Years ago, when my parents married, my mother asked my father what he would like her to make for Christmas. He asked for Julekake, a Scandinavian Christmas bread. It was common in the bakeries in my father's childhood Chicago, but it was more difficult to find in the small Army towns where my father was posted, so my mother found a recipe, and baked her own.
We ate it with eggs or bacon or sausage every Christmas breakfast of my childhood. My mother baked simple round loaves studded with raisins and candied cherries.
When I grew up I swapped out dried cherries for the candied ones. I baked it in the oven of my boyfriend's apartment before I went to share Christmas with his family, inhaled the scent of them to make it Christmas when the traditions around me were not my own.
I've discovered that the fruit is not mandatory, though I'd never leave it out. A braid is traditional, and I'll make a braided loaf when I have time, though for gift giving I make several simple round loaves, small cousins to the bread of my childhood. Whatever the shape the cardamon scented loaves are Christmas to me.
I bake Julekake on Christmas Eve while I listen to A Christmas Carol on Public Radio. My children are asleep upstairs and my husband is at church singing with the choir. It is quiet in my house, and whatever strain of trying to Make The Holidays is worked away in the kneading of the bread, the sweetness of the fruit, the scent of the cardamom. In the morning, after we've opened presents and put the train back on its tracks underneath the tree (again) we break bread, and my boys are connected to the traditions of my childhood, and the grandfather they never knew.
A note about scalding the milk. The dairy protein whey contains a protein which has negative effects on the volume and texture of baked goods. Scalding, or bringing the milk to just less than a boil, partially denatures the protein and reduces these effects. You can scald in a small saucepan on the stove top. I use a glass measuring cup in the microwave. I heat the milk one minute at a time until it is steaming.
2 teaspoons active dry yeast (or one packet)
½ cup warm (not hot) water
1 cup milk
¼ cup butter
½ cup cold water
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 cups dried fruit, mix of raisins, golden raisins and chopped dried cherries
5 ½ cups all-purpose flour
Sprinkle the yeast into the warm water in a small bowl and set aside.
Cut butter into chunks and place in a large mixing bowl. Scald the milk and pour over the butter. Stir to melt the butter, then add the cold water. When the milk is lukewarm, stir in the yeast, sugar, salt, cardamom, egg and fruit.
Stir in the flour, one cup at a time until the dough is too stiff to stir. Pour it out onto a floured counter and knead in the remaining flour. Continue kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic. About 20 minutes. Return the dough to the mixing bowl and cover. Allow to rise until doubled, 1-2 hours.
Deflate the dough and remove to a lightly floured counter. Divide in two and shape into loaves. Let rise until doubled, 1-2 hours.
Bake at 350 Fahrenheit for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown. Allow to cool at least 10 minutes before slicing.