A Swedish bun to die for

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Those who have dealt with the Swedish national sport “fika” (coffee and cake) certainly already heard of the Semla. Whether you know it or not, this wheat pastry, filled with almond cream and whippid cream, it is a must. The Semla is so popular, it even has its own day in the Swedish calendar. In addition to cream and almond cream (a kind of marzipan), cardamom gives the Semla its typical taste, which you can experience through half spring in Sweden. The Semla tastes particularly good on The Day of The Semla, which falls on February 28th this year. The Day of The Semmel is a variation on a tradition called “Fettisdagen”, the fat Tuesday, on which one was allowed to treat oneanother before Lent.

Although the Semla is delicious, in the last few years the craziest variations have been in the hands of Stockholmers. In the race for the craziest Semla, there was already everything from semmel wraps, semmel pizzas, a hot dog semla and a bread crumb. The Semla used to be popular, for example, as it is said that the former king Adolf Frederick of Sweden loved so much the semla that he died of digestion problems on February 12, 1771 after consuming a meal consisting of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut (cabbage), smoked herring and champagne, which was topped off by fourteen helpings of hetvägg (semla).

semla is a traditional sweet roll made in various forms in Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Norway, Denmark, the Faroe Islands and Iceland, associated with Lent and especially Shrove Tuesday in most countries. In Sweden it’s most commonly known as just semla (plural: semlor), but is also known as fettisdagsbulle (lit. “fat tuesday roll“). When it is served in a bowl of hot milk is hetvägg. The name semla (plural, semlor) is a loan word from German Semmel, originally deriving from the Latin simila, meaning ‘flour, itself a borrowing from Greek (semidalis), “groats which was the name used for the finest quality wheat flour or semolina.

Today, the Swedish-Finnish semla consists of a cardamon-spiced wheat bun which has its top cut off, and is then filled with a mix of milk and almond pasta topped with whipped cream. The cut-off top serves as a lid and is dusted with powdered sugar. Today it is often eaten on its own, with coffee or tea. Some prefer to eat it in a bowl of hot milk. In Finland, the bun is often filled with strawberry or raspberry jam instead of almond paste, and bakeries in Finland usually offer both versions. (Many bakeries distinguish between the two by decorating the traditional bun with almonds on top, whereas the jam-filled version has powdered sugar on top). In Finland Swedish semla means a plain wheat bun, used for bread and butter, and not a sweet bun. At some point Swedes grew tired of the strict observance of Lent, added cream and almond paste to the mix and started eating semla every Tuesday between Shrove Tuesday and Easter. Every year, at around the same time that the bakeries fill with semlor, the Swedish newspapers start to fill with semla taste tests. Panels of ‘experts’ dissect and inspect tables full of semlor to find the best in town.

Some bakeries have created alternative forms of the pastry, such as the “semmelwrap” formed as a wrap rather than the traditional bun, while others have added e.g. chocolate, marzipan, or pistachios to the recipe

In Finland and Estonia the traditional dessert predates Christian influences. Laskiaissunnuntai and laskiaistiistai were festivals when children and youth would go sledding or downhill sliding on a hill or a slope to determine how the crop would yield in the coming year. Those who slid the farthest were going to get the best crop. Hence the festival is named after the act of sliding or sledding downhill, laskea. Nowadays laskiainen has been integrated into Christian customs as the beginning of lent before Easter

Hetvägg or Semla

However the oldest version of the semla was a plain bread bun, eaten in a bowl of warm milk. In Swedish this is known as hetvägg, from Middle Low German hete Weggen (hot wedges) or German heisse Wecken (hot buns) and falsely interpreted as “hotwall”. The semla was originally eaten only on Shrove Tuesday, as the last festive food before Lent. However, with the arrival of the Protestant Reformation, the Swedes stopped observing a strict fasting for Lent. The semla in its bowl of warm milk became a traditional dessert every Tuesday between Shrove Tuesday and Easter. Today, semlor are available in shops and bakeries every day from shortly after Christmas until Easter. Each Swede consumes on average four to five bakery-produced semlor each year, in addition to any that are homemade.

The recipe

For the BUN INGREDIENTS: 4 1/4 cups milk, 1.4 oz dry yeast, 12 oz melted butter, 4 eggs, 1 ¾ cups caster sugar, 1-2 tsp salt, 1.5 tbsp ground cardamom, 13.5 cups white flour

FOR THE SWEDISH SEMLA Almond paste – one small container was plenty Powdered sugar Whipping cream

FOR THE FINNISH SEMLA: Raspberry or Strawberry Jam Whipping cream

Directions: Dissolve the sugar in the milk over heat. Do not allow the milk to boil. Allow the mixture to cool until you can withstand testing the heat with your finger for several seconds. (You don’t want to kill the yeast!) When cool enough, add the yeast to the milk. Let sit for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and allow to cool for a minute or two. Add the eggs. Add the egg/butter mixture to the milk/sugar/yeast mixture. Add the salt, cardamom, and flour. Run in a mixture with a dough hook or knead until smooth and only slightly sticky.

Cover the dough and let rise until doubled in size. You can refrigerate the dough at this point, but be aware it will take the buns a very long time to rise if you do.

Weigh your buns. 110 grams for very large buns and 35 grams for smaller buns. (I prefer the smaller as the large are very difficult to eat.) Roll each bun until smooth. Let buns rise until doubled. You will really be able to see the lightness. Use a pastry brush to brush each bun with an egg wash.

While baking, whip the cream.

FOR THE SWEDISH SEMLA Cut off the tops of each bun.1Scoop out a pocket of bread. Preserve the breadcrumbs. Mix the bread crumbs with almond paste – to taste. I used a foodprocessor. Add in enough whipped cream to moisten and make it all hold together. Refill the pockets with the almond paste mixture. Cut each top into a triangle. Replace each top.

Sprinkle powdered sugar on top.

FOR THE FINNISH VERSION Cut the top off each bun. Spread a generous amount of jam onto each bun Top with whipped cream. Replace the top.STEP 22Bake at 425 for about 15 minutes, depending on the size.

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