R uth Raich has happy memories of childhood visits to Sweden, helping her grandmother make kardemummabullar.
What the English-speaking world calls the cardamom bun is a core component of fika, the civilized Swedish practice of a coffee-and-snack break.
What a treat! Cardamom buns are tender but chewy, slightly sweet and ringing with a bracing burst of cardamom. Just looking at these sculpted beauties, their tops glistening with sugar, instantly invokes temptation.
Starting in the late 1980s, Raich's take on the classic kardemummabullar became a trademark item at each incarnation of her popular baking-centric businesses.
Although her Jenny Lind Cafe in Stockholm, Wisconsin, and Smokey Row Cafe in Red Wing are in Raich's past, she continues -- thankfully -- to produce cardamom rolls, baking batches of them several days a week in the cozy Jenny Lind wholesale bakery that she built inside a converted chicken coop on the farm near Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, that she shares with her wife.
My husband, Robert, first encountered Raich's cardamom rolls in the 1990s and has craved them ever since. (Call them "rolls" or "buns," the meaning is the same; Raich invokes the former.) He introduced me to their splendors more than 20 years ago, and I've been similarly hooked.
Several months ago, I stumbled upon a copy of "Favorite Recipes of the Jenny Lind Bakery & Cafe," Raich's 2014 cookbook, and was delighted to discover that it included a recipe for her signature rolls.
My first attempts -- tough, bland, ungainly, sometimes all three -- were pallid imitations of Raich's handiwork. What was I doing wrong? My late grandmother Hedvig, the daughter of Swedish farmers, could perform magic with flour and yeast, so you'd think baking DNA might intervene. Nope.
I called Raich and invited myself to her workplace for a tutorial. Observing this baker in her native habitat was a study in economy of movement. Years of routine means Raich can seamlessly and simultaneously turn out scones, cookies and three variations of fist-sized sweet rolls: almond, cinnamon and cardamom, all while coaching an amateur on the ins and outs of handling an egg-rich yeasted dough.
After that invaluable lesson, my next few batches, while not identical to Raich's expert output, were reasonable facsimiles. My kneading abilities are hardly intuitive, and I don't have her practiced panache when it comes to twisting the dough into beautifully layered buns. But I'm determined to get there.
Thanks to Raich's skill and generosity, my 2022 New Year's resolution is to bake more cardamom buns. You should, too. The recipe may appear daunting, but once you get the hang of it, it's easy -- honest -- and the effort is so worth it.
Tips from the expert
Troubleshooting: "When it comes to making cardamom rolls, people usually encounter three problems," Raich said. "They didn't knead long enough, so there's not enough protein structure that allows the dough to rise. Or they added too much flour. Or the liquid was too hot and it killed the yeast."
Kneading, part 1: "When people are kneading by hand, they get tired," she said. "It's always going to be more than you think, especially for beginner bakers, and so I always tell people that when you want to stop, keep going for two to five more minutes."
Kneading, part 2: Still, Raich advises utilizing a stand mixer fitted with a bread hook. "It keeps you from adding too much flour," she said. At her bakery, in the mammoth 30-quart Hobart mixer she calls "Francine," Raich kneads the dough, on medium speed, for 3 minutes. "But home mixers have less powerful motors, so they should knead longer," she said, which explains the recipe's extended knead time. When it's ready, the dough should feel smooth but stick slightly to the bottom of the bowl.
Warming up: For the first proof, consider placing the covered bowl in an unheated gas-powered oven. "The oven's pilot light will keep it warm enough," she said. For the second proof, place the baking sheets near a radiator, or on tables or counters that are bathed in sunlight.
Air dry: If the dough feels too wet and sticky after the first proof, Raich scrapes it onto a lightly floured work surface and lets the dough sit in the open air, untouched, for about 15-20 minutes, then rolls it out.
Working by hand: When spreading butter across the rolled dough, Raich uses her hands rather than a spatula. Also, avoid melted butter. "It's easier to keep it on the dough if the butter is soft -- at room temperature -- rather than if it's melted," she said.
Flavor booster: Raich grinds whole cardamom seeds, and there's one big reason: The flavor is more robust than using packaged ground cardamom. And there's one caveat: "Cardamom seeds are hard on grinders," she said. A mortar and pestle also work.
Touch test: For those without an instant-read thermometer, rely upon your senses. "The liquid should be 'baby bottle' warm," she said. "It's body temperature."
