How I baked my way through four centuries of Swedish semla tradition

Isabelle Fredborg, editor of Swedish Spoon, takes a bite out of historic versions of the Swedish Lenten bun 'semla' – which you may know by its more sinister name: Kingslayer.

How I baked my way through four centuries of Swedish semla tradition
A semla from a 1737 cookbook. Photo: Isabelle Fredborg/Swedish Spoon

You may already be familiar with the Swedish Lenten bun, mostly known as a semla (or semlor in plural). On Fat Tuesday, which is on February 25th this year, the Swedes will buy and devour around 5 million semlor – and who knows how many of these infamous treats that are baked at home.

That's right – infamous. In 1771, the Swedish king Adolf Fredrik died after a meal of semlor. Though, to be fair, his substantial meal also included sauerkraut, turnips, caviar, smoked herring, and champagne.

However, that's no reason to avoid semlor. It turns out that the semla that contributed to the king's untimely demise looked very different than today's cream-laden versions.

Digging through old cookbooks for recipes, I baked and tasted my way through four centuries of Swedish semlor. So, let's take a look at some of the weird versions from the evolution of Swedish semlor.

The modern-day semla as we know it. Photo: Isabelle Fredborg/Swedish Spoon

1700s – rustic origins with milk soup

As with many other things, Sweden likely “borrowed” the concept of semlor from a similar tradition in Germany in the late 16th century. Ethnologist Nils-Arvid Bringéus suggests that semlor started to spread in southern and mid-parts of Sweden during the 18th century, often referred to as hetwegg, or hetvägg.

The oldest recipe I've found comes from Susanna Egerin's 1737 cookbook. It features a cinnamon-flavoured filling of raisins and currants. To top it off, you fry the lid in butter. This rustic semla (pictured top) has a Christmas-feel to it, but doesn't look much like today's creation.


It turns out that in the 18th century, you'd often find semlor (or hetvägg, as they were known) listed in the soup section of cookbooks. For example, Cajsa Warg's recipe in her 1755 cookbook features a bun with a filling of crumbs, almonds, cream, and sugar – and you're supposed to simmer the poor bun in warm milk for half an hour.

If this is the type of Lenten bun that king Adolf Fredrik ate, it's no surprise if it actually did contribute to his death, as it is extremely filling.

Many Swedes still want their semlor served as hetvägg, with warm milk on the side. But, you should still be safe if you want to try it, as the king is rumoured to have eaten 14 servings…

Cajsa Warg's cookbook from 1755 is one of the most well-known cookbooks in Sweden. Photo: Isabelle Fredborg/Swedish Spoon

1800s – the almond filling takes over

Once we're in the 19th century, semlor are usually filled with almond paste and then heated before serving, like in Gustafwa Björklund's 1847 cookbook. Still, the buns are often served with warm milk, but there's no whipped cream on top yet.

Does this bun herald the modern-day semla? Photo: Isabelle Fredborg/Swedish Spoon

An outlier among the recipes shows up in Hagdahl's 1896 cookbooks. Yes, it includes almonds – but also lemon peel, candied lemon peel, yolks, and sugar. Of course, this creation is finished off with a dollop of meringue on top. Key lime pie, as a semla?

Key lime pie, as a semla? Photo: Isabelle Fredborg/Swedish Spoon

1900s – whipped cream makes an entrance

In the early 1900s, semlor finally starts to look similar to those you can see today – with whipped cream. In cookbooks such as Prinsessornas kokbok from 1934, you'll find a recipe that feels modern enough to publish today.

Semla according to a recipe from 1934. Photo: Isabelle Fredborg/Swedish Spoon

But while the semla got its classic form in the first half of the 20th century, it didn't look the same the entire time. During the wartime years, savvy cooks used surrogates such as mashed potatoes or a mix of milk and gelatine to make the filling last longer, often resorting to essences instead of real almonds.

Semlor made with surrogates as Swedes did during the wartime years. Photo: Isabelle Fredborg/Swedish Spoon

Then, during the 50s we'll find the recipes for cooks who want to switch things up a bit. How about recipes for “semlor” sliced in half like hamburgers and filled with cinnamon, sugar, and butter? Or why not fill the bun from underneath with a filling of raisins and candied lemon peel? Or, to keep it simple – just spread it with custard.

Innovative variations of the semla were common during the 1950s. Photo: Isabelle Fredborg/Swedish Spoon

2000s – what is a semla?

The idea of what the traditional, “real” semla looks and tastes like seems more or less set in stone. It is the 1930s semla, albeit with slight modifications.

But in the last few years, we've seen an explosion of new versions. The experimentation started in earnest after Tössebageriet in Stockholm created a frenzy with the launch of the wrap semla, “semmelwrap”, in 2015. You'll see the other hybrids, too, where semlor are crossbred with a croissant, donut, or even princess cake.

Other bakers simply choose other flavours, such as chocolate, Nutella, or blueberry. Then we have the artisanal versions, with sourdough buns, roughly chopped roasted almonds, or muscovado sugar.

Whether you can't imagine eating anything other than a classic semla with almond paste and whipped cream, or don't mind trying something new, the perfect Swedish semla is a work in progress – just as it has been for the last four centuries.

Written by Isabelle Fredborg, who shares Swedish recipes and food history at Swedish Spoon. Article based on Semla – the mighty Swedish Lenten bun, which includes more historical semlor and a recipe.

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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.