Snowy Days Mean Our Pulla Ritual Resumes

Spice and snowfall combine in a delicious Minnesota family tradition
Pulla is a rich, eggy cardamom bread that the Finns call nisu
Pulla is a rich, eggy cardamom bread that the Finns call nisu

Photo by Trish Zimmerman

In my little pack, we wait for the first snowfall with wild anticipation. Like our Muslim friends seeking the new moon sighting to end the fast, we scan the skies for a glimmer, ours a snowflake that will bring the pulla to our table. Summer is not the season for this rich, eggy cardamom bread. The damp, cooler fall days may prime us for sightings, but they are not for this braid that the Finns call nisu.

It’s that transition time when the leaves have all fallen, their rot thick in the hollows, and the trees’ black branches reach to impossibly brilliant blue skies. Then the first moisture hits the first low temps and we smell snow coming from the northwest. Might mean earth tilting solstice our way. We pull on the wool, dig the boots out from the closet—they’re always a bit rank from last year’s damp storage. We survey the skies even though sometimes the first flakes blow sideways, the slightest bit sharp on the cheek.

Confirmation hurries us to our inner sanctum to warm the whole milk, break open the eggs from the neighbor’s roaming chickens, and split cardamom pods to grind in mortar and pestle. We bind all with a hard red Minnesota wheat and Hope butter from the creamery down the road. What made a raucous curry on a southern coast becomes a simple loaf with whiffs of the caravan in Northfield, Minnesota. After a few rises of the velvet dough, we rope it, braid the strands, think of all the journeys our spice has made around the globe. We wonder for a moment if this particular shipment ever met these snows as droplets mid-ocean. Have they encountered each other before they met in our kitchen this frosty morning? Traveled with our neighbors on their own passage?

After one more rise, a slathered egg wash, and pearl sugar, we transfer them to the oven’s warm cave. The whole house fragrant now with a rising yeasty feast, we remember past winters—that one that took forever to come, the September surprise year, the last year with Grandma, when B from Nepal helped us shape the dough and told us about his family’s foods, dearly missed as he studied so far away. The loaves will need to sit a bit, to settle into their structure before we slice and share them. Some years we can’t wait and just pull them and pass like shabbes night without the obvious prayers. Initiates once again into the season of cold and dark, we bow our heads together, pulla companions.

Born in the backseat of an Oldsmobile on a Minnesota roadway, Trish Zimmerman remains impatient and ever eager to be out in her home's prairies, forests, rivers, and spiritual wonders. She teaches at St. Olaf College. She believes landscape and language move everyone in similar ways and writes about it in a book emerging from various scraps of notebooks around her, “A Mysticism of Place: Minnesota Biomes as Holy Encounter.”