Kensington, MD, Christmas Eve, 2015 — My favorite family Christmas tradition is baking Bertha Kymalainen’s Finnish bread called nisu.

Bertha was my wife’s mother and our daughter Liisa’s grandmother. We miss her, especially at this time of year.

When we were first married, a nisu would arrive via mail right in time for Christmas.

Bertha would wrap it as air tight as she could because this delightful wonder dries out in a flash. No matter, we loved it. If it was a bit arid, we’d slather it with butter or dunk it in coffee to moisten it up.

Eventually I asked her for the recipe. I have it to this day, penned in her own hand on yellowing pocket notebook paper.

This year I can’t bake nisu because I’m recovering from hand surgery. Time for daughter Liisa to step in to save our tradition.

You see, by her own description, Liisa doesn’t like to cook, but step up she did.

Nisu is a braided egg bread. It must rise three times, the final time in the baking pan. In all, it takes six full hours to prepare, e.g., start at noon. Eat at six.

I used to wake at 0300 in order to have the nisu ready in time to open presents Christmas morning.

A couple of years ago I wised up and switched this family treat to Christmas Eve when we started opening presents after Santa move on to houses with younger kids.

Today Liisa took over with old pop hanging around as bench coach.


Isn’t technology wonderful!

 Now to rise one last time.

 Brush with coffee. Sprinkle cinnamon and sugar. Bake.

Drench with powdered sugar frosting. Sprinkle with nuts. Decorate with cherries. Eat warm!

Hauskaa Joulua everyone.

9 thoughts on “Nisu 

  1. Wow that’s quite the process! I’m glad you had a backup baker in the house.

    One favorite of mine is gingerbread. It’s not literally a tradition but something we had often when I was a kid. Though I bake cakes from scratch these days, I opted for the familiar mix to make it up this evening. It was still too warm to cut into tonight, but we’ll enjoy it tomorrow, and for a couple more days.

    Merry Christmas and happy new year! We’re finally getting meager progress in our plans and hope to see you soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In modern Finnish language this type of bread is usually called Pulla and the dough can be shaped in many ways with different toppings and fillings. It’s ubiquitous and kind of a symbol of motherly love, people call a traditional caring mother or home “pulla-scented”. The scent is basically a generous amount of cardamom, which makes this bread authentically Finnish. Other north europeans make the same thing, but they don’t use cardamom. They also don’t force people to eat it every time they visit like the Finns do. In Finland there is a saying “Forced Pulla” which basically means doing something what is supposed to be great, but it’s actually not. Like pointless ups and downs without views on a hike.

    I noticed your recipe has three eggs, which is too much. Too many eggs or actually the egg whites make the bread dry. For a dough with 2 cups of milk 1-2 eggs is enough. Dissolving the dry yeast in warm water is an unnecessary step. You can just use two cups of milk and mix the dry yeast in little bit of the flour and stir it in. Rising the dough three times is also unheard of and not necessary. The secret to good Nisu Pulla is to use as little flour as possible so the bread turns out nice and soft. Brushing the bread with beaten egg before baking gives it nice shine and color.

    You can speed up the dough rising by heating your oven to about 80-90 degrees, turn it off and place your dough in the oven to rise till doubled, about an hour or less. When rising the shaped breads on the pan, place them on the top of your oven as you heat it to baking temp. Shouldn’t take longer than 20-30 min unless somebody leaves the door open for too long at which point you should yell. It’s Finnish tradition.

    You can also make the dough the night before and let it rise slowly overnight in the refrigerator. Again utilize your oven to rise the shaped bread.

    Hopefully this speeds up your baking. You don’t need to wait till christmas, the next traditional Finnish “Pulla-time” is in February. The same time when the catholic europeans have carnivals before lent, the serious lutheran Finns go “wild” and do some snow sledding and after that they eat pulla buns with whipped cream and jelly.


    • I need to try your variations. Bertha Kymalainen probably learned to bake her bread from her mother. I know there was no cookbook. I married into Finnish culture. I love it except for the stoic, dark part of it.


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