No one ever went hungry at Ellen Lahti’s house or diner.
My mom’s mom grew up in the Upper Peninsula but moved to Detroit where she had a couple of small restaurants in the late 1940s/1950s. Her daughters served her home cooking to young men and women who were flocking to the city from the mining locations and Finnish farming communities of the UP. (One time she told me she opened the diners so that her daughters could meet husbands—but that’s another story.)
If someone was low on cash or looked extra hungry she’d slip him an extra slice of her homemade bread with his mojakka (beef stew). She might scold him to encourage some productivity, but she made sure he was fed (can’t job hunt on an empty stomach, after all).
Grandma lived on her own in the tiny U.P. town of Rock for over 3 decades after Grandpa died, until she passed away at the age of 99+ (thank goodness for relatives next door and nearby). Well into her 90s she insisted on treating us to her pot roast, scalloped potatoes, and homemade breads.
A favorite—mandatory with coffee—was her Finnish nisu, or pulla, which is slightly sweet and dense yeast bread flavored with cardamom. I started baking it many years ago, with mixed results. Overbake it and it’s too dry; underbake it and it’s got a doughy center.
I asked Grandma for the secret to her moist, just-right loaves. She looked at me and stated the obvious, with her Finnglish accent (substitute a “y” sound for the “j”), “Yust make more.”
Okay, Grandma, practice makes perfect. I am getting better results. Not perfect. Not yours. Yet.
I’ll yust have to make more.
Since Grandma didn’t have written recipes I adapted the following one from The Finnish Cook Book by Beatrice A. Ojakangas, incorporating a few tips from my mom.
Nisu or Pulla Yeast Coffee Bread
1 package (2-1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
1/2 C warm water
2 C milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm
1 C white sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp crushed cardamom (I usually add another 1/4 tsp)
4 eggs, beaten
8-9 C sifted white flour (I’ve substituted 1 cup of whole wheat flour for white with success)
1/2 C melted butter
1 egg, beaten
1/2 C crushed lump sugar (or plain sugar)
1/2 C sliced or chopped almonds (optional)
Preheat oven to 400. Scald the 2 C milk and allow to begin to cool. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Stir into the milk, sugar, salt, cardamom, eggs and about 2 cups flour. Using a wooden spoon, beat to make a smooth and elastic batter. Add about 3 cups flour and beat well; dough should be smooth and glossy in appearance. Add melted butter and stir well. Beat again until dough looks glossy. Stir in remaining flour until a stiff dough forms.
Turn onto lightly floured board, cover with inverted mixing bowl and let rest 15 minutes. Knead with lightly floured hands until smooth and satiny. Place in lightly greased mixing bowl, turn dough to coat top, cover lightly with clean dish towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 hour). Punch down and let rise until almost doubled (about 30 minutes).
Turn dough onto lightly floured board, divide into 3 parts, then divide each into 3 parts. Gently roll each into a strip of about 15 inches long. Loosely braid 3 strips into a straight loaf (do not stretch the strips too much), pinch the ends together, and tuck under. Repeat.
Place braids on lightly greased baking sheets, cover with the dish towel, and let rise until puffy but not double (about 20 minutes).
Brush beaten egg on each loaf and sprinkle with sugar (and almonds if you choose).
Bake in hot oven (400 degrees) 10 minutes; lower to 375 and bake another 15 – 20 minutes. Do not overbake or the loaves will be too dry. Remove from oven when loaves are a light golden-brown.
Cool on rack and serve when just warm or cooled.
NOTE: I usually divide the dough into quarters to make 4 smaller loaves; if doing so make the braiding strips only about 12 inches long.
Freezes well. Wrap cooled loaves in plastic and then foil to freeze.
All stories and photos copyright Kath Usitalo unless otherwise noted