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How to make Sweden’s traditional semla buns before Lent

On Fat Tuesday Swedes will gorge themselves on these fantastic cream buns, but they're usually available in stores right after Christmas. Food writer John Duxbury shares his best recipe with The Local.

How to make Sweden's traditional semla buns before Lent
Semla buns being made at the Vetekatten café in Stockholm. Photo: Anders Ahlgren/SvD/TT

There are variations of semlor (sehm-lohr is plural, sehm-la is singular) throughout Scandinavia and in Sweden they go by several different names: semlor in the north, fastlagsbullar in the south, and hetvägg if they are eaten with warm milk and sprinkled with cinnamon. 

The buns hold a notorious role in Swedish history linked to King Adolf Fredrik. On the day now known as Fat Tuesday (fettisdagen) in 1771, he collapsed and died after eating a meal of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring, champagne… and 14 servings of semlor, his favorite dessert.

Summary

Makes 24 small/10 large buns

Preparation: 25 minutes

Cooking: 20 minutes

Total: 45 minutes (plus 1-2 hours for proving)

Ingredients

Semlor buns

75 g (5 tbsp) butter

300 ml (1¼ cups) milk

10 g (3¼ tsp) “instant” fast action dried yeast

½ tsp salt

55g (¼ cup) sugar

1 tsp freshly ground or cracked cardamon

500 g (3½ cups) plain (all-purpose) flour, extra may be required

1 egg

Filling

200g (7 oz) mandelmassa (almond paste)

120 ml (½ cup) milk

240 ml (1 cup) whipping cream

icing (powder or confectioner’s) sugar for dusting

Method

1. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the milk and heat until luke warm or 40°C (104°F). Remove from the heat. Mix in the yeast.

2. Combine the salt, sugar, cardamom and most of the flour in a large bowl until thoroughly mixed.

3. Make a well in the centre and add the milk mixture and the egg. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, until it is sticky, but doesn’t stick to your hands, using the minimum amount of flour possible.

4. Leave the dough to rise covered with a kitchen towel for about 30 minutes.

5. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth adding flour as needed if the dough is too sticky, but keep the addition of flour to the bare minimum. Line two baking sheets with baking parchment. Work the dough into balls of the desired size (keeping in mind they will get larger as they rise and as they bake) and place on the baking sheet. Continue until all the buns are formed and let them rise, covered with a kitchen towel, 30-40 minutes (use the longer time for smaller buns). Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200-225C. Use the higher temperature for smaller buns.

6. Bake large buns in the lower part of the oven for 20-25 minutes. Bake smaller buns in the middle of the oven for 7-10 minutes. When they are nicely browned, remove them and let cool completely under a kitchen towel. The buns dry out quickly so once they have cooled to room temperature place them in an airtight container. If they dry out too much, you can wrap them in a damp kitchen towel and heat in the microwave for a few seconds. Keep an eye on the towel so it doesn’t catch on fire. The buns freeze really well so you can enjoy them for a longer period of time. Just thaw them out before continuing with the next steps of removing the lid and filling them.

7. 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 using the small holed side of a grater and combine it with the reserved crumbs and the 1/2 cup (120ml) of milk. Blend everything well until it forms a thick paste. Using a metal spoon helps with being able to blend and mash everything well. It should be thick enough that it won’t run down the sides of the finished semlor.

8. Place enough of the filling in each hollowed bun so it comes to the edge without going over the side.

9. Whip the cream until very stiff, as shown above. Pipe or spoon the cream over the top of the almond paste filling creating a large mound.

10. Place the lids of the buns on top of the cream and dust them with icing sugar. If you are not serving them immediately, wait to dust them with the sugar until ready to serve and keep them covered and refrigerated. They are best eaten on the day they are filled, ideally within a couple of hours.

Tips

– Don’t use too much flour, as it makes the buns less fluffy.

– 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.

Recipe courtesy of John Duxbury, Editor and Founder of Swedish Food.

