52 Weeks of Baking – Week 4: Semlor (Vastlakukkel)
February means one thing when you live around Scandinavia or Estonia, Semlor (Vastlakukkel)! My Instagram feed has been full of bakeries showing them off for already a month. Since its Shrove Tuesday very soon, I decided to make a small batch of these soft cardamon buns filled with sour jam or smooth nut paste and topped with a heaping pile of whipped cream.
I was so excited for Week 4 of 52 Weeks of Baking Challenge as this week’s theme is 100+ Year Old Recipe. For my previous bakes of this challenge, I hadn’t really dived into the history of the bakes but this one really tickled my fancy. I loved using my research skills for this food-related quest as you can maybe tell by the length of this post. 🙂 In the end, I was torn between baking Focaccia Barese, Pastéis de Nata or Sernik (Polish Cheesecake). However, after my social media was bombarded with pictures of Semlor from back home (I especially loved following some people reviewing all the semlor of Tallinn), I knew I had to bake Semlor (Vastlakukkel)!
When I researched the history of Semlor, I found so many interesting things. For example, I found out that Semlor (noun: semla) have been eaten since the 18th century to celebrate Shrove Tuesday. Semla started out as a yeasted bun eaten in warm milk (and allegedly, finishing off a huge dinner with a whopping amount of 14 semlor killed King Adolf Fredrik).
In Scandinavia, semlor used to be associated with Lent whereas in Estonia and Finland it predates Christian influences. For us it is a day where children go sledding and try to get the longest slide down a hill. It is believed that the one who gets the longest slide, gets the best crop that year. And after all that fun in the snow, you eat pea soup and semlor.
In the middle of 1800s, semlor were filled with spices, almond paste, and jam. Only in the beginning of 1900s they started to eat the buns with whipped cream. There are two traditional schools of thought how a proper semla should be filled. In Estonia we traditionally fill them with jam whereas Swedish ones are filled with almond paste. I fall somewhere in between (see my recipe below for my favoured filling which would be deemed crazy by both schools of thought). They are delicious either way!
The recipe I followed is based on an Estonian recipe from Nami-Nami but I made it more suitable for 2 – 3 people. When I was a child, I easily ate up to three semlor a day during the week leading up to Shrove Tuesday. Don’t get me wrong, I could still do it. 😉 But baking 30 semlor seemed a bit too much. Anyways, so much for the history of semlor, time to bake them!
Semlor (Vastlakukkel) for 2
- 120 grams warm milk
- 12.5 grams fresh yeast
- 25 grams granulated sugar
- 200 grams all-purpose flour divided
- 50 grams melted butter
- ¼ tsp ground cardamom if using fresh, use 10 cardamom pods
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 egg divided; half for the dough, half for the glazing
- 250 ml whipped cream
- (sour) jam, almond paste, nuts...
- Warm the milk to 32 - 38°C. In the meantime, mix the fresh yeast with sugar until the yeast "liquifies" with the sugar. Add the yeast and sugar mixture to the warm milk and then also add 100 grams of flour. Mix thoroughly and let it prove in a warm place under a towel until small bubbles appear (about 30 minutes).
- Add cooled melted butter, cardamom, salt, half of the egg and the rest of the flour (100 grams). Knead the dough until it comes together and does not stick to the bowl nor your hands that much. The dough will be still quite soft and supple, so be careful not to add too much extra flour. We want them nice and soft.
- Prove the dough under the towel in a warm place again, this time until doubled, for about 40 minutes to 1 hour (for me it took 1 hour in winter).
- After the second proof, take 50 grams of dough at a time and shape into little balls*. Place the dough balls onto a baking sheet covered with either parchment paper or reusable baking mat. Let them proof for the third time, this time about 15 - 30 minutes under a towel.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C (fan). Use the other half of the egg to glaze the dough balls on top and bake until nicely golden brown, about 15 minutes.
- Cool the buns under a damp towel, so they wouldn't form a hard crust. After the buns have cooled, cut off the top and carve out the inside (see picture).
- Fill them with your desired filling. To make almond filling, mix almond paste with the insides of the semlor and add some whipped cream until you reach a nice consistency. My favourite (and controversial) filling is using both jam and almond filling and topping it off with sweetened whipped cream. I like my semlor filled mostly with sour jam, such as blackcurrant or lingonberry jam as the buns, almond paste and whipped cream are both very sweet.
- Enjoy trying to eat them without getting your whole face full of whipped cream!