Around this time four years ago I was in Stockholm to celebrate my birthday, eat my way through the city and immerse myself in all things Swedish. One thing anyone will notice in Stockholm around January / February is the window displays of bakeries and cafés overflowing with semlor, the traditional Lent buns.
Semlor are cardamom-scented buns filled with an almond paste and topped with whipped cream. The cut off bun is used as a lid over the cream, lightly dusted with icing sugar.
The tradition of baking semlor is tied to the Lent period. In the old days, Swedes would eat semlor on fettisdagen (known here as Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras) as a last indulgence before the 40-day fast. Nowadays these buns are widely available in Sweden throughout January and until the beginning of February when Lent starts.
Even in London it’s much easier to find semla buns thanks to the opening of Swedish bakeries such as Scandinavian Kitchen, Bageriet and Fabrique.
I absolutely love semla and I eat at least one every January. This year I was already planning a visit to central London to get one, when I came across a semla recipe by Rachel Khoo on ES Magazine. I always thought they would be difficult to make, but the recipe seemed pretty straight-forward so I decided to give it a try. Despite a baking fail which resulted in burnt buns and having to make a new batch of dough, the recipe was easy. Just make sure you keep an eye on the oven when you are baking the buns! ;) Even my second batch was a little bit too brown as you can see from the photos; one minute less in the oven and they would have been perfect.
Making semlor is a bit time-consuming as any kind of bread. I made the dough the night before and let it rise overnight. The next morning I divided the dough in eights parts and baked the buns. A few hours later, with the buns completely cold, I added the marzipan paste and whipped cream. Job done. They kept well in the fridge for up to five days (by then, they were all gone).
The verdict? They are really good. My husband ate FOUR of them on the first evening and even though I am slightly shocked by this I am glad he loved them so much. I loved them too, so I’ll definitely be making them again.
For the buns
For the filling
Put the butter and milk in a pan and heat until the butter has melted and the milk is hot. Remove from the heat. Put the caster sugar, flour, yeast, cardamom and salt in the bowl of a free-standing mixer and make a well in the centre. Add the egg yolk and the milk and butter. Use the dough hook to incorporate the mixture, then knead on a medium to low speed for 5-10 minutes until it is springy (add more flour if required). Place the dough in a clean bowl covered with a damp tea towel, put in a warm place and prove for 2-3 hours or until doubled in size.
Dust a surface with flour, knock back the dough and roll into a sausage shape. Divide into 8 buns of about 60g each.
Place on a large baking tray, spaced evenly, and lightly cover with cling film. Leave to prove for a further 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 200C and make the filling. Grate the marzipan into a bowl and beat with the milk and cardamom until you have a paste. Once the buns have proved, beat the egg and brush over the top of the buns.
Bake the buns for 8-10 minutes or until golden on the top and nicely risen. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack.
Cut off and keep the tops of the buns and use a teaspoon to scoop out some of the crumb inside. Add to the marzipan mixture, beat and put a spoonful in the centre of each bun.
Whip the cream to soft peaks with 2 tbsp of the icing sugar, place in a piping bag and pipe over the top of the marzipan and to the edges.
Place the tops back on the buns and dust with icing sugar. Serve immediately.