Norwegian Cardamom Buns (Boller)

Cardamom BunsIt smelled like the neighborhood Scandinavian bakery in my home the other day, with the aromas of freshly baked cardamom buns and hot coffee brewed as strong and dark as the Nordic night.

Boller—buttery, cardamom-scented buns —are just right with a smear of butter and a creamy slice of geitost (Norwegian brown goat cheese). Making them is as easy as can be, and yet the recipe used to intimidate me. You see, boller were among Grandma Adeline’s staples, one of those recipes I’ve wished that I would have learned how to make from her.

Over the years, Grandma taught me to make so many of her Norwegian recipes—lefse, krumkake, sandbakkelse, Norwegian heart-shaped waffles, and the list goes on. Before she taught me how to make those tender cardamom buns, however, she had the strokes. She couldn’t bake anymore. Just communicating was difficult.

I’d try every now and then to bake cardamom buns, usually under the guise of making Fastelavnsboller (which many people know by the Swedish name, semlor). It was easier, it seemed, to develop a recipe for those cream-filled treats that are eaten ravenously during the weeks before Lent, than it was to try to replicate something that was as tied to my childhood as my grandmother’s cardamom buns. But it occurred to me at some point that I didn’t need to obsess anymore about getting the boller just right—the ones I’d fill with cream were already as delicious as could be.

Cardamom Buns

Cardamom Buns

However, for those of us whose taste is as connected to our memories as is our sense of smell, perhaps it makes sense that I had worried so about replicating hers so closely. Recipes like boller—which are fragrant and flavorful with butter, cardamom, and yeast—seem particularly capable of connecting us to the past.

Scandinavians are some of the world’s biggest consumers of cardamom, that exotic spice that made its way to the Nordic countries from the Middle East centuries ago. Cardamom makes its way into countless treats, from boller and fika-worthy cookies to steaming pots of gløgg. Although the spice is not native to the Nordic countries, it is so woven into Scandinavian baking that the smell is enough to make many people nostalgic.

Cardamom Buns

I used to keep an empty spice jar in my office. It once contained cardamom. Each time I unscrewed the cap, the scent would conjure up memories of my grandparents, long since departed.

The lingering aroma faded and I discarded the jar recently. After all, nothing earthly can take the place of those dear people who taught me what it was like to be loved. In its stead, I’ve come to realize, the memories are stronger than anything physical could provide. Each time I bake or cook something Norwegian I’m trying to keep a bit of that heritage—with all its inherent hospitality and love—alive for those with whom I share it.

These cardamom buns are part of that.

Cardamom Buns with Geitost

Boller (Norwegian Cardamom Buns)
Based on my recipe for Fastelavnsboller, previously shared in The Norwegian American. At some point over the years of developing a boller recipe, I referenced a recipe of beloved Norwegian chef and cookbook author Ingrid Espelid Hovig. While this is no longer her recipe, I’m confident that the results are authentically Norwegian. And these boller are as delicious as can be.

1 stick (8 tbsps.) butter
1 ¼ cup milk
2 tsps. freshly ground cardamom
2 tbsps. active dry yeast
¾ cup sugar
1 egg
½ tsp. salt
4 ½- 5 cups flour
1 beaten egg, for brushing

In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add the milk and cardamom and heat until hot (don’t bring it to a boil), then set aside and cool until it’s lukewarm.

In a large mixing bowl, stir a half cup or so of the lukewarm milk into the yeast and a tablespoon of the sugar using a wooden spoon. Let sit until the yeast bubbles, about 5 minutes. Pour in the remaining milk, along with the rest of the sugar and the egg and salt.

Stir in the flour gradually, beginning with about half of the flour and then adding a half cup or so at a time until you have a dough that’s firm and releases from the sides of the bowl. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. Gather the dough and form it into a large ball.

Lightly grease a large bowl (you can minimize the dishes by wiping out and using the same mixing bowl you used to stir the dough). Plop in the dough, turning it around until it’s coated with the oil. Cover with a damp cloth and set to rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit and line two baking sheets with parchment.

Punch down the dough and shape into 12 balls. Place them on the baking sheets, making sure the smoothest side is up. Cover with a damp towel and let rise again, this time about 20 minutes. Brush with the beaten egg.

