There and back again
There’s a running joke about food bloggers who share their life story before finally getting to the actual recipe. Well, buckle up, because this story really is about my curiosity about the origins of a beloved family recipe. There’s a jump button at the top of the post if you’d rather just skip to the good part (you can also subscribe for recipes without my life story), but this post also has pointers about how to make Nisu, or Finnish Cardamom Bread.
Anyhow, the Nisu is as delicious as it is beautiful and one of the better things I’ve baked, making my story a small price to pay, if I do say so myself.
My mom grew up eating Nisu
My grandmother was Finnish, and mom grew up eating lots of Finnish food, including delicious Finnish baked goods. She’s made a version of Nisu every Christmas for as long as I can remember. My mom makes a very American version, reflecting the way that recipes change over time with available ingredients, picky kids (ahem me), and distance.
I think of it like I think of Italian-American or other cuisines adapted and changed with time and place. Absolutely scrumptious and also distinct.
Her Christmas bread is “the B*mb”
My mom’s recipe is affectionally known as “the B*mb” for the way it rises rather spectacularly when shaped in a wreath (and because it is that good). True story: When asked about her favorite thing about Christmas, my niece exclaimed, “THE B*MB!” unaware that most people do not have such things with their holidays. I pity them.
For a long time, my mom baked loaves to send out to friends, and one of our Christmas Eve traditions was driving around with my dad to drop off the welcomed loaves of bread. All over my hometown, people would look forward to my mom’s bread with Christmas breakfast.
Our American Christmas bread had no cardamom in it
My mom’s Christmas bread did not have cardamom in it, not because she didn’t like it, but because my sister and I would not eat it as children (specifically, I would not eat it). Have I mentioned that I was a super picky eater as a kid? Like the kind who liked about three things and would eat nothing else? Yeah, that was me.
But some things stayed the same
While it had no cardamom and no pearl sugar topping it, and a recipe tweaked through the decades, my mom’s Christmas bread kept some fundamental constants about Nisu: her Christmas bread has a lovely crust, surrounding pillowy soft, flavorful sweet bread. She braids hers in a wreath and glazes it with simple syrup before frosting it (she knows what the kids like).
After visiting Finland, I got curious about authentic Nisu
I got curious about Nisu after visiting Finland and eating their wonderful baked goods, and I decided to bake a more authentic version of Finland’s famous cardamom bread. I found a recipe from Martha Stewart, and this recipe is based on it.
After experimentation, I changed up the method from that recipe, allowing for a hydration period and adding the salt later, and I also replaced the commercially ground cardamom with cardamom freshly ground with a mortar and pestle.
Mine is also an American Nisu
This recipe is the result. It has that great crust that Finnish baked goods have, sprinkled with pearl sugar and almonds, and inside, there’s a pillowy soft bread with a real cardamom kick that pairs great with a cup of strong coffee. I daresay that it’s delicious, even if it, too, is an American Nisu.
Don’t let breadmaking scare you
I think bread intimidates a lot of people, which I get. However, I like to remind myself that human beings have baked bread since practically the dawn of time. Certainly the dawn of interesting time, at least.
Is this bread a bit fussy? Yeah. But it’s also forgiving. While developing this recipe, I ran into some issues with the dough, but you know what? It came out tasty every time, and it looked good, too. Don’t let bread push you around is what I’m trying to say.
But this isn’t a beginner recipe
Having said that, this isn’t a beginner bread recipe. It’s not super complicated, and I’ve done my best to make the instructions clear, but this might prove challenging if you’ve never made bread before.
You really need a stand mixer
You probably could make this Nisu recipe by hand—if you are in really good shape—but I don’t recommend it. Incorporating the butter would be a real workout. There’s likely other recipes out there that make the butter easier to add, but this one follows a similar technique to brioche, and I feel a bit faint just thinking about doing that by hand.
Weigh your ingredients
As the saying goes, if cooking is art, baking is science. And science requires a bit of precision. While this recipe is forgiving, you’re going to get more consistent results if you weigh your ingredients.
My guess is that if you have a stand mixer, you probably already have a digital scale, but, if not, you can find a good-enough one for a modest price. In case you don’t have one, I have given ingredients in cups as well. For ingredients in teaspoons, I left them as is.
