Swedish limpa bread is a traditional loaf made with rye flour, molasses, anise and orange zest which all give it a lovely gently aromatic flavor and brown color. It's has a relatively tight crumb, but it's also soft and not too heavy. Lovely with simple toppings like butter or jam.
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Maybe it's my Northern European roots, but I have a soft spot for rye. True, a pure rye loaf can be dense and a bit hard to eat if you are not used to it. Rye can also be challenging to bake with as it doesn't have the same gluten-developing properties as wheat.
However it has a wonderful slightly nutty, earthy flavor that make it worth trying to work with.
Mixed in with wheat, rye can give a really lovely balance of flavor and texture. Whether this is just a little, as in a French pain de campagne or that bit more, as in this Swedish style, it gives a lovely depth.
When you blend rye with wheat, it both rises better and is easier to work with. This makes it a great introduction to baking with rye as you get a good amount of the flavor but less of the challenges. (This article has more tips on using rye in general.)
What is limpa bread?
"Limpa" is actually just the Swedish for "loaf" and comes in a few different variations. Originally, it was known as "vörtlimpa" or "vörtbröd" meaning "wort bread" as it was made with brewers wort, a byproduct of the beer production. Some versions are made with dark beer still, while others use water, milk or buttermilk.
This gently spiced bread is probably the best known version outside of Sweden, and certainly a popular one in general. In places with a larger Swedish ethnic population, like in the Midwest of the US, this is the style you will find. Probably not surprising, given the flavors, this is a version particularly enjoyed during the Christmas season in Sweden.
Ingredients in Swedish limpa
You'll find a few variations, but the main ingredients here are:
- Rye flour - as mentioned, this is a large part of what gives the flavor and texture to the bread.
- Wheat flour - to balance out the rye, both in flavor and to make it easier to work with, you also use wheat flour. Here I used all purpose flour (plain flour), but you could use part bread flour, to increase the gluten a bit. A little whole wheat flour can work to be a little heartier, but I wouldn't use too much.
- Yeast - a key ingredient for most breads, here I use instant yeast to make things simpler, but you can also use active dry yeast, if you prefer, you just need to bloom it in the liquid before adding.
- Milk - some recipes use buttermilk, but since I don't tend to have it around I just use regular milk. It helps give a softer loaf and adds a little more flavor than just using water. You can use part water, part milk, if you prefer.
- Molasses - this adds a touch of sweet and some caramel flavors. It also adds to the brown color of the loaf.
- Anise seeds - also known as aniseed. These have a licorice-like flavor that is also gently herbal and sweet. You only need a little to get a lovely aromatic flavor coming through. If you don't have any, you could use caraway seeds (and some recipes add some of both) - they are similar though not quite the same. Fennel seeds are another possible alternative/addition.
- Orange zest - this adds a nice little brightness. Orange flavors often struggle to come through against others, and it's definitely subtle. But I do think it adds something and helps lighten things.
- Butter - just a touch helps add to the texture and flavor.
Some versions also include some brown sugar for a sweeter loaf, and as mentioned, you can use buttermilk instead of milk and vary the spices a little. These are all things you can play around with a little as you enjoy this flavorful, soft loaf again and again.
How does this compare to making other breads?
This bread follows a relatively typical process of mixing the ingredients, kneading the dough followed by an initial rise. You then form the loaf and leave the bread to rise a second time before baking. So if you are used to making bread in general, you probably won't have many surprises.
That said, rye doesn't rise as much as wheat, so don't be surprised if the loaf doesn't rise quite as much as you are used to with a wheat loaf. Also, it may well spread sidewards more and become flatter. Personally, I say embrace the flatter loaf, but you can use a bread baker (cloche) if you like to help contain the shape.
Tips for making limpa bread
While this is similar to other breads, some things to keep in mind:
- Warm the milk with the butter, molasses and orange zest gently. Warming helps them all be better distributed and blend in better, but you don't want to cook them. Just warm over a low heat enough to melt the butter and mix in the molasses, that's it.
- Cool the liquids to lukewarm before adding to the rest of the ingredients. Adding liquid that is too hot kills off the yeast so it won't activate properly.
