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My first encounter with cardamom bread came at a the little Suomi Cafe, which overlooks an old copper mine. Bacon Slayer and I were on a road trip through the northern most parts of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Keweenaw Peninsula has some of the most beautifully-wild country around, with dense forests and towering bluffs along Lake Superior. Also known as Copper Country for it’s rich history of copper mining, the area is home to a rather large Finnish population.

Photo Courtesy of John Sturos

The upper mid-western areas of the northwest Upper Peninsula (U.P.), Minnesota, and Wisconsin have climates similar to that in Finland, so many Finn’s settled there to farm and work in the mines. Along with a tenacious work ethic, the Finn’s brought cardamom bread to the region, and for that, I am grateful. A lightly sweetened, pillow-soft white bread, with a glorious hint of cardamom–Cardamom Nisu bread is a traditional Scandinavian breakfast bread that is absolutely perfect when served toasted alongside a cup of coffee. Or a chai latte. ;) I swear that I must have eaten half a loaf with breakfast every morning while we were in the U.P.

Once you get a whiff of cardamom bread fresh out of the oven, you’ll want to tear right into it!

I loved that Cardamom Nisu bread so much that I packed two loaves to bring home with me. One for me, and one for my Danish grandmother. Since this particular bread was a recipe passed down from the Finn’s, I guessed that it would be similar enough to the Danish version that my Grandma might get a kick out of having some. Assuming that the bread made it home, of course.

I’m not too proud to admit that not only did my loaf of bread not see the end of our ten hour drive home, but I seriously contemplated devouring Grandma’s bread somewhere along the way.

Willpower is not one of my God-given talents.

I’m really glad that I resisted the temptation to Hoover-more-bread-than-anyone-has-a-right-to-ingest on the long drive home. The look on my Grandma’s face when she bit into a lightly toasted slice of that cardamom bread brought tears to my eyes. Gram took a bite, closed her eyes and whispered, “It tastes like home.”

Bringing that homey Scandinavian taste into your own kitchen is easier than you might think. Cardamom bread is essentially a basic sweet bread dough, which is one of the easiest yeast breads to tackle. Braiding the dough gives the simple bread a polished look, so it is as gorgeous as it is delicious.

You totally want to do this.

All you need is all-purpose flour, granulated sugar, 2% milk, instant yeast, warm water, ground cardamom, salt, unsalted butter, and eggs.

Scald the milk by bringing it to just under a boil when set over medium heat– tiny bubbles will begin to form around the outer edges in the pot. Do not allow the milk to boil, as the fats may start to separate. Boiling milk also has a nasty habit of bubbling up and overflowing, which makes a giant mess. Let the scalded milk cool until it is warm to the touch (about 110° F).

Food Dork Trivia:  While the lactose in the milk provides strength to the gluten/protein structure of the bread, the protease enzymes in milk slow down yeast production and cause protein degradation. Protein degradation in a yeast bread will make for a sticky dough and affect the overall texture. Scalding the milk before using it in a yeast bread recipe performs a very important function in that those pesky protease enzymes are deactivated with heat, so the scalding helps to ensure that the desired pillowy texture of the bread can be achieved.

Once the scalded milk has cooled to being just warm to the touch, stir the instant yeast into some warm water, and give it a few minutes to get a little frisky.

The yeast should start to foam–if it doesn’t, the yeast is dead and you’ll need to source a new batch. Active-dry yeast can be substituted for the instant yeast, but the total rise time in the recipe will be increased.

Place the softened butter into the bowl of a stand mixer, and pour the milk, sugar, salt, and cardamom over top. Mix on low speed with a dough hook attachment until combined.

**Bread dough can also be mixed with a wooden spoon, and then kneaded by hand, if a stand mixer is not available.**

Whip the eggs until they get a little frothy.

Add the eggs and yeast mixture to the bowl, and mix on low speed until blended.

Stir the first three cups of flour into the yeast mixture until combined. Then, continue to blend in one-half cup of flour at a time, until all of the flour has been incorporated. Knead the dough on medium speed for 5 minutes, or until it is smooth and elastic. Form the dough into a ball and place it into a large, lightly oiled bowl. Turn the dough to coat it with oil.

Before the initial rise, if you push a couple of fingers into the surface of the dough, the dough will “push back” and pop the depressions out. You’ll know the dough has been kneaded to proper elasticity when this occurs.

Lightly spray a sheet of plastic wrap and tightly cover the bowl. Set the bowl in a warm, draft free place and let the yeast do it’s thing until the dough has doubled in bulk–usually between one and two hours, depending on how well the yeast is behaving. I like to put my wrapped bowl o’ bread dough in the microwave to rise. No, of course I don’t turn the microwave on! I just find that letting the dough hang out behind the closed door gives it an ideal environment in which to rise.

After the initial rise, the dough will likely reach the top of the bowl.

Gently press down the dough to release some of the air bubbles that the yeast is churning out. I always felt that the whole “punch down the dough” step in yeast bread recipes was rather harsh.

Sometimes I get a little overzealous with the pressing of the dough.

