Cardamom and Sweet Memories in a Loaf of Finnish Nissua for Christmas

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Every Christmas Eve morning, when Ruth Beal grinds cardamom and kneads the Finnish holiday bread called Nissua, a flood of good memories come back. When Ruth, now of Machiasport, was growing up during the 1960s and ‘70s on Old County Road in Rockand, neighbor Helmi Ranta’s door was always open and her cookie jar was always full. Helmi’s home was a gathering place for many Finnish people who lived in the mid-coast area around Rockland. Ruth, wrote, “Every Tuesday and Friday night the sauna in her back yard was heated up and a steady stream of friends and family waited their turn to enjoy the sauna,” playing cribbage and enjoying a table heaped with cookies and cakes.

“She was a wonderful cook,” Ruth reported, “but I always looked forward to Christmas, when she made many loaves of Nissua. Ruth’s “splattered and tattered,” recipe for the bread came from Helmi.

We asked for the recipe here back in May when Anne Flagg of Northport wrote, “My dear departed mother-in-law brought Nissu to our family for the holidays back in the 1970s and I was always busy then and didn’t get the recipe, but now with a little more time I would like to make it if I can find the directions. Everyone always loved it.”

Since it was a Christmas treat, I hoarded until now Ruth Beal’s recipe, plus two more sent to me by my old friend Joanne Fuerst of Mt. Desert who wrote, “Oooh, I love Nissua,” which certainly seems to be the most common response to a mention of it.

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It really is delicious, tender, and aromatic with cardamom, best served fresh and hot with butter on it, though when a couple days old, it makes grand French toast. Ruth said, “It goes stale quite quickly, so that is always the excuse we use to eat it up ASAP!”

It is not hard to make. The assembly is straight-forward, and would be amenable to an electric mixer if you wished to use one. I mixed by hand, using the one-hundred strokes method I learned a long time ago which entails beating the dough one hundred times before all the flour has been added and it is still quite soft and sticky.

Really truly grind the cardamom at the last minute if you can. Joanne calculates that fourteen of those papery cardamom pods provides the right amount of seed. I used a heaping teaspoon of seeds which I put through a retired pepper grinder that I have. Fresh cardamom makes all the difference.

Helmi’s recipe and one from Joanne, which appeared years ago in the old Maine Times, both called for evaporated milk. Lacking evap, use two cups of light cream.

I wish you all a wonderful holiday weekend, however you celebrate it!

Nissua
Serves: Makes three loaves.
 
Ingredients
  • 1 heaping cup sugar
  • 1 heaping teaspoon salt
  • 1 can evaporated milk, scalded
  • 2 packets or 2 tablespoons dried yeast dissolved in ¾ cup warm water
  • ½ cup, or one stick, butter, melted then cooled
  • 4 beaten eggs
  • 1 very heaping teaspoon ground cardamom (freshly ground is best)
  • 7 cups flour plus a little more for kneading
  • For optional frosting:
  • 1 cup confections sugar
  • Milk or cream
Instructions
  1. Put sugar and salt in a large bowl.
  2. Pour scalded evaporated milk over, mix, and allow to cool.
  3. Stir in the yeast and water mixture.
  4. Add the melted butter and mix, and then add the eggs, cardamom, and five cups of flour.
  5. Beat the dough 100 strokes; it will be quite soft.
  6. Add the rest of the flour, and knead until elastic.
  7. Place in a greased bowl and let rise until doubled in bulk.
  8. Punch down and let rise again.
  9. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  10. Divide dough into thirds to make three loaves. Divide each third into three pieces and form rope-like pieces which you braid.
  11. Place loaves on greased or parchment-paper-lined baking sheets and let rise again about 20 minutes.
  12. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, or until golden brown, and hollow-sounding when tapped. Cool on racks.
  13. If you choose to make a frosting, put a cup of confectioners’ sugar into a bowl, and add just a very little milk or cream, mixing to make a pourable icing.
  14. Dribble the tops of the Nissua loaves with frosting.

 

Sandy Oliver

About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.