Bringing warmth and light to the cold darkness of a Finnish winter

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Winter in Finland is dark, windy, and bitter cold. Lakes freeze over; trees bend, heavy with snow. Daylight -- if there is any -- breaks late and disappears early. Finns trudge the snowy streets in fur coats and caps and heavy, high boots. Laplanders and southern Finns call it kaamos -- the time of year when people begin to weary of the cold.

But then comes Joul, or Christmas, right in the middle of kaamos. And the Finns celebrate with relish -- bringing light and warmth to the season just when it is needed most.

Candles parade across mantels, flicker on every Advent wreath, brighten dark corners. Light streams into the blackness from every farmhouse window.

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The fragrance of baking is an important part of life around Christmas. A friend recalls her mother's taking plump braids of spicy cardamom bread called pulla from the wood-fired oven. With the same oven heat they baked pyramids of little prune tarts called joulutortut.

When guests arrived, cups were filled and refilled with either hot spiced berry juice they call joulugl"oggi or cocoa. Nutcrackers were seldom idle. Saved for the last baking before Christmas were the traditional ginger cookies.

On Christmas Eve the tree, freshly cut from the nearby forest, is brought in and festooned with real candles and sparklers -- the kind Americans use on the Fourth of July. No need to worry -- it's only a few hours since the tree stood in the woods covered with snow.

Into kaamos, the darkness, the cold, the Finns bring an abundance of light, warmth, good food, and hospitality. It is a good time to sit by the fire, snug and warm, nibbling Christmas goodies and sipping hot drinks -- and enjoying one another's company. Finnish Christmas Pulla 1 cup milk 1/2 cup sweet butter 2/3 cup sugar 1 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons active dry yeast 1/2 cup lukewarm water 1 teaspoon sugar 2 eggs 1 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom 4 1/2 or 5 cups unbleached all-purpose or bread flour 2/3 cup raisins Sliced almonds

Plump raisins in vegetable steamer. Set aside to cool.

In saucepan combine milk and butter over medium heat until very warm. Stir in sugar and salt. Cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast over water and sugar and stir briskly.

In mixer bowl beat eggs. Add milk, butter, and yeast mixture and cardamom. Gradually add 2 cups sifted flour and beat 5 minutes with electric mixer.

Gradually add about 2 1/2 cups additional flour. Finish kneading with dough hook or turn out onto lightly floured board and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Dough should not stick to the board. Work in raisins, distributing evenly. Place dough in greased bowl, turning to grease top of dough. Cover with plastic wrap and set in warm place until doubled in bulk. Punch down.

Forming Pulla Braid. To make 1 large braid, divide dough into three equal pieces. Roll each piece into an 18-inch-long rope.

Braid, beginning from center. Turn over and braid other end. Seal ends. Place on greased baking sheet. Cover and let rise until doubled in size. Brush with 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water. Sprinkle with sliced almonds.

Bake at 350 degrees F. for 35 to 40 minutes or until it's golden brown and sounds hollow when thumped on bottom. Cool on rack and cover with terrycloth towel while cooling to retain softness. Pulla freezes well.

A straight braid is the usual shape for pulla bread, but the braided pulla dough can also be shaped into a wreath for special occasions. Christmas Tarts (Joulutortut) 1 package (17 ounces) frozen puff pastry 1/2 pound pitted prunes 1 cup water Juice of 1/2 lemon 1 teaspoon lemon rind, grated 1/4 cup sugar

Soak prunes until plump. Simmer in water until very soft. Add water as necessary. Mash to consistency of applesauce. Season with lemon and sugar; increase sugar if necessary.

Thaw one sheet puff pastry according to directions. Flour board and rolling pin. Roll pastry 1/8 inch thick. Cut in 4-inch circles, placing circles in refrigerator until ready to fill.

Wet edges of circles with water. Spoon 1 teaspoon filling on one-half of each circle. Fold over. Seal edges with prongs of a fork. Prick pastry.

Brush with 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water. Place on baking sheet. Bake at 450 degrees F. for 8 to 10 minutes or until golden brown. Warm before serving.

Note: Frozen puff pastry sheets are available in frozen food sections of local supermarkets. Hot, Spiced Berry Juice (Christmas Joulugl"oggi) 1 cup black currant syrup concentrate 5 cups water 2 to 3 sticks cinnamon 6 to 8 whole cloves 1/3 cup dark raisins 1/4 cup blanched, slivered almonds

In large kettle combine all ingredients. Heat slowly until drink is steaming hot. Stir now and then and taste.

Black currant syrup (cassis) is imported from Switzerland and may be found in some specialty shops and delis.

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