Re-cover the bowl with the plastic wrap and let it rise again for around an hour, or until doubled.

After the second rise, spray two standard 8-inch loaf pans with baking spray. Preheat the oven to 375° F. Transfer the dough to floured surface and divide it in half.

Divide each half into thirds, and roll each third into a 9-inch long rope.

Pinch the ends of the three of the ropes together to hold.

Alternate overlapping the ropes to form a braid.

Three strand braid diagram from theautry.org/ortega/activity.php

For those whom are Braiding Challenged, the diagram above does a good job illustrating the order of things.

Upon completion of the braid, pinch the ends of the ropes together to seal.

Tuck the pinched edges under the braid and nestle the dough into the prepared pans. Cover with a clean towel, and let dough rise to just over the lip of the pans–about 30 to 45 minutes.

Whip another egg with a tablespoon of water to make an egg wash. Brush the egg wash over the tops of the loaves to give the finished bread a nice sheen. Sprinkle a hefty pinch of coarse sugar over the egg wash, if you want to add even more sparkle.

More sparkle is strongly encouraged.

Bake bread for twenty-five minutes, or until loaves are a rich, golden brown color and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove the loaves from the oven and immediately run a thin knife around the edges of the pans. Remove the bread from the pans, inverting them onto their sides on a wire rack. Allow bread to cool completely before slicing to serve…or tearing in to, as the case might be. ;)

The homey, cardamom-infused aroma made me do it.

Braided Cardamom Bread is traditionally served lightly toasted with a cup of coffee, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that it makes absolutely fabulous french toast. But, really? This bread is good in any way you slice it. Heck, my brother even used it as a basis for a ham & cheese panini with spinach and chipotle mayonnaise–and it was good, too!

♥♥♥

Braided Cardamom Bread

http://comfortablydomestic.com

Yields 2 loaves

Sweetly scented cardamom brings the comforting warmth of Scandinavia home in this pillowy breakfast bread.

Prep Time: 3 hours 30 minutes, Cook Time: 25 minutes, Total Time: 3 hours 55 minutes

For the Dough:

1 C. milk

1 Tbs. instant (rapid-rise) yeast

¼ C. warm (110 degrees F) water

½ C granulated sugar

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. ground cardamom

2 eggs

4 ½ C. bread flour

4 Tbs. unsalted butter, softened

For the Glaze:

1 egg

1 Tbs. cool water

1 Tbs. raw (or granulated) sugar, divided

  1. Bring milk to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. When tiny bubbles begin to form around the edges of the pan, remove from heat. Do not allow the milk to come to a full boil. Cool until warm (about 110 to 120 degrees F) to the touch.
  2. Measure warm water in a liquid measuring cup. Sprinkle the yeast over the water, and stir. Let yeast sit for a few minutes.
  3. Pour the warm milk into the bowl of a stand mixer. (The mixing process can be also done by hand in a large bowl and a sturdy wooden spoon.)
  4. Add the granulated sugar, salt, cardamom, beaten eggs, and 3 cups of the bread flour. Mix on low speed with a dough hook attachment until well blended.
  5. Add the butter and yeast mixture to the bowl, and continue mixing on low speed until combined.
  6. Add the remaining flour, ½ cup at a time, until all of the flour is fully incorporated. Dough should have a soft–but not sticky—consistency, and “clean” the sides of the bowl.
  7. Increase the speed to medium (Speed 4 on a Kitchen Aid Artisan Stand Mixer) and “knead” dough for 5 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. If the dough becomes too sticky while kneading, work in up to ¼ cup of additional bread flour, but no more than absolutely necessary. (Knead for about 10 minutes if kneading by hand.)
  8. Place a teaspoon or two into a large bowl. Form the dough into a ball, and place into the oiled bowl, turning to coat. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free area until doubled in bulk; about 1 to 2 hours.
  9. Once doubled, press down the dough, recover the bowl with plastic wrap, and allow to rise again until doubled in bulk; about 1 hour.
  10. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Spray two 8 or 9-inch loaf pans well with baking spray; set aside.
  11. Place dough onto a lightly floured surface and divide equally in half. Then divide each half into 3 pieces. Roll each piece into a rope that is 2 inches longer than your loaf pans.
  12. Press the ends of three ropes together at one end to seal. Braid the ropes to the end, and then press the other ends to seal. Fold each end under the braid, and place the braid into one of the prepared loaf pans.
  13. Repeat the braiding with the remaining 3 ropes, placing the completed braid into the other loaf pan.
  14. Cover the loaves with a clean cloth and let rise until doubled and just peeking over the top of the loaf pans; about 30 to 40 minutes.
  15. Whisk the egg with the water to make an egg wash. Brush the top surfaces of the braid with the egg wash. Sprinkle 1 ½ teaspoons of raw (or granulated) sugar over the egg-washed loaves.
  16. Bake loaves for 25 minutes, or until they are a deep golden brown, and the bottoms sound hollow when tapped.
  17. Immediately run a knife loosely around the edges of the loaf pans to help remove them from their pans. Invert the loaves onto their sides on a wire rack to cool completely before slicing to serve.
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