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Origin of a Classic: Semlor

With a more-than-700-year history, the almond-and-cream-filled buns most commonly known today as semlor have been through many changes. Like king cake in parts of the United States, semlor are enjoyed between the Christian holidays of Christmas and Ash Wednesday, though, traditionally, they’re meant to be served only on fettisdagen, or Fat Tuesday. These buns have been known by many names, including fettisdagsbulle (Fat Tuesday bun), hetvägg (hot bun in a bowl of warm milk), and semla (which is the singular of “semlor”), the latter being the most common name today. It’s no surprise that, like its name, the way semlor are made and enjoyed has also evolved.

Photo by Joann Pai / Styling by Linda Lomelino

Throughout history, many foods have been reserved for special occasions and religious holidays because of their expense. Semlor were no different; the almonds and spices that go into making the buns were not always affordable, yet the buns were a beloved dish for nobility and commoners alike. One such person, King Adolf Frederick of Sweden, who died in 1771, is famously rumored to have perished from overindulging in 14 helpings of hetvägg after an already-rich meal. Sweden, one of the last Scandinavian nations to leave behind their pagan beliefs, converted to Christianity around the early 12th century. After the conversion, Swedes would participate in many Christian holidays, including Lent, during which they would fast for the 40 days leading to Easter. Semlor don’t make their noteworthy appearance until the early 1500s. A massive celebration and feast would be held three days prior to Lent as a way to mark the religious significance of the time as well as survive the coming fast. During these three days, there would be pork, buns, and many other foods. It was during this that semlor came about. The name “semla” originally referred to only the bun itself, without any filling. It was a bit dry, so to make it more enjoyable, it was served with a sliver of butter or bit of cream for pouring or dunking. This is how hetvägg came about; rather than referring to the bun, it’s actually a dish where a filled semla is placed in a bowl of warm milk. The filling would depend on the availability of ingredients, though almonds and cardamom became more readily available around the 1800s. The richness of this dish, combined with the feast, makes King Frederick’s demise seem a little more plausible.

These celebrations included many different games, costumes, and more. Eating semlor on Fat Tuesday was so looked forward to that people started to call it semmeldagen (the day of the semlor). As time went on, the strict adherence to fasting and the exclusivity of eating semlor on fettisdagen was gradually loosened until the Protestant Reformation, when Sweden’s king severed ties with the Catholic Church. From then on, semlor were enjoyed throughout the winter until fettisdagen.

Photography by Joann Pai / Styling by Linda Lomelino

Swedish cookbooks across the centuries show the evolution of semlor, though the basic structure has remained the same. Most recipes still include an almond mixture that fills a hollowed-out bun and is capped with the top of the bun. One variation was a Christmastime semlor that used raisins, currants, and cinnamon to fill the center rather than almonds and cardamom. At one point during World War II, the history of semlor almost came full circle due to price increases and ingredient supply decreases. Although Sweden didn’t participate in the war, the country still felt its effects, including food rationing and other cutbacks that caused semlor to take an interesting turn. Rather than using almonds to fill the center, one cookbook suggested using potatoes. After the war ended, the whipped cream-capped semlor took over, which is now considered to be the classic, or traditional, version: a cardamom-flavored bun with an almond and cardamom paste filling that’s topped with unsweetened whipped cream and a dusting of confectioners’ sugar for an elegant finish.

This iconic dessert is still inspiring new varieties, including the relatively new semmelwrap. Created by Stockholm pastry chef Mattias Ljungberg in 2015, semmelwrap consists of dough that’s rolled flat, briefly baked, filled with almond paste and whipped cream, and folded or rolled specifically to be eaten on the go. Another variation is a princess semla, which is a combination of princess cake and semla. Baker Markus Ekelund created the eclectic hybrid in 2017, which consists of a cardamom-flavored bun filled with almond cream and raspberry jam that’s covered in a layer of green marzipan.

Photography by Joann Pai / Styling by Linda Lomelino

The deep love for semlor has fallen in step with modern-day media. During the annual semla season, local news media will taste-test semlor from various bakeries and leave reviews for which semlor is the best in town. The increased availability of ingredients today also allows bakeries to produce semlor in large quantities, which Swedes take full advantage of. On Fat Tuesday alone, an estimated 6 million semlor are sold across the country. One can only imagine the quantity consumed during the two months between Christmas and semmeldagen, especially when considering all the home bakers who create their own batches of buns. With a pastry so well loved, why wouldn’t there be a day named after it?

The post Origin of a Classic: Semlor first appeared on Bake from Scratch.

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