Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Finnish Pulla Bread with Apricots and Pistachios

Have you had the pleasure of watching The Great British Baking Show (a.k.a., Bake-Off)? If you like baked goods and you like seeing a more positive side of humanity, I absolutely recommend it. Unlike U.S. American food competition shows, the contestants and judges are actually genuinely nice to each other, and they genuinely seem to care more about having fun with their creative outlet than with winning.

Well, several months ago I watched all the seasons of Bake-Off that Netflix would allow, and though I was thoroughly wowed by every episode, I found myself most inspired by the enriched breads, as these bakers kept creating succulent doughs studded with fruit and spices and shaped into intricate braids and knots that shimmered with sticky sweet glazes. This past weekend I finally went for it!

Based on the numerous pulla recipes I read during the last 48 hours, pulla is a traditional Finnish bread. It's a yeasty cousin to brioche and challah; flavored with cardamom; generally shaped into a braid, a wreath, or buns; and traditionally served with coffee. Some recipes included fruit or nuts, while others were more basic. So I wound up making a more plain, traditional loaf and a more jazzed up loaf.

Finnish Pulla Bread with Apricots and Pistachios
Yield: 2 loaves/braids*
Source: I referenced many recipes but mostly followed the ingredients from Around the World in 80 Bakes and the process from All Recipes

6 Tbsp. butter, melted, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups milk (at least 2%; I used part 2%, part half-and-half)
4-1/2 tsp. active dry yeast (or 2 packets, 7 g each)
2 tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. sugar (1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp.)
3/4 to 1 tsp. ground cardamom**
700 g all-purpose flour (for me this ended up being about 4-2/3 cups)

Zest of 2 oranges
16 dried apricots, finely diced
40 g pistachios, finely chopped

1 egg

Melt the butter and allow it to cool to room temperature. Warm the milk to 110 degrees.*** Go ahead and measure out your flour into a smallish bowl. You'll add it in increments, so it's easy to measure once and then eyeball it throughout the different steps in the recipe.

To a large bowl add the milk, yeast, salt, sugar, cardamom, and about 1 cup of flour--enough to make a runny batter. Beat the batter until it's really nice and smooth. (For me, this was a couple of minutes on medium speed with my little handheld five-speed mixer.)

Add some more flour (1-2 cups) and continue beating until it's again smooth and elastic. If you're using a hand mixer like mine, aim for more like 1 to 1-1/2 cups flour. I added close to 2 cups, and it made the dough too thick--it just kept climbing up the beaters!--so I had to switch to beating by hand.

Now add the melted butter. Beat the dough some more, until the butter is fully incorporated and the dough looks smooth and glossy. Add the rest of the flour and keep on mixing until it's fully incorporated. If you have a good quality stand mixer, rejoice! If you don't, you'll get a good arm workout!

Now, lightly flour a clean countertop, and turn the dough out onto it. Invert your mixing bowl over the dough, and let the dough (and your arms) rest for 15 minutes. When those 15 minutes are up, knead the dough for a good 10-15 minutes, until it's nice and smooth.****

Remember your mixing bowl? Spritz it with a bit of cooking spray, put your ball of dough inside, turn the dough so all of it gets lightly coated with oil, and cover the bowl with a damp, clean kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm, undrafty place until it's doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Punch down the dough. If jazzing up your bread, add your orange zest, apricots, and pistachios now. Knead them into the dough. Let it rest for another 5-10 minutes (on the counter is fine, covered with that damp kitchen towel you used earlier).

Divide your dough into 6 portions, as equal as you can get them. Roll each portion into a long rope, about an inch in diameter.

Gather up 3 ropes, and pinch them together on one end. Gently braid the 3 ropes together, and when you get to the end, pinch those ends together as well. Tuck both ends (top and bottom) under the braid, so you have a nice, tidy-looking loaf braid. Repeat this process with the other 3 ropes to make your second loaf braid.

Place braids on a greased baking sheet. Spray the tops with oil, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400. Beat an egg really well, until it's super smooth. Remove the plastic wrap from the loaf braids and very gently brush some beaten egg over the loaves. Bake for 25-30 minutes, rotating the pan half-way through the baking time, until the loaves are browned, glistening, and look like they should be in a bakery display case!

*Initially I planned to make just one braid, but one recipe I read made an excellent point: if you're going to go to the trouble of making a homemade yeast bread--including all the kneading and rise time, you might as well make two or more loaves and have plenty to share. Your friends and coworkers will thank you.

**I saw widely varying cardamom measurements and settled on 3/4 tsp. When I nibbled some dough (I'm weird like that) the cardamom flavor was pretty subtle. So I added another 1/8 tsp. or so to the loaf I made with apricots, and kneaded it in along with the apricots, pistachios, and orange zest. That was still a nice amount of cardamom without feeling overwhelming.

***Some recipes I read said to scald the milk by bringing it to a near boil on the stove and then letting it cool to 110 degrees. I simply warmed mine in the microwave until it felt warm but not uncomfortably hot.

****I was expecting mine to reach a super smooth, satiny texture like I get with cinnamon roll dough ... but my pulla dough never got to that stage, even after 15 minutes. It was smooth, but the dough felt denser and heavier than I'm used to. I don't know if it's supposed to be that way, or if it got thrown off by some combination of my technique, the temperature and humidity of my kitchen, the flour measurement in the recipe I followed, or the general mood of the bread gods that day.

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