Cafes in Stockholm Challenge the Semla Bun Tradition with New Creations

Cafes in Stockholm Challenge the Semla Bun Tradition with New Creations

Emelie Cheng explores how new variations on the traditional semla bun are gaining in popularity in Stockholm.

An antidote to the winter blues

The period between Christmas and Easter in Stockholm is notoriously uneventful. There is generally a long stretch of cold weather and grey skies, requiring true stamina and imagination to make it until spring.

One shouldn’t underestimate the power of cream and sugar to ease the greyness of these last few winter months. Luckily one such remedy is available in virtually every café and supermarket this time of year: the semla.

Semla is at the heart of Sweden’s pastry soul

Semla is a pastry associated with Shrove Tuesday or fettisdag (Fat Tuesday), as it’s known in Sweden, consisting of a cardamom-spiced wheat bun filled with almond paste and topped with whipped cream.

Traditionally, semla buns are eaten as part of the final celebratory meal before the fasting period of Lent. Nowadays, however, this indulgent treat appears shortly after Christmas, and can be enjoyed until Easter.

As a nation, Sweden takes its pastries pretty seriously. So it comes as no surprise that the search for the perfect semla is run with equal determination and rigor. Newspapers run taste tests, bloggers visit the city’s best bakeries to give their ratings, and images of these sweet, creamy buns flood Instagram feeds in January and February. Tasting a semla is on every tourist’s to-do list, but locals are equally smitten.

The semla in Stockholm gets a makeover

And as with all traditions, it’s only a matter of time before the semla was reinvented.

In recent years, one can find new flavours of semlor–swapping the almond in favour of vanilla, chocolate, saffron, blueberry, or Nutella. Luckily for many, special dietary needs are accommodated with gluten-free and lactose-free versions now readily available.

But the hype has mostly surrounded the myriad of ways in which the hamburger-like original pastry has been deconstructed and re-mixed: as a wrap, taco, hotdog, nachos, cake, pizza, éclair, and the list goes on.

There are even drinkable versions, such as semla porridge, semla milkshake, and even semla beer—to the delight of some, and the horror of others. These concoctions might contain the essential flavours, but are they actually semlor? Where do we draw the line?

What makes a pastry an official semla?

This is actually a serious debate, and there is a panel of experts—Svenska semleakademin—who have defined what constitutes an official semla.

According to the semla academy, by definition a semla must contain 3 key ingredients: the cardamom flavoured bun, almond paste, and whipped cream.

But there seem to be no official rules as of yet regarding shape or format, whether the presence of the signature “lid” or the dusting of icing sugar are mandatories, as some argue. Nor have they set any specifications around the time period during which they must be served in order to be considered a semla—as many feel that the seasonal connection is essential.

As a non-Swede, I’m hardly a purist when it comes to the nation’s baked traditions. I’m amused and intrigued by how many ways peoplereconfigure those 3 components – and it would definitely be a noble quest to seek out and sample them all, as I’m sure many hardcore pastry lovers have already done. But my personal criteria for deciding which semla variations to test comes down one key question: does it actually improve on the original?

For most, what separates a good semla from a great one comes down to the proportions – how much almond paste versus whipped cream? A bun strongly flavoured with cardamom or less so? I personally love a semla more generous on the almond and more restrained on the cream. But the bun is what often lets me down – and unless buying from the best bakeries, it’s quite often a bit too big, a bit too dry, and a bit too tasteless.

Introducing: the cremla

Can the cremla compete?

So, when the cremla came along, I knew almost immediately that this was the remix for me. Following on the heels of the cronut craze, the cremla removes the problematic bun and replaces it with a croissant. The airy, flaky pastry is the perfect base to the creamy almond paste and light whipped cream, and without the bready texture, the whole thing becomes lighter and easier to tackle.

The traditional semla is often a bit of an undertaking, a pretty heavy bun which is almost a meal in itself. If you’re going to eat one, it’s almost like you need to plan your day around it.

But not so with the cremla—so much easier to polish off, even as a dessert at the end of a meal! And the fact that it retains the shape and construction of the original semla somehow gives it a bit more integrity in my mind—it’s less of an Instagram-hungry gimmick, and more of a thoughtful evolution.

Introducing: the semla waffle

That said, I also truly enjoy the semla waffle.

While not visually recognizable as a semla and requiring a fork and knife, this one definitely goes one step further in terms of reinventing the classic.

The bun is replaced with a crispy waffle, which brings lightness and a crunchy texture while still letting the signature almond flavor come through.

And while the bun format is totally lost, you can control the proportions of each bite by dipping the waffle into as much or as little cream and almond paste as you like.

It’s unconventional for sure, but I like the fact that it essentially sticks to the classics. The thin, heart-shaped waffle is just as characteristic as the cardamom bun, among Swedish baked goods.

What’s next?

If I happen to come across semla porridge or milkshake, my curiosity would probably get the better of me and I almost definitely would give them a go.

Would they replace my yearly intake of a few traditional semlor? I doubt it. But I still applaud these creative makers for pushing the boundaries of this simple, centuries-old treat.

Semla in Stockholm and many of their variants are still available in many bakeries and cafés for a few more weeks—see for yourself which is your favourite!

Recommendations for finding these pastries

The classic – Gunnarsons

The cremla – Café Pascal

The semla waffle – Älskade Traditioner

You’ll also enjoy

See how Swedish pastries are made with a local pastry chef
Swedish Fika 101
Stockholm’s Cafe Culture—Best Places to Fika
The History of the Cinnamon Bun

Author: Emelie Cheng

Emelie Cheng is a Stockholm-based graphic designer and art director. When not planning her next travels, she enjoys writing about them. Her adventures with her husband and 7-year old in Sweden and abroad can be followed on Instagram: @smallnomads

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