“Baking is Happiness, says Soile Anderson, expressing how she feels during the act of baking and the result her tasty work has on her customers. During an afternoon with Soile in Deco Catering, her professional Minneapolis kitchen, I learned how to make pulla, an incredibly delicious cardamom-flavored yeast bread and a hallmark of Finnish baking.
That was more than 15 years ago, and Soile’s company still thrives today, with her at the helm. I’m sure she’s still as energetic and enthusiastic as when I visited, with her infectious enthusiasm for her art, so evident when I watched her making a batch of yeasty pulla dough.
I can see her again, as she pours a gallon of milk into a large pot and sets it on the stove, then dashes to the refrigerator for 4 pounds of butter that she deftly unwraps and puts into another pot on the stove. She rushes back to the fridge to grab a flat of 30 eggs, cracking them open two at a time into a 30-quart mixer bowl. Then another sprint to a different corner of her kitchen to fetch a generous quart of sugar, and so on, back and forth until she has everything she needs. She smiles and chatters happily as she works, and she’s not even out of breath.
A batch of dough for Soile means making enough to create 10 to 12 dozen pulla rolls and three braided loaves. The rolls are so popular she makes them several times a week. The traditional pulla shape is a straight braid, and Soile makes a 4-stranded one. She works with lightning speed, flipping and tossing two strands at a time until 5 seconds later there is a braid where none had previously existed.
Sometimes Soile forms a braid into a wreath instead of a loaf. But most often she makes individual rolls because they’re the most convenient for her customers.
I always think of Soile when I make her recipe, perfect for the holiday season. And like many of her customers, I prefer the individual rolls because they’re adorable and satisfying: crusty on the outside and tender on the inside, and besides, holding and eating one makes it entirely mine!
Makes 32 rolls or 2 large braids, or 16 rolls and 1 large braid
This is a buttery, rich, cardamom-flavored coffee bread with raisins. It is typically shaped into braids, but Finnish baker Soile Anderson also likes to make individual rolls. While growing up in Finland her mother, Soile made pulla four times a week. To make Soile’s recipe manageable in a home kitchen, I've scaled it back eight-fold. For the best flavor, it's important to use freshly ground cardamom seeds. Buy cardamom pods, remove the seeds yourself, and crush them with a mortar and pestle. Pulla is best when very fresh. Baked rolls and braids freeze well for up to 2 weeks.
2 cups whole milk
1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees F)
Pinch of sugar
4 large eggs, warmed in their shells in warm water for 5 minutes
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, or 1 teaspoon regular salt
7 to 7 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (35 to 37 1/2 ounces)
3 teaspoons finely ground cardamom seeds
1 cup dark raisins or currants
1 large egg, lightly beaten with a pinch of salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) or 1/2 cup (1 stick) cold salted butter, for 16 or 32 rolls
1/2 to 1 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup crushed lump sugar or pearl sugar
1. Put the milk into a medium saucepan and bring it almost to the boil over medium heat. Remove the pan from the heat. In another medium saucepan melt the butter over low heat and set it aside to cool a bit. In a small bowl, stir together the yeast, warm water, and pinch of sugar. Let stand until the yeast is very bubbly, about 10 minutes.
2. Stand mixer method: While the yeast proofs, beat the 4 eggs and sugar with the whip attachment of a heavy-duty mixer on medium high speed for 5 to 10 minutes, until the eggs have tripled in volume and are fluffy and almost white in color. Switch to the flat beater and add 4 cups of flour. Beat on low speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Switch to the dough hook and add 2 cups flour. Knead on low speed for 2 to 3 minutes. The dough will be very soft and sticky. Add the cardamom, raisins, and 1 more cup of flour (7 cups total to this point). Knead on low speed 2 to 3 minutes until the cardamom and raisins are incorporated and the dough is still soft and only slightly sticky.
