Finnish

My Great Grandmother’s Cardamom-Coffee Bread, 117 Years Later

May  7, 2018

Every Christmas Eve day for as long as I can remember, I’ve climbed into the car with my mom and set off to circumnavigate the blustery horn of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, delivering gifts and greetings to loved ones in a ritual we call “the rounds.” The rounds are about tradition, seeing friends and family, and spreading holiday cheer—but mostly, they’re about nisu. Loaves of it sit in our trunk, individually wrapped in cellophane and tied with red ribbon. Dense, thickly braided, and coated in a sugary crust, they’ve just finished baking that morning. We’ve made sure that at least three remain at home.

The recipe below is for a big batch; you'll want it all. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Nisu is a yeasted Finnish bread served with coffee, though if you go looking for “nisu” in Finland, you’ll likely come up short. Today, it’s almost exclusively called pulla. Nisu is the older and more general word, and it has gone out of use over time. Pulla has also grown to encompass a whole variety of different sweet rolls—crescent-shaped, round, or flat; with raisins, nuts, or fruit—the only two constants are cardamom in it and coffee alongside it.

But for my Finn family, which includes the descendents of 12 siblings spread around the granite quarries of Cape Ann and beyond, there is only nisu, and it only means one thing. It is crusty on the outside, flaky on the inside; crowned with thick, coffee-tempered sugar; perfectly rectangular on the bottom, with peaks so voluminously rounded they threaten to spill down the sides of the loaf pan. Each bite infused with the sharp sweetness of cardamom.

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Our nisu recipe came from my great-grandmother Matilda Sironen Natti, who came over at the age of 19 from the small village of Kalmari, Finland. She taught it to her 12 children, who, in turn, taught it to theirs. The recipe wasn’t written down for a long time. Everyone baked it by “kinesthetic memory,” as my mom describes it. It was probably when the daughters-in-law of Matilda’s eight sons wanted to learn to make nisu that it became codified. Incidentally, when my Yankee grandma first tried to make it, the yeast didn’t proof, and the loaves came out like bricks. Faari, my grandpa, was the baker of the house for as long as he was alive.

From Matilda’s initial recipe, 12 or more different variations emerged, each branch of the Natti tree adapting it over time to suit that particular family’s tastes. Our version is set apart by three things. First, the loaves are bigger than average, which allows for an incredible textural difference between crust and center. The middle of each piece is as light and flaky as a croissant’s, and the sides are dense enough to make for a satisfying bite. The top is glossy and crunchy. Second, we double the amount of cardamom of the original recipe (which must be freshly ground in a mortar and pestle). And lastly, each loaf is brushed with a pot of coffee brewed to double strength. Ours is the only recipe I’ve seen in which coffee plays such an integral role, though all nisu, and pulla for that matter, is served with a mug of it.

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Top Comment:
“Swedish Coffee Bread INGREDIENTS 2.5 tsp. dry yeast ¼ c. warm water 1 c. scalded milk 1 sticks margarine 2 tsp ground cardamon crushed well 4.5 c. unbleached, all- purchased flour ½ c. sugar ½ tsp. salt ¼ c. honey 1 eggs, beaten DIRECTIONS Soften yeast in water. Scald milk, melt margarine into it. Combine 2.5c. flour, sugar, salt. Add milk, eggs, honey. Mix well. Add yeast and cardamom - mix well. Add 1.5 c. flour - mix. Dump onto floured board and cover. Let rest 10 min. Knead until dough is smooth adding flour as needed ( about 10 minutes ). Place in lightly greased bowl - turn to coat surface. Cover - rise about 1 ½ to 2 hours. Punch down. Rise 30 minutes. Punch down. On floured surface, divide into 3 balls. Cover, let rest 15 minutes. Divide each ball into 3 parts, roll, and braid. Place 3 braids on greased sheet. Rise, covered 1 hour. Brush with egg and water mixture. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake 300-350 degrees for 20 to 30 min.”
— Tim G.
Comment

There are varying schools of thought on how nisu should be eaten, but there’s really only one correct way: cut a thick slice, toast until golden, spread thickly with soft butter, and eat the bread alongside hot, black coffee. At Matilda’s home, nisu was toasted on the flat surface of her stovetop.

The recipe wasn’t written down for a long time. Everyone baked it by 'kinesthetic memory.'

