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.

Three Cat Night

January 8, 2015 — Who said cats are worthless?

We have three loyal cats in our household. Each has his own story. Each has special talents.

Please allow me to introduce them.


First there’s Mittens. He’s a Siamese, silver gray with leaden highlights. Absolutely the alpha male without doubt. In that role, he’s greedy, pig-headed and obnoxious. Even so, he can be needy and insecure in full appreciation of a warm lap and a tummy rub.

Mittens is our cat of contrasts. At the same time, he’s the best athlete of the bunch, but incredibly lazy. His narcissistic poses are legendary yet he loves to be touched. His throaty purr plays the tone of a worn out muffler. (Hearing protection recommended.)



Sophie is Ms. Priss. When Mitten’s mom kicked him out of her litter, Sophie’s mom took him in and they’ve composed a kitty pile ever since. At six lbs. Sophie isn’t exactly a giant among cats. As such, she’s more of a cheerleader on the sidelines as the boys roughhouse as boys tend to do.

Best of all, Sophie is my cat. She adopted my lap as her safe haven and home base. Together we watch the TV news and sports every evening in, what is for me, a soothing nightly ritual.

Want to know a secret? I’ll let the cat out of the bag: Sophie’s a Red Sox fan to the point where she’s become a popular meme on my Facebook page.


How about the clown prince of the household! This guy comes dressed for the part and believe you me, has enough talent to play Carson on Downton Abby.

Mustache was rescued as a flea infested kitten on the Gettysburg College campus by my soft-hearted daughter, and what a find he was.

This loving little guy is always searching for limelight; willing to perform at the drop of a bat for mere crumbs.


Nice publicity stills, huh!

What’s the point of this story?

Last night the thermometer plunged to 9*F. That’s cold anywhere, but here in the mid-Atlantic region that number psychologically equates to the Yukon or Klondike. Sgt. Preston would be impressed we think.

Now, the cats don’t normally sleep in our bed. I am allergic to cats and dogs, not to mention that they each have their favorite spots – all of them defined by an electric heating pad by the way. Yet last night, when the time came, there they were – all three of them hovering on or near the bed waiting for the humans to settle in.

Now it’s said that dogs sleep in your bed because they like you. Cats sleep there because they like your bed. Regardless of what the truth is, the kitty crew sensed that they were in for an especially cold night.

How cold was it? A three cat night! (Ba da boom)



December 26, 2014 — Tradition and ritual are cornerstones of human culture.  They enrich our lives beyond measure.

My wife is 100 percent Finnish.  Within her family’s rich Christmas tradition was a braided yellow egg bread called nisu.  For years as we traveled around the world for various military assignments, her mother would send us nisu in time for the holidays. In time it became part of our family tradition.

Unfortunately, nisu dries out quickly and it often arrived in too poor a condition to fully enjoy.  The solution, since I like to bake, was to learn how to make it myself.


I asked for and received hand written baking instructions from my wife’s mother.

Try as I might, I could never get my nisu to turn out the same way twice.  Of course, I soul searched. What was I doing wrong?  Before long I realized that I was making a different mistake every year.  Whether is was inconsistent dough or runny frosting, it was always something.

Now you have to understand that the preparation process for nisu, from the first cracked egg to the perfect comfort food, takes more than six hours.  Baking nisu is not for the impatient.  Since being impatient is one of my great virtues, the recipe for disaster wasn’t scribbled on paper.  I was me.

One year my wife and I discussed how I might be more consistent.  (We’re  talking Six Sigma project here; and yes I am Six Sigma certified.)  So, as a reward for my annual failures I got the best Christmas present I’ve ever received and still have.  What guy gets a KitchenAid mixer for Christmas and is over the moon?  Yours truly, that’s who.

IMG_1767_2The mixer’s a beast.  With its industrial strength motor and metal armor, the thing must weigh 25 lbs.  I’d even bet you could bolt it on the front of your Jeep and use it for a winch!  I love it!  The best part about it is this:  Unlike my arms, it doesn’t get tired. As an added bonus, it also has the patience of Job.


With the dough hook firmly attached, my KitchenAid kneads bread dough all day – and night if needed.  The dough now comes out the same each and every time.  Yea!!!  Now to fix operator head space and all my baking problems would disappear.

 IMG_1772_2 IMG_1773

Nisu has to rise no less than thrice for 90 minutes each time.  Add 45 minutes for mixing the ingredients, plus the time to roll it out and braid the two loaves, and it adds up to a honking long time.

I used to get up at 2 a.m. to have nisu ready in time to open the presents Christmas morning.  Now that there are no children at home, I make nisu Christmas Eve starting just after lunch in order to have it ready by seven in the evening when we score the loot … I mean open our presents.


Baking time is 35 minutes in a 350*F oven.  Cinnamon and sugar are sprinkled on the raw dough. The frosting, walnuts, almonds and cherries are applied right after baking so that the bread can be eaten warm.  It’s excellent on the second day too.  After day two, not so much.


I hope your rituals and traditions are as rewarding as preparing and munching down on fresh nisu.  Hauskaa Joulua!