Updated: Apr 14
(by Helene Henderson)
My mother was a blond, blue-eyed traditional Swedish beauty. I was her very opposite genetic offspring: tall, skinny, dark-skinned, dark eyes, unruly hair, awkward where she was comfortable, an outsider where she was a native.
We lived in a small town in the north of Sweden, a factory town near the Finish border with no foreign visitors or tourists. Growing up, I never saw anyone who looked like me.
Everything I know about food was learned by watching and helping my mother and my grandmother. Descendants of Vikings, they picked berries in the forest and made jams and preserves. We caught our own fish and cured salmon into gravlax with salt, fresh dill, and some aquavit. They pickled herring with vinegar, carrots, onions, and spices. My uncles hunted in the fall, filling our freezers with elk and reindeer to last us until spring. They made sauces that were sweet or tart or creamy or rich. Like all good Swedes, we grew potatoes.
When I think of Sweden and my mother, I think of fika, the most important Swedish custom. Fika in my memory is everything. It is the eating of pastries and drinking strong coffee. It is the warmth and security of home, friendship, and family. Fika is a consolation and a celebration. In disappointments and heartbreak, in festivity and joy, there is always fika. Fika is the memory of my mother, my childhood, and Sweden.
Swedish bulla is the most important ingredient in fika, a pastry that smells like heaven, a mix of cardamom and cinnamon. I can close my eyes, and I am right back watching my mother mixing the dough by hand, then patiently waiting for it to rise. Later she would roll it flat with an old wooden rolling pin into a thick spongy sheet, brushing the dough with soft butter and raining mountains of sugar and spices like a blanket of deliciousness, then gently rolling the dough up and twisting it into buns. Magic was created. When she baked, all my problems about being different disappeared. When she baked, the world stopped just a little, and I knew everything was going to be all right. When I smelled bulla, I felt safe.
Upon high school graduation, I bought a one-way ticket to America, and alone I traveled to this new land where I knew nobody. I was an immigrant and foreigner alone in a strange land, but I suddenly I fit right in physically. I was not freakishly tall or skinny. I wasn't the only brown face in the room. Nobody stared and asked where I was from.
Although everything was different and everything had changed, deep inside I was still the same awkward person, looking to disappear in a forest behind the trees to pick berries, and I searched for my place in a kitchen to pickle and preserve. I had no formal culinary training, but I found my way into the American kitchen, first starting a catering operation, then a restaurant. And today, everyday, no matter how much time passes, the smell of cinnamon and cardamom keeps my mother alive in my memory forever.
Bulla (Swedish Sweet Buns)
(Originally published in The Swedish Table by Helene Henderson, University of Minnesota Press)
1 t. sugar
1/4 c. warm water
1 package dry yeast (1/4 oz. or 2 1/4 t.)
3/4 c. milk
3/4 c. salted butter
3 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
3 T. sugar
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 T. ground cinnamon
1 t. cardamom, ground fresh, or 1/2 t. dried
4 T. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg, beaten
pearl sugar or 1/2 c. powdered sugar dissolved with 1 T. water
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine 1 t. sugar, warm water, and yeast.
Let sit for 10 minutes or until the yeast begins to bubble and foam.
In a small saucepan, combine milk and butter.
Heat until warm and butter is melted, bud do not boil.
Let sit for 8 minutes or until temperature falls below 110 degrees.
Pour into the yeast mixture.
Add egg, flour, and 3 T. sugar, and beat with a dough hook until combined.
Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead for 1 minute.
Transfer dough to a lightly oiled (or buttered) bowl, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour.
While the dough is rising, in a small bowl combine sugar, cinnamon, and cardamom.
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Roll dough into a 20 x 15 inch rectangle on a lightly floured surface.
Brush top with soft butter and evenly sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.
Fold dough in half and cut into 1-inch wide strips.
Hold one end of each strip and twist in opposite directions.
Coil the twisted strip around your finger to create a tightly rolled bun.
Place inside paper muffin cups or on a baking sheet covered with Silpat liner or parchment paper.
(Alternatively the bulla can be made jellyroll style and cut into 1/2 inch sections.)
Let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes or more.
Brush rolls with beaten egg and sprinkle with pearl sugar.
(Alternatively you can substitute pearl sugar with powdered sugar dissolved in water, and drizzle the glaze over the rolls.)
Bake for 10 - 12 minutes.