by Joni Astrup
They rise early to bake up a storm, and by afternoon the women from Laestadian Lutheran Church of Elk River are ready to hit the local farmers markets.
They will be selling their fresh baked goods, including a popular Finnish coffee bread called pulla, at the Nowthen and the Elk River farmers markets this summer. They will be at both markets on June 27, July 11, July 25, Aug. 8 and Aug. 22. They also will be at the Nowthen Threshing Show on Aug. 16 and 17.
“We make everything from scratch like our grandmas used to bake — and no preservatives,” said Merja Hillukka of Nowthen, one of the bakers.
Dennis Blake, one of the organizers of the Nowthen Farmers Market, said people come from miles around for their baked goods. Everything they bake is absolutely delicious, he said, adding: “They make caramel rolls that are out of this world.”
Hillukka said they are state-licensed bakers and the baked goods are made at a state-inspected commercial kitchen at their sister church in Plymouth. They begin baking at 6 a.m. the day of the farmers markets and by 1 p.m. have everything packaged and ready to go to the markets in Elk River and Nowthen.
They will be selling several products this summer, including caramel rolls and pulla — their two best sellers. The pulla at the farmers markets is a yeast dough with cardamom, plus cinnamon, brown sugar, white sugar and butter between the layers and frosting on top.
They also will sell cracked wheat flatbread and cookies.
Samples will be available at the farmers markets.
Hillukka said they have been at the Nowthen Farmers Market since it started in 2011. They were at the Elk River Farmers Market again last year after one year break.The Nowthen Farmers Market runs 3-7 p.m. Thursdays at a site one block north of Viking Boulevard on Nowthen Boulevard (behind the Nowthen Memorial Park). The Elk River Farmers Market is open 2-6 p.m. Thursdays in downtown Elk River.
‘A piece of home’
The Laestadian Lutheran Church of Elk River was established in 2006 and meets at VandenBerge Middle School in Elk River. Hillukka said they have about 90 members and 130 children attending Sunday School. The church takes its name from Martin Luther and Lars Levi Laestadius. Laestadius was a Lutheran pastor in Sweden in the 1800s. Today there are more than 30 Laestadian Lutheran Church congregations in the United States and Canada.
Laestadian Lutheran Church of Elk River owns land in Nowthen and plans to build a church there. The bake sales are one of the fundraisers for the church.
“We have a lot of excellent bakers in our congregation,” Hillukka said.
She is originally from Finland and learned to bake with her mother, a registered nurse who bakes as a hobby.
Hillukka said her parents have a brick oven in their house. When they heat it up, it keeps hot for hours, and they bake barley, wheat and rye breads as well as pulla, cakes and bars.
She first came to the United States in 2001, when she and two friends spent 10 weeks traveling around the United States and Canada via Greyhound bus. She met her future husband, Mark Hillukka, at Laestadian Lutheran Church in Plymouth and they married on Nov. 9, 2002.
Hillukka said she enjoys baking because she finds it relaxing and likes serving home-baked goods to people.
“I can give them an opportunity to have a piece of home,” she said.