Lent buns

Semlor

A plate of Swedish semlor in the January sunshine

Tied to the fasting tradition of Lent, semlor are cardamom-scented buns filled with almond-paste and whipped cream. Originally they were only baked on fettisdagen (Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras or, literally, Fat Tuesday), then it became common to bake them on Tuesdays in Lent. Such is the popularity of semlor (and the lack of self-restraint by Swedes!) that they are now widely available in Sweden from the official end of the Christmas season, which is on tjugondag Knut (January 13th), until Easter! At the moment it is still not done to bake them after Easter!

There are variations of semlor throughout Scandinavia and Sweden that go by different names; semlor in the north, fastlagsbullar in the south, and hetvägg if it’s eaten with warm milk and sprinkled with cinnamon. The most modern name is semlor which probably developed from the Latin word semilia referring to the use of the finest wheat flour. And by the way, one bun is called a semla; semlor is the plural form.

Hetvägg holds a notorious role in Swedish history: on Fat Tuesday in 1771, King Adolf Fredrik collapsed and died after eating a meal of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring, champagne and 14 servings of hetvägg, his favorite dessert!

Hettväg buns were available in Swedish bakeries 200 years ago. During the 1800s the name fastlagsbullar developed and the earliest recorded use of almond paste as a filling is from 1833. The cream-filled form became common after WWI supposedly when a baker on the island of Gotland celebrated the end of the war and rationing hardship by lavishly filling semlor with cream. That tradition continues to dominate the world of Swedish semlor today.

The recipe below has been adapted from Vår Kok Bok (Our Cookery Book). There are two versions below: the first uses a stand-mixer, such as a kMix or a KitchenAid, and the second is for making them by hand. Maia Brindley Nilsson

Summary

Summary of recipe for Swedish semlor buns

Tips

A packet of Odense mandelmassa (Swedish almond paste)

• The filling uses mandelmassa (Swedish almond paste) which can be bought in specialist shops or online. Alternatively, it is easy to make your own using our recipe by clicking here.

Fresh Swedish yeast for sweet doughs

• Swedes normally use jäst för söta degar (yeast for sweet dough). We have based this recipe on using "instant" fast action yeast as it is more readily available. If you would prefer to use jäst för söta degar it can be bought in specialist shops or online (you will need half a packet). Simply crumble the yeast and add it to lukewarm milk in step 3 below, reducing the temperature of the milk to 37°C (98°F). To read more about yeast click here.

Swedish wheat flour

• Swedes normally use vetemjöl (white wheat flour), a good all-purpose flour which makes good semlor. It can be bought online or in specialist shops. If you can't use Swedish vetemjöl we recommend using strong white flour in the UK or AP flour in Canada and the States. (As the semlor dough proves and when it first goes into the oven the yeast will produce a lot of carbon dioxide bubbles which will inflate the buns. British plain white flour does not have enough strong stretchy gluten to hold the bubbles so the buns are unlikely to rise properly, although the flavour will be fine.)

• If you like really light semlor, copy a trick used by some bakers and add a teaspoon of baking powder to the flour!

• To try the hetvägg version, place a finished semla in a bowl and pour hot milk either over the bun or around the base. Dust with cinnamon and enjoy.

• Unfortunately finished semlor do not keep well, although the uncut, unfilled buns can be stored for a day or two in an airtight container, or they can be frozen.

Ingredients

Semlor buns

425+ g* vetemjöl, strong white flour or AP flour)
50 g caster (superfine) sugar
½ tsp salt
1 tsp ground cardamom
10 g "instant" dried yeast (3 tsp)
250 g (ml) whole milk (3-5% fat)
75 g unsalted butter, softened
1 medium egg, lightly beaten
optional lightly beaten egg for glazing

*We recommend using digital scales and measuring all quantities in grams

Filling

200 g mandelmassa (almond paste)
100 g (ml) whole milk (3-5% fat)
300 g (ml) whipping cream
  icing sugar (powder sugar)

Method using a stand-mixer


Above: cardamom seeds before grinding

1. Add the flour (just 425 g initially), sugar, salt and ground cardamom to the stand-mixer's bowl and stir thoroughly.

2. Add the yeast and stir thoroughly.

3. Heat the milk until just warm, 40ºC (104ºF).

4. Fit the dough hook to the mixer and with the motor running on minimum, gradually add the warm milk and the beaten egg, taking about a minute.