3. Hand method: Beat the eggs and sugar in a large bowl with a hand-held electric mixer until the eggs have tripled in volume and are fluffy and almost white in color, 10 to 15 minutes. With a wooden spoon, gradually stir in 4 cups of flour, then beat with the spoon for about 1 minute. Gradually stir in 2 more cups of flour and beat again for 1 to 2 minutes to make a very soft, sticky dough. Stir in the cardamom, raisins, and 1 more cup of flour. Lightly flour your work surface and scrape the dough onto it. Knead briefly, 2 to 3 minutes, just until the dough is smooth and elastic and the raisins are distributed evenly. The dough should still be slightly sticky.
4. Coat a large bowl, 5 to 6 quarts, preferably with straight sides, with vegetable oil or cooking spray and transfer the dough to the bowl. Turn to coat the dough on both sides, cover the bowl tightly, and let the dough rise at room temperature until almost tripled in size, about 2 hours. (The time may be longer or shorter depending upon the temperature of your kitchen).
5. Prepare the parchment sheets. If making 32 rolls, you'll need 4 parchment sheets. For 16 rolls and 1 braid, 3 sheets; for two braids, two sheets. Cut pieces of parchment to line 18 x 12 x 1-inch baking sheets or 14 x 17-inch cookie sheets. You'll need 4 baking pans if making 32 rolls. Disposable aluminum sheets are fine if you don't have four permanent pans. Line the pans with the parchment and coat lightly with cooking spray.
6. Lightly flour your work surface and transfer the risen dough onto it. Flatten the dough gently with your palms to deflate it. You'll have about 4 3/4 pounds of dough. If you're using all of the dough to make pulla rolls, divide it into 32 equal portions weighing a scant 2 1/2 ounces each (67-68 grams). For 16 rolls and 1 braid, use half the dough for each.
7. To shape the rolls, form the small portions of dough into balls, rounding them and tucking the sides of the balls underneath; pinch the seam firmly to seal. Cup a hand loosely over a ball of dough on your work surface and rotate your hand rapidly to shape the dough into a taut ball. The rounding and tucking helps to form a strong gluten net, giving the rolls a nice shape. Set 8 of the balls of dough, seam side down, spaced well apart on a prepared baking sheet. Cover loosely with a sheet of plastic wrap lightly coated with cooking spray, and leave the rolls at room temperature to rise until not quite doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
8. For one braid, divide half the dough into 3 equal portions and roll each into an 18-inch-long strand. Braid them together, pinch the ends to seal, and tuck them under the ends of the braid. Set the braid on the bias on a parchment sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap lightly coated with cooking spray. Let rise at room temperature until almost doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
9. About half an hour before baking, adjust two oven racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. If you have two ovens and four pans of rolls to bake, prepare it in the same way.
10. For the topping, have the beaten egg ready. For 16 rolls, cut the 1/2 stick of butter lengthwise in half and cut each half lengthwise to make four sticks. Cut the sticks crosswise into four pieces each. For 32 rolls, cut the full stick of butter lengthwise into 4 sticks and crosswise into 8 pieces each. Omit the butter if making braids.
11. For the rolls, brush each lightly with the beaten egg and push a piece of butter into the center of a risen roll, dimpling it. Grab a big pinch of sliced almonds and press the nuts onto the butter, covering the butter and some of the roll near the butter. Sprinkle each roll with about 1/2 teaspoon of crushed sugar. For braids, simply brush them with egg and sprinkle them with almonds and sugar.
Strategy: If you have one oven and 4 pans of dough that are all ready to bake, you will have to stagger the baking. Refrigerate two pans of risen and almond-topped dough while you bake the remaining 2 pans. When the first pans come out of the oven, put in the pans from the refrigerator. You may have to adjust the baking time for the cold pans and dough.
12. Put the pans in the oven. Bake the rolls about 25 minutes, until they're a rich golden brown and spring back when pressed. Reverse the sheets top to bottom and front to back once about halfway during baking to insure even browning. Bake the braids for about 30 minutes. Cool the breads on their baking sheets. Serve them warm or at room temperature.
13. Storing. If you want to freeze baked pulla, put them on their baking sheets into the freezer after they're completely cool. When solidly frozen, transfer the rolls to heavy-duty zip-top freezer bags. Freeze for no longer than 2 weeks. Thaw the breads in their bags. To reheat them, unwrap the breads, place them on baking sheets, and pop them into a preheated 325-degree oven for 10 to 12 minutes.