(This post is adapted from my article in The Norwegian American.)
Baking with cardamom fills a home with the most delicious warmth, the kind of aroma that seems to be the essence of hygge. Ordinarily, a slightly sweet cardamom bun is good enough on its own, perhaps with a smear of butter. But this time of year, in the weeks leading up to Lent, these classic Scandinavian buns are stuffed with clouds of whipped cream and sometimes a rich almond filling.
Semlor as they’re called in Sweden, or Fastelavnsboller in Norway, would traditionally have been eaten during Fastelavn or Shrovetide, the days before Lent. These days people in the Nordic countries are not widely religious. But Fastelavnsboller echo the tradition, and now they’re popular throughout the months of January and February, and they’re met with enthusiasm when they start showing up in cafés and on social media.
These plump buns—sometimes flavored with cardamom, sometimes not—are served a number of different ways. Some people sandwich them simply with swirls of whipped cream and a dusting of powdered sugar. Others add a rich almond filling, and perhaps even a bit of jam. My recipe features both almond filling and whipped cream, but if you prefer yours more simple, feel free to omit the almond. It will still be delicious.
No matter how you enjoy Semlor, do yourself a favor and use freshly ground cardamom. Its fragrance and effect are far superior to the jars of pre-ground spice, and you’ll have the benefit of filling your home with the most inviting aroma.
For the buns:
1 stick (8 tbsps.) unsalted butter
1 ¼ cup milk
2 tsps. freshly ground cardamom
2 tbsps. active dry yeast
¾ cup sugar
½ tsp. salt
4 ½ cups flour
1 beaten egg, for brushing
For the almond filling:
1 cup blanched almonds
½ cup powdered sugar
filling from buns
3 tbsps. milk or cream
½ tsp. almond extract
lightly sweetened whipped cream, for filling
powdered sugar, for dusting
To make the buns:
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the milk and cardamom and heat until hot but not boiling, then set aside and cool until lukewarm.
Pour a half cup or so of the lukewarm milk into a large mixing bowl and stir in the yeast and a tablespoon of the sugar. Let sit until the yeast bubbles, about 5 minutes. Pour in the remaining milk, along with the remaining sugar, egg, and salt.
Stir in the flour gradually with a wooden spoon, starting with about half of the flour and then adding a half cup or so at a time until you have a dough that’s firm and releases from the sides of the bowl. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. Form it into a large ball.
Lightly grease a large bowl—you can use the same mixing bowl if you wipe it out—and plop in the dough, turning it around until it’s coated. Cover with a damp cloth and set to rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit and line two baking sheets with parchment.
Punch down the dough and shape into 12 balls, using your hands to roll them as smoothly as possible. Place them on the baking sheets with the smoothest side up. Cover with a damp towel and let rise again, this time about 20 minutes. Brush with the beaten egg.
Bake in the center of the oven, one sheet at a time, for about 10 minutes until golden on top—watch carefully, as they quickly turn too dark. Rotate if needed for even baking. If they’re browning too quickly and the insides need time, then cover the tops with a sheet of aluminum foil. Cool on a wire rack.
When the buns are cool, use a sharp knife to carefully cut the top off of each one. If you’re going to make the almond filling, then scoop out part of the inside; you can use your fingers for this, but I like to cut a circle with the knife and scoop out the bread with a grapefruit spoon. Set aside.
For the filling:
To make the almond filling, whirl the almonds in a food processor until coarsely ground. Add the powdered sugar and the reserved bread filling and pulse a few times until combined. Add the milk or cream and the almond extract and process until the filling comes together.
Evenly distribute the filling into the cavities, then pipe on a generous amount of whipped cream. Top with the bread lids, dust with powdered sugar, and serve.
Find Semlor and even more sweet and savory treats in my cookbook Modern Scandinavian Baking!
(Photo of Semlor from Canva)