Tag Archives: shrove tuesday

Shrove Tuesday Scandinavian cardamom buns: fastelavnsbolle or semlor

Semlor, semla, fastelavnsbolle

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.

Almond paste

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 egg

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
300g milk
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

Semlor ingredients

1 extra egg, for glazing

Ground cardamom

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.

Dough, mixingDough, sticky
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.

Dough close up
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).

Dough pre first riseDough after first rise

ScalingForm balls
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!

Forming balls 1Forming balls 2

Forming balls 3Forming balls 3
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.

Balls, final proveBalls, egg washed
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).

Buns, baked
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.

200g marzipan
Crumbs from the buns
100g milk (QB – you may not need it all)

500ml cream, whipped

Buns, splitBuns, hollowed out

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.

Marzipan, grated
2. Finely grate the marzipan then add to the crumbs.

Making the almond fillingMaking the almond filling 2
3. Add enough milk to form a thick paste by squishing it all together with a fork or spoon.

Buns, hollowed out 2Buns, filled
4. Put a blob of the paste in the cavities inside the buns.

All creamed
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.

To serve
Dust with icing sugar.
Enjoy. But don’t try eating 14.

Semlor, semla, fastelavnsbolle close-up

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.


Filed under Baking, Feasts, Recipes

Buckwheat pancakes with rhubarb maple compote

Buckwheat pancakes with rhubarb compote

This is one of those dishes that’s pleasing on a number of levels: it tastes good, it’s a take on a feast day speciality, it features seasonal produce, and the two principle components are even botanically related.

In fact, it was delicious, the compote featuring a variety of sharp and sweet flavours, which I tempered with some vanilla ice cream (though clotted cream, or crème fraîche, or mascarpone, or even custard, wouldn’t have been bad either), while the pancakes were satisfying and simple. The buckwheat flour I used from Dove’s farm was surprisingly pale and the pancake batter was not unlike one made with a plain white wheat flour.


Pancake Day
So yes, it was Pancake Day (aka Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Martedi Grasso etc, the start of Lent). Fran wanted buckwheat pancakes, and her usual filling of ham and gruyere. I wanted something meat-free, so did a kind of celeriac and cauliflower cheese (as both veg are in season).

The past few springs, I occasionally saw rhubarb on the market in Rome, where it was an expensive imported delicacy. Being back in Blighty, I fancied some for dessert pancakes – and it’s in in season at the moment. Sort of. It’s forced rhubarb that’s available, with the growers in Yorkshire enticing the pink stalks out of the nutritious soils of their dark sheds. Heated sheds, so it’s not like it’s the most eco of crops, but traditionally it was important as a means of providing some “fruit” in British markets in an otherwise lean period. It’s certainly wonderful stuff, with its pink palette and sharp flavours. And forced has the edge on outdoor grown rhubarb, which comes into season in April and lacks the delicacy, with its tougher, weathered hide.

Rhubarb isn’t a fruit of course, it’s the stems of the plant Rheum rhabarbarum (its italian name is rabarbaro), a member of the polygonaceae family. Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) is another member of this family; its starchy seeds being so grain-like they’re treated very similarly – though it lacks gluten, so presents challenges for those who want to use it for bread-making. It’s much more commonly used for noodles (such as Japanese soba, or even north Italy’s delicious but heavy duty pizzoccheri) and pancakes. The latter exist in various national cuisines, most famously Russia’s blinis and France’s galettes. These are a speciality of Brittany, where Fran lived for a while in her youth – hence her passion for them.

Anyway, some recipes. You need to make the pancake batter ahead of time, and ditto the compote can be made in advance.

Buckwheat pancakes

Buckwheat pancakes
Makes about 6 large (22cm ) pancakes. Double or triple the quantities if you’re hungry or have a large family.

100g buckwheat flour
Pinch salt
1 egg
300g milk
50g butter
Oil or butter for frying

1. Whisk together the egg and milk.
3. Put the flour and salt in a bowl, and pour in the liquid, whisking constantly.
4. Leave the batter to rest in the fridge for at least an hour.
[Now make your compote, below]
5. When you’re ready to make the pancakes, melt the 50g butter and whisk this into the batter. (I also added 1 extra egg white, just cos I had one hanging around.)
6. Heat oil or butter in frying pan and when it’s hot, add ladlefuls of the mixture (about 80ml each).

