I don’t know where I found first read about Semlor but I am pretty sure it was early last year. These Swedish sweet buns are a seasonal treat originally designed to be eaten at the start of Lent (like pancakes are on Shrove Tuesday in the UK) as a last indulgence before Lenten abstinence. However, I believe at some point Lenten abstinence was discouraged as religious practices shifted, and they are now enjoyed in the period between New Year and Easter these days, much like the Hot Cross Bun. And, like the Hot Cross Bun, people in Sweden bemoan how early the Semla arrives in their bakeries each year, as we in the UK grumble at the sight of Hot Cross Buns and Easter themed chocolate goodies in our supermarkets on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas day).
I started to think about bread and how integral it is to so many cultures and their feasts and festivities. Bread is about sharing. Bread can be about celebration. Bread can also be about survival.
It is so basic and fundamental a food stuff to so many peoples around the world. For some, who are impoverished and starving it may be all they have to keep their bodies going (I am thinking of goody pudding in Frank McCourt’s autobiography Angela’s Ashes). Though there are lots of crossovers of flavours (think of the spices and dried fruits in so many culture’s Christmas breads and baked goods), each country, and sometimes religion, has its own type of bread for different times of the year and celebrations. This is why I am so intrigued by and delighted with bread baking. There is always a new bread to discover from another country or culture, with its own history and background. This common making and breaking of bread around the world make it seem a little smaller to me, and creates a sense of unity amongst a very diverse planet of people. It is a ritual and nutritional activity that we share and practice.
When I first saw pictures of Semlor they intrigued me. A sweet dough flavoured with Cardamom, with its innards ripped out and replaced with a sweet almond paste and whipped cream, seemed like an interesting combination of flavours and looked quite decadent. Although Scandi, or Scandinavian, cooking and baking has become incredibly popular in the UK in the last few years, I haven’t done much myself. However, having visited Copenhagen last summer and fallen in love with its people, its culture, food, architecture, well, everything really, I felt it was about time I made a start, and the Semlor seemed a pretty good place to start.
Earlier this month I wrote about post about my Instafriends or the ever growing group of wonderful people that I know through social media and our shared passion for food, cooking and baking. Last night, as I lay on the sofa relaxing after a day baking Semlor and cooking and eating dinner, I was simultaneously having separate private message conversations with two of my most recent friends found in this way. Jackie, a passionate bread baker and pasta maker in New Jersey, and Jane, an incredibly talented and precise baker and cake decorator based in Wales, and I were all engaged in animated and excited chats about bread and pasta and culture. I bloody love it!
Jane had indicated that she fancied making Semlor the other day. I suggested it be cool if we made them around the same time so we could compare and contrast the whole experience, and we mourned the fact that we couldn’t actually do it in the same kitchen and eat each other’s efforts. I went for it yesterday. Jane had to postpone due to family commitments and DIY activities in her house. 🙂 I am very much hoping that she finds the time today, however.
We discussed which recipe to use. She had narrowed down to Ed Kimber’s, winner of the Great British Bake Off and established baker and author, and Linda Lomelino, a Swedish food blogger and stylist, and photographer. I hadn’t heard of Linda before but was instantly entranced by her photography. I also liked the idea that her recipe required you to make your own Almond paste and not use commercially made Marzipan. Here is how I got on.
The thing that took the longest out of all the processes was getting the blinking Cardamom seeds out of their pods in order to grind them. I need to find a supplier who sells the seeds!
I have to say the scent that rose up from the pestle and mortar as I ground the Cardamom was incredible. I have always had a bit of an issue with Cardamom, if I am being honest. Having accidentally bitten into Cardamom pods in pilau rice from Indian restaurants too many times, feeling as though a Jiff lemon had burst into my mouth unexpectedly, I am a little wary of them. Using them in this way changed my perception of them.
The process of making the Semlor dough felt a little like making Brioche, in that the butter was added a little at a time to the already established dough. At first it felt as though it would never be incorporated, then it seemed as if it was just a sticky mess, then it all came good and created a beautifully soft and silky dough. Interestingly, the recipe required only a ten minute rest and not an hour long first prove or bulk. Also, it required the use of Plain (or general purpose) Flour, but did have a much greater ratio of yeast than I am used to.
I decided to split the dough nine ways, but I think that in the future I would make twelve buns, as they are rather rich (and tall and therefore hard to shove in even my cavernous mouth). It was so easy to work with and a great dough to practise forming buns for those new to it. Not a single dusting of extra flour was required to split or shape the buns.
Now was the time to prove. The recipe said an hour, preferably an hour and a half, so I opted for the longer period. Then, just before going into the oven the buns were given an egg and water wash in order to create that wonderful shine.
At this stage I was worried that I had placed them too closely together and they would end up touching when they expanded in the oven.
But I was delighted with how they turned out, like shiny mahogany. I baked them for the longer 13 minutes, but would turn my oven down a fraction next time. Whilst they cooled I got on the with Almond paste.
Then, once the buns were cool, I slice them in half and scooped out some of their insides, crumbling them in with the almond paste, adding cream to get a good consistency for re-filling.
Once filled with the Almond paste, I topped them with the whipped cream that had been flavoured gently with Vanilla and Icing Sugar, then popped their hats back on before giving them a final dusting of Icing Sugar.
I have to say I was very pleased with their appearance and, even more, with their taste. The buns had a wonderful soft and fluffy texture, gently warmed by the addition of Cardamom. Inside, the almond paste added more flavour and texture to each bite. As for the cream, it completed the ensemble. As my partner said, they are like nothing we have tasted before. It seems like such an odd combination of flavours and textures but they work so well together. I tried one, thinking I would maybe manage a bite or two, out of curiosity, but managed to devour the whole thing! They are traditionally eaten in a bowl of warm milk, but we just ate them freestyle off of the plate. If I am lucky enough to visit Sweden I will, however, honour that tradition.
In the mean time, I am off to read up about some more breads from around the world and to have a toasted Hot Cross Bun for breakfast.