Citizens, today it is the greatest of privileges for the Shogun of Sugar, the Potentate of Pâtisserie – YOUR TFD! – to share a mighty recipe once again chronicling My epic 6 week journey across the Nordics this Summer! Today, I grace TFD Nation with a benison that is an unspeakably delicious Swedish (and in point of fact, PAN-NORDIC!) dessert treat. I speak of nothing less worthy than the mighty Swedish cream and marzipan bun that is semlor – join Me and learn of this Northern sweet treat!
A semla (aka vastlakukkel, laskiaispulla, Swedish eclair, fastlagsbulle/fastelavnsbolle or vēja kūkas, depending on the location) is a traditional sweet roll from the 16th century, made in various forms in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Estonia, and Latvia. It is strongly associated with Lent and especially Shrove Tuesday in most countries, Shrove Monday in Denmark, parts of southern Sweden, Iceland and Faroe Islands or Sunday of Fastelavn in Norway.
In Sweden it is most commonly known as just semla, but is also known as fettisdagsbulle, lit. ’Fat Tuesday bun’ or ‘Shrove Tuesday bun’. In the southern parts of Sweden, as well as in Swedish-speaking Finland, it is known as fastlagsbulle (plural: fastlagsbullar; semla on the other hand means a plain wheat bun with butter, called fralla in Sweden).
In Poland it is known as ptyś. In Estonia it is called vastlakukkel. In Norway and Denmark it is called fastelavnsbolle. In Iceland, it is known as a bolla and served on Bolludagur. In Faroe Islands it is called Føstulávintsbolli, and is served on Føstulávintsmánadagur. In Latvia, it is called vēja kūkas.
The name semla (plural: semlor) is a loan word from German Semmel, originally deriving from the Latin simila, meaning ‘flour’, itself a borrowing from Greek σεμίδαλις (semidalis), “groats”, which was the name used for the finest quality wheat flour or semolina. From the late 16th century, semla referred to a plain wheat bun, which was “small like tomatoes and weighed at least four lod (53 g)”.
Semla served in a bowl of hot milk is referred to as hetvägg and has a fascinating etymology/history as the predecessor to semla. Hetvägg comes from the German Heisswecken. According to baker Carl-Bertil Widell, the original heisswecken were small breads shaped like crosses and flavored with cumin. In Swedish this is known as hetvägg, from Middle Low German “hete Weggen” (hot wedges) or German “heisse Wecken” (hot buns) and falsely interpreted as “hotwall”.
Rich families of the Hanseatic league would sometimes serve heisswecken at breakfast, where the bread would be hollowed and bread’s crumbs cooked with a little bit of butter and maybe cream or sugar before it was placed back in the bun. This made the dry bun more enjoyable.
The oldest mention in Swedish literature of hetvägg is in a wedding poem from 1689. According to a popular myth, king Adolf Frederick of Sweden died of digestion problems on February 12, 1771, after consuming a hetvägg (semla), the king’s favorite dessert, after a meal consisting of sauerkraut, turnips, caviar, smoked herring, and champagne.
Despite their indelible link to Lent, the Swedish Lenten tradition actually predates semla and goes all the way back to the 14th century! Leading up to Easter, the Swedes would take part in a 40-day fast, which for religious reasons was of great importance to them at the time. This tradition has since died out and fasting is no longer a part of most Swedes Easter celebrations. Although fasting might have disappeared a long time ago in Sweden, the great feast prior to it has not.
The Swedish Church, who at that time had the power to impose laws, wanted to make sure that the long fast wouldn’t result in deaths due to starvation, so in order to survive the fast, a new law was introduced stating that everyone would have to indulge in an obligatory three day feast, where they were encourage to eat as much as they could, prior to the 40-day fast. They aptly named the law, ‘the law of the fast’.
Each of the three days would have their own theme – Pork Sunday, Bun Monday and Pancake Tuesday, or Stone Cake day, which would later evolve into Fat Tuesday. Pancake Tuesday or Stone Cake day, is where the first versions of the semla was introduced in Sweden. Ethnologist Nils-Arvid Bringéus notes that in some places in Sweden, Fat Tuesday was known as pannkaketisdag, Pancake Tuesday. That is similar to how the day is celebrated in other parts of the world, with Shrove Tuesday.
However, the day was also known as “white Tuesday”, and white foods such as wheat bread and milk were popular. The semla fits into this leitmotif — white. Bringéus suggests that semlor started to spread in southern and mid-parts of Sweden during the 18th century. So why not in the Northern parts? Simply because they rarely grew wheat that far North – only rye could thrive in the cold and soil there.
Semlor also required expensive ingredients such as almonds and sugar, making it a dish for those who could afford some luxuries in their diet and most Northerners were far poorer than their cousins to the South. In 1756, Christopher Manderström notes that some poor households would save milk for several days so they could serve hetvägg before Lent. In fact, even the white, finely-ground wheat flour was a rare ingredient in most Swedish households.
