The top of a fluffy, yeast bun that tastes of cardamom is slowly being cut off, followed by a very rich, buttery almond cream being piped into the bottom of the bun, topped with a rich and glossy, very thick layer of whipped cream. The cut off top is placed back, on top of that luxurious white mountain and gets lightly covered with a dust of powdered sugar. A splash of warm milk is drizzled into a bowl, the filled bun placed in the middle. Now it’s time to dive into it. With a spoon, one cuts through a bun layer, not missing the cream and almond paste. Catch some milk and eat.
Now, you’ve experienced it yourself. Assembling and eating a semla, one of the most esthetic pastries in Sweden. Traditionally you eat it on Fat Thursday, just before starting to fast until Easter. Even a legend tells about a king eating a total of 14 Semlas and dying from it—a sweet, sweet death. Also, the word Semla comes from the German word Semmel, which means bun. Some say that the original Semla was eaten with milk and didn’t even have cream or almond paste inside.
That was the tradition. Soon, people started eating them every Tuesday. Nowadays, Semlor (plural of Semla) appear earlier every year in local bakeries. Usually, you’ll start spotting them in windows just after New Year’s, but some Stockholm bakers even went as far as selling them in November. I find that a bit sad. It’s like selling Christmas candy in September. All the Vorfreude, the ‘pre-happiness,’ the excitement, as we say in German, is gone. Everything has its time, and Semlor’s time is at the earliest from mid-January onwards. End of discussion. (This is also very Swedish, btw.; discussing how things happen earlier and earlier and are not following traditions anymore.)
Usually, every bakery has its take on the Semla. Some even go as far as selling Semla wraps, Semla porridge, and Semla burgers. Even though the traditional one consists of a bun, almond paste, and whipped cream, every Semla can be slightly different from the other; more cream, less cream, sweeter, nuttier, more cardamom, bergamot zest in the dough – variations are endless. This is why every year there are Semla blind tasting competitions. You try a dangerous amount of Semlor and rate which one you liked most. I was part of such a Semla-jury last year, and after having tried more than 20 different ones, I had enough for the whole of 2020. Apparently, some people don’t like Semlor – I believe it’s a myth because this is impossible.
Apart from being part of the Semla-jury, I conducted some serious Semla research last year. This year, I know which places to skip and which to go to more often. There are three places that, in my view, have the best Semla in Stockholm, and I’ll share them with you next week.