It's been a crazy few days around our house with a very sick baby. So, needless to say, I haven't exactly been the best cook on the block. In fact we had take out two nights in a row (otherwise known as "Seth's cooking" around here), which is something we haven't done since our parent-free days.
So while I'm not making much comfort food, I wanted to write about it. Usually when I think of comfort foods, I think of cheesy casseroles and hearty soups, but really, for me at least, it's any food that evokes some kind of emotion. It's a food that makes you smile at the mere thought or perhaps even conjures up a memory you'd never forgotten but seldom spend much time thinking of.
That's where Erik's bread comes in. Erik is a guy's guy. His nickname is Hoops. He's from a small town on the Oregon Coast, loves to chat about sports and would likely be hard-pressed to find someone he couldn't get along with. What I didn't know was that he could bake. Now I don't think he's spending all of his free moments standing at the mixer with flour-dusted jeans, but there's one recipe he really gets into. And lucky for friends like me, he likes to share.
At the holidays, or most recently, on my birthday, Erik pops by to drop off a loaf of Pulla, a braided Finnish bread similar to challah. It's a gorgeous bread that is dense, slightly sweet and tastes of a hint of cardamom. It's shiny crust is thin, golden and soft, and I've yet to find a way I don't like it. I'll eat a slice plain, toasted with butter, make French toast with it or use day-old cubes for a bread pudding.
Erik says he had the bread as a kid and made a point of having his grandmother show him how to make it. It was a recipe she brought with her from Finland. Erik still uses the 3-by-5 note card she scrawled the recipe on for him. I'm happy for family recipes, and especially happy for friends who share them.
Here is the recipe, straight from Erik, which he says is a combination of his grandmother's instructions and his own notes. And I'm guessing that since this great recipes makes four loaves, you won't mind sharing at least one of them with a friend of your own.
* I chunk 1 stick of butter into a really large mixing pot. (My Grandma wrote Fleischmann's margarine, but we actually use whatever butter we have on hand.)
* 2 cups of milk, warmed on the stove until lukewarm. I usually look for bubbles to form around the edges before pouring it in. (The idea is to use the warm milk to help melt the butter. I've yet to remember to pull a stick of butter out of the fridge a few hours early to allow it to warm, but maybe I'll remember to do that next weekend.)
* 1 packet of yeast softened in half a cup of warm water. We use a fast-rise yeast that Erin keeps in the fridge. What I do is put a packet's worth (2 1/4 teaspoons, I think) in a little ceramic cup, then moisten it with lukewarm water from the tap. (I've gotten a little neurotic about not killing the yeast, so I first warm the cup with warm water from the tap.)
* 1 cup of sugar.
* Half a teaspoon of cardamon seed powdered. You can, of course, buy powdered cardamon seed, but I follow my Grandma's method of putting the granuals into a cloth, then pounding into powder myself with a hammer. Again, I see how this can seem a little weird but I figure I better follow Grandma's methods.)
* Half a teaspoon of salt.
* Four or more egg yolks and 1 white. (I crack the first three eggs and drizzle the whites into a glass that I use later as egg wash before baking.) Obviously, you whip the eggs then pour into the mixing pot with all the rest.
By this time, the milk is usually warm enough to pour in. I swish it all together, dissolving everything into a liquid before adding 8 cups of flour. Incidentally, I usually measure out the flour and put it into a separate bowl, which I then put in the oven to warm slightly. (Still panicky about killing the yeast.)
Next step is to start mixing in the flour with a mixer. When it becomes too thick for that, I start adding flour and kneading by hand. Ultimately, I like the ball of dough to have enough flour that it won't stick to the pot.
The next step is to let it rise for 1 hour in warm conditions. (After various experiments, I've turned up our furnace to 70 and set it on a chair in front of a vent next to the dining room table. My mom thought this was whack and said normal people put it atop the fridge, which is generally warm. All I know is, this has worked for me in this particular house, so I don't mess with success. In the past, I've had trouble getting the dough to rise. My Grandma theorized that my old apartment wasn't warm enough. Of course, she usually kept her place sweltering at roughly the temperature a Finnish sauna ... but I digress.)
Punch it down after an hour and let it rise another hour.
Braid it in loaves and let those rise for about 45 minutes. (I warm the oven slightly and let them rise in there).
When you're ready to bake, pull the egg wash out of the fridge and paint it atop the loaves. Sprinkle with a fancy granular sugar and put it in the oven.
Bake for 350 for 10 minutes, then turn it down to 325 and bake for 20 to 25 more minutes. (I usually swap the pans at this point, so the ones on top aren't too well-done.)