Nisua (Finnish Coffee Bread)

One of my fondest childhood memories is sitting down at my grandmother’s kitchen table, eating warm, buttery toasted slices of nisua, her Finnish coffee bread. It was a rare treat we would enjoy together, during our holiday visits to her home in Michigan.

Nisua Xmas

Many years later, after Grandma was gone, and I was grown with children of my own, I attempted to bake nisua for the first time. I was lacking my grandmother’s years of baking experience to know the right feel of the dough, and I didn’t have the muscle memory to effortlessly twist a beautiful braided loaf. But, I did put love into my efforts, and despite my imperfectly shaped result, my own humble nisua still brought back a sweet memory.

Three Sisters
Grandma Irene, enjoying coffee time with her sisters.

Below is my grandmother’s approximate recipe, which my mother tried to capture on these Nisua recipe cards. Some of the instructions are a little jumbled and inexact. I think the two of them must’ve been eating nisua, drinking coffee and laughing. I’ve done my best to organize the details below. Note, this baking adventure takes several hours, so Grandma offered this wise advice: No interruptions, no phone calls when making Nisua!

Nisua – Irene Abersold (Impi Helin)

In a mixing bowl, combine:

  • 2 dry pkg. yeast, or yeast cake dissolved in 1-1/3 C warm milk
  • 2/3 C sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • grated lemon peel
  • 2 C flour

Add and beat until smooth:

  • 1 C melted shortening (melted oleo or butter or 1/2 C Crisco + 1/2 C butter)
  • 5-6 beaten eggs
  • 5 C sifted flour
  • 1/4 tsp grated lemon peel

Divide dough into 2-4 balls in the bottom of bowls. Cover and place in a warm place until double in size.

Punch down and roll out dough ball on floured board, about 1/4′ to 1/2″ thick. Grease with about 2 T. Crisco (enough for both or more loaves).

Circle loaf method:
Prepared a mixture of 1 C light brown sugar and 2 tsp. cinnamon. Sprinkle 1/4 of this mixture over greased area, then sprinkle with raisins and cherries. Roll up the dough like a jelly roll. Pinch ends together and shape in a circle, on a greased cookie sheet.

Grandma’s walnut grinder, passed down to me.

Braided loaf method:
Cut the rolled out dough with scissors almost through to the end, in strips about 1 1/2″ apart. Turn slices slightly to one side. Braid strips to make a loaf (rubbed with Crisco). Place in buttered, floured oblong pan. Cover and let rise again until double in bulk.

Finishing touches:
Using a butter brush, spread loaf with melted butter. Sprinkle with remaining cinnamon sugar mixture, can of cherries (chopped + squeeze juice out of cherries so they won’t be too wet), chopped walnuts. Decorate the top with cherries cut in two, and a few half walnuts.

Bake at 350 degrees until nicely browned (no total baking time provided). Check it about 12-15 minutes.

Icing glaze (once loaf is cooled):

  • 1 C powdered sugar
  • 4 tsp milk
  • 1 tsp almond extract

Dribble icing over part of the loaf, and sprinkle with slivered almonds. Or spread icing between slices with cherry or strawberry jam (old method). Optional: coffee & sugar icing – Finns do it this way! Demonstration is recommended.

Oh, how I would love to watch my grandmother make nisua, just one more time 🙂

If you have any memories or advice about making Finnish nisua, please share in the comments below!


Humble beginnings.

This blog was born in an airport lounge, when the universe handed me five unplanned hours.

My flight home from a short trip had been delayed, so I found a cozy spot in a quiet place where I could relax and pass the time. I listened to music, read the newspaper, sent a few emails, and ate a small dinner. Then I settled deep into my chair.

Gazing out the window, an idea surfaced that had been stirring for a while. I think perhaps it has been gently rising for more than a decade, ever since my grandmother passed away.

It may have started the day my siblings and I made a somber pilgrimage to Grandma’s home in Michigan, to attend her funeral and see if there was anything we wished to keep, before her house was sold. Although the contents were mostly removed by then, there were humble traces of Grandma’s ordinary, every day life, still there for us to touch.

I said my good-byes to Grandma, her apple orchard, and her house holding my childhood memories, taking home with me a shoebox full of old photos and ephemera, tucked into my suitcase.

In the years that followed — raising children, carving a career — in rare moments of solitude, I would take that shoebox out of the closet and sort through the photos, examining their small curious details. Among these images from another time and place, there were three very old photos from my grandmother’s childhood in Finland.

I didn’t know very much about her Finnish roots, and wished I could talk to her again.

During these years, I would have these ordinary, every day moments where Grandma’s life would touch and shape my own. Kneading dough attempting to make nisua, smelling phlox, picking up fallen autumn apples in the backyard. I missed her with an ache that only seemed to grow over time. I missed watching her knuckled hands as she kneaded dough, and hearing her speak Finnish to her sisters on the phone.

Sometimes I would take out the tiny Finnish-English dictionary that Grandma gave to me before she died, and flip through the delicate tissue pages, teaching myself random words.

At some point I realized my responsibility to steward this photo history, and by extension, the family link to our Finnish roots and culture.

I was born in America, but raised in Canada, and have spent most of my life becoming Canadian. In my heart, I am Canadian. However, in my soul I am part of a few other places in the world. They give me a sense of recognition and belonging.

This is my story and humble beginnings, for the next phase of my life, becoming Finnish.