I have never been to Finland, but my hope is that each morning, every schoolchild is wrapped in handmade woolen clothing and sent with a steaming loaf of pulla before returning home to relax in the sauna all afternoon. If you know otherwise, please don’t spoil my dream.
Pulla (somewhere between POOL-uh and PULL-uh) is a Scandinavian sweet bread flavored with cardamom. My dad spent more than a year in Finland, and he would make this from time to time when my siblings and I were little. I always imagined that he learned how to make this bread from a kindly Finnish grandmother, but when I pulled out the recipe again, I realized it is actually from a book called Of Finnish Ways, which sadly appears to be out of print. Regardless, this pulla recipe lives on in my household and is thoroughly enjoyed, even if it didn't come from a romanticized silver-haired baker.
This bread is lightly sweet with a delicious warmth from the cardamom and a slight crunch from the sugar-glazed crust. It’s perfect when warm from the oven and quite good leftover as toast or French toast. If you’re new to cardamom, you’re in for a treat! There are a few ways to buy cardamom, though, which can be confusing. I’ll try to demystify for you.
Notes on cardamom: Cardamom is a spice that grows in pods that contain seeds. Both the seeds and the pods are edible, but many recipes use only the seeds. There are basically 3 ways to buy cardamom:
- Pods – whole pods with the seeds inside. The two most relevant varieties are either green or black/brown, green typically being preferred.
- Seeds – whole seeds that have been removed from the pods. If you live near a grocery store that has bulk spice bins that you can measure from, this is a great, economical way to get cardamom.
- Ground – this is the form usually found in your average U.S. grocery store. It can come “decorticated,” meaning the pod has been removed prior to being ground, or non-decorticated. The decorticated cardamom is considered to be higher quality and may cost a little more.
For maximum cardamom flavor, you want to toast and grind the seeds yourself, whether you buy them in or out of the pod. The flavorful oils in cardamom deteriorate fairly quickly, so ground cardamom from the store or that has been sitting in your pantry may be significantly less potent. However, if pre-ground cardamom is the only option available to you, it will still be delicious, but I would use more of it in this particular recipe.
adapted from "Of Finnish Ways" by Aini Rajanen
1 cup milk, scalded*
½ cup butter (1 stick, or 8 tablespoons)
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast, or scant 2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 teaspoon ground cardamom (or more, if using pre-ground cardamom)
4 to 5 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
sliced almonds, optional
Scald* the milk in a small-medium sized pot or saucepan, then stir the butter in to melt it. Stir in the sugar and salt next, and then the eggs. (Stirring the eggs in last helps bring the milk temperature down far enough so that the eggs don’t curdle. If you’re worried about it, whisk a small amount of the milk mixture in with the eggs first to temper them.)
Once the milk mixture has cooled to lukewarm, or the 100-115 degrees Fahrenheit range, add the yeast. Transfer to a mixing bowl, and stir in cardamom and enough flour to make a dough that is firm and not too sticky but not stiff and dry either. Knead the dough by hand or low-speed machine until it is smooth and a small piece can be stretched thin enough to see light through it before it breaks apart (this is called the windowpane test). This takes about 10 minutes by hand, less by machine.
Divide the dough into three equal portions. Form each portion into a long, even rope by rolling and lightly stretching on a board, or by rolling between your hands in the air so that gravity does some of the work for you. Each rope should be about 20 inches long, give or take. Transfer the dough to a parchment-lined or well-greased baking sheet.
Braid the ropes together: Start by pinching all three ropes tightly together at the top. Then, cross the ropes over each other in this pattern: left over center, right over center, repeat. Once you reach the bottom, pinch all the ends tightly together. Gently cover the loaf with plastic wrap, leaving enough slack to allow the loaf to rise but ensuring that air drafts can’t get in to dry it out. (One of those big proofing bags they have on The Great British Baking Show would really be handy here.) Let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1½ hours.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Make a glaze by whisking the egg and ½ cup sugar together. (This really makes enough to glaze two loaves, but if you’re only making one and hate to waste, you could use the extra for custard.) Gently brush the glaze over the loaf, sprinkle with almonds (if using), and bake for 25-35 minutes. Check the loaf for brownness between 15-20 minutes. If it is browning too quickly, cover it with aluminum foil. Test for doneness the old-fashioned way by tapping the bottom of the loaf and listening for a hollow sound or the more precise way by using an instant-read thermometer. It should be between 185-190 degrees Fahrenheit.
P.S. This is an awesome article about how long to bake bread. It’s educational even if you don’t own a thermometer.
*Scalding means heating the milk to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. This heating process deactivates a protein in milk that can inhibit gluten development and limit the rise of your bread. However, there is some debate about whether this is necessary, since most milk sold is pasteurized and may have had that protein destroyed already. I like to scald the milk for this recipe because it allows me to melt cold butter in the milk, which brings it back down to the right temperature for activating the yeast.