This time of year always gets me thinking about culture, traditions and naturally, religion. Between my husband and I, our ancestry represents more than a few nationalities and ethnicities. Me: Dutch, Polish, Hungarian and Romanian, all Jewish. Him: African, Cherokee, Mic Mac, Irish and Swedish. And, we practice two religions in our home, Judaism, and Ifa, the traditional religion of the Yoruba people (Nigeria) and we celebrate Xmas with our extended families. All of this to say that there is a lot going on in our home in December, and while we make sense of it, it involves a lot of different traditions and foods.
The first year I went to celebrate Xmas with my Husband's many aunts, where the predominant cultural influence is Swedish, I was overjoyed by the abundance of cookies. Seriously, there were endless tins of cookies, and not your usual American varieties. Their family is spread out around the country, so we don't get to have many cookie filled Christmases with them (sad!). Last year we joined some of his family in Brooklyn and tried to recreate a little Swedish joy, hence the lovely cardamom bread above.
As a Jewish girl, I have never wanted to have a Christmas tree in my home, or celebrate the holiday in my home. However, I did grow up celebrating Christmas at my father's house where my step mother is Christian, and the holiday was an entirely secular event. I felt fortunate as an American kid to be able to celebrate the holiday, it was magical and amazing, but I never did feel that it was my own. Now as a parent, I struggle to communicate this to my own children. They are grounded and find joy in Judaism and the Yoruba tradition, but when Xmas rolls around it is hard to understand why we don't celebrate it in our home, but do go to visit some of their grandparents to celebrate with them. I enjoy helping to make the holiday special with our extended family, and of course helping with the cooking is my easiest entry point. As for the baking, it doesn't hurt that I happen to LOVE cardamom as well, and it is a staple in Swedish sweets.
Cardamom bread is a wonderful Swedish breakfast treat, and while this bread looks complicated, it is really very easy to make. Once again, I modified my basic Challah recipe to make another baked good, so maybe this is really a little bit of a Jewish bread too (Ha!).
Swedish Cardamom Bread
1 1/3 cups warm water (or milk for a richer bread)
2 tablespoons yeast
1 cup sugar, honey or agave
3/4 cup oil or melted butter
1 tablespoon salt
5-6 cups flour (part whole wheat or whole spelt is fine)
2 teaspoons cardamom ground, (black seeds ground, or whole green pods ground and sifted to equal 2 teaspoons)
sugar, jam, or almond paste for filling
1 egg beaten for brushing the bread
2 tablespoons sugar for topping the bread
- Pour warm water or milk into a large bowl. Add sugar or other sweetener and yeast, mix and let sit for 1 minute or until the yeast foams up.
- Stir in 2 cups of flour, the eggs, oil/butter and cardamom. Mix to combine. If using a stand mixer, knead this mixture with the dough hook attachment, adding the rest of the flour a cup at a time, and the salt towards the end of the flour. If mixing by hand, use a spoon to mix as long as you are able, and then turn the dough onto a floured work surface and knead until the dough is smooth and no longer sticky. Your finished dough should be very smooth, and only slightly tacky, but not sticky. Set the dough in an oiled bowl and cover the bowl with a cloth and put it in a warm place to rise, until doubled in size, about 1.5 hours.
- Gently turn the dough out onto a floured work surface. Poke the dough down with your finger tips and then give it a few kneads. Let the dough rest for 2 minutes. Roll the dough into a large rectangle using a rolling pin till it is 1-inch thick and about the size of a cookie sheet, 11"x15".
- Place the dough onto a lined sheet pan with the short end facing you. Spread sugar laced with orange zest or vanilla down the center 1/3 of the dough. You can also use almond paste or jam. Cut 1-inch diagonal slits down both sides of the filling as shown. Starting at the end of the dough that is furthest from you fold one piece from each side in to the center, alternating left and right. Press each strip firmly together in the center to secure it. Cover the bread with a towel and let rise again until doubled in size. Preheat oven to 350. Brush the finished bread with a beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar. Bake until golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped, about 40-50 minutes.
Enjoy, and have a wonderful holiday season whatever traditions you may or may not be celebrating. Life is not always so simple, but bread is, and it just happens to taste good too.
Please share any thoughts below!