A symphony of flavors and textures that blend harmoniously to satisfy the palate, a soft whipped cream combined with the charm of almonds. It is called semla. Welcome to Sweden!
At the beginning of each year, semla can be seen everywhere in Sweden. This little brioche with almond paste and whipped cream that is dusted with icing sugar is more than a tradition in Sweden. It is a real institution!
What is semla?
Semla is a typical bun from Scandinavia and the Baltic countries. In Finland, it is called laskiaispulla. In Estonia, it is vastlakukkel. In Denmark, the Faroe Islands and Norway, its name is fastelavnsbolle. In Latvia and Lithuania, it is called veja kukas .
The semla tradition
Also, in Iceland the custom of preparing this pastry for the occasion is so widespread that the Monday preceding Ash Wednesday bears the same name as this pastry: bolludagur.
What is the origin of the word semla?
The word semla (plural, semlor) is a word derived from the German word semmel, originally derived from the Latin word semilia, which was the name used for the best quality wheat to make flour or semolina.
What is the history of semla?
The oldest version of semla, which dates from the Middle Ages, consisted of a simple piece of black bread soaked in a bowl of warm milk. In Sweden, they used to call it hetvägg, from the German hete Weggen, meaning “hot slices”.
Today, the typical traditional semla is a sweet roll, perfumed with cardamom, with the top part cut, from which a little piece is extracted to form a cavity, which is first filled with almond paste, then whipped cream.
Nowadays, in Sweden, people eat semla more commonly with a tea or coffee even though, some Swedes have maintained the ancient tradition of hetvägg. They dip it in very hot milk as it was done in the Middle Ages until the 19th century. At the time, semla was always served in a plate or bowl, bathing in this warm milk and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon.
Yes, it was not until the early 1900s that people would smear their face with whipped cream by swallowing it when leaving the pastry shop. Because smearing your face with the semla cream on the day of Mardi Gras is also the ultimate Swedish tradition!
Today, Swedes eat more than 40 million semlor per year. On the day of Mardi Gras, nearly 5 million semlor pastries are consumed. Each year, a Swede eats at least five semlor bought in pastry shops. And this doesn’t even factor in those prepared at home.
What are the different versions of semlor?
In Finland, where this dessert is called laskiaispulla, there is a very popular version with raspberry jam instead of almond paste. The Finnish name is derived from the verb laskea which means “to sleigh”.
This cake was, in fact, linked to the pre-Christian era and the laskiaistiistai winter festival in which children from different families of the country entered in a sleigh competition. It was said that the family who won the race would have the best harvest the following year.
The version sold in the Danish and Icelandic bakeries is also quite different since it is prepared with puff pastry filled with whipped cream, jam and often with icing on top. Sometimes, raisins or candied bitter oranges are added to semla.
There are many new creative variations around the traditional semla. The most famous being the semmelwrappen.
A semmelwrappen is a semla in the form of a small wrap that can easily be eaten on the go and which is precisely the intention for the invention of a Swedish man named Mattias Ljungberg. Following the great success of semmelwrappen in Sweden, he has even written a book called Är semlan en semla (from semla to semla).
Mattias has extensive experience in the pastry industry and has even been the captain of the national pastry team. He is now the pastry chef of the famous Tössebageriet bakery in Stockholm.
The semmelwrappen has exactly the same content as an ordinary semla, i.e. almond paste and cream.
How to make semlor?
Here are the tips from Swedish housewives and bakers for the preparation of good semlor.
For the best semlor, the filling should consist of mandelmassa (Swedish almond paste). In Sweden, there are very traditional shops specializing in making this almond paste of excellent quality.
Also, the Swedes normally use a baker’s yeast that is special for sweet dough, it is called jast för söta degar>.
A tip used by several Swedish bakers: add hjorthornssalt, Swedish for ammonium carbonate. Ammonium carbonate is a leavening agent frequently used in German and Scandinavian pastry recipes. It allows the dough to expand better during baking, thanks to the gas reaction that it produces in the presence of heat. You could certainly find it in a pharmacy but you can also use baking soda, which is a similar leavening agent.
Semla: a recipe to die for, literally!
These little buns are lovely, but beware, you should not eat more than 14!
Indeed, King Adolf Fredrick from Sweden, a true epicurean who was never afraid of a gargantuan meal of at least five dishes, devoured 14 of them on Mardi Gras, exactly on February 12, 1771… 14 hetvägg before he passed away that same day!
After a rich dinner consisting of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, and kippers, all copiously watered down with champagne. He went for 14 servings of his favorite dessert, semla. He loved it so much that he was nicknamed “the king who ate semlor until he died”.
Well, let’s hope you will not die of pleasure with this semla!
This recipe is validated by our Swedish culinary expert, Delphine from Del’s Cooking Twist.
- 2¼ lb all purpose flour
- 2¼ tablespoons active dry yeast
- 1½ cup milk
- 6 tablespoons butter , soft
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ⅓ cup sugar
- 3 eggs
- 2 tablespoons freshly ground cardamom
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup icing sugar
- 1 egg white
- 2 cups almond meal
- ¾ cup icing sugar
- ⅓ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground cardamom
Heat milk until it reaches a temperature of 100F/36C.
- Dissolve yeast in warm milk. Add sugar, butter, eggs and cardamom and mix well.
- Pour the flour gradually until you obtain a smooth dough (you may not have to use all the flour). Incorporate the salt.
- Cover and let rise for 1 hour, in a warm place, away from drafts.
Place the dough on a floured work surface and divide it into 25 equal pieces (about 1 oz/30g each), and form balls.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place each ball, making sure you leave enough space between them.
- Cover and let rise for another 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350F/180C.
- Brush the rolls with the beaten egg yolk and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they turn golden.
- Take them out of the oven, and place each of them on a rack.
- Pour the heavy cream and the icing sugar in the bowl of a stand-in mixer, and whisk for a few minutes until it becomes airy and not too dense. Transfer to a pastry bag with a tip.
- Mix the icing sugar, the sugar and the almond meal until obtaining a fine powder. Then, sieve the powder.
- Beat the egg white for 1 minute.
- Pour the almond powder into the egg white, add the almond extract, then knead by hand to obtain a homogeneous and firm dough.
- Transfer the almond paste into a pastry bag with a tip.
- Cut out a small piece at top of each roll and take a little bit of the inside out to make some space to fill.
- Using the pastry bags, fill each roll with a third of almond paste and two thirds of whipped cream, then cover with the small top.
- Dust a little icing sugar on top of each semla before serving.