Bake in the center of the oven, one sheet at a time, for about 10 minutes until golden on top. Watch carefully, as the buns quickly darken. Rotate the baking sheet if needed for even baking. If the buns are browning too quickly and the insides need additional baking time, then cover the tops with a sheet of aluminum foil. Cool on a wire rack.

Makes 12.

Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)

Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)

This morning I woke up to the sight of freshly-fallen snow. I snapped a quick photo through the window in the blue-tinted light just to capture the moment for myself. As I excitedly looked from one window to the next, I took in the images of the smooth white surfaces covering my neighbors’ roofs as perfectly as the icing on a gingerbread house and of the snow on the driveway untouched except for a row of dainty little paw prints.

As is usual in Seattle, the snow didn’t last and by mid-afternoon, when the setting sun had turned the gauzy sky a light dusty rose, the snow was gone. But it was enough to call for a snow day. Appointments canceled, my son and I cuddled fireside to read books while warming up from a brief time outside. As he continued to play I savored the still, quiet morning hours–such a rarity–and settled in, knowing we had absolutely nowhere to go.

Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)

That reminds me of a recent cozy day when I baked this julekake, cardamom-scented Norwegian Christmas bread studded with raisins and candied citron. There’s something about the process of baking bread that creates a steady, still rhythm to the day. Mixing the dough in the morning, I let it undergo multiple rises throughout the day, monitoring the temperature as I went along.

The scent of woody cardamom and yeasty bread is one of the quintessential marks of Christmas time in my memories. Mom would butter slices of julekake and top them with slices of geitost for snacks during this time of year and I loved the sweet-savory elements of both the bread and the brown goat cheese.

Our julekake tended to be dotted with an assortment of candied fruits in black, green, yellow, and red. This year however I decided to bake a batch of my own and follow a Norwegian tradition of including only raisins and citron, candying the latter myself.

Candied Citron

Citron

The bread, though shaped differently than the julekake of my youth, was just as I remembered it: warming, aromatic, festive, and just right for eating with thinly sliced geitost. 

The sky has darkened and night is almost here. The tree is lit and a fire flickering in the fireplace. The snow may be gone–just like the julekake–but that little bit of snow this morning was the perfect way to usher in the last weekend before Christmas, full of holiday parties and just the tiniest bit of last-minute shopping. However you are spending the days leading up to Christmas, I wish you the coziest, merriest, and blessed time possible. God Jul!

Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)

Julekake (Norwegian Christmas Bread)
Adapted from Ekte Norsk Jul Vol. 2 and Ekte Norsk Mat, both by Astrid Karlsen Scott. Be sure to use freshly-ground cardamom. Next time I’ll increase the amount of candied citron.

3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup salted butter, cut into dice
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
5 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (75-80 degrees F)
3 eggs, divided
5 cups flour, sifted, divided
1-2 teaspoons freshly-ground cardamom
1 1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup candied citron (see David Lebovitz’s recipe, or use store-bought)

Warm milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. When bubbles begin to form around the edge, remove from heat and stir in sugar, butter, and salt, stirring to melt the butter. Set aside to cool to lukewarm.

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the water and stir until dissolved. Add the lukewarm milk, then stir in two beaten eggs. Add 2 cups of the flour and the cardamom and beat with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth. Stir in raisins and citron. At this point you’ll want to stir in just enough of the remaining flour to form a soft dough–I used about 2 1/2 cups. Let rest, covered with a towel, about ten minutes.

For the first rise: Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes, then transfer to a large, lightly-greased bowl. Turn it so that the oil coats the entire ball of dough. Cover with a towel and set in a warm place, about 85 degrees F, to rise until it’s doubled in bulk. (In the conditions in my home, this took about 90 minutes.)

For the second rise: Punch down the dough and divide in half, forming the dough into two balls. Cover them for ten minutes, and prepare baking sheets by lightly greasing them. Place a round loaf onto the baking sheets and let rise again in a warm spot, covered with towels, until they’ve doubled in bulk, another 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Toward the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. When ready to bake, beat the remaining egg in a small bowl then gently brush it over each loaf, taking care not to press down on the dough too much. Bake for 20 minutes, then cover with foil and bake until done; the original recipes suggest the second period should take about 25 minutes, until the bread is deep golden brown. Mine–which I baked in 2 ovens–took about 17 or 18 minutes for the second part. Immediately transfer to wire racks and cool.

Makes 2 round loaves.