Gloria Johnson’s “Finnish bread with a Swedish touch”

 

Gloria Johnson is known for her cardamom bread, but it was only about 10 years ago that she made her first loaf. For 55 years, Gloria and her husband Arnold raised strawberries and ran a pick-your-own strawberry farm in Oulu, Wisconsin. Arnold started the farm 65 years ago for extra income after his family sold their dairy cows. They kept it running year in and year out, right up until deciding to retire. Gloria jokes that she has been around for “only 55, not 65” of those years. Each summer they hired local kids to work at the farm: managing crowds, weeding the fields, and helping to keep everything in order. Many in Oulu fondly mention that working at the Johnsons’ strawberry farm was their first job, and are quick to say that it was also the job that taught them the value of hard work.

The Johnsons hosted an employees party at the close of every season, inviting the families and neighbors of those who had worked for them. One year, a neighbor brought a loaf of cardamom bread, using a recipe featured in the Duluth News Tribune by the acclaimed Finnish American cookbook author Beatrice Ojakangas. While many in the area consider cardamom bread to be a Finnish delicacy, often using its Finnish name pulla, people make variations of cardamom-flavored yeast coffeebread throughout the Nordic countries–and the Upper Midwest. Along with pulla, cardamom bread is know by many names, particularly throughout Finnish America, including “nisu” and “biscuit.”

Not only was their neighbor’s cardamom bread delicious, it was also a bread machine recipe. For Gloria, that was the kicker to try it and over the years she has made a couple of modifications. One of the first was incorporating some whole wheat flour because it “gives more nutrition,” as she says with a smile. Another was sprinkling raw sugar on top rather than the regular, granulated kind so that it wouldn’t melt in. But the key was adding a second layer of egg wash and raw sugar, both before and after raising the dough, that created the extra crunchy layer on top, a step you can see in the video above that shows how Gloria makes her cardamom bread. Gloria likes to say that her recipe is “Finnish with a Swedish touch” because her own heritage is Swedish and she’s adapting a Finnish recipe.

Gloria orders her cardamom seed in bulk–one pound bags from a wholesaler. She says that fresh ground cardamom tastes much better, so she grinds it herself for each batch. Many recipes call for a teaspoon, but she uses closer to 3 tablespoons. Gloria admits, “I do make a lot of cardamom bread,” and has her baking down to a science, storing pre-mixed bags of flour in her freezer. She estimates that towards Christmas-time she probably bakes it every day. Her favorite time to bake is actually in the middle of the night, timing it so that her family can eat fresh-baked pulla for breakfast.

For Gloria, baking cardamom bread is also about connecting to her community. She doesn’t take too many orders, but often donates loaves to local historical society dinners, as well as to sell at the Oulu Cultural and Heritage Center (OCHC)’s events. She offers classes for adults in the area to learn how to bake pulla and regularly volunteers at the OCHC’s summer school to teach the kids how to bake the local treat. In the same way she spent 55 years teaching the community’s youth the value of work at their strawberry farm, Gloria continues to perform her love of community by sharing her cardamom bread and teaching others her own recipe, with a Swedish touch.

Gloria’s Cardamom Bread

A large plate is convered in slices of a light brown cardamom bread, topped with raw sugar. A second tray is visible out of focus.
A platter of cardamom bread for sale at The Oulu Cultural and Heritage Center’s 2018 Juhannus festival.

Equipment:

  • 2 lb Bread Machine

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 cup Evaporated Milk (12 oz can)
  • 6 tablespoons Butter
  • 3 large eggs (equal to 3/4 cup)
  • 3 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 1.5 cup white whole wheat flour (can use regular whole wheat flour)
  • 2 tablespoons wheat gluten (optional)
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 to 4 tablespoon ground cardamom seed (ground in blender)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast OR 1 tablespoon regular dry yeast
  • Turbinal sugar/ Sugar in the Raw for topping

Preparation:

  • Heat evaporated milk and butter. Cool to lukewarm
  • Beat eggs with a fork. Add eggs to cooled milk.
  • Pour into Bread Machine.
  • Measure and stir together Unbleached bread flour, white whole wheat flour, salt, sugar, wheat gluten (optional), and ground cardamom seed. *You may need to add more bread flour if the dough is too wet.
  • Put into bread machine on top of milk, butter, and eggs. Make small well in center of flour mixture and add yeast.
  • Press dough cycle and start.
  • When done, remove from pan. If dough is too sticky, add a little flour until you can handle it.
  • Divide dough (2 balls for 2 large braids or 3 balls for 3 braids). Divide each ball into 3 long ropes.
  • Braid and place on large, greased cookie sheet. A 17″ x 11″ pan fits 2 or 3 braids.
  • Brush top with mixture of 1 beaten egg and 2 tablespoons of milk. Sprinkle about two tablespoons or more Turbinal sugar on top.
  • Cover and let rise in warm place until double in size (45 minutes to 1 hour)
  • Brush with more egg wash and more Turbinal sugar.
  • Bake at 375 for 20 to 25 minutes or until crusty (but not burned) and browned on the bottom.
  • Place on wire racks to cool.

By Mirva Johnson