You knew it was coming, even if you hoped it might skip this year. Second winter is in full effect here in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Howling winds, driving snow, skies hanging heavier than a wet sheepskin… Conditions are perfect for fika.
Here in the Keweenaw, we talk a lot about sisu, the Finnish word for grit, resilience, the determination to persevere even when you think you’ve reached your limit. Here on the blog, we’ve been talking a lot about fika, the Scandinavian ritual of taking a mindful pause to treat yourself to a moment of sweet and reenergizing self-care.
We think it’s high time that the concepts were linked. Not only are both of them downright necessary for enduring things like second winter, but in our experience, they make each other stronger. A day like today is case in point. The harder the winds blow, the more it makes us savor little creature comforts like a warm house, a tasty homemade snack, and a fresh cup of coffee made just the way we like it.
But why stop there? A day like today calls for embracing your indoorsy side and stretching those fika vibes to fill the entire afternoon with a baking project.
And do we have the recipe for you.
If you’ve been in the Keweenaw any length of time, you’ve encountered nisu, the classic Finnish sweet bread. Buttery soft and scented with cardamom, this treat has a history that goes as far back as the copper veins running through our peninsula. In fact, few people in Finland even call it “nisu” anymore—these days, you’re more likely to find a version called pulla in bake shops and recipe books, which features a more sweet-forward dough studded with nuts or raisins.
While we’d never turn down pulla when it’s offered, our hearts really belong to the old style of this classic fika treat. Maybe it’s our pride in the Keweenaw for carrying on this tradition. Maybe it’s the endless variations that the simple nisu recipe lends itself to. Maybe it’s the way that classic nisu fits together so well with a cup of coffee. There’s just something a little bit magical about what happens when two simple, straightforward flavors come together in one bite—brew your coffee up strong, dunk a firm yet tender slice of nisu, and taste the transformation. It’s a Finnish love story told through food.
Given the way this Finnish bread has gradually disappeared into nostalgia, it’s not surprising that most nisu recipes you’ll find these days are family recipes, handed down over generations and modified with little quirks and tweaks along the way. The simplicity of nisu makes it easy to emphasize the tastes and textures your family likes best. Love the contrast between the dense crust and light, almost creamy center? Use a smaller pan so your loaf rises higher. Can’t get enough of that cardamom flavor? Double your dose, or get really crazy and grind fresh cardamom pods instead of using pre-ground spice. Some recipes even brush some strong brewed coffee over the top before baking. Each time you bake and enjoy this treat, you’ll find new ways to make it your own.
From the tactile joy of squishing your hands in the dough to the sensory bliss of that spicy-sweet scent filling up your house as it bakes, baking nisu is the best way we know to slow down, snuggle in, and treat ourselves to some self-care while we wait (and wait, and wait) for spring to show up.
Many thanks to Val’s cousin for sending us this family recipe to share with you all!
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup + 1/4 cup warm water (divided use)
- 5 Tbsp. butter
- 1/4 ounce active dry yeast
- 1/4 cup + 1/4 tsp. sugar (divided use)
- 1 egg
- 6 1/4 cups flour
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 Tbsp. whole cardamom pods
Combine milk and water in a pan and heat until it begins to scald. Take pan off heat, add butter immediately to pan, and mix all ingredients together with an electric mixer or immersion blender. Let mixture cool until lukewarm.
Dissolve active dry yeast in a bowl with 1/4 cup warm water and 1/4 teaspoon sugar. Pour yeast mixture into milk/butter mixture and stir to combine. Open cardamom pods, add to a spice grinder, and crush in a spice grinder. Add ground cardamom, egg, and salt to pan, and combine again with electric mixer.
Pour contents of pan into a large bowl, add 2 cups flour, and combine again with electric mixer. Add in remaining 4 1/4 cups flour, one cup at a time, and knead until thoroughly combined and dough is no longer sticky. When it feels soft and smooth, it's ready.
Cover dough with a towel and let rise until double in volume. (Expect this to take about 90 minutes.) Punch down, then cover and let rise again. While you wait, generously grease two bread pans.
When dough has at least doubled in volume again, remove from bowl and divide in half. Take each half and separate into three equal-sized balls. Using your hands, stretch each ball into a long rope about 12 inches long, then form the three ropes into a braid, pinching the ends together. Set each braided loaf gently into a pan, tucking ends underneath the loaf, and let rise until the dough peeks over the side of the pan. (The higher it rises, the lighter your loaf's texture will be.) Sprinkle some additional sugar over the top, if desired.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. When hot, put pans in oven and bake 25-30 minutes. To test doneness, take pans out and knock with your knuckle on the top of the loaf--if it sounds a bit hollow, it's done.
When loaves are done baking, turn them out onto cooling racks covered in a sheet of parchment paper. (Trust us, you'll want the paper to ensure your nisu doesn't get all squished into the rack.) Wait as long as you can to let them cool, then slice, toast if desired, spread with butter, and...well, you can take it from here.