A Swedish semla is something you should try at least once. To tell a Swede that you are not a big fan of the bun semla (semlor in plural) – might be considered sacrilegious and semlor are sold pretty much everywhere during January and February. But what is a semla, why is it such a big deal and how do you eat one? Let’s find out!
What is a semla?
Semla (also called fastlagsbulle) is a cardamom-scented bun filled with almond paste and whipped cream that was originally baked and eaten on the last day before Lent – the so-called fettisdagen (Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras or, literally, Fat Tuesday).
When is semla season in Sweden?
Now as many of you may have noticed, Sweden isn’t a Catholic country and when the protestant reformation came to Sweden during the 16th century spearheaded by King Gustav Vasa (an avid skier by the way), the Swedes decided there was no point in giving up on eating semlor just because they were giving up on Lent and instead turned the semla into a desert to be enjoyed between Shrove Tuesday (fettisdagen) and Easter.
The excessive eating of semlor that many enjoy today for almost two months, is a fairly modern phenomenon.
Back in the days, Jordbruksnämnden ( a section of the government) dictated when you were allowed to sell semlor and how much they should cost.
If you failed to follow these rules you could end up having to pay a hefty fine. In January 1952, the newspaper GT reported on a couple of bakers in Malmö who figured they’d get a jump start on the selling of semlor – only to have it backfire when the police came knocking. Today they selling of semlor is much less risky and you are free to enjoy them at your own time. And the Swedes take that freedom to heart and eat an approximate 20 million semla per year!
How to eat a semla
- The non-fussed eat it straight from hand-to-mouth.
- The refined use of a fork.
- Children use a spoon.
- Tourists eat it with confusion.
- And traditionalists order it in a bowl of warm milk – a so-called Hetvägg.
As you can see, there are a number of ways to eat semlor spending on your personality and relationship towards semlor.
But generally you start with the lid and use it to scoop up the mushy contents. Then you proceed with the rest of the bun.
A semla kan kill
A word of warning regarding a hetvägg. Even though you may find it delicious, try to pace yourself. Something the Swedish Kind Adolf Fredrik failed to do. His favourite dessert was a hetvägg and on Fat Tuesday in 1771 he collapsed and died after eating a meal of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring, champagne and 14 servings of hetvägg. It is, however, unclear if the hetvägg was truly to blame or if a general piggishness might have had more to do with his unexpected demise.
How to make semla
Traditional semla, semmeltårta (cake), semmelwrap (wrap) or minisemlor (tiny semlor) – you can buy them or bake them. And if you are in the mood to bake and don’t mind practising your Swedish at the same time – you can visit the supermarket ICA’s page on all things semlor.
Types of semla
The recipe for the traditional semla doesn’t actually change that much, but one can have fun and try other kinds of semlor, some weirder than others. Sara Costa, our fantastic writer of all things newbie, took one for the team and tried all sorts of semla. Here are her words and experiences with the Swedish semla
What if instead of making an individual bun we could make a giant Semla? It’s not only possible, but it will also save you time when preparing fika for several people. On top of that, it looks quite impressive and is just as delicious as a regular semla bun. I tried this recipe last year and it was a big success. Make sure you use a sharp knife to get perfect slices. She has also given a try to this semmelkladdkaka recipe because it looked so delicious. I’m not sure we can call it a semla, but it does have similar flavours.
The essence of the semla is its cardamom flavoured bun, but cardamom in sweets might not be a Newbie’s best friend (at first, then you get used to it, maybe even a little too much like me). No cardamom, no problem, because semlor can be made out of just any other bun.
So far I’ve seen (and tried) wiener-semla, croissant-semla, lussekatte-semla (perfect to use those lussekatte buns left in the freezer after Christmas) and the famous kremla (cinnamon bun) from Lilla Sur bakery in Gothenburg. The possibilities are endless and every year cafes and bakeries make new creations, making me desperate because I’ll never be able to try them all!
The principle is easy and you can make your own cross-semla: take your favourite bun, slice it in the middle allowing the bottom part to be slightly thicker, spread almond paste (a mixture of mandelmassa with a couple of spoons of any milk) on the bottom half, top with whipped cream and then with the top half. Enjoy!
If you are a semla freak like me and eat semlor for two months (a big no no for some Swedes, but I choose not to listen to them…), you might get tired of eating the same flavours. That’s also easy to solve. A traditional semla is composed of a cardamom bun filled with almond paste and whipped cream. All we need to do to get new flavoured semlor is to change one or more of these parts. Here are some ideas:
- change the bun – add chocolate chips, cocoa powder, or change the whole bun as I wrote above.
- change the almond paste – use vanilla cream instead or add crunchy bits like nuts or chocolate pieces.
- change the whipped cream – add cacao powder to get chocolate flavoured whipped cream, add berries or use whipped yoghurt or cottage cheese for a more healthy alternative.
There’s an endless number of alternatives! One of the best-flavoured semla I’ve seen was this chocolate and hazelnut filled semla.
Semlor are not the most healthy thing to eat, but fortunately, there are healthier alternatives using similar flavour combinations. The options below are perfect for those missing the taste of a semla but not really wanting to indulge in all those calories.
Semla-porridge is easy to make and is a delicious breakfast! Flavour the oat porridge with cardamom, add some almond paste made of almond flour and banana and add some skimmed oat milk on top. You can see the recipe here.
Semla-smoothie – Blend together oat milk, frozen bananas, almond butter, cardamom, dates and enjoy! Follow the recipe here. It doesn’t get easier than this!
Bought or homemade, large or small, flavoured or not, the options are endless. If you are reading this and still think there’s not a single semla that you would like let me know. I accept the challenge and I will find a semla just for you 🙂