Coffee Bread

by wjw on May 6, 2010

Recently my cousin Karla and her mom Alice passed through New Mexico on the way to a bowling tournament in El Paso. I get to see my relatives maybe once every decade, so I was pleased to invite them over for dinner and to show them around Albuquerque.

Unfortunately this was a day of a huge windstorm, cold gusts to sixty knots or so, so the outdoor activities we’d planned— aerial tram, petroglyph trail— had to be canceled in favor of things we could do indoors. We hit a couple of museums, had a New Mexican meal, and then I went home and the relatives went to visit the casino the Isleta Indians have so kindly and thoughtfully built just outside the city limits.

It took me an extra hour to get home. Blowing sand had reduced visibility to under fifty feet along a stretch of I-25, and traffic had either stopped or crept along at three miles per hour. There were no accidents in the southbound lanes where I stuttered along, but I saw that in the northbound lanes a semitruck had been completely blown onto its side.

When we had our New Mexican lunch, and I taught Karla how to pronounce “relleno,” we discussed the cuisines of the Upper Midwest on which I’d been raised. You’ll be pleased to know that not all Minnesota cooking depends entirely on Campbell’s Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup.

I feel a great (but in restrospect rather appalled) nostalgia for the great dripping hunks of red meat that passed across the table during my childhood. Nowadays I would recoil in terror from a 24-ounce porterhouse, but when I was ten I could totally pack one of those suckers away, and probably did once a week. Standing rib roasts were a regular fixture of our table, along with pork roasts, makkara (a type of Finnish sausage, rather bland, like bologna), chicken rolled in crushed potato chips, casseroles (the infamous Midwest “hot dish”), pork chops simmering in Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, and Cornish pasties, brought to the area by miners imported from the played-out tin mines of Cornwall.

There was kalamojakka, a kind of Finnish fish chowder made with allspice and the root vegetable of your choice. I’ve never met a native Finn who knew what a mojakka was, so apparently the dish has survived only in immigrant kitchens. I never cared for it and always found it too bland for my tastebuds, but it was comfort food for my parents.

I also recall staple enjoyed by my relatives in Makinen Township, something called a “South American,” a sort of a stew apparently invented by a couple of the local ladies who had traveled either to Latin America, or to a part of America that may have at some point in its history had Latins in it. It involved ground or cubed beef, onions, tomatoes, endive, green bell peppers, and spices, and was eaten over a bun. It tasted better than you’d think.

But what really got my taste buds tingling was piskiti.

“Piskiti” was how the old Finns pronounced the English word “biscuit.” It was a type of coffee bread made necessary by the fact that Finns eat six times a day. (The fact that piskiti is also a South Slavic word meaning “to pee” is not relevant to this discussion.)

“Finns eat six times a day!” I remember the wail of despair from a friend who had married a Finn. It is perhaps more accurate to say that Finns have coffee six times a day.

There’s breakfast, which always includes coffee. Then morning coffee. Then lunch, with coffee, followed by afternoon coffee. Coffee always comes with dinner, and then there’s evening coffee. Naturally you need something to eat with your coffee, so if you’re not chowing down on a whole meal, you need coffee bread.

Piskiti is the sweet bread of choice, heavily laden with cardamon. It’s a very flexible bread and you can serve it in loaves, braided loaves, or rolls. My mom made great cinnamon buns with piskiti.

“Do you have a recipe?” Karla asked me. Indeed I do not. I asked my mom, just as Karla always asked her granny (my mom’s sister), but we always got the same reply. “Just use any sweet bread recipe and throw in lots of cardamon.” Karla and I know perfectly well that not just any bread recipe would do. It wouldn’t taste right.

The sad fact is that there probably never was a recipe. My mom and her sisters learned how to make piskiti when they were very young, and never passed it on. I don’t think I’ve tasted it since the last time my mother baked, eight or ten years ago.

I tried searching online for piskiti, but only found a very few pages in languages I couldn’t understand— and in any case, I suspect the word was intended in its South Slav meaning. I was lamenting my failure on another online forum, and Janice Gelb managed to find a recipe online. Sage Walker has volunteered to do the baking. Louy and Patricia have volunteered to assist. I will volunteer to eat.

Seems like a pretty ideal solution, really.

Carrie May 6, 2010 at 5:22 am

Andrew Zimmern of "Bizarre Foods" on the Travel Channel did an episode on Minnesota a couple of weeks ago…

JaniceG May 6, 2010 at 5:39 am

Glad I could help! I hope to hear that the recipe matches your memory (although nothing's ever as good as when Mom made it, of course :-> )

The Great and Powerful Oz May 6, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Now I am hungry. You are an evil man!

Ken Houghton May 6, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Per MSN, Albuquerque is the 6th-healthiest city in the US, while Minneapolis and St. Paul are 13th and 14th (if I'm reading the table correctly).

So that Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup recipe, while a difference between an A- and a B+ isn't the worst thing in the world.

Dave Bishop May 6, 2010 at 1:32 pm

You certainly appear to have had a more interesting and varied diet than I did growing up in a provincial English town in the 1950s and 60s. 'Meat and two veg' (not very expertly cooked) was the standard fare.

To us Brits the introduction of various ethnic cuisines (mainly Italian, Indian and Chinese), sometime in the 60s, came as a complete revelation.

Ralf the Dog May 6, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Mr. Williams, that was perhaps the most terrifying story of yours that I have read. I have a rather extreme allergy to coffee. I avoid people who are drinking coffee the same way you might avoid a deranged lunatic with a spray can full of cyanide, "Who wants some silly string? Come here and sniff this wonderful silly string…"

I am spending some time this summer in NYC. I dread the fact that people in NYC drink coffee. I understand they have this evil place called Starbucks.

Shash May 7, 2010 at 2:09 am

What? No potica? No klobasa? It's a lovely, strange mix of food on the Range.

My grandfather threw away all of my grandmother's recipes. Some were family Slovenian classis, some came from their northern Italian miner neighbors and others from the local Finns. I moped for weeks when I found out.

The advent of the internet has allowed me to claim some of them back. I love porketta roast.

Thanks Walter. I think I'll go hunt up some more recipes.

Margot May 8, 2010 at 1:02 am

You'll want to make sure the interior temperature of the bread doesn't exceed about 185°F — otherwise, with all that egg white, the texture could be dry & cottony. (I'm familiar with this outcome from challah, and the recipe I use takes only two whites per three yolks).

Also, with that much sugar, you will indeed need a lot of yeast, or else the kind of yeast that is bred to be happy at high sugar concentrations.

halojones-fan May 12, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Extreme coffee consumption is a survival technique for the Finns, because if you stop moving you freeze solid.

"It involved ground or cubed beef, onions, tomatoes, endive, green bell peppers, and spices, and was eaten over a bun."

Congratulations, you invented the Sloppy Joe.

dubjay May 13, 2010 at 5:23 am

I think it tastes different, but maybe you have to be Minnesotan.

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