Grind your own cardamom for great Nisu
Freshly ground cardamom explodes with flavor in a way that the stuff in a jar just doesn’t. It’s potent, and this recipe takes full advantage of i. If you are unsure of your love of cardamom, you are welcome to reduce the amount if you grind your own (see the recipe note). A good spice shop (this really makes me miss Christina’s in Inman Square, Cambridge) or health food store will have cardamom pods, but you can also get them online. You can find them and other specialty ingredients in my Kitchen Shop, too.
Use a mortar and pestle
A mortar and pestle makes short work of grinding cardamom. I happen to have misplaced mine at the moment (this isn’t my kitchen), so I did a tortured improvisation that I do not recommend. That I did this on more than one occasion attests to the difference it makes in a dish.
To grind your own cardamom, you cut open the pods to expose the seeds. You add the seeds to your mortar and discard the outer pods and any chaff. You then grind the seeds. This article from the Spruce Eats explains things nicely. For the small amount used in this recipe, a food processor isn’t appropriate.
Let your Nisu dough hydrate before adding salt
Something I’ve learned from baking a fair amount of bread over the years (there was a point several years ago when I baked bread weekly) is to let the yeast and flour hang out for a bit to hydrate before adding the salt. Salt is really important in yeasted breads, but salt inhibits yeast. Inhibiting yeast is a good thing—you don’t want it to run amuck—but you do want to give the yeast a bit of time with the flour before adding the salt.
A more workable dough
Hydrating the dough for a bit in this recipe results in a dough that is a lot easier to work with. The original recipe I used didn’t call for this step, and I wound up needing quite a bit more flour in order to get the dough to climb the hook. Hydrating the dough for ten minutes resulted in a dough that did not require any additional flour (I still recommend having a bit on hand, just in case).
Keep everything covered
Nisu’s delectable pillowy softness inside and gorgeous crust outside happen because this dough has a lot of moisture. Keeping things covered keeps that moisture with the dough. I use plastic wrap for the first rise and then clean tea towels for the second. You also want to keep the dough covered when you’re shaping it, though if you work really fast, it should be OK.
Braiding bread is a bit tricky, but also fun
If you ask me, the trickiest part of this recipe is getting the braids right. It helps to start with equal pieces. I’ll be honest—I usually just eyeball it. However, for the demo, I got out my scale, and it was worth it for the even loaves.
Shape the dough into even ropes. If you’re like me and often wind up with a bit of a heavier end, just turn them so that things look even enough. Take your time braiding it, and you should have a lovely bread (and, if it’s not so lovely, it will still taste good).
Pearl sugar? Definitely
One of the hallmarks of Nisu is the pearl sugar sprinkled on top just before baking. Pearl sugar has a delightful crunch and adds a bit more sweetness to balance the cardamom. It’s not really Nisu without it, though I suppose you could do a coarse sugar in a pinch, but it will not be the same. You can sometimes find pearl sugar in specialty shops, but it’s also available online.
Sliced almonds? Up to you
My mom grew up eating Nisu baked by Finnish people, and she says that she never had it with sliced almonds. I’ve always seen it with almonds, and I like them, so I add them. However, I’ll leave it up to you.
Nisu is a fairly standard bread baking project, with two rises and a bake, but the dough does take some time, which can be a lot for one day. You have two options to make ahead. The first is one I’ve done a lot—make the dough the day before and then refrigerate it overnight. Do note that you’re going to need some time to get it warm enough to rise. Definitely get it somewhere warm if you’re doing this.
The second option is to bake the Nisu and then freeze it. Nisu freezes well and keeps for up to a month. Just wrap it in plastic wrap and then foil.
Nisu is best eaten the same day
Like many baked goods, Nisu is best eaten the day that it’s made. It will keep for a day, but I recommend using it for French toast (or bread pudding) if you have leftovers. It’s really good, though, and loaves don’t usually last until the next day.
Why isn’t this recipe small batch?
If you’re a regular reader, you know that I tend to make small-batch recipes. This one isn’t small-batch for one fairly simple reason. There’s one egg in the dough, and, while it’s certainly possible to reduce a recipe with one egg, it’s a pain.
Instead, I’ve written it so that you make two loaves. One to eat and the other to freeze or bake the next day. Or, you could just bake both and bring them to your next brunch gathering.
