glaze. Brush the egg on the outer surface of your loaf. As the loaf cooks, this glaze will give the loaf a lovely dark brown color on the outside.
Bake for 25 minutes.
A minute or two before the loaf is to come out of the oven, heat half a cup of coffee to steaming in a microwave oven. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of sugar. As soon as the loaf comes out, brush the loaf with the sugary coffee mixture. Do this while both the coffee and the loaf are piping hot, so that the liquid evaporates immediately, without making the loaf soggy.
Brushing the loaf with sugared coffee is Mary Smeds’s personal touch. She was aware that a plain glaze of egg is a little bitter by the time it’s been cooked in an oven for 25 minutes. That bitterness interferes with the sweet, spicy taste of the rest of the bread. The sugary coffee flavor, by contrast, is perfect.
Other bakers have their own personal touches. Some add thin slices of almonds on top. Many Finnish cooks sprinkle powdered sugar on top. A few even add other ingredients to the batter, such as currants or raisins. Mary’s version does not need to be fiddled with in that way. (However, as you can see in the photo above right, even she sprinkled sugar on top occasionally. The batch she was making that day was probably intended for a special occasion, such as a Finnish Brotherhood potluck.)
Bake the second and third loaves the same way, and cool all three on a rack for a couple of hours. The result tastes great warm or cold, with jam or jelly or just by itself. Coffee is a perfect accompaniment.
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