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.