November 16, 2011

Pulla for Lea

Today is a very special day for me. This is what would be my mother's 85th birthday.   I thought I would share something that she loved to bake that is very dear to my heart. It is called Pulla.

Pulla is a slightly sweet Finnish bread that is flavored with fresh crushed cardamom seeds.  My mom used to make Pulla on special occasions like birthdays, thanksgiving and christmas and when guests would stay with us. I will never forget how the house would smell when she would open the oven door and take the freshly baked Pulla out.  It smelled....happy.

Several weeks ago, I stumbled over her old Pulla recipe, written partly in Finnish. 

My mother came from Finland, a beautiful country both modern and old. The countryside is filled with tall, white trunked birch trees, red houses, saunas and many many lakes. Three quarters of the country is still covered by forest and there over 100,000  lakes. In summer the sun barely sets. The days are long and bright and it is as if the air is effervescent and charged with some sort of current.  Northern Finland, the area known as Lapland is called "the land of the midnight sun"... and is home to reindeer.

In contrast, winters are extreme. Long, dark and very cold.  My egyptian father only lasted one winter there before begging my mom to move to California. She would always say, to live there you must be strong. The Finnish have a word for this,  it is called "sisu".  There is no exact translation, but my understanding is is a strength and perseverance that comes from the deepest part of your being.  My mom had this. 

Here she is, happy as a clam, sitting on her sister's steps in her home town of Sounjenjoki, Finland during our last visit there.

The star ingredient in Pulla is cardamom. Cardamom is a very ancient spice originating in Southern India where it still grows wild. It is most commonly used in savory Indian dishes and curries. 

Over a thousand years ago traders carried cardamom along the spice routes from India and eventually made its way thru Constantinople brought by the Vikings to Scandinavia where it became very popular among the Finnish and Swedish in baking breads and pastries. 

It has a very warm pungent aroma, a little like eucalyptus. There are several kinds, two I am familiar with, the green pods and and dark brown pods. My mom always used the green pods because she said they had better flavor. I never tested this theory, but I'll take her word for it.

During one of her lasts visits to Spokane, she was too tired to make pulla but insisted on making it I became her hands. She was stubborn about certain things....adamant.  No cutting corners. "No" to using the ground cardamom I had in my cupboard and "no" to using my stand mixer with the nifty dough hook, and "absolutely not" to using my efficient coffee bean grinder to grind the tough cardamon seeds. This would be done her way, totally old school. But in the end, worth it.

What seemed like a mountain of Cardamon pods needed to be cracked and the tiny seeds extracted. This took a substantial amount of time and patience. 

I found it's easier to slice the pods in half lengthwise with the tip of a sharp knife. After slicing about 40-50 of them, scrape the tiny dark seeds out. It takes a lot of pods to make 1 Tablespoon. You could do this ahead.

Then, after I thought all the hard work was done, there was more. Grinding the seeds with a mortar and pestle. (By the way, the picture at the top of my blog is her very old mortar and pestle.)

This seems easy, but I assure you it is not. They are the toughest little seeds and it takes serious muscle power to grind them down. And she of course wanted them crushed down to the consistency of fine sand, making sure to carefully examine my work. It was no easy task. 

At the time, I never imagined that someday I would miss the way she would order me around the kitchen. But I do. 

My mom loved Pulla so much she named one of her cats Pulla.  Actually her full name is Rusina Pulla. She's a light colored calico with dark spots all over her. Rusina means raisins. Raisin Pulla. It was strangely fitting. Her other cat's name is Cookie. Cookie is sitting by me right now as I type. Cookie and I have developed an interesting relationship. It has not always been easy, but we're making the best of the situation. 

Anyways, so after all the work with the cardamom, the rest is easy.  Heat some half and half, pour in a large bowl and mix in some yeast. Let it stand for a bit and mix in sugar, salt, eggs, cardamom, flour, soft butter and make a dough, kneading it for about 7 minutes.

Return it to the bowl and cover it and let it rise for 1 1/2 hours.

Punch it down and make rolls or small loaves or make a traditional Finnish braided loaf like this. My mom would often add sliced almonds and raisins and roll up the dough into small sweet rolls. Those were good too. To make the braided loaf, divide dough into 3 balls and make long "ropes" out of them. Braid them and tuck the ends under. Let rise for another 1/2 hour.

Brush with an egg wash, or milk and sprinkle course sugar over the top.

 Bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes. Slice, toast and butter.

This is really delicious in the morning with your coffee...and the left overs make excellent french toast. It would also be wonderful in bread pudding.  This recipe makes quite a bit of dough.  The braided loaf is about 20 inches long, so you could easily half the recipe and still have enough for one hearty loaf.

The poem below found its way to me shortly after my mother passed away... 
I found it beautiful. I especially love the last paragraph. 

happy birthday mom.

Lea's Finnish Pulla Recipe

2 C half and half
1 1/2  C sugar
3/4 C soft butter
2 eggs
4 tsp yeast
1 tsp salt
approx. 7 cups flour
1 T crushed Cardamom

Prepare the the cardamom. Give yourself 45 min for this part. Slice 40 pods length wise with the tip of a sharp knife. Scrape out seeds. Grind down to the consistency of fine sand with a mortar and pestle. You could do this step ahead. 

