It’s Time for Swedish Semlor
In Sweden, it’s hard to not talk about semlor this time of year. But what exactly is a semla and why are all the Swedes so crazy about them?
Also called fastlagsbullar or fettisbullar, semlor are yeasted buns that are filled with almond paste and whipped cream – exactly what you want to stuff yourself with before you give all decadence up for Lent. Of course, you don’t need to be religious to eat a semla (that’s the singular version of the word). In fact, like many traditions in Sweden with religious roots, today, this tradition is celebrated far more for culinary reasons than anything else.
The history of the semla goes back many centuries. Originally, it was simply a wheat bun, and filling it with almond paste and cream is a more modern variation. The bun was often served in a bowl of hot milk, a method of eating a semla that is still done today, although usually you will find that people are on two sides of the issue: either they love eating it with milk, or they hate it and think it’s the worst thing ever invented. Not everyone likes soggy bread.
The modern-day semla – a round bun with filling in the middle and a “lid” on the top – dates from around the 1800s. Why “semla?” Certainly fastlagsbullar - fastlagen being the Swedish word for the three days before Lent starts and bullar means buns – makes a bit more sense. But the name semla comes from the Latin word simila, which indicates the finest wheat flour. In those days, even without almond filling or whipped cream, a bun made from the finest flour certainly would have been a luxury.
Historically, the semla was eaten on Fat Tuesday, and then on every Tuesday during the fasting period, all the way until Easter. Nowadays however, they are available in every bakery and cafe in Sweden from the 1st of January onwards. On Fat Tuesday alone, Swedes consume around 5 million semlor. In total, Swedes eat around 40 million semlor over the season.
Basic semla construction goes like this: start with a wheat bun, flavored with cardamom, cut a “lid” off the top and scoop out the inside. Then the inside dough is mixed together in a bowl with almond paste and a little milk, then put back into the bun. A dollop of whipped cream is added, the “lid” is placed on top, and powdered sugar is sprinkled on top.
Since today marks the official day of semla consumption, I’ve got a few semla recipes for you to try, some very classic and others a little bit different.
Classic Swedish Semlor
There’s a recipe for traditional Swedish semlor in Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, and I also did a slightly different rendition for Food52 this week. This rendition uses white whole wheat flour and Meyer lemon zest in the almond filling, which I think gives a nice extra kick. Orange zest is quite good too. I’ve included the recipe below.
Semlor Almond Tarts
This is a new recipe that I came up with this year, inspired by the tastes of a traditional semla. Instead of a yeasted bun, the base is made with an almond tart, which along with the almond filling and smooth whipped cream, makes for some complementary textures. These are also gluten-free, which is helpful if serving to gluten-free friends or if you just want to make something a little different.
A couple of years ago I experimented with making semlor with buckwheat flour. This definitely starts veering from the classic semla flavor, because of the intensity of buckwheat flour, but I personally think it’s fun to stretch the boundaries. I will note that how these turn out depends on what buckwheat flour you are using. In France, I used a very light buckwheat flour (because it had been hulled before being milled) and what I have been baking with in the US is much darker. This has resulted in a denser, stronger tasting bun that doesn’t rise as much. Just a reminder that not all flours are the same so you may need to adapt!
If you’re pressed for time, and are serving more than a few people, an easy way to adapt any recipe for semlor is to turn the recipe into a cake instead of buns. Use the dough to bake one big round, then prepare it exactly the same way you would for the buns. The result is a beautiful looking cake that’s perfect for a fika with a lot of people.
Adapted from Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break
Makes: 12 buns or 1 cake
7 tablespoons (3.5 ounces, 99 grams) unsalted butter
1 cup (240 milliliters) milk
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
¼ cup (1.75 ounces, 50 grams) natural cane sugar
2 teaspoons whole cardamom seeds, crushed
½ teaspoon salt
3 to 3 1/2 cups (12 to 14 ounces, 340 to 425 grams) white whole wheat flour
1 ½ cups (7.5 ounces, 212 grams) blanched almonds
3 tablespoons natural cane sugar
Zest of one Meyer lemon
½ to 1 cup (120 to 240 milliliters) milk, depending on dryness of the filling
½ to 1 cup (120 to 240 milliliters) heavy whipping cream, whipped, for topping, depending on how many semlor you are serving
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
In a saucepan, melt the butter; then stir in the milk. Heat until warm to the touch (about 110°F/43°C). In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in 2 to 3 tablespoons of the warm mixture. Stir and let sit until bubbles form on top of the yeast, about 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, whisk together 1 of the eggs, the sugar, cardamom and salt. Pour in the remaining butter and milk mixture, along with the yeast, and stir until well blended. Mix in the flour, a ½ cup at a time, until you can work the dough together into a ball (you may not need all of the flour). Work the dough together well, by hand or with a wooden spoon.
Transfer the dough to a flat surface and knead it until smooth and elastic, 3 to 5 minutes. The dough should feel a little wet, but if it sticks to your fingers and the countertop, add a little flour. Go lightly, though; if you add too much, the buns will end up dry. The dough is fully kneaded when you slice into it with a sharp knife and see small air bubbles throughout. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with a clean tea towel, and place in a draft-free place to rise for 45 minutes to an hour.
Grease a baking sheet or line with a silicone baking mat. Divide the dough into 12 equal parts and roll into balls. Place on the baking sheet with about 2 inches (5 centimeters) between each bun. Cover and let rise for 30 to 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°F).
Whisk the remaining egg and brush on top of the dough balls. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until the tops are golden brown. Remove from the oven, transfer the buns to the counter, and cover with a tea towel to let cool.
To prepare the filling, mix the almonds, sugar, and lemon zest in a food processor until the almonds are finely ground and the mixture starts to stick together.
Cut a circular “lid” off the top of each bun and set aside. Then cut a circle on the inside of each bun, leaving about ¼ inch (0.5 centimeter) for a border, being careful not to cut all the way through to the bottom. Scoop out the cut portions with a spoon and place in a large bowl. Stir in the almond mixture until well blended. Then pour in enough of the milk to make a filling that’s thick and smooth yet not watered down. If you are making just a few semlor and don’t want to make the full filling, for each bun you will need about one heaping teaspoon of almond paste and 4 teaspoons milk.
Fill the buns with the filling and top with the whipped cream. Place the lid on top of the whipped cream and dust with confectioners’ sugar. Serve immediately.
Note: it’s rare that anyone makes an entire batch of semlor at one time. The best thing to do is to freeze the leftover buns that aren’t going to be eaten that day. When you are ready for another round, defrost them and construct a fresh semla with the appropriate amount of almond filling and whipped cream.
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