I’ve never been to a Scandinavian country, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying their baked goods from afar.
I’ve had my eye on these cardamom flavoured buns filled with almond paste and cream for a while, but as the Christian Shrovetide, the three days before the pre-Easter fast of Lent, only comes round once a year, now’s my chance to make them. Yes, yes, I know I made some seriously sugary carby Italian Carnival treats yesterday, but it’s a busy time of year for indulgent foods. Indeed, Shrovetide is all about the indulgent foods, even giving Christmas a run for its money.
In Britain, the remnants of this tradition are our pancakes, with the secular name for Shrove Tuesday Pancake Day*. We used to have a tradition to eat slices of bacon – collops – on the Monday before Lent, but this seems to be all-but forgotten now. It’s all about the fatty, rich foods though, as commemorated in the more common international name for Shrove Tuesday: Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Fettisdag in Swedish. The Danish and Norwegian name, meanwhile, is Fastelavn, which comes from older German and means “fast-evening”.
Versions of these buns are eaten throughout Scandinavia and adjacent areas, and go under various names: according to Wikipedia these are “semla or fastlagsbulle (Swedish), laskiaispulla (Finnish), vastlakukkel (Estonian) or fastelavnsbolle (Danish and Norwegian)”, with semlor the plural of semla, from semila, the Latin for flour (and related to the English and Italian grain-related words semolina, semolino, semola). Another Swedish name is fettisdagsbullar. So either “Fast-evening buns” or “Fat Tuesday buns”.
A common version of the bun these days involves filling it with almond paste and whipped cream. The almond paste form was first recorded in 1883, the cream supposedly came as a ration-busting celebration in Sweden after the First World War. In our modern world of more-is-more, both are combined.
Eaten without a filling, and instead sprinkled with cinnamon and served in a bowl of warm milk, they’re known as hetvägg. King Adolf Fredrik of Sweden purportedly died in 1771 after eating 14 but that may be one of those myths perpetuated by the internet. Not reading Swedish, I can’t confirm or deny it.
It’s very easy to make almond paste, marzipan or mandelmassa, but if you are intimidated it’s easy to buy too.
175g ground almonds
175g icing sugar (aka confectioner’s sugar, powdered sugar)
1. Beat the egg slightly and combine with the ground almonds in a bowl.
2. Add half the sugar and bring together – either with a spatula or wooden spoon or by getting your hands in there – and form a sticky dough.
3. Sieve the rest of the icing sugar onto your work surface then turn out the dough, and bring together, incorporating the sugar.
4. Wrap in plastic and leave in your fridge until it’s needed. (Well-wrapped, homemade marzipan will last for a few weeks in the fridge.)
Dough and buns
1 tsp cardamom
75g butter, melted
20g fresh yeast (or 12g ADY or 10g instant)
500g plain/all-purpose flour
1 medium egg, lightly beaten
50g caster sugar
5g fine salt
1 extra egg, for glazing
1. Crack open a few green cardamom pods and grind the seeds to a powder in a pestle or mortar or spice grinder.
2. Combine the melted butter and milk, warmed to about body temperature.
3. Add the yeast to the milk and allow to sit and activate for a few minutes.
4. Put most of the flour, the sugar, the salt, the cardamom and the egg in a mixing bowl, then add the yeasty milk mix.
5. Stir to combine and bring together the dough. It will be pretty moist. (Say your beaten egg weighs 58g, along with the milk and melted butter that’s 433g of liquid, to 500g flour – ie about 87% hydration, though the butter will firm up somewhat.)
6. Put the rest of the flour on your work surface and turn out the dough. Bring it together and knead, trying not to add too much more flour – you want to keep it nice and moist, so the resulting crumb is light.
7. I gave mine a Dan Lepard style knead – that is, brought it together, formed a ball, let it rest, covered in a clean bowl, for 10 minutes then gave it another short knead. Then I repeated this 10 minute rest, short knead process twice more.
8. When you have a nice smooth dough, put it back in a clean bowl, cover, then leave to double in size. This will take an hour or two at room temperature (about 18C).
9. The resulting dough weighs 1kg, more or less. To make 18 medium sized buns, divide this into pieces scaled at 55g. You can go bigger or smaller – up to you!
10. Form these pieces into neat balls. I do mine two at a time, rolling them inside cupped hands. This technique works best if your surface isn’t floury, so the dough sticks just slightly. Even better if your surface is stainless steel or marble. As mine is bamboo, I oil it slightly first, which also works well for wood work surfaces.
11. Put the balls on lined baking sheets, leaving enough space for them to expand, then give them their final prove, again until about doubled in size.
12. Preheat your oven to 220C (I use an interior thermometer as you can rarely trust the temperature on the knob).
13. When the buns are proved, brush them with beaten egg then bake for about 12 minutes, until risen and golden.
14. Cool on a wire rack, covered with a clean cloth.
Crumbs from the buns
100g milk (QB – you may not need it all)
500ml cream, whipped
1. When the buns are cool, slice off the tops and scrape out some of the crumb with a fork or even a grapefruit spoon if you have such a thing. (I’ve got the remaining single one from a childhood set.) Put the crumbs in a bowl.
2. Finely grate the marzipan then add to the crumbs.
3. Add enough milk to form a thick paste by squishing it all together with a fork or spoon.
4. Put a blob of the paste in the cavities inside the buns.
5. Pipe a layer of the cream on top of the paste, then put the lid back on. I only had a 250ml pot of cream, some of which I’d already eaten with another cake, so it’ll be much better with the 500ml I mention here. Shoddy. Sorry. But I wanted to get this post done today rather than rush off to the shop again.
Dust with icing sugar.
Enjoy. But don’t try eating 14.
Personally, I’m not too fussed about calories and all that. As well as using the default human form of transport (brisk walking) or cycling when many modern slobs use their car, I also have a general principle that diet is about balance. So obviously I don’t just eat the stuff I write about on this blog. My weight naturally seems to wander about between 80 and 85kg. That said, during out building work last year, when we didn’t have a kitchen and I couldn’t bake, I was 80kg; now I’m 85kg. Methinks a few more brisk walks up our local hill are in order. Or some Lenten fasting. Hm.