I was very fortunate to marry into a Finnish-Canadian family, and we’ve adopted many of my husband’s family’s Finlander traditions in our home—and baking fresh loaves of pulla at Christmas is a big one!
Pulla (or nisu—a name used less frequently) is a Finnish cardamom bread (also known as just “coffee bread” up in the Finnish immigrant communities in Canada) that is lightly sweet, studded with almonds and cranberries or raisins, and flavored with rich, spicy cardamom. It’s truly perfect sliced thickly, toasted, and served fireside with a slather of salted butter and a—non-negotiable—cup of strong coffee.
While I wouldn’t consider pulla a beginner’s bread recipe, it is an easy bake if you have even just a basic knowledge of working with yeast breads—and trust me, it’s worth the time. Let’s get baking!
What is pulla?
The word “pulla” encompasses all kinds of sweet breads and rolls in Finnish cuisine—the common factor being a lightly sweetened yeast bread flavored with cardamom.
We’re using “pulla” here though to refer to the most traditional of the large braided loaves (pitko)—a soft, braided loaf of white yeast bread that is flavored with cardamom and studded with cranberries or raisins and almonds.
That being said, there are as many different variations on pulla as there are Finn families! So while this is the kind of coffee bread we eat in my family, you might want to do some research on traditional recipes and do some experimentation.
What kind of bread is pulla?
Pulla is a white flour yeast bread that is made using an enriched brioche-style dough. Enriching a dough means that you add fat to the dough (butter, in this case), which results in a super soft interior and a tender crumb. It is lightly sweetened—making it perfect for serving alongside coffee in the morning for breakfast or as an afternoon pick-me-up.
Where did pulla originate?
Cardamom breads are common in many cultures, but pulla itself originates from Finland. It is also common in areas throughout the globe with heavy Finnish immigrant populations, like Northwestern Ontario (where my husband is from).
What do I need to make Finnish cardamom bread?
Most of the ingredients are exactly what you’d expect to need for a rich bread: active dry yeast, whole milk, soft butter, eggs, flour, and salt. There’s no need for bread flour or another specialty flour—we use unbleached all-purpose flour.
In addition to those basic bread ingredients, you’ll also need:
- Sugar—Our family recipe calls for superfine sugar (which is about halfway between granulated sugar and powdered sugar), and while that definitely provides the best results, we’ve also had fine luck making the recipe with regular ol’ granulated sugar.
- Cardamom—This provides the signature flavor of pulla! For the best, most complex flavor, we highly recommend crushing whole cardamom pods yourself just before mixing them into the dough. You can grid the cardamom seeds with a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. Cardamom loses its flavor and scent very quickly once ground, so the ground cardamom in the jars at the store just won’t do.
- Raisins (or dried cranberries) and blanched almonds for texture and flavor—These are technically optional, but they are such a wonderful addition, we recommend you toss them in!
What kind of yeast do I need?
We just use regular active dry yeast here. Our original family recipe calls for fresh wild yeast (similar to a sourdough starter), but we adjusted this recipe years ago to use dried yeast to make it more convenient for us.
Teach me how to make pulla!
If you’re already familiar with making bread, you’ll be well prepared to make pulla!
- Proof the yeast in warm milk. Make sure you use warm, but not hot, milk. Set the mixture aside for about five minutes to proof, or activate, the yeast. By then, the mixture should look foamy like the head of a beer—that’s when your yeast is ready!
- Combine the dry ingredients. Whisk together the flour, sugar, cardamom, and salt in a large bowl.
- Add in the butter, eggs, raisins, and almonds. Mix all these into the yeast mixture.
- Mix it all together. Mix the dry ingredients into the yeast mixture until it just comes together.
- Knead it! Knead on a floured surface for about 5 minutes, or until smooth and elastic.
- First rise. Return the dough to its mixing bowl, and cover with a clean tea towel. Set in a warm spot to rise. After about an hour, the dough should be about doubled in size.
- Second rise. Punch the dough down, and then cover it again and let it have another short rise.
- Braid the bread. Traditional Finnish pulla is presented in braided loaves. It’s just like braiding hair! Easy.
- Garnish and bake. Set the loaves on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, allow the bread to rise for another 30 minutes, and then brush with beaten egg. Garnish with almonds, and bake until golden.
How do you braid Finnish cardamom bread?
If you can braid hair, you can braid pulla! Each loaf gets first formed into a long rectangle, and then you cut the rectangle into three strips. Braid the three strips together, and then tuck under both ends and squeeze to seal. Done!
How do you eat pulla?
Pulla is great fresh out of the oven, but it really shines when served sliced, toasted, and buttered (with a mug of strong, hot coffee).
For those feeling adventurous, in a true North American immigrant mash-up, my husband’s Finnish-Canadian family eats their pulla sliced and topped with a big slather of Cheez Whiz! Whatever floats your boat.