In Sweden, there exists a popular pastry called semla.
Fact: On Fat Tuesday alone, bakeries sell over 6 million semlor (and that’s not including homemade or supermarket-sold ones!).
Fact: Sweden has a population of 9.9 million.
Fact: Traditionalists eat semla on Fat Tuesday only. But there are others who eat semla every Tuesday during semla season. And then there are those Swedes who fika with it to their heart’s content (read more about fika here).
Semla is a small wheat flour bun flavoured with cardamom, topped with powdered sugar, and filled with whipped cream and – wait for it – nothing other than a deliciously nutty and sweet almond paste. If you love marzipan (a confection of sugar or honey plus ground almonds and almond oil), then this is definitely a dessert for you. In its first tradition – yes, I believe a food in its lifetime can have more than one tradition, until it becomes so far removed from the original that it becomes something else entirely – semla was a plain bread bun eaten soaked in hot milk (known as hetvägg, literally “hot wall”) only on Shrove Tuesday (fettisdag), the last celebratory feast before the Christian fasting period of Lent. Indeed, like many other food traditions, semla was a pastry that evolved as a food to be enjoyed only at this particular religious festival.
Today however, this special day reserved for semla has turned into a special period called the Semla Season that usually starts just after Christmas and lasts until Easter, with Fat Tuesday still the peak semla-eating day. When we went to Sweden this year I was disappointed to learn that we had basically missed it. But luck was on our side, because when we went food shopping in preparation for a typically Swedish meal, what was it that greeted us as we stepped inside? None other than four creamy, fluffy semlas.
With the big bun and the generously applied cream, the semla is a very filling and fattening pastry indeed – after all, it was meant to sustain you during fasting. In fact, on Fettisdagen (Fat Tuesday) in 1771, King Adolf Fredrik of Sweden had a very scrumptious meal indeed, which included no less than 14 servings of semlor (the plural of semla), said to be his favourite dessert. On the same day, he suffered from great indigestion, collapsed and died. The popular belief is that it was the semlor that killed him. But to be fair, he was 61 years old (it was the 18th century after all), and he also consumed lobster, sauerkraut, caviar, smoked herring and champagne in great amounts at this very same meal. Talk about a healthy combination. Either way, perhaps it might not be such a bad idea to stick to the second tradition of eating semla only every Tuesday. Ultimately semla was made with a consequent period of fasting in mind, hence the heavy load of fat and sugar.
And yet, in these health-and calorie-conscious times, you may feel weary of digging in. Completely understandable. But once you’ve reached the sweet, richly-textured almond paste at the centre of this beautiful bun, you’ll feel like it’s all worth it – it’s not like we need to eat it every day, right…? Since semla is the kind of food to stage a yearly appearance, rather than being available all year round, the anticipation breeds creativity and experimentation: Bakeries eagerly work at creating the next big cream-filled buzz, and semla experts such as anonymous Stockholm-based blogger semmelmannen (the semla man) are at the ready to record the details of these innovations.
In 2015 it was the semmelwrap, a pancake-like concoction, with a flat, folded dough used instead of a bun to contain the whipped cream and almond paste. It was definitely an attempt at a more modernized version adapted to the contemporary phenomenon of people eating on the go. And just this year we saw the hybrid creation Princess semla taking Swedish bakeries by storm. What’s that, you ask? Well, it’s a combination of the creamy semla with the princesstårta (princess cake), a layer torte consisting of pastry cream, airy sponge cake, a thick-domed layer of whipped cream, and a usually green marzipan topping, sprinkled with powdered sugar. I just recently tried my first slice of the princesstårta at Swedish bakery Bageriet in London – amazing.
But what better way to appreciate the evolutions than to begin with a deeper exploration of the classic? And I refer here to the classic semla as it is defined today, rather than the plain bun eaten with milk from which it evolved. Although semlor are not unique to Sweden, they do have a feature, which is key to the Swedish version as opposed to other variations: the almond paste. Its use as a filling was first recorded from 1833. In Finland, where semla is called laskiaispulla or fastlagsbulle in Swedish-speaking Finland (Svenskfinland), the bun may indeed be filled with this nutty paste, but also has another popular version with raspberry or strawberry jam fillings. In Icelandic or Danish bakeries you will find fastelavnsbolle made from puff pastry, filled with whipped cream and a little jam, and topped with icing rather than powdered sugar. It is said that the lavish addition of cream to the hetvägg buns that were traditionally dipped in milk came with the celebration of the end of WWI, also the end of rationing hardship.
Again, Bageriet in Covent Garden, London offers this, what some consider “most traditional,” way of eating. I know I’ll be there during Christmas time (which is apparently when they start serving it) to try the contemporary sweet semla in a bowl with hot milk poured over – the Swedish equivalent of the French croissant dipped in your morning coffee (a cliché perhaps, but irresistible nonetheless). Until then, I’ll have to make do with my sweet memory of having a semla from a café inside a Swedish supermarket. Such an inconspicuous location, but all the better for it.
If you cannot wait to try it, however, here are some inspirational pictures for making semlor at home. I am still working on making the recipe my own, but in the meantime you can try out recipes from ScandiKitchen and swedishfood.com. Check out this post for London’s best semla, available only during semla season. And in New York, I’ve been told, FIKA with several locations across Manhattan, offer them during semla season as well. In Seoul, there is Fika at 30, Apgujeong-ro 14-gil ,Gangnam-gu, Seoul 135-889. And Svea Cafe at 34, Cheonjung-ro 40-gil, Gangdong-gu, Seoul 05341. Wherever you are in the world, chances are you can either bake it or find one to try outside. And of course, as always, I would be more than happy to hear about your experiences in the comments below.