Heat half and half to just luke warm. Pour in large mixing bowl. Mix in yeast and let stand for 7 minutes. Mix again to make sure its dissolved. Mix in sugar, salt, eggs, cardamom. Mix in 3 cups of flour. Add butter. Mix and add the remaining flour cup by cup and mix till the dough pulls away from the edges. You may need to add more flour. 

Kneed on a floured surface for  7 minutes and make a large ball.
Place back in the large bowl and cover and let rise in a warm area for 1 1/2 hours.
Punch down and divide into 3 balls.
To make the braided bread, roll each ball in to long ropes. Braid and tuck under the edges and  place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper ( or a lightly grease pan). 
You could also make small rolls-- although baking time will shorten.

Brush with an egg wash or half and half.  Sprinkle course sugar over the top.
Let rise again 1/2 hour. Place in a pre-heated 350 degree oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes and nicely browned. Poke with a skewer or tooth pick. Its done if the pick comes out clean.
Pull it out of the oven and let sit for 10 minutes. 
Slice and toast and butter.

Cold Solace 

When my mother died,
one of her honey cakes remained in the freezer.
I couldn’t bear to see it vanish,
so it waited, pardoned,
in its ice cave behind the metal trays
for two more years.

On my forty-first birthday
I chipped it out,
a rectangular resurrection,
hefted the dead weight in my palm.

Before it thawed,
I sawed, with serrated knife,
the thinnest of slices —
Jewish Eucharist.

The amber squares
with their translucent panes of walnuts
tasted — even toasted — of freezer,
of frost,
a raisined delicacy delivered up
from a deli in the underworld.

I yearned to recall life, not death —
the still body in her pink nightgown on the bed,
how I lay in the shallow cradle of the scattered sheets
after they took it away,
inhaling her scent one last time.

I close my eyes, savor a wafer of
sacred cake on my tongue and
try to taste my mother, to discern
the message she baked in these loaves
when she was too ill to eat them:

I love you.
It will end.
Leave something of sweetness
and substance
in the mouth of the world.


  1. Oh Sylvia you've brought me to tears. My dear sweet mother-in-law Senia Croonquist Hart was Finnish. Sisu is a phrase she repeated often, and one we would use to describe her as well. She even had stationery made with Sisu printed on the top. Although not a cook or baker herself, she would talk about Pulla her mom made growing up in the Finnish community that settled in Red Lodge , Montana. I miss her grace and "stick-to-it" strength (Sisu) . Senia and your mother resemble each other, but I notice the hands in particular- big, strong, hardworking yet gentle. Thanks for sharing your memories. KateH

  2. oh my gosh sylvia. I'm reading this at work and have tears in my eyes. What a heartfelt post...beautiful! Thanks for sharing. Teresa

  3. What a beautiful tribute to your mom on her birthday! i’m glad i’m in the privacy of my home so i can weep and cry freely :) Hopefully i’ll get to Finland soon to explore my own roots. xo

  4. Sylvia - this is absolutely beautiful. The writing is poetic and heartfelt, the pictures are stunning and pictures are amazing. What a lovely tribute - I don't know why you think writing is not your strong point.

  5. Sylvia, that was such an amazing tribute to your wonderful, sweet mom ~ loved that you shared her special recipe on her birthday. Sending you much love today as you remember her.

  6. Thanks everyone for all your kind words. It means a lot to me!

  7. This is beautiful and thank you for sharing your pulla with us. It was mouth wateringly delicious and even more special after I read the whole blog xo

  8. As I'm sitting here trying to stop the tears I want to thank you. Your story about your Mom touched me deeply. My Mom came from Finland to Canada in 1952. I know I was blessed to have grown up in a Finnish household. Even though I consider myself Canadian first; I am so proud to be a Finn also.

    Today I went looking on Pinterest for a pulla recipe. My Mom is not doing so well the last couple of weeks. She's 88 and in a nursing home. Today I'm going up to tuck her into bed, say her prayers and sing her one of her favourite Finnish songs. This has become a ritual for us since she was moved into a home a year ago. Well, normally I say her prayers and sing the song over the phone. I can't begin to say what this ritual has meant to us both. It's cute; as soon as we say 'amen', she starts right into the song now! As a last minute thought this aft, I decided I'm going to bring her a couple of pieces of pulla for her bedtime snack. (I have no idea when it might be the last time I am able to do this.) I'm planning the timing so I will be pulling it out of the oven as I walk out the door. As you know, there's nothing like pulla hot out of the oven.

    We didn't have a mortar and pestle when I was little. We cleaned the seeds out of the (white!) pods and lay them on the floor wrapped in layers of cloth. (it was always the same cloth... it smelled heavenly!) Then we used a hammer and banged at those seeds til they were the right texture! I have a mortar and pestle now, but I still 'hammer' them on the floor like when I was little. A little crazy perhaps.

    I didn't mean to write a whole novella here! Thank you again for adding such a wonderful, cozy warmth to my heart just now.

    By the way... it's "Rusina"!


    1. Maija, Thanks so much for your heartfelt comment and sharing about your mom. I have tears in my eyes. Enjoy your moments together... they are very special. I will try the hammer and cloth idea...its great...I love picturing that!