Member comments

  1. I love Semlor buns – adore them. It’s just a shame I live too far away from the Scandinavian Kitchen (in London), otherwise I would be there having a dozen packed in a box … I guess I’ll have to use the recipe….

  2. I tried to make these at home – I am by the way no baker! It was not a success. This I ascribe to yeasty compromise. I shall pick myself up, dust myself down (I did make a bit of a mess), and have another go shortly! Lycka till allihop!

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DISCOVER SWEDEN

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager’s dream

Although parts of Sweden are still under snow at this time of year, spring is in full swing here in Skåne in the south of Sweden. Here are The Local's top tips for what you can forage in the great outdoors this season.

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager's dream

You might already have your go-to svampställe where you forage mushrooms in autumn, but mushrooms aren’t the only thing you can forage in Sweden. The season for fruits and berries hasn’t quite started yet, but there is a wide range of produce on offer if you know where to look.

Obviously, all of these plants grow in the wild, meaning it’s a good idea to wash them thoroughly before you use them. You should also be respectful of nature and of other would-be foragers when you’re out foraging, and make sure not to take more than your fair share to ensure there’s enough for everyone.

As with all foraged foods, only pick and eat what you know. The plants in this guide do not look similar to any poisonous plants, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry – or ask someone who knows for help.

Additionally, avoid foraging plants close to the roadside or in other areas which could be more polluted. If you haven’t tried any of these plants before, start in small doses to make sure you don’t react negatively to them.

Wild garlic plants in a park in Alnarpsparken, Skåne. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Wild garlic

These pungent green leaves are just starting to pop up in shady wooded areas, and may even hang around as late as June in some areas. Wild garlic or ramsons, known as ramslök in Swedish, smell strongly of garlic and have wide, flat, pointed leaves which grow low to the ground.

The whole plant is edible: leaves, flowers and the bulbs underground – although try not to harvest too many bulbs or the plants won’t grow back next year.

The leaves have a very strong garlic taste which gets weaker once cooked. Common recipes for wild garlic include pesto and herb butter or herbed oil, but it can generally be used instead of traditional garlic in most recipes. If you’re cooking wild garlic, add it to the dish at the last possible moment so it still retains some flavour.

You can also preserve the flower buds and seed capsules as wild garlic capers, known as ramslökskapris in Swedish, which will then keep for up to a year.

Stinging nettles. Wear gloves when harvesting these to protect yourself from their needles. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Stinging nettles

Brännässlor or stinging nettles need to be cooked before eating to remove their sting, although blanching them for a couple of seconds in boiling water should do the trick. For the same reason, make sure you wear good gardening gloves when you pick them so you don’t get stung.

Nettles often grow in the same conditions as wild garlic – shady woodlands, and are often regarded as weeds.

The younger leaves are best – they can get stringy and tough as they get older.

A very traditional use for brännässlor in Sweden is nässelsoppa, a bright green soup made from blanched nettles, often topped with a boiled or poached egg.

Some Swedes may also remember eating stuvade nässlor with salmon around Easter, where the nettles are cooked with cream, butter and milk. If you can’t get hold of nettles, they can be replaced with spinach for a similar result.

You can also dry nettles and use them to make tea, or use blanched nettles to make nettle pesto.

Kirskål or ground elder, another popular foraged green for this time of year.
Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Ground elder

Ground elder is known as kirskål in Swedish, and can be used much in the same way as spinach. It also grows in shady areas, and is an invasive species, meaning that you shouldn’t be too worried about foraging too much of it (you might even find some in your garden!).

It is quite common in parks and old gardens, but can also be found in wooded areas. The stems and older leaves can be bitter, so try to focus on foraging the tender, younger leaves.

Ground elder has been cultivated in Sweden since at least 500BC, and has been historically used as a medicinal herb and as a vegetable. This is one of the reasons it can be found in old gardens near Swedish castles or country homes, as it was grown for use in cooking.

Kirskål is available from March to September, although it is best eaten earlier in the season.

As mentioned, ground elder can replace spinach in many recipes – you could also use it for pesto, in a quiche or salad, or to make ground elder soup.

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