Growing up, I used to hear about Nisu, or Finnish coffee bread. I had never tried making it, but a few weeks ago, decided that it was time! I am making a batch today and I will say that it is the "third try". But, in the time that has passed between the first attempt and today, I have learned a great deal of useful information.
Now one of the characteristic ingredients of Nisu is cardamom seed. While you can use purchased, ground cardamom, I think the "secret ingredient" is using fresh cardamom. These little beige, dry pods are fragrant and alluring, even before you break open their shells and free the seeds themselves. I will say the seeds are rather homely, but they do smell wonderful. The first time that I tried making Nisu, I used some ground cardamom - it was blah and lacking in flavor!
I empty the seed pods onto a cutting board, cover them with a paper towel, and then hammer away with a piece of wood. You could, of course, use any sort of mallet or hammer. The 1954 Lane's Cove Cookbook says, "When the Finnish people first came here to Lanesville, no one could guess what that early morning hammering in the kitchen was for. Now they know it was just Mother or 'Aiti' pounding up the cardamom for a new batch of nisu."
In my first attempt at Nisu, I knew that the loaves should be braided, but I wasn't sure how to bake them. I put them into glass loaf pans - only to discover that the baked bread looked done, but was in fact raw and gooshy in the middle! My husband G. thought it was good - and made quite delicious French toast from it. However, I knew this format for the bread was not right. So, I requested information from my "secret weapons" in the Nisu baking field - Liz and Ted Natti. Liz and Ted both grew up in Lanesville with my mother and they kindly sent me very detailed instructions on how to bake the bread properly. I have incorporated their instructions into the revised recipe below. The Nattis are truly the secret to my success! In the picture here, the eggs are resting on my cardamom seed "hammer".
The Revised Recipe: Nisu - Coffee Bread
Makes 2 loaves
1 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
2 cups milk - scalded and then cooled to lukewarm
1/2 cup melted butter, cooled to lukewarm.
2 packages dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees Farenheit)
1 tsp crushed cardamom seed
Approx. 6 cups flour - enough to make dough firm.
Measure out 1/4 cup of warm water -- try using an instant read thermometer to ensure that it is between 110 and 115 degrees Farenheit. Sprinkle the yeast in the water and stir gently to mix. Wait a few minutes to confirm that the yeast has been activated.
Beat the eggs, sugar and salt together using an electric mixer. Mix the scalded milk and melted butter together. Then add the milk/butter mixture to the egg/sugar/salt mixture and blend together with the mixer. Next add the yeast, cardamom seeds, and flour.
Before we continue with the recipe -- a couple of notes:
(1) Before adding the yeast to the mixture, be sure that the milk/butter/egg/sugar/salt combination is cooler than 140 degrees Farenheit (try using an instant read thermometer). If yeast is subjected to liquids that are as warm as 140 degrees, they will die and the bread won't rise. Trust me, I've made the mistake before.
(2) While you are mixing the dough, pre-heat the oven to 100 degrees Farenheit and then turn off. This will create a nice toasty environment in which your bread can rise. This is a great tip from Ted N.
Okay - back to the recipe...
Add the flour gradually -- I add the flour two cups at a time and mix them in, before adding more. You can mix the flour into the bread dough using an electric mixer. I prefer mixing the flour in by hand, with a mixing spoon. It's a matter of personal preference -- I feel like I have a better sense of the dough's texture when I mix the flour in using a spoon.
You want the dough to barely stick to the fingers -- this may require more than six cups of flour. Add the flour gradually until you get this consistency. Knead the dough on a floured board until the dough comes off your hand. Note that if you mix the flour into the dough with an electric mixer, you do not need to knead the dough.
Place the dough into a bowl, cover with a tea towel, and then put it in the slightly warmed oven to rise. The dough should rise until it is double in size. This will take around two hours.
After the dough has risen for the first time, turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead. Next, divide the dough into six equally sized pieces and pull them into long strips (around 15 to 16 inches in length). Using three strips, braid the dough into a loaf. Repeat braiding to create a second loaf.
Place the loaves on cookie sheets. Note that insulated cookie sheets will prevent the bottoms of the loaves from burning, when they are baked. Alternatively, I stack two cookie sheets with small sides, thus creating a sort of improvised insulated pan. Cover with a tea towel and return to the slightly warmed oven to rise again -- to double in size. This will take an hour or two.
After the second rise, remove the breads from the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Farenheit. Bake for approximately 30 minutes until golden brown. Then brush with a mixture of cold, brewed coffee and sugar, and sprinkle the tops with sugar.
An Original Recipe: Coffee Bread (I say an original recipe, because there are several in the old cookbooks - all slightly different)
source: Lane's Cove Cookbook
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 cups milk
2 yeast cakes
2 cardamom seeds, crushed
6 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup butter
Heat milk with butter. Cool. Beat eggs, add sugar and salt. Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup warm water. Combine milk and yeast mixture with egg batter. Add seeds and flour. Knead until smooth. Let rise 3 hours, then divide and braid into loaves. Bake in moderate oven. When coffee bread is done, brush top with coffee syrup and sprinkle with sugar.