You may not have the time or talent to write a bestselling book or challenge a landmark event, but think about how you might be remembered long after you leave for that special something you’ve always done on Christmas. It doesn’t have to be something out of the ordinary – just something delicious, lovingly prepared and delivered to a special short list of adoring fans every Christmas. It helps if it’s a good recipe and if there is little family history or ethnicity behind it.
From Karl’s side of the family, Aunt Dorothy surprised us with a beautiful wicker loaf of Swedish cardamom bread for Christmas. We just celebrated Dorothy’s birthday in Chicago — she turns 100 in December, and I’m still scouring the spice shelves in specialty markets for fresh cardamom pods for her bread.
Dorothy came to California from Iowa as Rosie the Riveter to work on planes in Southern California. She met and married handsome Ole Grell, and after the war they moved to Richvale to grow rice. She cooked well and was a frequent contributor to the Richvale cookbook, Rice Farmer’s Kitchen. You may remember her son Tom Grell, who founded the Redwood Forest Restaurant on Third Street in downtown Chico.
We’ve traditionally served Dorothy’s cardamom bread on Christmas morning, but there’s no reason to keep this recipe for Christmas. It’s easy to make and smells like wonderful baked goods. Cardamom stands out and it’s important to grind the cardamom seeds just before adding them to the batter. Don’t use ground cardamom powder for this recipe – it’s not the same thing.
I cut the pods with a chef’s knife, scrape off the seeds in a mortar, and then grind them with a pestle until they are almost uniform, but with some larger chunks – kind of like coarsely ground black pepper.
Brewed milk and butter make a delicate bread, and if you plan ahead and order some Swedish pearl sugar, you have a beautiful braided cardamom bread that you will proudly present to a friend for Christmas.
Swedish bread with cardamom
The recipe for two loaves.
- 3/4 cup milk
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon cardamom
- 2 1/4 teaspoons yeast
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 2 tablespoons Swedish pearl sugar
- 1 egg white
How to prepare: Combine sugar, salt and butter in a medium bowl. Scald the milk and pour over the mixture. Stir occasionally until the butter has melted and the mixture has cooled slightly.
Grind the cardamom in a mortar and pestle until it looks like coarse black pepper. Add to the brewed milk mixture.
Sprinkle the yeast with warm water in a separate bowl, stir to dissolve.
In a large bowl, combine the milk mixture, eggs, yeast mixture, and 1 cup flour. Beat well until smooth. Add the remaining flour until the dough is soft but not sticky. Knead for 5 minutes (or less if using a mixer).
Remove the dough into a greased bowl. Cover and let rise until doubled (about 1 hour).
Hit and rest for 10 minutes.
Divide the dough into 6 equal parts.
Use your hands to twist the balls of dough into ropes about 12 inches long. (The key to a beautiful braid is to start with the same amount of dough in each rope and make ropes the same length and width.)
Take 3 ropes and line them parallel to each other. Join the ends of the ropes together. Weave the dough from top to bottom. When you get to the bottom, squeeze the base and tuck under the bread. (If you don’t like the look of the top of the braid, you can go back and repeat the top at this point.) Repeat with the last three dough balls.
Place the braids on a baking sheet, leaving room to lift them up. Cover the braids and let sit for 45 minutes. Brush with egg white mixed with one tablespoon of water. This will create a nice shiny crust. Sprinkle with pearl sugar.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake the loaves for 40-50 minutes. Cover with foil for the last 15 minutes to avoid browning.
Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack.
Dorothy also made delicious caramels wrapped in wax paper, but she was best known for her Graham Cracker Cookies, the insanely delicious little cookies she delivered to Zucchini and Vine’s backroom every December. Everyone in the wrapping room raised their eyebrows, saying how rich they were, that they “really shouldn’t,” and the next day they were gone.
Graham Cracker Cookies by Dorothy Bultem
- ½ cup butter
- ½ cup margarine
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 pack of chopped almonds
- 24 Graham crackers
How to prepare: Place 48 quarters of Graham’s cracker in a non-greased gum pan. Combine butter, margarine and sugar; boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and almonds. Pour the mixture over the crackers. Bake for 10 minutes at 325 °. Cool for 5 minutes and remove from the pan onto the wire rack.
Dorothy Bultem’s Light Caramels
- 1 cup butter
- 1 x 16-ounce bag of brown sugar
- A pinch of salt
- 1 cup light corn syrup
- 1 can of 15 oz condensed milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
Method of preparation: melt butter and add the rest of the ingredients except vanilla. Cook and stir over medium heat until ball, 242 degrees, about 30-40 minutes.
Check for correct consistency in cold water.
Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.
Pour into a greased 9 x 9 skillet. Cool at room temperature.
Cut into squares and wrap in wax paper.
I prefer to pour the lollipops onto the marble slab after cooling and cut with a metal spatula. It does not stick like when cutting with a sharp knife in a frying pan.
My grandchildren and their children will probably never meet Dorothy, but the smell of oven baked cardamom bread will remind them of her story long after she leaves. So grab a recipe or upgrade one of your favorites, whether it’s lemon marmalade, streusel coffee cake, panettone, gourmet brittle peanuts, toasted almonds with rosemary and sea salt, fingerprint cookies with raspberry jam, bourbon fudge or gingerbread. … – something delightful for the special people in your life and your Christmas legend will begin.