- Either use instant yeast, as in the recipe, mixed in with the dry ingredients, or bloom the yeast in the warm milk before adding to the dry. If you add yeast to the milk, make sure it has cooled first.
- Crush the anise (or any other seeds) before adding to the mixture. You want the flavor evenly spread and for the texture to be smooth rather than getting chunks or seed for this style of loaf.
- Don't skip the kneading. Even though rye is low in gluten so kneading doesn't do that much for it, remember this still has a lot of wheat flour in there so you can help it on it's way. Also, the kneading helps ensure everything is well mixed.
- Cover during rises - this helps to avoid the dough drying out.
- If unsure, let it rise more. Rye tends to need a little longer to rise, and as I say it doesn't rise as much in general. So be a little patient, and leave a little longer, if it feels like the bread needs it. It's unlikely to be a problem.
How to use this bread
This bread has a lovely flavor to it that in my mind, you want to enjoy. That said, it's not too extreme in any one flavor and you can use it with both sweet and savory toppings.
It's great served very simply with a little butter or jam, especially a berry or stone fruit one. You could use it to make a sandwich with say ham and/or cheese. But it's not one to go overboard with multiple fillings or toppings.
Swedish limpa bread is a wonderful combination of a tender texture and a delicious mix of gently aromatic flavors. It has a slight sweetness, but not too much, and works with especially well with simple toppings. It may be particularly traditional around Christmas, but is one that's worth enjoying any excuse.
Try these other tasty bread recipes:
- Caramelized onion sourdough bread (being sourdough, it takes a little longer but has fantastic flavor that make it worth the wait)
- Spelt rolls (another style with a mix of flours that has a lovely flavor to it)
- Anadama bread (a traditional New England loaf also with molasses, but here combined with a bit or cornmeal)
- Plus get more bread recipes and Nordic recipes in the archives.
Swedish limpa bread
- 1 cup milk
- 2 tablespoon molasses
- 2 tablespoon butter
- 1 orange zest ie from 1 orange
- 1 teaspoon anise seeds (or ground)
- 1 cup rye flour
- 2 cups all purpose flour plain flour
- 2 ¼ teaspoon instant yeast (1 packet)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Place the milk, molasses, butter and orange zest in a small pan and warm over a medium heat until the butter melts and everything is well combined. Remove from the heat and leave to cool to lukewarm.
- If the anise seeds are not already ground, finely grind the seeds to a powder either in a spice grinder or with a pestle and mortar.
- Place the rye flour, all purpose (plain) flour, yeast, salt and anise in a large bowl and stir or whisk together so that everything is well distributed.
- Add the cooled milk mixture to the flour mixture and mix well - I generally start with a spatula then bring it all together by hand.
- Lightly flour a clean surface and turn out the dough. Knead the dough for around 5 minutes until relatively smooth and no longer sticky. You can add a little flour as you go to help, but try not to add too much. It won't be quite as smooth as a pure what dough due to the rye.
- Lightly oil a bowl then form the dough into a ball and place in the bowl. Cover with cling wrap/film and leave at warm room temperature for around 1 hour to double in size.
- While the dough is rising, line a medium baking sheet/tray with parchment (half sheet pan size is fine). Once the dough has doubled, gently knock back the dough and form into a rounded log. I usually slightly flatten out the dough as I knock it back then roll it up and tuck in the top and bottom slightly.
- Place the dough on the lined baking sheet and gently cover the dough with a damp cloth or loosely with cling wrap/film. Leave to rise for another hour. The dough should roughly double in size and become more "puffy" looking.
- Towards the end of rising, pre-heat the oven to 350F/175C. Uncover the bread and, if you like, score the top a few times. Once the oven has heated, bake for approximately 35 - 40 minutes until the top is lightly browned and crisp. Tip the bread onto an oven glove and tap the bottom. It should sound slightly hollow - if not, put back on the parchment and bake for a couple more minutes. Once baked, remove the bread from the pan and allow to cool on a cooling rack at least 10 minutes before slicing.
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