Easter (or Resurrection Sunday, as our previous church called it) is coming in a few weeks. I don’t want to distract you from focusing on Jesus, but like all holidays, Easter can become more meaningful when family traditions are incorporated into the celebration.
Back when Pete and I became engaged, his mother, Martha, gave me a copy of the Finnish cookbook she frequently referred to, as she endeavored to pass along her Finnish heritage to her six children. I was then politely (but firmly!) informed that if I was going to be a member of the family, I should start learning how to make Nisu! This mouth-watering yeast bread, also known as Pulla, is served year-round in Finland, but I don’t have the time and energy to make it every Saturday. At our house, it’s the most important part of our annual Easter brunch.
Nisu is supposed to be eaten plain the first day, and toasted the next—as if there would be any left! It is always served with lots of coffee. The dough can be shaped into wreaths, stars, “Golden Chariots,” a “Bishop’s Wig,” etc., for Christmas or other special occasions.
I’ve had decent results substituting whole wheat flour for up to half the white flour.
Finnish Pulla or Nisu
Adapted from The Finnish Cookbook, by Beatrice Ojakangas
Makes 3 loaves
1 pkg. dry yeast
½ C warm water
2 C milk
1 C sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. fresh ground cardamom
8 – 9 C flour (bread flour is best)
½ C melted butter
1 egg, beaten
½ C crushed lump sugar (or extra fine sugar)
½ C sliced almonds (opt.)
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Stir in milk, sugar, salt, cardamom, eggs, and enough flour to make a batter (about 2 cups). With a wooden spoon or electric mixer, beat until the dough is smooth and elastic. Add about 3 cups flour and beat well; the dough should be quite smooth and glossy. Add the melted butter and stir in well. Beat again until the dough looks glossy. Stir in the remaining flour until a stiff dough forms. (Unless you have a huge and powerful electric mixer, you’ll have to do this last part by hand—even though mine has a dough hook, the bowl just isn’t big enough for nine cups of flour!)
Turn out onto a lightly floured board and cover with an inverted mixing bowl. Let the dough rest 15 minutes. Knead until smooth and satiny. Place in a lightly greased mixing bowl, turn the dough to grease the top, cover lightly, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 hour). Punch down and let rise again until almost doubled (about 30 minutes).
Turn out again onto a lightly floured board, divide into three parts, then divide each of these parts into three* again. Shape each piece of dough into a strip about 16 inches long by rolling the dough between the palms and the board. (Now you know what all that play-doh practice was good for.) Braid three strips together into a straight loaf, pinch the ends together, and tuck under. Repeat for the second and third loaves. Lift the braids onto lightly greased baking sheets. Let rise until puffy but not quite doubled in size.
Glaze the loaves by brushing with the beaten egg, and if you wish, sprinkle with the crushed sugar and almonds.
Bake in at 375°F for 15 – 20 minutes (or longer—ovens vary). Do not overbake or the loaves will be too dry. Remove from the oven when a light golden-brown. Slice to serve.
*Pete’s mom considered a four-strand braid to be much more elegant. To braid with four (or more) strands, just pretend that you are weaving each outside strand in turn, going over and under the other strands. It sounds tricky but it is actually very simple.