Pancakes, that’s what we associate with Shrove Tuesday here in the UK (affectionately referred to as ‘pancake day’). Pancakes are made from what would have been considered rich, fattening ingredients, eggs & milk, in an effort to use them up before the beginning of Lent. This Christian observation of fasting from both food & festivities for the 40 days leading up to Eater, replicates Jesus Christ’s sacrifice in the period leading up to his crucifixion.
Elsewhere around the world, Shrove Tuesday is known by many different names… Carnival in Spain & Italy, Bursting Day in Iceland, Mardi Gras in France & my personal favourite belongs to the Swedish who, quite aptly, call it Fat Tuesday.
In Sweden however they don’t indulge in big piles of towering pancakes but instead they enjoy semlor, also known as fettisdagsbulle (Fat Tuesday roll – it just gets better!). Semlor (or Semla, if singular) are cardamom flavoured buns which have their tops cut off & are hollowed out before bring filled with an almond paste & piled high with whipped cream. The buns are eaten as a last celebratory food before the fasting period of Lent.
Semlor originated as a simple bun which was eaten soaked in hot milk (known as hetvagg). Today semlor are often enjoyed simply with a cup of tea or coffee for Fika (coffee break) but it is still eaten swimming in a steaming bowl of milk by some.
A seasonal treat, bakeries start to bake & sell semlor shortly after Christmas. No longer simply confined to Fat Tuesday, it’s estimated that each Swede will consume on average four to five bakery-produced semlor each year, in addition to any that are home-baked (a challenge that I’m sure I can surpass). So much-loved are these indulgent, cream filled buns that Swedish newspapers put together panels of expert taste testers each year to find the best buns in town (where do I apply?!).
Like with many treats though, I think it’s their seasonality that make them so special & fondly regarded, you will never ever find Semlor buns sold outside of their season. It’s the excitement of looking forward to seeing the first semlor popping up in bakeries at this time of year. Much like us Brits when we first see mince pies available to buy from the shops, it’s the excitement of not only what they signify but also the absence of them has made our hearts grow fonder.
Living in Wales, we don’t have any Swedish bakeries like our lucky counterparts over in London, which is where I first indulged in a larger than life bun, so if you want to try them, then you’re going to have to make them for yourself. Luckily, as impressive as semlor look, they’re very simple to make. A basic sweet bread dough, flavoured with cardamom fills the house with beautiful aromas when baking before I fill them with a cheats version of a pastry cream enriched with almonds, pipe over a generous layer of whipped vanilla cream before crowning with its severed top & a light dusting of sugar… perfection!
The only dilemma is how do you eat it? Everyone has their own ritual when it comes to eating their semla, do you use cutlery or are you happy to get a little cream all over your hands? Do you scoop out the middle before eating the hollow bun like it’s a creme egg? Do you dive right in & tackle it whole or divide it up into manageable bites? Personally, I like to use the lid as a little scoop to eat half of the cream before getting stuck in with my hands (no, it’s not pretty, but damn is it good).
For the dough:
- 500g strong white flour
- 7g fast acting dried yeast
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 50g caster sugar
- 2 tsp ground cardamom
- 50g butter
- 325ml whole milk
- 1 egg, beaten
For the filling & topping:
- 75g marzipan, grated
- 10g whole almonds, grated
- 4 tbsp double cream
- the hollowed out crumbs of 4 buns
- 300ml whipping cream
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- Icing sugar
- In a large bowl, combine the flour, yeast, salt, sugar & cardamom
- Gently melt the butter either in a small saucepan over a low heat or in the microwave
- Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture & pour in the melted butter & the milk to form a dough
- Mix the ingredients together until it starts to come together & a dough is formed (add a little more water if your dough seems a bit dry)
- Empty the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface & knead for 10 minutes (or 5 minutes if using a stand mixer with a dough hook) until it is smooth & elastic when stretched
- Put the dough back into the bowl, cover with clingfilm & leave to rise for about an hour, until it has doubled in size
- Whilst the dough is rising, begin making the filling & topping
- In a bowl, mix together the grated marzipan, grated almonds & double cream, set aside for later
- Pour the whipping cream into a large bowl with the vanilla extract & use a hand-held mixer to whip up until thick & fluffy
- Decant the whipped cream into a piping bag fitted with a large star nozzle & place in the fridge until needed
- When your dough has risen, tip it out onto a floured work surface & knock back the dough (knead out the air pockets)
- Divide the dough into 6 evenly sized pieces & use your hands to shape into round buns
- Cover with a tea towel, or (my preference) place inside a large plastic bag & leave to prove for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until doubled in size & the dough springs back when gently pressed with a finger
- Brush the tops of the buns with the beaten egg
Bake the bread at 200C for 15 minutes until golden brown & they sound hollow when tapped underneath with your finger
- Leave the buns to completely cool on a cooling rack
- Once cooled, use a sharp knife to cup round tops off of each bun (a little tip to shape them into perfect circles or squares is to trim them with a small pair of scissors for a perfect edge)
- Using your hands, carefully create a hollow inside each bun, reserving the hollowed out breadcrumbs of 4 buns
- Add the hollowed out breadcrumbs to the almond cream & mix together
- Carefully spoon the almond cream into the hollow of each of the buns, dividing it equally
- Next, pipe the whipped cream on top of the almond cream, covering up the hollows
- Place the round tops on top of the whipped cream & dust with a little icing sugar to finish