Finnish Pulla Recipe – my mom’s recipe for a traditional Finnish bread scented with fragrant cardamom! Perfect for special mornings, gatherings, holidays or afternoon tea. Cozy and delicious! Updated 1/9/2020
I love you. It will end. Leave something of sweetness and substance in the mouth of the world.~Anna Bell Kaufman
Today is a very special day for me…it is what would be my mother’s 85th birthday. I thought I would share something special that she loved to bake which is very dear to my heart. It is called Pulla!
Pulla is a buttery Finnish sweet bread, scented with cardamom, perfect for special mornings, gatherings or afternoon tea. It is traditionally topped with Pearl Sugar as you see here.
My Finnish mother used to make this on special occasions like birthdays and holidays or 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. To see her handwriting again, brought back so many memories.
She 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 sparkly and bright, the air effervescent and light. It feels charged with something magical.
In contrast, winters are extreme – long, dark and very cold. My Egyptian father only lasted one winter there before pleading with 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… it is a strength and perseverance that comes from the deepest part of ourselves. 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 together. I think of that last trip we took together often. I drove her around the whole country, visiting her family and friends for almost a month when she was 82. Truthfully, there were times she drove me crazy – she was a total back seat driver, I called her Miss Daisy.
But what I wouldn’t give to be in that car again listening to her crackly voice. I can’t express enough how taking that time to be with her was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I thought I did it for her, but in fact, I see now how all along, it was a gift for me.
A little story about her: Lea Halonen was born in 1927, and grew up on a little farm in Sounjenjoki. During the war with Russia, Russia took over part of their country. Her family, like most families there, took in the many refugees, even though food and resources were extremely scarce.
She remembers those years as being very lean and feeling very hungry most of the time, eating mainly potatoes in winter. After high school, she left for Sweden, where she got her nursing degree.
In her 30’s, still unmarried, she left for Nigeria (Africa) on a boat, to be stationed at a small Seventh Day Adventist hospital where she became a midwife. It was a tumultuous time there in Nigeria. After being there for 5 years, she took a little vacation to Egypt with her friend Sarah. It was there that she met my dad, and where Sarah met Abraham. They were assigned by the church to be guides. Something clicked in those 3 days, as they took them around to visit the pyramids and the Nile.
She went back to Nigeria to work – and they continued to keep in touch writing letters for two years before my dad proposed to her. She left Nigeria to marry my father in Cairo. But Egypt, back then, was not as accepting of her nursing skills- women were supposed to “stay home”.
She lasted a year before she convinced my dad to move to the more progressive country of Finland. My dad had never imagined a winter like that, had never experienced ice or snow- it was shocking! The cold and language were huge barriers. He was a minister by trade, so it made things difficult.
So they decided to move somewhere warm, where they could both speak English. They landed in Los Angeles, where I was born. My mom was 40 at that time.
The star ingredient in Pulla is cardamom seeds. In this recipe, you can use the seeds, or if pressed for time, ground Cardamom is a great substitute. It 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 through Constantinople brought by the Vikings to Scandinavia where it became very popular among the Finnish and Swedish in baking bread and pastries.
It has a very warm pungent aroma, a little like eucalyptus. There are several kinds of cardamom pods , two I am familiar with, the green cardamom pods and dark brown pods. My mom always used the green cardamom 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 anyways….so 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 cardamom seeds.
This would be done her way, totally old school. But in the end, worth it.
What seemed like a mountain of cardamom 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. Or use ground cardamom, I won’t tell or judge.
Then, after I thought all the hard work was done, there was more. Grinding the cardamom seeds with a 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!
Anyways, so after all the work with the cardamom seeds, the rest is easy. And like I said, feel free to use ground cardamom.
You’ll make a soft dough and let it rise until doubled. If using active dry yeast, this may take 2 hours. Fast-acting yeast will cut that time in half so I usually opt for that.
Oil the dough, and cover. Place in a warm spot ( 85F) to rise. I like to turn my oven to low and place the dough on top of the stove.
Once the pulla has just about doubled, shape into rolls or 2 loaves or make two traditional Finnish braided loaves 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 in half, then into 3 balls each, and make long “ropes” out of them. Braid them and tuck the ends under. Let rise for another 1 – 1/2 hour.
Brush with an egg wash, or milk and sprinkle pearl sugar over the top.
You can also bake the braided roll in a loaf pan for easier slicing, tucking the ends under.
Bake the Pulla at 375 F until cooked through and golden ( Internal temp of 200F).
This can range anywhere from 30-50 minutes, depending on size.
