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SEMLA

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.

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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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FOOD & DRINK

Five sweet treats you should be able to identify if you live in Sweden

Do you know your biskvi from your bakelse? Your chokladboll from your kanelbulle? Here's a guide guaranteed to get your mouth watering.

Five sweet treats you should be able to identify if you live in Sweden

Kanelbulle

The most famous of all Swedish cakes outside Sweden, the classic kanelbulle (cinnamon bun) is the symbol of Sweden abroad, no doubt helped by the fact that Swedish furniture giants IKEA stock frozen buns in their food stores for customers to bake off at home.

Forget American tear-apart cinnamon rolls baked in a pan and slathered with cream cheese frosting: a classic Swedish cinnamon bun is baked individually using a yeasted dough spread with cinnamon sugar and butter. The dough is then rolled up, sliced into strips which are then stretched out and knotted into buns, baked, glazed with sugar syrup and sprinkled with pearl sugar.

Home-made varieties skip the stretching and knotting step, rolling the cinnamon-sprinkled dough into a spiral instead which, although less traditional, tastes just as good.

Kanelbullar in Sweden often include a small amount of Sweden’s favourite spice: cardamom. If you’re a fan of cardamom, try ordering the kanelbulle‘s even more Swedish cousin, the kardemummabulle or cardamom bun, which skips the cinnamon entirely and goes all-out on cardamom instead.

Sweden celebrates cinnamon bun day (kanelbullens dag) on October 4th.

Photo: Lieselotte van der Meijs/imagebank.sweden.se

Chokladboll

A great option if you want a smaller cake for your fika, the chokladboll or ‘chocolate ball’ is a perfect accompaniment to coffee – some recipes even call for mixing cold coffee into the batter.

They aren’t baked and are relatively easy to make, meaning they are a popular choice for parents (or grandparents) wanting to involve children in the cake-making process.

Chokladbollar are a simple mix of sugar, oats, melted butter and cocoa powder, with the optional addition of vanilla or coffee, or occasionally rum extract. They are rolled into balls which are then rolled in desiccated coconut (or occasionally pearl sugar), and placed in the fridge to become more solid.

Some bakeries or cafés also offer dadelbollar or rawbollar/råbollar (date or raw balls), a vegan alternative made from dried dates and nuts blended together with cocoa powder.

Chocolate ball day (chokladbollens dag) falls on May 11th.

Photo: Magnus Carlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

Prinsesstårta

The lime-green prinsesstårta or ‘princess cake’ may look like a modern invention with it’s brightly-coloured marzipan covering, but it has been around since the beginning of the 1900s, and is named after three Swedish princesses, Margareta, Märta and Astrid, who were supposedly especially fond of the cake.

The cake consists of a sponge bottom spread with jam, crème pâtissière and a dome of whipped cream, covered in green marzipan and some sort of decoration, often a marzipan rose.

Prinsesstårtor can also be served in individual portions, small slices of a log which are then referred to as a prinsessbakelse.

Although the cakes are popular all year round, in the Swedish region of Småland, prinsesstårta is eaten on the first Thursday in March, due to this being the unofficial national day of the Småland region (as the phrase första torsdagen i mars is pronounced fössta tossdan i mass in the Småland dialect).

Since 2004, the Association of Swedish Bakers and Confectioners has designated the last week of September as prinsesstårtans vecka (Princess cake day).

Photo: Sinikka Halme, Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0.

Budapestbakelse

Belonging to the more traditional cakes, a Budapestbakelse or “Budapest slice” is a type of rulltårta or “roll cake” similar to a Swiss roll, consisting of a light and crispy cake made from whipped egg whites, sugar and hazelnut, filled with whipped cream and fruit, often chopped conserved peaches, nectarines or mandarines, and rolled into a log.

The log is then sliced into individual portions and drizzled with chocolate, then often topped with whipped cream and a slice of fruit. 

Despite its name, the Budapest slice has nothing to do with the city of Budapest – it was supposedly invented by baker Ingvar Strid in 1926 and received the name due to Strid’s love for the Hungarian capital.

Of course, the Budapestbakelse also has its own day – May 1st.

Kanelbullar (left), chokladbollar (centre) and biskvier (right). Photo: Tuukka Ervasti/imagebank.sweden.se

Biskvi

Another smaller cake, a biskvi (pronounced like the French biscuit), consists of an almond biscuit base, covered in buttercream (usually chocolate flavoured), and dark chocolate.

Different variants of biskvier exist, such as a Sarah Bernhardt, named after the French actress of the same name, which has chocolate truffle instead of buttercream.

You might also spot biskvier with white chocolate, often with a hallon (raspberry) or citron (lemon) filling, or even saffransbiskvier around Christmastime.

Chokladbiskviens dag is celebrated on November 11th.

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