5. Increase the mixer's speed to 2 (kMix) or 3 (KitchenAid) and gradually add the soften butter, a bit at a time, taking 2 or 3 minutes.

Semlor dough after kneading by a stand-mixer

6. Continue kneading on speed 2 or 3 for a further 3 minutes until the dough forms a ball and it feels smooth and elastic. If the dough is too wet add a tablespoon of flour at a time, but take care not to add too much as the buns will end up too dry. The dough should feel sticky, but it shouldn't stick to your fingers.

7. Cover the bowl with a clingfilm (plastic wrap) and put in a warm place to rise for 40—90 minutes, until doubled in size.

8. Line two baking sheets with baking parchment.

9. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and punch once or twice to knock it back. Divide into 12 pieces of roughly equal size, work into evenly shaped balls and place on the baking sheets. Leave to rise, covered with a damp kitchen towel, for 20-30 minutes.

10. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F, gas 6, fan 180°C).

11. If desired, lightly glaze the buns with beaten egg.

12. Bake the buns in the bottom half of the oven for 20 minutes, or until nicely browned.

13. Allow to cool on a wire rack under a kitchen towel.

Three of the steps in filling semlor (Swedish Lenten buns)

14. Once cool, slice a thin portion off the top of each bun and set aside. Using a fork, tease out a small layer of crumbs from each bun and reserve them in a bowl. Grate the almond paste and combine it with the reserved crumbs and 100 g (ml) of milk. Blend everything thoroughly until it forms a thick paste.

Whipping the cream for semlor (Swedish Lenten buns)

14. Whip the cream until very stiff, as shown.

A Swedish semla bun filled with almond paste and whipped cream

15. Place enough of the filling in each hollowed bun so it comes to the edge without going over the side. Spoon or pipe a generous helping of whipped cream on top and then replace the lid. Dust with icing sugar and serve immediately.

Method if making by hand

If you are making the buns by hand it is easier to add melted butter to the mixture, but otherwise the recipe is exactly the same as using a stand-mixer.

1. Add the flour, the sugar, salt and cardamom to a mixing bowl and stir thoroughly.

2. Add the yeast and stir thoroughly.

3. Carefully melt the butter in a saucepan and then add the milk. Heat until just warm, 40ºC (104ºF).

4.  Add the milk mixture and the beaten egg to the flour and stir with a large spoon until you get a sticky dough.

5. Turn the dough on to a floured work surface and knead for at least 5 minutes until it starts to feel smooth and elastic. If the dough is too wet add a tablespoon of flour at a time, but take care not to add too much as the buns will end up too dry. The dough should feel sticky, but it shouldn't stick to your fingers.

6. Put the kneaded dough back in the mixing bowl, cover with a clingfilm (plastic wrap) and put in a warm place to rise for 40—90 minutes, until doubled in size.

7. Line two baking sheets with baking parchment.

8. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and punch once or twice to knock it back. Divide into 12 pieces of roughly equal size, work into evenly shaped balls and place on the baking sheets. Leave to rise, covered with a damp kitchen towel, for 20-30 minutes.

9. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F, gas 6, fan 180°C).

10. If desired, lightly glaze the buns with beaten egg.

11. Bake the buns in the bottom half of the oven for 20 minutes, or until nicely browned.

12. Allow to cool on a wire rack under a kitchen towel.

13. Once cool, slice a thin portion off the top of each bun and set aside. Using a fork, tease out a small layer of crumbs from each bun and reserve them in a bowl. Grate the almond paste and combine it with the reserved crumbs and 100 g of milk. Blend everything thoroughly until it forms a thick paste.

14. Whip the cream until stiff.

15. Place enough of the filling in each hollowed bun so it comes to the edge without going over the side. Spoon or pipe a generous helping of whipped cream on top and then replace the lid. Dust with icing sugar and serve immediately. 

Downloads

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Phone-and-tablet-h32  phone & tablet version.pdf

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