It used to be only on Fat Tuesday ('Fettisdagen'), the last day before Lent, that you could eat a semla but we know you already started.
Just in case you are not close to one of the museums, such as the American Swedish Museum in Philly or the Swedish American Museum in Chicago, which serve semla close to the actual day (in 2015 Shrove Tuesday is February 17), we have the recipe you need. It used to be only on Fat Tuesday (Fettisdagen), the last day before Lent, that you could eat a semla or fastlagsbulle or fettisdagsbulle (we have many names for the things we love) in Sweden). Fat Tuesday was the day when people would stuff themselves to their hearts’ content, for after that followed a long fast in remembrance of Christ’s 40 days in the desert.
Fettisdagen ("Semmeldagen" - Fat Tuesday, no relation to the legendary New York Jazz scene) is usually in February.
The first known semla in Northern Europe can be seen in a painting from 1250 which hangs in a Danish church. At first semlor were cross-shaped buns with no filling. It wasn’t until the 18th century that semlor were injected with that lovely almond paste. In the 19th century, we began eating semlor as “hetvägg” (hot wall), which means we eat them in a bowl of milk with an added pinch of salt to offset the sweetness. Hetvägg is a word that stems from the German “heisse Wecken”, or hot wedges.
According to historians it was the hetvägg that killed King Adolf Fredrik. In the bulletin about his death on February 12, 1771, one reads: “His Majesty’s death was due to indigestion of hetvägg, sauerkraut, turnips, lobster, caviar, smoked herring and champagne.”
Now, since we care little about fasting before Easter, we eat semlor as often as we want to during the seven weeks of fasting. Perhaps not as many as His Majesty, but still quite a lot: Semlor are being made and sold from Christmas through Easter, and each Swede consumes an average of five bakery-produced semlor a year. Add to that all those that are homemade!
The look of a semla
The word “semla” probably comes from the Latin word “semila” which means a fine flour. Take a sweet bun, spice it with cardamom, cut off the top, scrape out the insides of the bottom of the bun and stuff it with almond paste, add whipped cream, then put the top back on and sprinkle it with confectioner’s sugar. Voilà a semla! There are also some local variations of semlor, and in Finland (where a semla is called laskiaispulla), the stuffing is often raspberry jam instead of almond paste. Semlor are also eaten in Norway (fastelavensbolle), Denmark (fastelavnsbolle) and Estonia (vastlakukkel).
Ture Sventon – lover of semlor
It’s easy to love semlor, perhaps more so since they’re not readily available year-round. Apart from King Adolf Fredrik, another famous semla-lover is Ture Sventon, a fictional character created by author Åke Holmberg. Ture Sventon (his real name is Sture Svensson, but since he lisps, it’s become Ture Sventon) is a private detective who, when he’s not chasing the criminal Ville Vessla, lives on semlor (or “temlor” as he calls them). In Holmberg’s books, Ture Sventon eats them at Fröken Rotas Konditori (Miss Rosa’s Bakery) on Drottninggatan in Stockholm, the only place that serves semlor at all times. Sventon likes his “temla” to be “somewhat brown and with a lot of whipped cream that flows over everywhere.”
Make your own “semla”
This recipe yields 16-20 buns.
5 Tablespoons butter
1 cup milk
1-1/2 Tablespoons yeast
1 pinch salt
3 Tablespoons sugar
3 cups wheat flour
1 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 cup egg, beaten
10 oz. almond paste
1/2 cup milk
1-1/2 cups double cream
Melt the butter in a saucepan, pour in the milk and warm until lukewarm (99° F).
Crumble the yeast in a bowl and stir in a little of the warm butter-milk mixture until the yeast is completely dissolved. Add the rest of the butter-milk mixture, salt, sugar, cardamom and most of the flour (save some for the rest of the baking).
Work the dough smooth and shiny. It should let go from the edges of the bowl. Allow the dough to rise under a baking cloth for 40 minutes. Sprinkle flour over a baking board and place the dough there.
Make the buns by rolling the dough against the baking board in your cupped hand.
Put the buns on a baking tray with oven paper and allow them to rise for an additional 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 440° F.
Brush the buns with the beaten egg and bake them for about 10 minutes in the middle of the oven. Let them cool on an oven rack under a baking cloth. Cut off the very top of each bun.
Take out part of the insides and put it in a bowl. Crumble in almond paste, mix with the insides and dilute with some milk to a rather soft mixture. Put this filling back into the buns.
Whip the cream and put a large dollop in every bun. Put the tops back on and sift some confectioners’ sugar over ‘semlorna’.
Enjoy as is or as a hetvägg in a bowl of warm milk with a pinch of salt.
Or, try a different taste this year, An early and miniature 'semla' with a touch of apple