Archive for December, 2012

Finnish Pulla

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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.

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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:

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There is a lot of yeast in this dough, a tablespoon, and it was very reactive, creating bubbles even as I rolled and braided.

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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.

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I couldn’t say which I preferred… the sweet tender chewy interior or the sweet crusty nutty outside.

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I’m doing something a little different this week – I’m collaborating with my teen-age daughter on this post. She’s an excellent writer and will be writing her comments at the end. Maybe we’ll try a different approach next time, more of a dialog. Did I mention that she’s an amazing writer?

Home-made gingerbread, a hearty simple cake, substantial and warming, calls to mind spicy aromas emanating from the kitchen. The recipe enticed me with its interesting ingredients. Ground and grated fresh ginger, but also instant espresso powder, unsweetened cocoa, and ground black pepper promised a complexity of flavor. Two sticks of butter and four eggs hinted at the cake’s soft moist texture. The recipe is from Baking With Julia, pages 247-248, and you can find the recipe on Karen’s blog at Karen’s Kitchen Stories.

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The cake is easy, if messy, to make. Dry ingredients whisked together. Butter and brown sugar creamed to a light and fluffy consistency, with eggs, molasses, and fresh ginger beaten in. Dry ingredients folded into wet.

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The texture of these baby cakes, baked in 4 inch paper baking cups, was dense, moist, and chewy. The color dark, chestnut brown…the color of chocolate…the color of (alas!) too much molasses! I used a medium flavored molasses, neither mild nor blackstrap, but two cups of the stuff overpowered all of the other flavors in my opinion. The ginger snuck through a bit, but any subtlety that the cocoa and espresso powders might have contributed was lost. So it is a love-hate relationship that I am having with these cute little cakes, loving their luscious substantial texture, but turned away by the bite of the molasses.

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Molly’s Comments: Personally, I fell in love with these chewy, moist, if a bit aggressively flavored, little guys when I first put a bite of their molasses-y, ginger-y bodies, coated with a dollop of homemade whipped cream, into my mouth. Intense. If the paramount of delicious subtle treats is a light and airy olive oil cake, then its delicious, malevolent twin is these: dark, strong flavored, dense, and completely irresistible.

Last night I sat down to the dining room table for dessert with my parents, not planning to stay long (I had very important business that required my undivided attention, namely Pretty Little Liars and The Vampire Diaries on netflix instant watch), but I tasted these out-of-this-world baby cakes, took another bite, and then another, and another…I ended up eating 1 and a half of them, and another one and a half for a post-breakfast appetite queller. As much as I did have a positively sublime experience (in case I didn’t make it clear before…) with these gingerbread baby cakes, I do understand where my mom, and probably some of the other TWD cooks who are reading this are coming from. It was a pretty hit-you-over-the-head molasses flavor. Especially, looking at the pictures of all of the ingredients, beautiful in shades of chestnut, tawny, and deep chocolate, not yet mixed together, I feel as though it was a teensy bit unfair that the molasses was allowed to overpower all of those other, compelling flavors. If anybody wanted to try the recipe a second time, putting less of the gooey, palate-commanding molasses in to let the other parts of the recipe (like the instant coffee, black pepper, and cocoa powder) come through a little more, it would not, in my opinion, be a terrible change–in fact, I think it could actually maybe be interesting.

Overall, I have to say my encounter with the powerful gingerbread cakes was one of a kind, and in a way that I have always wanted to get from a piece of homemade baked good. I know that even if my parents want no more to do with the baby cakes, they will always have a piece of my heart (and stomach). Now, off to do some truly important things…It’s been an honor writing on my mom’s blog! She is a pretty talented, amazing lady if I do say so myself.

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