Buckwheat pancakes
7. Fry until browning nicely then flip over.
8. Keep warm on a plate in a low oven.

Rhubarb maple compote

800g rhubarb
2cm fresh ginger, finely grated
1 orange, juice and fine zest
50g soft brown sugar
50g maple syrup
1 t cinnamon
1 vanilla pod


1. Chop the rhubarb into pieces about 2cm long. (Cut skinnier stalks slightly longer and fatter stalks slightly shorter, so they’re all about the same size and cook evenly).
2. Put in a large bowl with all the other ingredients and toss or stir to combine and coat. (We tend to keep our ginger root in the freezer, then just grate it on a Microplane/fine grater. Easy.)
3. Put the mixture in a roasting tray and cook for about 30-40 minutes at a low temperature, 150C (130C fan).
4. When the rhubarb pieces are tender remove from oven.
5. Strain, keeping the juices.
6. Boil the juices to thicken it. Don’t boil it all away though!


To assemble the pancakes, keep your frying pan warm after making them, then put one back in the pan, add a good dollop of rhubarb in the centre, and fold over the sides, like an envelope. Cook a little and flip over, to seal slightly. Or don’t bother. You could roll the pancakes with the filling if you prefer that form.

Put on a plate, with another dollop of compote, some of the juices and a good drizzle of maple syrup.  I was wondering if I’d overdone it with too many flavours here – orange, maple, ginger, cinnamon and vanilla – but they all actually slot together nicely. Serve with your indulgent dairy product of choice.

We had salad with our savoury pancakes for our main course and that contained some common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) – which is another member of the polygonaceae family. So our Pancake Day dinner was a real polygonaceae feast. Truly a versatile element of the plant kingdom.

Buckwheat pancakes with rhubarb compote


Filed under Other food, Recipes

Chestnut flour pancakes

Smooth batter

Since discovering chestnut flour for sale here in Rome, I’ve been enjoying experimenting with it. I’ve made some okay breads like this one and this attempt at pane di San Martino. I’ve also discovered it makes a very nice pancake (or crepe, if you prefer). And seeing as yesterday, 12 February 2013, was Shrove Tuesday, aka Pancake Day, it seemed like a good excuse to make a batch.

Chestnut flour (farina di castagne) is surprisingly sweet and apparently it’s also known as farina dolce in Italy (though I’ve never heard that in Rome). Also, as it has nothing to do with wheat or any grain, it’s also gluten-free. I have used some plain flour in the mix here, but that’s partly because I ran out of chestnut flour; the recipe works well with just 220g chestnut flour.


I’ll say here and now that pancakes are, of course, hardly sophisticated fare, and furthermore they didn’t photo very well, but, honest, this is  a nice recipe, for both savoury and sweet pancakes.

This makes about a dozen.

2 eggs
280g milk (or ml if you haven’t got electronic scales)
20g (or ml) water, approximately
160g chestnut flour
60g plain flour
Pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 tablespoons of vegetable, oilseed or olive oil

1 Lightly beat the eggs together and add the oil.
2 Sieve together the flours and baking soda, and put in a bowl.
3 Add a pinch of salt.
4 Add the eggs and oil to the dry mix.
5 Add the milk and whisk to combine, adding a little more water if necessary. You want a consistency like single cream.
6 Fry ladlefuls of the mixture in a hot, greased pan. (Thanks to the wife for womanfully managing this step.)

Chestnut pancake

We filled ours with a mushrooms and cream cheese, grated Emmental, and – on a more Italian note – prosciutto. (And although they may look a bit burnt in the below photo, they weren’t – I blame the dark batter and the electric lighting.) Then I finished them off for breakfast this morning with yogurt, banana and honey. But go for your life with fillings – whatever you fancy. What we didn’t do last night was the old-school English pancake day variant of lemon juice and sugar. I think we were too full of the savoury ones.

Savoury pancakes


Filed under Recipes