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What is Nordic Baking?

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

A frequent question we get at The Fika Table: What is Nordic baking?

I secretly dread this inquiry. To be fair, when I’m asked, I’m usually standing in front of a big sign advertising “NORDIC BAKING,” and trying to persuade people to buy or sample our bakery’s offerings. Even though I’m excited to share what I know and have learned, it feels like I’m being quizzed about Nordic baking history or techniques or measured on “authenticity.” I get nervous!

My doubts are revealing — they mean that I wish I was an expert, with a simple and direct answer. What is Nordic baking, anyway? What makes one kind of baking different from any other kind of baking? And who am I to say?

But in reality, I’m still discovering the answers myself. In the 21 months since The Fika Table launched in Austin, TX, I have only begun to chip away at this big question, starting with my own small story.

My Nordic baking journey began with “coffee bread.” We sell these braided loaves at The Fika Table, only now we use the Finnish name, “pulla.” “Pulla” signifies not just these loaves, but almost any type of sweet bread and translates as “bun.” “Nisu” is another, older word for the same bread. “Coffee bread,” as I heard it as a child, is likely the translation into English that accompanied immigrant Scandinavians as they settled in the U.S. When I was little, my grandmother on my mother’s side (born in America in 1933 and 100% Finnish by heritage) always brought pulla when she would visit. In my mind, her comforting presence is inseparable from the taste of cardamom-flecked, buttered coffee bread straight from the toaster. She lived in upstate NY, and I lived outside of Pittsburgh, so our visits were rare and special. I’d tell her by phone before each visit to “remember to bring the coffee bread” — as if there was a chance she wouldn’t. The pulla at The Fika Table is my grandmother’s recipe —with some of my own adaptations — but it’s also pretty much every other Finnish descendant’s grandmother’s recipe. Anecdotally, it seems that if any recipes in a Finnish family have been preserved, it’s often the pulla, usually made at Christmas. Pulla has proven to be one of our most resilient bonds to the past.

Recipe for pulla handwritten by the author’s grandmother, Lois.

My grandmother passed away when I was 11 years old. I remember her idyllically. I’m sure she was as flawed as the rest of us, but from our short, golden time together, she and her bread remain my realest and fondest connection to my ancestral past — and to Nordic baking.

Now, I’m forming new connections in adulthood. Since those early years, my family of origin has fallen apart in terrible ways. Because of that, I felt disconnected from my past for a long time. But today, with time and healing, I can look back again and re-discover some of my first joys, like a thick slice of pulla crusted with sugar. I am inspired to expand on that joy and to learn more.

I started The Fika Table the way I best knew how — with pulla. As my exploration of Nordic baking has unfolded, our menu has expanded, as well. I had the immense privilege of visiting Sweden (originators of the word “fika”) in 2021 for a “self-guided pastry study.” The description is a little bit of hyperbole, but I also mean it sincerely — I learned so much by being in Stockholm and experiencing first-hand a culture and ritual around baking, bakeries, and coffee that is very different from the stereotype of Starbucks, “coffee-as-productivity” that seems to dominate the American imagination. (That trip deserves its own article!) I learned about the care and quality that goes into every bake, but also the cheer and casualness with which people take the time to enjoy it. It’s much more than a coffee and a pastry — it’s fika. It is this cheer, this coziness, ordinariness, pleasure, and connection to the past and to each other, that characterizes Nordic baking to me. It’s what I want to convey with our baked goods and our work at The Fika Table.

There is so much more to the history and technique that sets Nordic baking apart, and each of these things deserve their own exploration in future posts. The recipes themselves, from one country to the next, carry their own histories of wealth and famine, of ruling and being ruled over, of rationing and creativity in the face of hardship. Nordic baking is about picking up, immigrating, and adapting. It’s about a particular set of ingredients that only grow in extreme conditions, close to the top of the world. It’s about unique blends of texture and taste. It’s even found in the differences between my grandmothers’ baking and the explosion in Nordic food exploration today.

In short, Nordic baking is many things, but for me it’s connection.

Ska vi fika?

Thanks for reading. Feel free to share your responses or your own food memories in the comments. Check out our menu for pulla and other Nordic baked goods!

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