There has been a lot of interest in braids lately, largely due to the popular Hunger Games books and recent film in which the heroine Katniss Everdeen wears a special braid that her mother creates and which becomes all the rage in her dystopian world when Katniss is celebrated for winning the Hunger Games. There have been more than a hundred articles about braids in Glamour magazine in 2012 alone. So I felt very fashionable to be baking a braided bread. Also traditional, since my mother bakes a Czech braided bread, hoska, at Christmas time. And festive, as the braid is shaped into a wreath, trimmed with a bow.
The recipe for Finnish Pulla is from Baking With Julia, pages 106-107, and was contributed by Beatrice Ojakangas. You can find the recipe on Erin’s blog, The Daily Morsel, and see photos of her gorgeous pulla.
Like brioche, pulla is a bread rich in dairy products - milk, eggs, and butter – lending it a soft, luscious and slightly chewy texture. Sugar and cardamom added to the dough make it a little sweet and wondrously fragrant. Cardamom is a spice I rarely use. When I do, it is in savory Indian dishes along with many other spices. I really enjoyed its flavor at center stage. I found it resinous. I’ve read descriptions of it as having essences of eucalyptus and citrus, which is probably a better way of describing it.
After one rise in the bowl, the dough is deflated and divided into thirds, in preparation of the braiding (the fun part.) Surprisingly, the recipe called for oiling a work surface, rather than preparing a floured surface. It seemed strange, but I went with it. I rolled each of the three pieces of dough into a 36-inch long rope. This was actually the hardest part, as the dough was very elastic and kept shrinking back to a shorter length. Maybe oiling the work surface helped with this process, reducing friction. Alternating the rolling among the three pieces, allowing each to rest for a while, also helped to gradually get the strands to stretch to the 36 inches. The braided strands looked like this:
There is a lot of yeast in this dough, a tablespoon, and it was very reactive, creating bubbles even as I rolled and braided.
The braided dough is sturdy and resilient and can be lifted onto a baking sheet and shaped into a circle in one movement. With the ends trimmed, the blunt ends are pinched together to create a complete braided wreath. Then the trimmings get rolled into a skinny rope to make a bow that conceals the seam. I remade the bow three or four times, and it still looked kind of lame. The addition of slivered almonds and turbinado sugar sprinkled over an egg glaze gave a crunch and sparkle to the crust.
I couldn’t say which I preferred… the sweet tender chewy interior or the sweet crusty nutty outside.