Sunday, March 24, 2013

In search of Sweden's semlor tradition

Any travel website will tell you that the best time to visit Sweden is during the summertime for its warm weather and extended daylight hours.  But if you're pondering a visit, consider semla season.  Semla (plural: semlor) is the Swedish name for a decadent treat enjoyed historically on Fat Tuesday each year.  
Above, a mini semla from St. Jakob's Stenugnsbageri (stone oven bakery) in Lund, Sweden 

Semlor are sweet buns, spiced with cardamom, cut in half, and typically filled with a combination of whipped cream and almond paste.  The hat, or top of the semla, is sprinkled with powdered sugar as a finishing touch.

A tray of mini semlor from St. Jakob's in Lund

In early March, I visited Sweden at the tail end of semla season, thankfully just in time to explore some of the offerings in both Lund and Stockholm.  While Fat Tuesday is the traditional day of consumption, bakeries produce the treat for several months for the benefit of customers for whom one day is not enough to enjoy this indulgence. But if you limit your Scandinavian travel to the warmest months, you'll likely miss bakeries filling their windows with semlor, and miss filling your belly as a consequence.  

Classic semlor at Gunnarson's Specialkonditori in Stockholm

According to one Swedish website, the modern Swedish population eats 40 million semlor per year, partly due to the lengthening of the season.  Plus, semlor are perfect for the practice of fika, a Swedish word that describes the local tradition of frequent coffee breaks that often include a snack to satisfy one's sweet tooth. While semlor are perfectly paired with a few simple cups of black coffee, in their earlier history they were traditionally eaten in a bowl of warm milk. In fact, this is how the Swedish King Adolf Frederick enjoyed his, allegedly eating 14 servings at the conclusion of one royal feast and causing his untimely death.  After trying several of these rich buns for research purposes during my one-week trip, it is hard to imagine anyone indulging in 14 of them in a single sitting. But beware, there are many opportunities to order semlor, and in a number of tempting variations  including plain, with extra almond paste, extra cream, or with the cream and almond mixed together. 
Åsa Konditori's semlor variations, including their luxury version with extra cream and almond paste

Several varieties at Chic Konditori

In fact, one anonymous Swedish blogger Semmelmannen documents the best local versions through an annual ritual that involves eating one semla a day from February 1 until Fat Tuesday. 

Since each bakery makes their own versions of semlor, everyone seems to have a favorite based on criteria such as the amount and consistency of cream, ratio of almond paste to cream, and bun quality.  In my experience, a generous amount of almond paste in the middle of a semla takes the dessert from good to outstanding, and the best buns are delicate enough that they practically melt in your mouth together with the cream filling.  In many bakeries, the amount of cream included is overwhelming, so one has to consider a strategy for consuming it. It's a challenge for any first time semla eater to eat the bun gracefully-- whipped cream will likely overflow onto every surface.  But you can try using the 'hat' of the semla to scoop out some of the excess cream and break down the structure of the semla so you can eat it in small parts.

Semlor often come in small and large sizes, and while the large size is so filling you could count it as a meal, the small size is perfect for a fika.  Since it's difficult to rush through a snack like this, one day I took a semla back to my hotel room after a visit to Gunnarson's bakery-- a place in the Södermalm neighborhood that's been in business for 60 years. 

Too messy to snack on during a casual stroll down the street, I waited impatiently for the train ride that would take me to my hotel.  
Gunnarson's special semla (featuring almond paste and whipped cream swirled together and a slight almond crunch in the cream's texture) was a special treat and a definite highlight of the trip. 

After savoring the semla, I had to get going to my next destination quickly and left a slight trace of powdered sugar sprinkled on my coffee table: the telltale sign of the season's indulgence, surely recognized by hotel staff across Sweden.  With plans to clean up later, I placed the do not disturb sign on the door-- incriminating not only my sweet tooth, but also my novice, messy consumption of Sweden's national bakery treasure.  Thanks to all of the cozy bakeries creating semlor as an art form, I plan to return to establish more favorites.