Sourdough cardamon sweet bread (pulla)

Traditional Finnish pulla

"Pullakranssi", a braided pulla shaped as a circle.

My first post in English. It had to be done as I was thinking about our rich Nordic bread culture and went over recipes that are internationally available for our very own pulla. None were really too authentic.   

Several forms of pulla: korvapuusti, voisilmäpulla and a marmalade roll.

So what is a pulla? 

Is it a brioche or is it a challah? Not really, but the traditional sweet wheat bread widely known and consumed in Finland and Sweden does resemble both. It is essentially a sweet cardamon spiced wheat bread that is the Nordic base for cinnamon rolls, braided breads, doughnuts and many more. It has a light even texture resembling a brioche yet it eats easier and is less buttery. It has eggs in it as well but it is not really a Challah either. The cardamon defines the flavour and the scent of cardamon alone is synonymous to pulla for pretty much all who live here. 

Laskiaispulla. This a version of pulla filled with cream and either strawberry jam or almond paste. This is traditionally eaten around Shrove Tuesday both in Finland and Sweden.  

If there is coffee served somewhere here there is likely pulla as well. If there is an occasion to celebrate, pulla is on the table. This really is one of those defining baked goods that pretty much everyone in Finland eats and knows how to make. It has many names, shapes and forms but is always based on the same soft bread.

The middle roll of a "bostonkakku". This one made with orange marmalade filling and a cream cheese frosting.

The recipe is pretty straightforward and most recipes are based on yeast. The best version of those for me has always been the long cold retarded version. 

Here is my sourdough version though, I personally think it is far superior in both flavour and texture to its yeasted sister. The very best ones can be achieved with a controlled combination of both.

A braided loaf (pitko) formed into a circle (kranssi), this is often eaten sliced, and voisilmäpulla as sister-buns. These also have raisins in the dough making them "rusinapulla" aka raisinbuns.

Often times these are done over one day even when using sourdough. I personally prefer a method with added cold retardation. This to me is both time-effective and provides an even better flavour.

The Pulla

  • 200g mature sourdough starter (100% hydration)
  • A pinch of instant yeast (optional)
  • 500g milk at room temperature
  • One egg
  • 125g of caster sugar
  • 750g of all purpose or bread flour
  • 1tbs of ground cardamon
  • 2tsp vanilla
  • 150g of soft butter
  • 9g salt
  • (A cup of raisins or to taste, optional)
Note: The pulla dough I prefer to do is very slack and high in hydration. Traditional recipes for this amount often call for well over 900 grams of flour and here we use only 750 grams. If you feel unsure with working on a hydration like this, it is absolutely ok to add more flour. Everyone tends to have their own preferred consistency for the dough and you can find your best by playing around with this a few times. Adding just 100 grams more flour to this recipe will already make it a lot easier to handle when first starting to make these.

Making the pulla dough:

Combine the starter, milk, egg, flour, cardamon, vanilla and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. If adding yeast, add it now as well. Mix on low until everything is well combined and the dough just barely starts forming. Cover the bowl and let the dough rest for 15 minutes.

After the first rest, continue mixing on low until moderate gluten network develops. You don't want to push the dough at any point by ripping it or tearing it. Slow and controlled wins this race. 

Let the dough rest again for 15 minutes and continue mixing after it has relaxed. Add the salt now and mix for a few minutes. Give the dough a final short rest before adding your butter. Add the butter in a similar way as you would for a brioche dough. A little bit at a time mixing until it has all been soaked by the dough.

Once you've added all your butter, continue mixing on low until the dough starts to clear the sides of the bowl. Be careful not to overmix this dough and if unsure, less is more. You want good gluten development but this dough in itself is very soft and pliable.

Once the dough is done, cover the bowl and let it rise in a warm spot for a few hours. If using only pure sourdough the rise times can be very long and using warmth to do the work for you will help to ensure good rise and prevent the dough from getting too acidic. We want to keep the wild yeasts very happy during the process of this bake. You want to see clear rising in the dough before forming your pulla.

Once the dough has risen, turn it onto your work surface and divide to little buns, make braided loaves (pitko) or roll it out to make rolls. Whatever you feel like. 

"Bostonkakku", several rolls baked in a cake tin. These are cinnamon rolls.

I personally love the classic "korvapuusti" which is a rolled out version with butter and cinnamon-sugar. Chocolate rolls are also nice, just add dark cocoa powder, sugar and butter into your rolls. 

"Voisilmäpulla" is another classic, you shape little palm sized round buns and once they have risen you press a piece of cold butter in the middle of your bun and sprinkle caster or dark sugar on top. Translated this would be a "butter-eye-bun" which pretty much explains the whole thing.

"Korvapuusti", cinnamonsugar & butter roll.

Different marmalade rolls, variations with vanilla filling and others are very common as well. Often several rolls get baked on a cake tin as well to make a pulla-cake of sorts, this is called a "bostonkakku". This is often decorated with an icing and served at parties.

One version is just a "pikkupulla", literal translation "small bun", it is a round bun with pearl sugar on top. 

Once you have your shaped goodies ready for their final rise, cover them well to prevent them from drying out and let them start to rise at room temperature for an hour or two. You ideally want to see clear slow rise start before cold retard, this way the rise carries on slowly in the cooler temperature. Once they have started their fermentation and it's well on its way, place the shaped pulla into the fridge overnight.

I like to make little sister-buns or "bostonkakku" often as those fit in my fridge nicely.

(If you don't have space you can also cold retard the dough itself after it has started to rise well and shape&final rise your pulla the next day. If you choose this dough retarding method, the final rise will take quite a while to get going as the dough comes to room temperature first. A warm spot such as an oven with just the light on or a cooler with a hot water bottle inside it are both of great help here. Just make sure the temperature doesn't get too high. Around 25-27°C ambient temperature is pretty ideal for this type of bread.)

On the following morning, heat your oven to 210 degrees Celsius for small buns or 175 degrees for braided loaves. 

Make sure the pulla is well risen before baking it. At room temperatute the dough nearly jiggles when shook and the cold retarded version should have puffed up nicely. If not, let them continue their rise in a warm spot before proceeding to baking.

Brush the pulla with an egg-wash just before baking and sprinkle pearl sugar on top. Caster sugar works well too or you can ice the buns after baking them as well. Pearl sugar is the most common you would see here and it does taste and look lovely on the finished pulla. 

Bake the smaller buns for about 15 minutes and braided loaves or cakerolls for 25-30 minutes on the middle rack of your oven. Bake until they are lovely and colden brown.

Once they are done, just enjoy this fragrant sweet bread either warm or cooled. We often just have one with a glass of cold milk as soon as it's cool enough to eat. These make a glorious French toast as well if some happen to get left over, but these do keep very well and can be toasted back to life for several days after baking. 


Enjoy your Nordic treats and happy baking.


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