RECIPE

A Swedish cardamom braid recipe passed down through several generations

This recipe makes two braids, so invite a friend over for fika — and send them home with the second loaf

By Erin Keane

Published November 22, 2021 6:35PM (EST)

Cardamom braided bread with tea (Erin Keane)
Cardamom braided bread with tea (Erin Keane)

This article is part of "Thanksgiving Your Way." From traditional to not at all, 2021 is an opportunity for carving out new traditions and resurrecting old ones.

Scandinavian lifestyle concepts are relentlessly commercialized in the U.S. these days, but it still takes me by surprise when I learn there's a trendy term for practices my American family has passed down through several generations now removed from the old country. The Danes have hygge, of course, but my roots are Swedish, where the concepts of lagom (just the right amount) and mys (ultra-cozy) are hardwired into my sense of satisfaction and wellbeing, especially in the long dark months of winter.

My family isn't exactly the most tradition-bound bunch. What we thought for years was my Grandma's own Irish soda bread recipe, for example, turned out to be a handwritten copy of one she clipped from the New York Daily News. What an heirloom! (Here's a more authentic recipe, if you're looking for one.) But there's one recipe handed down from our Swedish side — through four generations now — that epitomizes lagom, mys and family to me. You don't need an elaborate feast or an extravagant party to feel connected to loved ones; slices of my Nana's Swedish Cardamom Braid, with its subtle sweetness, shared over a strong cup of coffee, will warm you up just enough. 

The Nana of Nana's Swedish Cardamom Braid is Emma, my great-grandmother on my father's mother's side. She and her husband Karl hailed from Åland — an autonomous, demilitarized, politically neutral archipelago of Swedish speakers that technically belongs to Finland — and they settled in New Jersey in the very early 20th century. By the time my mother married my father, Emma's grandson, in the 1970s, Emma was a widow in her 80s living in Jersey City close to her own daughter. Mom was a young mother, only 17 when my big brother was born, and she was a willing pupil of Nana's and Grandma's, learning how to cook thin Swedish pancakes with lingonberry jam for her own little family, writing down names in pencil on the backs of black-and-white photos of relatives from Åland posing somberly in front of farmhouses, safeguarding my father's family knowledge to pass down to us — the next generation.

Nana died when we were babies, and Mom stopped Grandma — ever the practical Swede, who didn't think anyone really needed an extra set of dishes — from donating Emma's china, crystal and monogrammed flatware to the church rummage sale. My mother kept it all for us instead, moving the delicately packed boxes through many households and across two continents, pulling them out to serve holiday meals and reminisce about those early days when Nana was still with us. One of those holiday treats I grew up eating off Emma's delicate, gold-rimmed, rose-bloomed Union K china was Swedish Cardamom Braid, a lightly sweetened, cardamom-spiced yeasty braided bread dotted with festive pärlsocker, or pearl sugar. (Finns make a similar braid called pulla, topped with toasted almonds.)

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Once my mother passed Nana's china to me, I found myself wanting to fill it with the tastes of childhood and family, and I asked her to walk me through how to make the Swedish Cardamom Braid, a recipe she has known by heart for decades. (I still have to consult my notes.) I don't know if there's anything inherently holiday-specific about this bread, but because I grew up eating it around Christmas — a time of year when fond memories feel particularly poignant, and making Emma's recipes was one way my mother helped us stay connected to her — I associate it with this time of year. And because I tend to do most of my own baking around the holidays, I always try to make time to make several loaves of Nana's Cardamom Braid — served on her china, of course. 

I also grew up calling this Nana's Coffee Braid, but not because coffee is an ingredient or flavor in the bread. That's just how Emma liked to serve it — as part of a daily ritual Swedes call fika, taking a short break together to catch up over a cup of coffee and a bit of cake. Swedish Cardamom Braid is perfect for fika. It's a casual and not too sweet treat that you don't even need a knife to cut. Just give it a pull. Pour the coffee. Cue the cozy warm feelings of mys.  


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This recipe makes two braids, so invite a friend over for fika — score a couple of fancy china cups from a thrift store if you aren't the designated caretaker of heirloom china — and send your friend home with the second loaf. You can also throw in a compound butter to fancy up this homemade gift. I like a honey-orange butter made with local honey and orange zest. Just soften a stick of unsalted butter, then whip it in a mixer with 2 tablespoons of honey and the zest of one orange and pack in a mini Mason jar or chill in wax paper.

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Braided Cardamom BreadBraided Cardamom Bread (Erin Keane)

Recipe: Nana's Swedish Cardamom Braid 

Ingredients:

  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup butter, plus extra for greasing
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. cardamom
  • 3 1/2 cups sifted flour, plus extra
  • 1 egg and 1 egg white
  • Pearl sugar

Instructions: 

  1. Soften your yeast in 1/4 cup of lukewarm water.

  2. While that stands for 5-10 minutes, combine the butter, sugar, salt and cardamom in a large bowl.

  3. Scald the milk and pour into the bowl.

  4. After the mixture cools, beat in1 cup of sifted flour until smooth.

  5. Stir in the yeast and mix well. 

  6. Add about 1 cup of sifted flour to the mixture and beat until very smooth. 

  7. Beat in an egg, then 1-1/2 cups of sifted flour, enough to make a soft dough. Your dough should have the consistency of a mud mask — slightly gloopy, sticky but spreadable. 

  8. Turn your dough onto a lightly greased, floured surface and rest it for 5-10 minutes. 

  9. Now, it's time to knead. Nana didn't have a Kitchen-Aid Stand Mixer with a dough hook, so she did it by hand. Some traditions can be put aside for convenience, though.

  10. Form your dough into a large ball and place it in a deep, greased bowl. Turn the dough over to bring the greased surface to the top. Cover it with a towel and let it stand in a warm spot (around 80º works) until the dough doubles. This should take about an hour. 

  11. When the dough has doubled, punch it back down. Pull the edges of the dough to the center and turn it completely over. Cover it back up for another one-hour rise.  

  12. When your dough has doubled again, divide it into six equal portions. Roll each one into a one-inch strip. Place three strips on a greased baking sheet and braid them, tucking the ends under. 

  13. Brush the braid with egg white and sprinkle with pearl sugar. Repeat with the other three strips. 

  14. Cover your braids for a final rise, about 45 minutes or until they double. 

  15. Bake at 375º for 25 minutes, or until the braids are lightly browned. Cool on racks and serve with coffee.

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Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief.

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