Culinary Ambassadors: The Semla, Sweden's Way of Fattening Up Before Lent

Serious Eats' Culinary Ambassadors check in from time to time with reports on food fare in their homeland or countries of residence. Here's the latest! (Find out more about CA or join here!) —The Mgmt.


[Photograph: Frugan on Flickr]

Obesity numbers are low in Sweden in comparison to many other industrialized countries, and far lower than in the USA. There are many explanations to this. The semla, however, is most likely not one of them.

In the old days, fasting before Easter was part of the Swedish tradition. To be able to survive fasting during a time of year when Sweden is coldest, dark, and snowy, it was important to stock up on calories. One way of doing this was through a pastry called the semla, also called "fastlagsbulle." It had everything required for a food item whose main purpose was to help us efficiently store calories: white flour, plenty of sugar, and plenty of fat. Nowadays, when fasting rarely exists (and if so, it has as sole purpose to get rid of the same calories that one in old times tried to store), the semla still remains.


[Photograph: roamallday on Flickr]

Not only does it remain, but it seems to show up in bakeries and cafés earlier and earlier each year. My local bakery did not even have time to throw out the gingerbread house before semlor (plural for "semla") were up in the shop window. The rigid traditionalists, however, wait until late February to buy and eat the goodies. According to tradition, they can only be eaten on Tuesdays, and even more strictly, only on Shrove Tuesday. The rest of the population, who just want something really nice with their coffee, start about now, and eat them as often as they can until the pastries disappear in early March.

Selling a semla in words is actually not that easy—they taste significantly better than they sound. Also, regardless of how you describe them, you risk having someone disagree with you on how they should be prepared and served. I'll describe the semla as I do it, without saying this is the best or the only way to do it. (...Ok, I will claim that it is the best way.)

The basic semla is a wheat bun, sweet but no too sweet, with a distinct cardamom flavor. Most people use a cinnamon bun base recipe, with the added cardamom spice. These are baked into plain round buns. The buns are turned into a semla in three steps.

1. Cut the top of the bun off (save the top piece, the "hat"), and with a fork, dig out parts of the inside. Mix this with plenty of almond paste, and a hint of milk. Refill the inside of the bun with the mixture.

2. Whip cream and place on top of the bun, covering the hole filled with the almond paste mixture.

3. Place the small "hat" on top of the whipped cream and sprinkle powder sugar on top. Voilà—your semla is done!


[Photograph: Anders Adermark on Flickr]

This can be eaten as it is, with your hands (almost guaranteeing you get whipped cream on you nose) or with a spoon. Connoisseurs usually prefer to place it in a deep bowl and pour warm milk around it, making the dough of the bun all spongy and soft. Tastes much better than it sounds, believe me. Regardless of how they are eaten, they are bound to satisfy any craving for sugar or fat, and ensure you do not starve before the arrival of the Easter chocolates.

Jessica J.

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To find out more about the Culinary Ambassadors initiative or sign up, see this SE Talk thread »