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
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.