Semlor: cream buns and cultural icons

A humble bun stuffed with almond paste and whipped cream has become one of Sweden's most revered foods, with annual competitions, an academy - and even its own legislation.

Much of today’s Swedish tradition can be mapped by the food associated with it. Eggs and lamb are inextricably linked with Easter; herring and snaps herald Midsommar; crayfish and fermented herring are the catalysts of parties devoted just to eating these tiny creatures in August and early September.

But as we approach the carnival season which precedes the Christian fast known as Lent, it’s all about semlor.

Almond & whipped cream stuffed buns, fat Tuesday buns, cream burgers: All plausible English translation options for semlor, buns spiced with cardamom, filled with fluffy whipped cream and aromatic almond paste.

The name semla originates from the Latin word simila meaning fine wheat flour.

Historically, it was the extravagant food in which the people indulged during the Shrovetide – the final straight before Lent.

All gluttony came to an end as Fat Tuesday turned to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of 40 days of fasting.

Nowadays, though, just as Christmas gets going in October, semlor are in hot demand in cafés and bakeries from January to Easter in Sweden. People eat them when they can get them.

And semlor have a culture all to themselves. They are so much more than just a bun.

In fact there are fiercely-contested “Best in Test” competitions pitting city cafés against each other in a kind of annual regional semla Oscars. Mattias Sundberg, a semla enthusiast, explains what it takes to be a winning semla:

“The bun itself should be a light golden brown and about 10cm across. The ‘lid’ is preferably triangular and properly sprinkled with powdered sugar. It should sit squarely on its cream bed. The whipped cream shouldn’t overspill the edges and should rise 2-3 cm – just so your nose doesn’t dip when eating.”

But aesthetics will only take a semla so far; the proof is in the taste test. According to our expert, “the bread mustn’t be too dense and should be lightly sweetened. The whipped cream ought to be hand-whipped and lightly sweetened as well.” Traditionally the cream is unsweetened but our modern aficionados seem to have developed a sweet tooth.

Mattias Sundberg admits that there are differing opinions on how to judge the best semla. Its almond paste seems to split the jury. Sundberg prefers a sticky paste while some of his fellow critics opt for a crumblier version. All sides agree on one thing:

“It’s important that [the paste] of about 2 teaspoons is dead centre and is absolutely not bitter.”

Sundberg and friends are hardly oddballs when it comes to their high standards for semlor. There’s even a semla academy in Gothenburg. They have their own established minimum standards:

  • The lid must be structured so it may be used for scooping;

  • There must be cardamom in the dough;

  • The almond paste must be authentic;

  • The whipped cream must be fluffy;

  • There must be powdered sugar sprinkled on the lid.

The National Encyclopaedia asserts that the semlor we know and love today were first introduced in the early 20th century. Originally in the 18th century buns were boiled in milk which gave way in the 19th century with the addition of sugar and cinnamon. Before the evolutionary jump at the beginning of the last century, the wheat buns lacked the whipped cream but were served with warm milk instead. This tradition of serving semlor in a bowl of warm milk is still a favourite semla-eating rite.

Perhaps the ultimate mark of the humble semla‘s place in Swedish tradition is that they have a food conservation regulation exemption all to themselves. Normally all baked goods containing cream must be refrigerated – but not semlor.

And anything which can run roughshod over Swedish bureaucracy like that is far more than just a cream bun – it’s a national treasure.

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