Shrove Tuesday is February 17 this year, the end of Carnival season (not celebrated as such in Sweden) and the beginning of Lent. If you’re in Sweden (or anywhere in Scandinavia) you celebrate with a semla or fettisdagsbulle.
In Sweden the eating of semlor starts early... they have been eaten already since early January as no one can deny the lure of the semla, traditionally eaten only on “Fat Tuesday,” Fettisdag in Swedish (also Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday in English). It is a time to celebrate!
The latest trend in Sweden may be what’s called a semmelwrap, originally created by award-winning baker Mattias Ljungberg of Tössebageriet, but we’ll stick to the traditional semla for now.
A semla or fastlagsbulle, is a traditional pastry made in various forms in Finland, Sweden, Latvia, Norway, Denmark and Estonia, associated with Lent and especially Shrove Tuesday.
The first known semla in Northern Europe can be seen in a 1250 painting 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.

Hetvägg, sauerkraut, turnips, lobster...
According to historians it was the hetvägg that killed King Adolf Fredrik. In the bulletin about his death on February 12, 1771, it says: “His Majesty’s death was due to indigestion of hetvägg, sauerkraut, turnips, lobster, caviar, smoked herring and champagne.”
Now, since modern Swedes care little about fasting before Easter, semlor are available as often as you want during the seven weeks of fasting. Swedes consume a lot. 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 name semla (plural, semlor) is a loan word from German Semmel, originally deriving from the Latin semilia, which was the name used for the finest quality wheat flour or semolina. In the southernmost part of Sweden (Skåne/Scania) and by the Swedish-speaking population in Finland, the pastries are known as “fastlagsbulle,” in Denmark and Norway they are known as “fastelavnsbolle” (“fastlagen” and “fastelavn” being the equivalent of Shrovetide). In Scanian, originally an eastern Danish dialect, the feast is also called “fastelann.” In Finnish the pastry is known as “laskiaispulla,” in Latvian as “debeskūka,” and in Estonian as “vastlakukkel.”
Semlan was the sweet chosen to represent Finland in the Café Europe initiative of the Austrian presidency of the European Union, on Europe Day 2006.
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 if you're not fortunate to be close to a Swedish bakery or institution, inspiration may be found here: Video: Semlor, FIKA style

Recipe for semlor

(makes 12-15 buns)

1 stick butter
1¼ cups milk
4 cups all-purpose flour
50g dry yeast
½ cup sugar
1 tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp salt
1 egg
1½ tbls baking powder

1 egg, beaten

5 oz almond paste
Crumbled bread
¼ cup milk – or as needed

1 cup whipping cream
Confectioners sugar

Melt the butter and add the milk. Heat to 115˚ F.
Combine flour, sugar, salt, cardamom, baking powder and yeast. Add the egg and the milk mixture.
Knead the dough until smooth and elastic. Cover bowl and allow to rise in a warm spot for 30 minutes.
Move the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth.
Form into round balls and place on a greased baking sheet. Cover and allow to rise until doubled for 35 – 40 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400˚ F. (With conventional ovens the temperature you need may vary quite a bit.KEep an eye on the buns and you'll be fine.)
Brush the buns with beaten egg.
Bake in preheated oven for 5 -10 minutes, until golden brown and the center has firmed.
Cool the buns on a cooling rack.
Cut off the tops of the buns, about ½ inch. Scoop out some of the center of the buns, leaving a shell of at least ½ inch thick.
Moisten the bread crumble with some of the milk in a bowl. Grate the almond paste coarsely and mix with the bread crumble until smooth.
Whip the cream to stiff peaks.
Fill each bun with a spoonful of the bread filling and pipe the whipped cream on top.
Replace the tops onto the buns and sift over confectioners sugar.
Eat semlor with coffee or tea or warm milk - then also called “hetvägg” (hot wall).

A variation on a beloved dessert, a 'semla' with a touch of apple