Egg wash: Don't skip this step. "It keeps the roll from getting dry, and it gives them color," she said. Use milk, and the results will be a soft, brown roll. Use water, and the top will be crispy but not brown. Use an egg wash, and the roll will be brown and delicately crispy on top.
Twist tutorial: Raich has a helpful YouTube video where she demonstrates her technique for twisting spiraled dough into shapely buns, and it's worth watching. Find it at youtu.be/RCNht2N_47Q.
Makes: 1 dozen buns.
Note: This dough must be prepared in advance. Adapted from "Favorite Recipes of the Jenny Lind Bakery & Cafe," by Ruth Raich ($22).
6 tbsp. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more (at room temperature) for greasing bowl
1 1/4 c. plus 2 tbsp. whole milk
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 c. plus 2 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. instant dry yeast
1 1/2 tsp. salt
5 c. flour, plus more for rolling dough
3/4 c. sugar
2 tbsp. ground cinnamon
2 tbsp. ground cardamom
4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tbsp. water
Sanding sugar or pearl sugar
To prepare dough: Grease a large bowl with room-temperature butter and set aside.
In a microwave-safe bowl, combine the cooled melted butter, milk and three beaten eggs, and heat in microwave oven, in 30-second increments, until mixture reaches 100 degrees on an instant-read thermometer (do not exceed 100 degrees).
Pour mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a bread hook. Add 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, yeast and salt, and mix on medium speed until combined. Reduce speed to low, add 4 3/4 cups flour and mix until the flour is incorporated into the liquid and the dough comes together, about 2 minutes. Increase speed to medium and mix until dough is glossy and elastic and forms a ball but still sticks slightly to the bottom of the bowl (add flour as necessary, 1 tablespoon at a time, up to the remaining 1/4 cup; be careful not to add too much flour), about 5-6 minutes.
(Alternately, in a large bowl, combine butter-milk mixture with 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, yeast and salt, and stir to combine. Add 4 3/4 cups flour and stir, vigorously, until thoroughly combined. Lightly flour a clean working surface. Scrape dough onto prepared work surface. Using lightly floured hands, knead into an elastic, smooth dough -- not too dry, with good elasticity -- about 10-12 minutes. If dough is too sticky, lightly add flour as needed, 1 tablespoon at a time, up to the remaining 1/4 cup; be careful not to add too much flour.)
Scrape dough into prepared bowl, cover with a cotton dishcloth, place in a warm area (about 80 degrees) and let rise until almost doubled, about 60 minutes.
To prepare filling: In a small bowl, combine 3/4 cup sugar, cinnamon and cardamom. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
Lightly flour a clean working surface. Using a spatula or scraper, transfer dough to prepared work surface. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough -- in short, quick, even strokes -- into a 20- by 24-inch rectangle that is roughly 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick. Be sure to keep lightly adding flour as needed to the work surface, to prevent the dough from sticking.
Spread the surface of the dough with 4 tablespoons room-temperature butter, working right up to the edges. Sprinkle cardamom-cinnamon mixture evenly over the butter, sprinkling right up to the edges. Starting on the 20-inch side of the rectangle, roll dough snugly into a log, leaving the log seam-side-down on the work surface.
Using a sharp knife, trim uneven ends, then cut the log crosswise into 12 buns measuring about 1 1/2 inches wide. Pick up each bun, with one thumb gripping the top of the dough and the other one gripping the bottom. Gently make two whole twists with your hands going in opposite directions, pulling lightly on the dough as you twist. After turning the bun in your hands, tuck one end of the bun under the other end, forming a ball. Place twisted buns 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets.
Loosely cover the buns with a cotton dishcloth, place in a warm area (about 80 degrees) and let the buns rise until they're puffy, about 30-45 minutes.
To prepare topping: When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk one egg with 1 tablespoon water. Brush the buns with egg wash, then sprinkle with sanding sugar or pearl sugar. Bake until golden (but not too dark, or buns will be dry), about 18-20 minutes, rotating baking sheets halfway through baking time. Remove from oven. Serve warm or at room temperature.
To prepare ahead: Once the dough has been twisted into buns, the unbaked buns can be covered in plastic wrap and refrigerated, overnight. When ready to bake, place buns 2 inches apart on parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Loosely cover with a cotton dish cloth, place in a warm area (about 80 degrees) and let buns rise until puffy, about 60-75 minutes. Brush with egg wash, garnish with decorative sugar and bake as instructed.