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Nisu: Finnish Cardamom Bread
- 1 digital scale I've given measurements in cups, but, for best results, weigh
- 1 Mortar and pestle for grinding cardamom
- 1 stand mixer with paddle and bread hook attachments
- parchment paper
- quarter-sheet baking pan(s) I use 2 quarter-sheet pans for an apartment oven, but if you have a full size oven, you could add both loaves to a baking pan large enough to give each loaf plenty of space
- 1 pastry brush
- 1 probe thermometer optional, but really helpful for determining doneness
For the Nisu Dough
- 2½ tsp active dry yeast (7 grams, or one packet)
- ¼ cup warm water (59 ml) for proofing the yeast. 110 degrees is ideal
- 480 grams all-purpose flour (4 cups) have another ½ cup available to adjust the dough
- 1½ tsp freshly ground cardamom see note. You can substitute 2 tsp commercially ground cardamom, but the flavor will not be the same
- 1 large egg
- 85 grams granulated sugar (½ cup, plus 2 tbsp)
- 1 cup evaporated milk (236.5 ml)
- 1 ½ tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 75 grams unsalted butter, preferably European, at room temperature and cut into tbsps (6 tbsp) plus more to grease the bowl
For Baking the Nisu
- 1 large egg yolk
- 2 tbsp whole milk substitute 1 tbsp evaporated milk and 1 tbsp of water if you have leftover evaporated milk from the dough
- pearl sugar for sprinkling
- sliced almonds optional, for sprinkling
- salted butter
- Grease a large bowl with butter and set aside
Make the Nisu Dough
- In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast on top of the warm water. Mix with a fork to combine and set aside to proof while you do the next steps2½ tsp active dry yeast, ¼ cup warm water
- Whisk together the flour and cardamom480 grams all-purpose flour, 1½ tsp freshly ground cardamom
- Using the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, beat the sugar and egg on medium high for approximately 2 minutes until pale and fluffy. Reduce the speed to low and add the evaporated milk and yeast and beat to combine1 large egg, 85 grams granulated sugar, 1 cup evaporated milk
- Switch to the bread hook attachment and add the flour mixture. Mix until you get a shaggy mass. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and then mix up from the bottom and then mix again. Cover the mixing bowl with a tea towel and let the mixture hydrate for 10 minutes
- Sprinkle the salt over the dough and then mix on medium low, removing from the dough hook and scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl again, until the dough is soft and pliable and climbs the hook easily without leaving dough behind in the bowl. You may need to add additional flour, 1 tbsp at a time, if the dough is too sticky, but the hydration step should do the trick1 ½ tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- Mix in the butter, 1 tbsp at a time. Each tablespoon of butter needs to be completely incorporated before adding the next. You'll need to scrape down the bowl and stir up from time to time. Ideally, the bowl should only have a sheen of butter on it by the time you are done.75 grams unsalted butter, preferably European, at room temperature and cut into tbsps
- Transfer the dough to a clean surface. Knead it a few times and form it into a ball. Transfer the dough to the buttered bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel. At this point, you could refrigerate the dough up to a day. Otherwise, set aside to a warm place until doubled, 60 to 90 minutes
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (177C)
- Punch down the dough. Divide in half, and then divide each half into four pieces (so you will have 8 pieces total). A scale can help here with making sure that you have even pieces, but eyeballing it works, too. Cover the dough you aren't using with a clean dish towel to prevent drying
- Remove one piece of dough and form into a long rope. Do this with three additional pieces and proceed to braiding your first loaf
- To braid the bread, place the four ropes side by side and pinch the tops together. Take the rope farthest to the right and cross it over the second rope, so it is now the second rope. Take the rope farthest to the left and cross it over the third rope, then take the second rope and cross it over the third. Repeat until you reach the end of your ropes (haha). Tuck the ends under the braid and transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with the other loaf. I use quarter-sheet pans for an apartment oven, one per pan. If you have a larger oven, you can use a larger baking sheet, just make sure to leave enough space between them to rise without bumping into each other
- Cover with a clean dish towel and allow to rise for about 35 minutes, or until nearly doubled in size
- In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk with the whole milk (or evaporated milk and water). Brush the loaves with the egg wash and then sprinkle with the pearl sugar and almonds1 large egg yolk, 2 tbsp whole milk, pearl sugar, sliced almonds
- Bake, rotating once (if baking in an apartment oven, switch the pans from top to bottom as well), possibly more if you notice a hot spot, until golden brown and the middle of the bread registers between 205 and 210 F (if you don't have a thermometer, tap on it. Bread should sound hollow when baked), about 25–30 minutes. Take care not to overbake, as it can dry out
- Transfer to a wire rack to cool. I'm supposed to tell you to let it cool completely before slicing into it, but I will not tell if you eat the whole thing hot, slathered with salted butter. Have a cup of coffee and thank the Finnssalted butter