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Why I still don't understand the hype about Sweden's semlor

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
Why I still don't understand the hype about Sweden's semlor
Semlor under preparation at the BAK bakery in Hökarängen, Stockholm. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

After twelve years in Sweden, The Local's Nordic Editor Richard Orange still feels that semlor - the much-hyped Swedish lent speciality - aren't really all that.


"It's a bread roll," I thought, as my wife studied my face for a reaction. "A rather plain one, and to the extent that it has any flavour at all, it's a taste of cardamom that I don't even particularly like." 

When I was given my first semla on arrival in Sweden I was underwhelmed, to say the least. And truth be told, 12 years later, as my colleagues and friends enthuse about the start of Sweden's semla season, I still struggle to understand the excitement over this celebrated confectionery. 

"It's the cream," I hear you say, and, yes, I like whipped cream as much as the next man. But if that's what you're after, why not have it with something tastier, like a nice slice of apple pie?

A similar argument goes for the the almond paste and the dusting of icing sugar. I love both marzipan and its chunkier Swedish cousin mandelmassa, and who doesn't like icing sugar? But I still don't see the reason to combine it all with a dull, white roll.


Every February, and increasingly every January - the start date seems to get closer to New Year's Day every single year - my social media feeds fill up with people posting pictures of their first semla of the season, or of the best semla they've had so far, or of a semla from some renowned bakery. 

At the Local Sweden, we publish semla articles old and new, and our correspondents gush about this year's semla experiences on our podcast.

I, too, have in my years in Sweden learned to tell the difference between a good semla and a bad one. The key seems to be using fresh cream and not the spray can variety, in making your own almond paste rather than buying it in, and in making a bread roll that is springy and spongy, and not, like the ones you get in supermarkets, a bit stale. 

My wife has made me hetvägg, literally "hot wall", the version where the semla is floating in a bowl of hot milk, and I have to confess that that it did have a certain something. It's definitely a comfort food. I've also tried some of the more elaborate semla varieties that swap out the bread roll for something more luxurious (which are mostly, I think, an improvement).

When I'm in a charitable mood, I consider that the pancakes we Brits eat on Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras  -- the last day before the Lent fast begins -- are also plain, that the plainness is part of the tradition. I consider that, perhaps, other Lent and Easter specialties such as the hot cross buns eaten in the UK, or the varme hveder rolls Danes eat on Store Bededag are quite similar in their dullness.

I can also, at a push, recognise that the secret of a semla is that the simple, almost savoury, bread sets off the otherwise excessive sweetness of the almond paste, that the dryness of the bread contrasts with the fattiness of the cream.


I can accept that none of the three components of a semla should be considered individually. That they only work in combination.

Finally, I am more than willing to scoff down a semla or six during the season and to an extent have started to almost enjoy them. I might even post something on social media.

Still, I often feel like I'm faking it, or else, like the little boy in The Emperor's New Clothes, find myself desperately wanting to call everyone's bluff and scream out that at the heart of all this excitement, at the centre of all this hype, what remains is still just a slightly boring bread roll. 


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Jeremiah 2024/02/13 10:52
Semlor are the most over hyped thing in Swedish culture. They are the world's most disappointing cream puffs.

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