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Food & Wine

Savory breads decorate holiday table

Baking is most popular during holiday time, and that holds true for Easter and Passover. Holiday breads and desserts are part of a precious heritage that now more than ever families hope to create and maintain. It was my early memory of Swedish breads that inspired me to try baking. I could not buy Vort Limpa, the orange-flavored rye of my childhood, so I had to learn to make it.

I never remembered my mother making this bread, but my great-aunt assured me that it was her favorite when I was only a toddler. To my amazement, she produced the recipe in my mother's hand, now too faded to read anything but "orange, caraway and molasses."

Like many Swedish-Americans, I am grateful to Beatrice Ojakangas of Duluth, Minn., who is the Julia Child of Scandinavian baking and who carefully preserved this and many other Scandinavian recipes. Most of the treasured recipes from my family appear in her book "The Great Scandinavian Baking Book" (University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

Food is the heart of the Scandinavian home, and the delicate pastries, cookies and savory breads from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland are world famous.

The land of the midnight sun has short summers with daylight into the late evenings and long, cold winters with dark falling in the afternoon. It is small wonder that Scandinavians enjoy their hot coffee and baked goods rich in butter, cream and sugar. Special pastry shops called konditorier serve pastries, layer cakes and cookies with coffee or tea.

Spices are the heart of Scandinavian baking - a great luxury hundreds of years ago when such favorites as cardamom, allspice, clove and ginger were carried along the Silk Road from Indonesia and China to the distant cold climes.

Rye grows well in Nordic climates and is a favorite flour for thin rye crisp or Scandinavian knackerbrot. Vort Limpa is often sliced thin for the many delicate smorrebrod (butter bread) open-faced sandwiches. Sandwiches are often topped with smoked meat or fish rolled or folded to give it height. The orange-rye bread seems most naturally paired with egg or herring salad and makes a nice presentation on the early spring table.

Traditional open-faced sandwiches make up a smorgasbord (bread and butter table) popular for holiday dining. Smorgasbord parties originated as country dinners for which each guest brought a dish. Smoked fish, herring or seasonal crayfish are popular among the cold items. One or two hot dishes may include pork or ham on an Easter buffet.

Egg breads are popular year round. During the Easter season, a thrifty baker will prick a hole in both ends of a raw egg and blow the egg contents into a bowl to use for festive braided bread. The empty decorated eggs are often hung from spring branches - a symbol of life "resurrected" in the spring. Finnish pulla is infused with the scent of cardamom and usually baked in a three-stranded braid.

Pulla Bread

Makes one loaf

Cardamom flavors this interesting Finnish braided sweet bread. For a rich cardamom flavor, buy the cardamom in seed form and crush it with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. This bread is especially good toasted and served with coffee or tea.

½ cup of scalded milk

1 tablespoon active dry yeast (SAF brand preferred)

¼ cup warm water

1 large egg at room temperature

4 tablespoons sugar

Scant teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ cup unsalted butter, melted

2½-2¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk for glaze

Slivered almonds and pearl sugar for topping

Scald milk in small saucepan by heating it and stirring until ring of small bubbles appears around side of pan. Set aside and cool to room temperature.

Combine ¼ cup warm water, yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar. Stir to dissolve yeast and let stand until bubbly, about 5 minutes. Add 1 egg and stir until blended.

In large bowl, whisk in yeast mix, milk, remaining sugar, cardamom and salt. Using wooden spoon, add 1 cup flour and beat smooth. Beat in melted butter and add additional flour, ½ cup at a time, until dough is stiff but not dry. (Or you can mix dough in mixer with dough hook and then knead later with hook.) Cover bowl with plastic and allow to rest for 15 minutes.

Turn out dough onto lightly floured surface and knead by hand or machine about 10 minutes until smooth and satiny. Shape dough into ball. Place in lightly greased bowl, turning dough to grease top. Cover with plastic and let rise to double, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Prepare large baking sheet with parchment paper or grease large baking sheet. Turn out dough onto slightly oiled surface. Punch dough down and divide into 3 equal parts. Shape each part into 18-inch-long strands. Braid strands together and place diagonally on prepared cookie sheet. Tuck ends under and pinch to seal. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let stand in warm place until double, about 1 hour. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

For egg decoration, press egg along top to indent four hollows to reserve space for eggs after loaf is baked. Beat egg and milk together with fork. Brush egg wash over braid and decorate with crushed sugar cubes, pearl sugar and/or sliced almonds.

Bake until evenly golden, about 20-25 minutes, taking care not to over bake. Remove from baking sheet and cool on wire rack. Bread keeps well overnight in plastic at room temperature, or wrap tightly and freeze for up to 1 month. Then thaw, wrapped, at room temperature.

Swedish Vort Limpa

Makes one loaf

This somewhat sweet rye, flavored with typical Scandinavian spices, is often sliced thin for open-faced sandwiches. The fennel and anise gives it a licorice-like taste that is delicious with cured meats or herring salad. Orange zest and molasses add another taste dimension when nicely topped with egg or cucumber salad.

This recipe can be doubled to make two loaves using 1 tablespoon of yeast.

1 cup scalded milk

½ teaspoon ginger

½ teaspoon fennel seed

½ teaspoon anise seed

½ teaspoon caraway

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon active dry yeast

¼ cup warm water

Pinch of sugar

3 tablespoons molasses

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/8 cup packed dark brown sugar

2-3 tablespoons grated zest of orange

¾ cup rye flour

2½-3 cups unbleached bread flour

1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk for egg wash

Scald milk by heating until small bubbles appear around edge of saucepan. Cool to room temperature.

Grind spices in coffee mill or mortar and pestle to release flavor. Add salt.

Add yeast and pinch of sugar to ¼ cup warm water and stir to dissolve.

Using large mixing bowl, mix together yeast mixture, spices, salt, molasses, melted butter, brown sugar and orange zest. Add rye flour. Using wooden spoon or dough hook of mixer, continue mixing and adding bread flour until it makes stiff dough. Cover bowl with plastic and let dough rest for 15 minutes.

Turn dough out on lightly floured surface and knead 10 minutes until smooth and elastic. If using mixer, mix on medium until smooth.

Place in greased bowl, turn dough to grease top, cover with plastic and let rise to double in bulk, about 1 hour.

Oil round baking pan or line with parchment. Cup round dough in your hands, shaping it and smoothing it. Place in center of pan, smooth side up, and slightly flatten to fit pan. Cover dough with oiled plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until double, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Brush loaf with egg wash. Bake on center rack about 35 minutes until golden brown and wooden skewer inserted into bottom of loaf comes out clean. Cool on rack.

Keep 2-3 days wrapped in plastic at room temperature or wrap airtight and freeze for as long as 1 month.

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