In Breaking Bread, Lynne Christy Anderson visits the kitchens of people who have come to the U.S. from other countries, and explores how special dishes, shared meals, and culinary traditions connect people through generations and across the world. Here, she shares a recipe for a cardamom coffee cake, and the story of how it became a tradition in her family.
My grandmother kept her favorite recipes in a spiral-bound notebook in the kitchen drawer. She never bothered to get another one and, by the end of her life, many of its pages were torn from the plastic binding, stuffed with the hand-written index cards and newspaper clippings of the more recent recipes she’d collected. When I finally went through it years later, gingerly sorting through the worn, food-stained slips of paper that gestured to a lifetime of wonderful meals around her dining room table, I smiled at the names of dishes that seemed so dated: Mrs. Cole’s Ham Ball; Saucy Succotash; Edna Clark’s 1-2-3 Cocktail; Grandma Otto’s German Potato Salad. But it was the one entitled, Norma’s Swedish Coffee Cake, written in my grandmother’s ornate and flowing hand, that gave me pause. Recollections of Christmas mornings with the heady scent of cardamom wafting through the house, my mother and grandmother cooking together in the kitchen, and the sounds of Dean Martin streaming in from my father’s turntable in the living room brought me back to my childhood. I knew I had to have that coffee cake again.
I make it every year around the holidays now, and although my mother, grandmother, and Norma—someone I never met and only know through stories—are all gone, I think about them when the intoxicating smell fills my own house on Christmas morning and we sit down with our cups of coffee and hot cocoa to cut into the beautiful golden braid that, in our family, will always be called Norma’s Swedish Coffee Cake.
Norma’s Swedish Coffee Cake
1 ½ packages (1 tablespoon) active dry yeast
1 teaspoon plus 2/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided
¼ cup warm water
4 tablespoons plus 1 tablespoon softened butter, divided
¾ cup warm milk
2 ½ teaspoons ground cardamom
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 ¼ to 4 cups all-purpose flour, approximately
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Combine the yeast, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and water in a large bowl and allow to proof. Meanwhile, combine the 4 tablespoons of butter, warm milk, sugar, and cardamom and blend well. Add to the yeast mixture and stir to combine the ingredients. Add the eggs and salt and mix well. Add 3 ¼ cups of flour, 1 cup at a time, mixing with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, using only enough additional flour to prevent sticking. (A mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment may also be used. The mixing time will be less.) Shape into a ball and put in a large bowl that has been greased with the remaining tablespoon of butter, turning the dough to coat the surface with butter. Cover with a clean towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in bulk, about 1 ½ to 2 hours. Punch down the dough and divide into three equal pieces and roll into strips about 20 inches long. Braid the strips and place on a baking sheet. Shape the braid into a circle, pinching the ends together so that the rolls don’t separate. Cover and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Brush the top of the loaf with the heavy cream and sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of sugar over this.
Bake in a 350 degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the bread is cooked through.