Nisu 


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.

Traditions

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

A Christmas Greeting

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Christmas Card Letter 2014 — It is a week before Christmas and all through the house the cats are a purring, maybe there’s a mouse.  The stocking aren’t hung yet.  The tree just arrived. But given the circumstances, were glad to be alive.

This time last year I was trudging northward from Springer Mountain Georgia on the Appalachian Trail (AT and was just entering southern Virginia.  My persona on the trail was an elfin, sometimes bearded hiker named Sisu.  Sisu is an untranslatable Finnish word that some simplify to “guts,” but which I believe is more aptly described as a form of much needed “irrational persistence.”

In a phrase, “The weather outside was (mostly) frightful,” but I didn’t much care.  I was 500 miles into one of one of life’s most epic adventures with the most delicious parts yet to come.  By Christmas some incredibly interesting people had crossed my path and I couldn’t wait to meet many more as I envisioned my saga unfolding.

Along the way I even got to camp out with several old friends who lived near the trail.  I think the best of it was at my cousin Deb’s house where I stayed several days and refused to leave until her wine cellar was dry. 🙂

The year sadly, to borrow again, was the best and the worst — all at the same time.  After celebrating Christmas at home with my family, I returned to the trail only to be called to my mother’s bedside six days later.  She was a fraction short of 85. After she passed into history I struggled with her loss and did not return to my hike until the first week in March.  The weather had not improved with time.

Real life continued during my trek and I ducked off the trail in Pennsylvania salute an aging mentor before it was too late, and later to attend a very special wedding in Atlanta.

The triumphant moment struck around mid-day Aug. 6th. I tagged a weathered placard demarking the AT’s northern terminus atop Mt. Katahdin in central Maine, some 2,185 miles and 14 states north of the starting point in Georgia.   Done.  In the books. Thank heavens.  Now what?

Long distance hiking is a soul validating experience.  The aftermath is another thing all together.

After returning home, endorphin withdrawal wrestled me to deep recesses probably most familiar to opioid addicts. There I languished mostly in a fog without much focus or motivation for close to three months.  Slowly I returned to my routine:  blogging, running and weight lifting, volunteer activities maintaining hiking trails in Shenandoah National Park, plus I added one day per week at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s visitor center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Somehow during my malaise, a book outline about the special considerations needed for hiking the AT after 50 got written.  I  hope to hammer it out over the winter and have it on Amazon in e-book format in time for the release of Robert Redford’s new movie based on Bill Bryson’s book, “A Walk in the Woods.”  The movie, along with one currently playing entitled “Wild,” starring Reece Witherspoon, is expected to draw flood of new hikers to the trail, that some say will be the likes of which mankind has not seen since Noah.

Other than that, being retired is like, well … being retired.  Not that there isn’t enough work to do, but my capacity exceeds the available supply for now.

The family is doing great.  Linda took up a part time job while I was away.  She loves it.  Liisa has a good job and is fully fledged.  She lives five minutes away, so we do get to see her often.  After our new windows are installed, we’ll add new colors to several rooms and liven up the house a bit.

We miss all of you — our extended family and many friends who are scattered all over “hell’s half acre.”  If only we could see each and every one of you this year.

Here’s wishing you most sincerely, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year.

Sisu

Good Luck Charm at Christmas

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December 15, 2014 — Even considering the number of times we moved during a military career, we’ve owned a lot of houses.  This is our thirteenth.  No, we didn’t close on a Friday.  Still, the superstitious might worry some about the inauspicious numeration in this the latest and, with any luck at all, our final address.

Having owned so many houses, we have learned that owners almost always tend to leave something behind whether by accident or as a hand-me-down to their successors.  In Boston we found the elderly former owner’s silver where she had safely stashed it, unused in years.  She was delighted when we returned it to her.  In our last house, I unearthed a very snazzy necktie still neatly parked in its original packaging.  I still wear it – that is on those extremely rare occasions where I have to wear a tie.

Something very special conveyed with this house.  Its story is almost magical.

More than 60 years ago a young woman loved to garden and she planted holly and other evergreens all around the yard so that they would grow and provide shade and privacy year round.  She was said to adore the Christmas season and holly was a year-round reminder.  The reputation of her flower beds persists.

When we moved in as the fourth owners, she sent word from her nursing home asking us to take special care of her beloved astilbe.  Consider it done we replied. It’s my wife’s favorite plant.

Verdant landscaping aside, what had survived inside to reach its fourth owner was nothing short of miraculous.

In the sun room we found a rather scrawny ficus tree complete with instructions for its care written in the original owner’s hand!  At first we thought, “What are we going to do with this?”  But, out of respect, or perhaps superstition, we decided to keep it for awhile. I pruned it, moved it to a slightly sunnier corner and poof it filled in.  There it’s charmed life continues.

This year we decided to make it part of our family.  As i decorated it with blue Christmas tree lights, I imagined the 63 Christmases it has witnessed.  How many sugar plumb faeries have danced through its lively branches? How many children and grand children have used it as base playing house tag?  Have any ornaments ever hung from its branches?  Think of the stories it could tell.  (Maybe I will…)

IMG_1757The good news?  With water, fertilizer and a little luck, this guy is going to see many more Christmases with us, and its fifth owner sometime in the future.  Merry Christmas ficus tree.