FYI – the three days leading up to the Lenten fast in Sweden were not only for eating but for all kinds of shenanigans, such as playing games or dressing up in costumes. Popular games would be jumping sack, catching rings or the infamous, ‘beat the cat out of the barrel’. In this horrifying game, participants would place a cat in a barrel, and then take turns to beat on the barrel with a stick or a sword until it broke. The participant who dealt the breaking blow, saving the cat, would be named the cat-king.
This game still exists today in the southern parts of Sweden and in Denmark – mercifully, the game is today played without any barreled cats.
Even the famed king, Gustav Vasa, decided to chime in when it came to the laws regarding the semla. Prior to Vasa becoming king, Sweden was not only Catholic, but the Semla was only allowed to be consumed one day a year, on Fat Tuesday. After Gustav Vasa took the throne, he bid farewell to the Pope and the Catholic church, and decided – to the entire populations’ delight! – that the semla could now be consumed between December and February.
Today, the Swedish-Finnish semla has evolved substantially into a cardamom-spiced wheat bun which has its top cut off, and is then filled with a mix of milk and almond paste, topped with whipped cream. The cut-off top (traditionally always cut in a triangle shape in Sweden) serves as a lid and is dusted with powdered sugar. Today it is often eaten on its own, with coffee or tea – some still prefer to eat it in a bowl of hot milk as their ancestors did with hetvägg.
At some point Swedes grew tired of the strict observance of Lent, added rich cream and decadent almond paste to the mix and started eating semla every Tuesday between Shrove Tuesday and Easter. Every year, at around the same time that the Swedish bakeries fill with semlor, local newspapers start to fill with semla taste tests. Panels of ‘experts’ dissect and inspect tables full of semlor to find the best in town.
Some bakeries have created alternative forms of the pastry, such as the “semmelwrap” formed as a wrap rather than the traditional bun, while others have added e.g. chocolate, marzipan, or pistachios to the recipe.
In 1952, a bakery apparently got fined for selling semlor too early, as they had always been served as a Lent-only dessert at that point! The reason was not religious as much as a matter of precaution – in post-war Sweden, the costly ingredients required for semlor were not plentiful. However, times soon changed. Widell shares that already in the 1960s, semlor would appear after Twelfth Night, sold on Saturdays as well as Tuesdays. In the 70s, sales started on January 2nd, on all days of the week.
Bringéus in fact believes that the name evolved from fastlagsbulle (Lenten bun) to semla, as that name was less connected with Lent, making it easier for bakeries to sell semlor for a long period of time!
Today, semlor are available in shops and bakeries every day from shortly after Christmas until Easter. Each Swede consumes on average four to five bakery-produced semlor each year, in addition to any that are homemade. It’s no wonder that an estimated six million semlor are sold in one single day during Fat Tuesday!
In Finland, the bun is often filled with strawberry or raspberry jam instead of almond paste, and bakeries in Finland usually offer both versions. (Many bakeries distinguish between the two by decorating the traditional bun with almonds on top, whereas the jam-filled version has powdered sugar on top). In Finland-Swedish, semla means a plain wheat bun, used for bread and butter, and not a sweet bun.
Semlor were in fact the sweet chosen to represent Finland in the Café Europe initiative of the Austrian presidency of the European Union, on Europe Day 2006.
In Finland and Estonia this traditional dessert even predates Christian influences! Laskiaissunnuntai and laskiaistiistai, both days included in laskiainen, were festivals when children and youth would go sledding or downhill sliding on a hill or a slope to determine how the crop would yield in the coming year. Those who slid the farthest were going to get the best crop. Hence the festival is named after the act of sliding or sledding downhill, laskea.
In Norway, Fastelavnsbolle consists of a cardamom-spiced wheat bun which has its top cut off, and is then filled with whipped cream, topped with jam. The cut-off top serves as a lid and is dusted with powdered sugar. The buns are served at Sunday of Fastelavn (Shrove Sunday), but were previously associated with Shrove Tuesday.
The version sold in Danish bakeries on or around Shrove Monday is rather different, made from puff pastry and filled with whipped cream, a bit of jam and often with icing on top. In Iceland it is done in a similar way but in place of puff pastry more common is the choux pastry version. In Icelandic, Shrove Monday is called bolludagur (bun day), named after the pastry.
In the Faroe Islands, it is done with choux pastry, and filled with vanilla cream, whipped cream and jam, and topped with chocolate icing.
My version of semlor is resolutely traditional and is upgraded in three ways – one using an Asian baking technique (tangzhong) to provide a super-tender crumb, one is using vanilla paste instead of the classic vanilla extract (it has a richer flavor and I like the contrast of the tiny black vanilla seeds in the white pastry cream) and to (optionally) use a small amount of unrefined Indian coconut sugar to “deepen” the sweetness. As this is a baking recipe that requires precision, I’ve used Metric measurements.
My Citizens, the use of homemade marzipan in this recipe is its secret weapon of flavor – these are the SUPREME cream buns and they have no equal! My Divine Touch has elevated an already magnificent recipe into previously undreamed, dizzying heights from which all creation may be observed and choirs of angels ring the Divine Presence, singing in a choir redolent with hosannahs at the sheer GLORY of My work!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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