Cooking Simple: Swedish Christmas Bread

by Eric Christenson

Nothing brings Christmas through the generations to our family’s Christmas mornings more than thin slices of Christmas bread—Jule kaka—lightly toasted and buttered. Our niece in San Francisco bakes it, and the recipe in my mother’s hand adorns a shelf in our daughter’s kitchen in Seven Lakes, ready for the season. My Swedish grandfather settled in Denver and opened his bakery in the early 20th century. His recipe for Jule kaka, with its intoxicatingly fragrant, freshly ground cardamom, warmed our holidays throughout my childhood and even today. Preparing the dough is straightforward, either for oven or bread machine. My father explained that the magic is in the cardamom seeds, properly prepared. In my early teens, he engaged me in the annual ritual of grinding the exotic spice. 

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup milk
  • 4 tbs. softened butter
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. ground seeds from 20 pods of green cardamom
  • 3 cups bread flour
  • 2½ tsp. yeast, dissolved well in a little water
  • 2/3 cup raisins
  • 2/3 cup sliced candied citron or fruit—or healthful alternatives: dried apricots, currants, and cherries. 
  • 2 tbs. chopped almonds

Directions for using bread machines:

Place the first eight ingredients, milk through yeast, in the machine; let it mix and knead for a few minutes, and then add the remaining three.

Directions for using a mixer with a dough hook:

Knead all ingredients until the dough forms a ball and the sides of the bowl are clean, about two minutes. Do not over-knead. Place the kneaded dough into a greased bowl, turn it over, and cover to let it rise until doubled—at least an hour. Then turn the dough onto a floured surface, punch it down, allow it to rest a few minutes, and knead lightly until it’s plastic. Divide into two loaves, place them into greased loaf pans, grease the tops of the loaves, cover, and let them rise for another hour or more. Bake at 350° for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown. Turn the loaves out to cool on racks. 

Commercially ground cardamom will do if doubled. Cardamom pods are available online and in markets specializing in Indian foods and spices. Slice off the ends of the pods and squeeze them to let the seeds fall into a mortar. Grind the seeds with the pestle to a fine powder. From the oven and then on Christmas morning from the toaster, that familiar bouquet, with its slightly nutty, aromatic hint of fennel, perfumes the season.