I never got to meet Matilda, nor eat her nisu. And I’m a diluted Finn, Matilda’s bloodline winnowed down to just a quarter of my genetic makeup. I’ve always wanted a bigger claim on my Finnish heritage, to feel closer to the remarkable woman who raised 12 kids in a four-room house—which still stands, astounding in its smallness, just a few minutes from my parents’ house. I want to understand how she must have felt, 4,000 miles from home, as she set about making a new life for herself and the generations after.

But I can’t know what she felt, so when I braid the soft dough of her nisu recipe, I imagine there’s more of her in me than science allows.

Do you have any recipes from a great-grandparent? Tell us about it in the comments!

16 Comments

Danuta G. May 28, 2018
Our family had a recipe for buchty (sweet, brioche-like, buns that were filled with plum butter). I remember making them as a child with my grandmother and mother, and my gran would always make a special pan of them for me with a streusel topping, rather than the more common egg-white wash. There was no written recipe, it was instinct, as with most of the baking recipes they brought with them from Poland to England, and then to Canada. Luckily I've managed to write down a lot of the recipes I remember from my childhood, which now in my 60s I'm starting to forget! But the smell (yeast!) and taste of those buchty are always with me! I usually make them several times a year, especially around Easter.<br />
 
Kristen May 28, 2018
Our family has a very similar recipe that was passed from my Finnish Great-Grandmother. Biggest difference is ours uses bacon grease in place of butter! Mmmmm:P
 
Author Comment
Kate W. May 28, 2018
Oh my goodness! I'm so intrigued by this...
 
Erin May 10, 2018
Green cardamom pods right? Not black?
 
Author Comment
Kate W. May 10, 2018
Yup!
 
Leslie O. May 10, 2018
Can you clarify on the type of flour please (all purpose, bread/strong....)
 
Author Comment
Kate W. May 10, 2018
All-purpose :)
 
Lea H. May 8, 2018
We only toast older pulla, or make it into French toast and always have baked it on a cookie sheet. I love hearing other people’s stories.
 
Kajal May 8, 2018
Can you please specify how many grams per packet of yeast? Not all packets of yeast are the same weight in all countries!
 
Author Comment
Kate W. May 8, 2018
The yeast packets should be 1/4 oz, so about 7 grams. Hope that helps!
 
Jenn May 8, 2018
My mother gave the a recipe and a story about my great-grandma Cassie May Gould, who used to make a Lady Baltimore cake for guests at Christmas, but always made a special Dried Apple Cake with penuche frosting for my grandpa Carl, since it was his favorite. I've make the apple cake a few times and it is truly delicious. You soak the dried apples in maple syrup overnight to reconstitute them.
 
Author Comment
Kate W. May 8, 2018
Yum!
 
Mrs W. May 8, 2018
Gee, I would love that apple cake recipe!
 
Becky May 13, 2018
Me, too! Two of my favorite things - apple cake and maple syrup. Think about sharing it!
 
Tim G. May 7, 2018
My family has a similar delight. I love the lack of specificity of the handed down recipe. <br /> <br />Swedish Coffee Bread<br /><br />INGREDIENTS<br /><br />2.5 tsp. dry yeast<br />¼ c. warm water<br />1 c. scalded milk<br />1 sticks margarine<br />2 tsp ground cardamon crushed well<br />4.5 c. unbleached, all- purchased flour<br />½ c. sugar<br />½ tsp. salt<br />¼ c. honey<br />1 eggs, beaten<br />DIRECTIONS<br /><br />Soften yeast in water. <br />Scald milk, melt margarine into it. <br />Combine 2.5c. flour, sugar, salt. <br />Add milk, eggs, honey. Mix well. <br />Add yeast and cardamom - mix well. <br />Add 1.5 c. flour - mix. <br />Dump onto floured board and cover. Let rest 10 min. Knead until dough is smooth adding flour as needed ( about 10 minutes ). <br />Place in lightly greased bowl - turn to coat surface. Cover - rise about 1 ½ to 2 hours. <br />Punch down. Rise 30 minutes. <br />Punch down. On floured surface, divide into 3 balls. Cover, let rest 15 minutes. <br />Divide each ball into 3 parts, roll, and braid. <br />Place 3 braids on greased sheet. <br />Rise, covered 1 hour. <br />Brush with egg and water mixture. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake 300-350 degrees for 20 to 30 min.
 
Author Comment
Kate W. May 8, 2018
This sounds great! I'd be interested to see how the honey affects the flavor.