Semla buns being made on a pink board. A hand is seen powdering cream-filled buns with icing sugar.
Photo: Susanne Walström/imagebank.sweden.se

The semla

All you need to know about the cream-filled semla. Including recipe, of course.

The semla – a small, wheat flour bun, flavoured with cardamom and filled with almond paste and whipped cream – has become something of a carb-packed icon in Sweden.

The traditions of semla are rooted in fettisdag (Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday) when the buns were eaten at a last celebratory feast before the Christian fasting period of Lent. At first, a semla was simply a bun, eaten soaked in hot milk (known as hetvägg).

At some point Swedes grew tired of the strict observance of Lent, added cream and almond paste to the mix and started eating semla every Tuesday between Shrove Tuesday and Easter.

Today, no such reservations exist and semlor (the plural of semla) usually appear in bakery windows as near after Christmas as is deemed decent – and sometimes even before. This is followed by a collective, nationwide moan about how it gets earlier every year. Shortly thereafter people begin to eat the things like the world will end tomorrow.

But, increasingly, not just any semla will do. Every year, at around the same time that the bakeries fill with semlor, the Swedish newspapers start to fill with semla taste tests. Panels of ‘experts’ dissect and inspect tables full of semlor to find the best in town.

Death by semla?

Apparently, King Adolf Frederick ate
14 hetvägg (semla served in a bowl of warm milk) on 12 February 1771 before he died of digestion problems.

The changing face of the semla

Over the years bakeries have challenged the traditional semla, hoping to create the next big buzz. The experimental semla 'sensations' include the semmelwrap, where the dough was rolled out flat, filled with almond paste and whipped cream, then folded and eaten as a wrap. There have also been Nutella-filled and fried versions.

Another one worthy of a mention is the princess semla, where the semla met the princess cake. It totally shocked the Swedes. How could anyone come up with the idea of mixing the two most lovable Swedish pastries of all time?

And then there was the raw food semla, the semla shake, and... the semla porridge. The list is long, and more innovative semlor will probably keep on coming.

Fika – the sacred coffee break

To the uninitiated, such reverence and hysteria over a cream bun might seem at odds with all things normal. But the annual semla hysteria is just a part of a bigger picture – a social phenomenon that is uniquely Swedish: fika.

Fika has no translation. It means to take a break with colleagues or friends, over coffee and (usually) something sweet to eat. But it means so much more than that. It is ritual, it is tradition – some will say it's the very fabric of Swedishness. It is something, if invited, you should never say no to.

Swedes drink between seven and eight kilos of coffee per person per year – that’s about a bathtub full of coffee! Fortunately, a European study on over half a million people in ten European countries has shown that coffee drinkers have lower mortality rates linked to cardiovascular diseases, primarily stroke, than non-coffee drinkers.

In many Swedish workplaces fika is a statutory break just like lunch – 15 minutes to be away from keyboard and congregate with colleagues over coffee. Remote working has also make online fika a thing, but a semla may be harder to come by in the home-based office.

Now let's move on to the most important part of this article – the actual recipe.

Conversions and abbreviations

1 g = 1 gramme = 1/1,000 of a kg

1 kg = 1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds (lb)

1 dl = 1 decilitre = 100 millilitres (ml) = 1/10 of a litre = 0.4 US cup

1 litre = 10 dl = 0.9 UK quart (qt) = 1.06 US liquid quart

1 fl oz, UK = 1 fluid ounce = 1/33 UK quart = 30 ml

1 fl oz, US = 1/32 US qt = 28 ml

1 lb = 16 oz = 450 ml

1 tsp = 1 teaspoon = 1/6 oz = 5 ml

1 tbsp = 1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons = 1/2 oz = 15 ml

°C = degrees Celsius

°F = degrees Fahrenheit

For more online conversions: onlineconversion.com.

Four cream-filled wheat buns with icing sugar on top.
Let's bake! Photo: Mona Loose/imagebank.sweden.se

Semla recipe

About 15 large or 25 small buns

Buns

100 g butter
300 ml milk, 3%
50 g fresh yeast (for sweet dough)
1 tsp crushed cardamom or the grated peel of 1 orange
½ tsp salt
85 g sugar
about 500–550 g plain flour
1 beaten egg for brushing

Filling

200 g marzipan
bun centres
100 ml milk
300 ml whipping cream

Decoration

Icing sugar for dusting

Preparation

1. Melt the butter and add the milk. Heat to 37°C.

2. Crumble the yeast in a bowl and add the cardamom or the orange peel.

3. Add the milky liquid and stir until the yeast has melted. Stir in the salt, the sugar and most of the flour, but save some for later.

4. Work the dough in a food processor for about 15 minutes.

5. Let it rise to twice its size in the bowl, about 40 minutes.

6. Place the dough on a floured pastry board and cut into pieces. Roll into buns and place on oven paper or greased baking sheet. Let the buns rise to twice their size, about one hour.

7. Brush the buns with egg. Bake in the lower part of the oven, at 225°C for around 8–10 minutes for large buns and 250°C for 5–7 minutes for small. Leave to cool on wire racks.

8. Cut off the bun tops. Scoop out the centre of each bun (about 2 tsp) and crumble in a bowl.

9. Rough grate the marzipan and mix it with the crumbs and milk into a creamy mass.

10. Fill the hollow buns with this mixture.

11. Whip the cream and squirt or spoon it over the filling. Place the top on the bun and dust with icing sugar.

12. Serve alone with coffee or in a deep bowl with warm milk and ground cinnamon, a hetvägg.