If baking in a loaf pan, bake at 350F for roughly 40 mins, and you may need to lightly cover with foil, to prevent over-browning.
Slice, toast, and butter.
This is really delicious in the morning with your coffee…and the leftovers make excellent french toast!
You can also make Pulla into rolls!
However you choose to make Pulla, you will love its flavor.
The nice part is you can wrap it up tightly and freeze for when you need something cozy and warm.
This poem below found its way to me shortly after my mother passed away… and it reminded me of the pulla I had in the freezer, the last batch we made together. I found it profoundly beautiful…and I especially love the last paragraph.
Every time I make Pulla now, I feel her in the kitchen with me. We make it together- even still.
A traditional recipe for Pulla – a buttery Finnish Cardamom Bread that tastes and smells heavenly. Think of this as Finnish Coffee bread- perfect for mornings or afternoon tea. This makes 2 extra-large braided loaves, feel free to halve the recipe. Allow 3 hours rising time (30 mins hands-on time)
If using whole cardamom pods, crack open the pods and lightly toast the seeds in a dry skillet for 45-60 seconds, stirring over medium heat until fragrant. Grind down to the consistency of sand with a mortar and pestle. You could do this step ahead, or use ground cardamom.
Heat milk to a simmer, let cool to lukewarm (you don’t want it over 110F which can kill the yeast) pour into a small bowl. Add a pinch of sugar and stir in yeast and let stand for 7 minutes. Check that yeast is dissolved and frothy.
In a stand mixer or large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until lemon colored. Add the milk and yeast, cardamom and salt and beat until smooth. Mix in 2 cups of flour cup by cup, mixing until smooth and no lumps. Add the softened butter and mix well – the dough will get beautifully glossy. Continue adding the flour, a 1/2 cup at a time, mixing to incorporate, adding flour until stiff enough to knead, yet still soft about 6 cups. Knead using a dough hook adding a little more flour as needed until the dough pulls away from the edges, and is satiny, about 5 minutes. (The key here is to use as little flour as possible.) Alternatively, kneed by hand on a well-floured surface, for 6- 7 minutes, adding a little flour at a time, dough will be slightly tacky but not sticky. At this point, if you wish, you could knead in some raisins and almonds. Shape into a ball.
Place in an oiled bowl, turning to coat the top, cover with a damp towel and let rise in a warm area (80F) until it doubled in size. (I like to turn my oven on at the very start at the lowest setting, then turn it off, letting the dough rise inside, or place it on top of the stove.)*** Having a warm spot for it to rise is imperative here.
After it has doubled, divide it in half. This will make two extra-large loaves. (or make rolls see notes)
To make 2 braided loafs, divide each half into 3 pieces. Roll each piece into long ropes about 1 1/2- 2 inches thick. Braid the 3 ropes and tuck under the ends. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (or in lightly greased, or parchment-lined loaf pan-see notes).
Beat the egg with tablespoon water. Brush the loaves with the egg wash. Sprinkle with pearl sugar over the top and sliced almonds if you like.
Let rise again until doubled. Place in a preheated 375-degree oven. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until skewer or toothpick pulls out clear (or internal temp is 200F) and the top is nicely golden.
If baking in a loaf pan, bake at 350F for 40-45 mins.
Pull it out of the oven and let sit for 10 minutes. Slice and slather with butter.
Store the pulla, covered tightly on the counter. Or freeze (sealing well) for later.
This makes two large braided loaves. Or use loaf pan loaves. You could easily halve this recipe!
To make rolls: On a floured surface, flatten out dough into a large rectangle, about 3/4 inch thick. Spread with almond paste (totally optional) Sprinkle with raisins and sliced almonds. ( you can sub other dried fruit- craisins, currants and other nuts – pistachios, pecans, etc) From the longer edge, roll up into a roll. Cut into 1 -2 inch thick slices. Either place these on a parchment-lined sheet pan spread out- or in a greased baking dish with edges touching. Even a metal cake works great here! Brush with egg wash, sprinkle with sugar. Bake until a skewer comes out clean. Baking time will be shorter for individual rolls on a sheet pan ( check at 20 mins) and a little longer for the rolls (that are touching) in the baking dish.
I often divide dough in two, and make one braided loaf, and make rolls out of the remaining dough.
Chef and author of the whole-foods recipe blog, Feasting at Home, Sylvia Fountaine is a former restaurant owner and caterer turned full-time food blogger. She currently lives in the Pacific Northwest and shares seasonal, healthy recipes along with tips and tricks from her home kitchen.