Every Christmas Eve day for as long as I can remember, I’ve climbed into the car with my mom and set off to circumnavigate the blustery horn of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, delivering gifts and greetings to loved ones in a ritual we call “the rounds.” The rounds are about tradition, seeing friends and family, and spreading holiday cheer—but mostly, they’re about nisu. Loaves of it sit in our trunk, individually wrapped in cellophane and tied with red ribbon. Dense, thickly braided, and coated in a sugary crust, they’ve just finished baking that morning. We’ve made sure that at least three remain at home.
Nisu is a yeasted Finnish bread served with coffee, though if you go looking for “nisu” in Finland, you’ll likely come up short. Today, it’s almost exclusively called pulla. Nisu is the older and more general word, and it has gone out of use over time. Pulla has also grown to encompass a whole variety of different sweet rolls—crescent-shaped, round, or flat; with raisins, nuts, or fruit—the only two constants are cardamom in it and coffee alongside it.
But for my Finn family, which includes the descendents of 12 siblings spread around the granite quarries of Cape Ann and beyond, there is only nisu, and it only means one thing. It is crusty on the outside, flaky on the inside; crowned with thick, coffee-tempered sugar; perfectly rectangular on the bottom, with peaks so voluminously rounded they threaten to spill down the sides of the loaf pan. Each bite infused with the sharp sweetness of cardamom.
Our nisu recipe came from my great-grandmother Matilda Sironen Natti, who came over at the age of 19 from the small village of Kalmari, Finland. She taught it to her 12 children, who, in turn, taught it to theirs. The recipe wasn’t written down for a long time. Everyone baked it by “kinesthetic memory,” as my mom describes it. It was probably when the daughters-in-law of Matilda’s eight sons wanted to learn to make nisu that it became codified. Incidentally, when my Yankee grandma first tried to make it, the yeast didn’t proof, and the loaves came out like bricks. Faari, my grandpa, was the baker of the house for as long as he was alive.
From Matilda’s initial recipe, 12 or more different variations emerged, each branch of the Natti tree adapting it over time to suit that particular family’s tastes. Our version is set apart by three things. First, the loaves are bigger than average, which allows for an incredible textural difference between crust and center. The middle of each piece is as light and flaky as a croissant’s, and the sides are dense enough to make for a satisfying bite. The top is glossy and crunchy. Second, we double the amount of cardamom of the original recipe (which must be freshly ground in a mortar and pestle). And lastly, each loaf is brushed with a pot of coffee brewed to double strength. Ours is the only recipe I’ve seen in which coffee plays such an integral role, though all nisu, and pulla for that matter, is served with a mug of it.
There are varying schools of thought on how nisu should be eaten, but there’s really only one correct way: cut a thick slice, toast until golden, spread thickly with soft butter, and eat the bread alongside hot, black coffee. At Matilda’s home, nisu was toasted on the flat surface of her stovetop.
I never got to meet Matilda, nor eat her nisu. And I’m a diluted Finn, Matilda’s bloodline winnowed down to just a quarter of my genetic makeup. I’ve always wanted a bigger claim on my Finnish heritage, to feel closer to the remarkable woman who raised 12 kids in a four-room house—which still stands, astounding in its smallness, just a few minutes from my parents’ house. I want to understand how she must have felt, 4,000 miles from home, as she set about making a new life for herself and the generations after.
But I can’t know what she felt, so when I braid the soft dough of her nisu recipe, I imagine there’s more of her in me than science allows.
Finnish Cardamom-Coffee Bread (Nisu)
cups lukewarm milk
cups sugar, plus more for sprinkling
pound butter, plus more for greasing
cups white flour
strong black coffee
Do you have any recipes from a great-grandparent? Tell us about it in the comments!