The fragrance of freshly ground cardamom fills the foyer of Spiran Hall in Rockport on the days the ladies of this Scandinavian Club are making Nisu.
Nisu. Kaffeeleippaa. Pulla. By any name this cardamom-flecked buttery loaf means sweet, nostalgic comfort to Rockport and Lanesville Swedes and Finns. Nisu and coffee are still the staff of life here; every Cape Ann cookbook includes at least three Nisu recipes.
Forty of these redolent loaves were baked by the team at Spiran last week. Some of the loaf-braiders laughingly claimed they joined Spiran particularly to learn how to make Nisu; these forty loaves would be sold the next morning at the Swedish Pancake Breakfast, an event the Scandinavian club holds twice a year, in the spring and fall.
Spiran Lodge #98, the local order of Vasa, a national Scandinavian organization, was founded in 1906 by altruistic Rockport Swedes as a “sick and death” benefit society. In its nascence the organization was protectively Swedish. In 1949 the organization changed the language in which they did business from Swedish to English, making it easier for younger Swedes to participate. Today, anxious again for people to learn and continue these fading traditions, Vasa is welcoming new members, any nationality. You can contact Carolyn Rask by email if you’re interested: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maybe there’s something in the cardamom; maybe making Nisu is so beautiful a process – old traditions literally rise up in a fragrant bowl of dough – the sense of joy was as thick as the cardamom among the Nisu bakers that day. All that stirring, kneading and rolling of Nisu, not to mention the hundreds of Plattars – Swedish Pancakes – to be prepared, made Cape Ann Scandinavian culture appear to be happily proceeding into the 21st century.
On June 21st Spiran will hold their Mid-Summer Festival in Harvey Park in Rockport; Swedish meatballs will be served, along with strawberries and cream, and, of course, Nisu and coffee.
Jul Fest – when the blond, straight-backed girl walks the hall wearing a crown of candles – is in early December. The most cherished Scandinavian classics will be served there. Only thinning Scandinavian communities like the one on Cape Ann, or the Finnish settlement in W. Barnstable Mass, still make fruit soup, rice pudding (- maddeningly difficult to prepare properly; I’m begging for a Spiran lesson.) and grapenut pudding. These will be served at Jul Fest, along with a Finnish charcuterie called “Sylta” prepared by Bill Holmes, the recipe for which came from his grandmother. A time and a culture preserved in a festival, Jul Fest is a true Scandinavian feast of open-faced sandwiches, pickled herring, saffron buns, and, of course, Nisu. Sniff the air for cardamom, watch for the orange Dala horse on the sidewalk; consider becoming a member.
Many people consider the Spiran version their favorite Nisu recipe; the dough is so flecked with cardamon it is almost amber; these braids shimmer with an egg wash that “cooks” on the hot bread which is then dusted with sugar. The loaves sell out almost as quickly as they come out of the oven, and for good reason. Not many sweet breads are as hauntingly fragrant, fluffy in texture, with that sweet crisp outer crumb. Scandinavian or not, any baker should know this recipe. Claire Franklin is generously sharing it.
In The Lane’s Cove Cookbook it says that when the Finnish people first came to Lanesville no one knew what the early morning hammering in the kitchen was for. People learned it was mother, or “Aiti,” pounding the cardamom for a new batch of Nisu.
Spiran Lodge Nisu
makes 4 loaves
2 cups whole milk
2 sticks + 1/2 stick butter, divided
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 heaping teaspoons cardamom seeds, ground in a spice grinder or small coffee grinder
1 1/2 packages active dry yeast, or 3 1/4 teaspoons
15-18 cups all purpose, unbleached flour
- Heat milk and 2 sticks butter until butter melts. Pour into a low 11”x13” pan to cool. (leave remaining 1/2 stick of butter out to soften.)
- Dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup warm water
- In a very large bowl beat together 6 eggs, 1 cup sugar, salt and cardamon. Add cooled milk mixture to egg mixture and beat with an electric hand mixer. (This could be done in a stand mixer, but once you add the flour you will have to transfer the dough to a larger bowl.) Add yeast and beat well, about five minutes.
- Add flour a little at at time. Use the mixer to work in the flour beating well after each addition, until the dough is too stiff. Then continue adding flour, but use your hands (buttered) to work it in. Keep scraping the bowl with a little bit of dough as you mix. When dough no longer sticks to the bowl and it is smooth and elastic it is done. But caution: the dough will still be soft.
- Using your hands, spread softened butter all over the top and sides of the dough, then turn the dough over in the bowl, and butter the bottom side.
- Cover the dough with a cloth towel, and let rise until double in bulk about 2 hours.
- Punch dough down and form into a ball again. Using your hands, spread butter again all over the top and sides of the dough, then turn dough over in bowl and butter the bottom sides.
- Cover with a cloth towel and let rise about 2 hours, or until double in bulk.
- Beat remaining egg in a small bowl with a fork to create an egg wash.
- Divide the dough into 4 equal portions by cutting with a large sharp knife. Divide each dough in half.
- Squeeze the air out of each portion; then roll them them into rolls about 15” long. Repeat with all the sections.
- Cross two rolls over each other at their centers, so it looks like an “x.” Pick up each end of the bottom length of dough. Holding each end in your hands, cross your hands over each other and drop the ends of the dough. You should have made the bottom dough begin to “knot” the top dough. Now pick up the other 2 ends of dough. Holding each end, cross your hands over each other and drop the lengths where your hands arrive. Now you have knotted the other length. Now, pick up the lengths that you didn’t just touch, and cross your hands over each other, and drop the lengths. A new knot. Continue doing that, always picking up the lengths that you didn’t just touch, until the loaf is completely knotted. Tuck the spare lengths under the loaf attractively. Do this to create the remaining 3 loaves of dough.
- Spray four 9”x5” loaf pans with cooking spray.
- Put braided loaves in pan, and brush each loaf with egg wash. Cover with cloth towel and let rise 1 hour.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Bake for 30 minutes, or until bread is golden and hollow-sounding when tapped. Remove from pan to cooling racks immediately.
- While loaves are still hot, brush again with egg wash and then sprinkle with sugar. Cool for 10 more minutes, and remove from pan. Finish cooling on racks.