The floor was barely swept clean of pine needles from our defunct Christmas tree and already my Swedish friends were obsessing over semla (or the plural semlor). They tweeted and blogged one consistent plea, “I know it’s only January, but where I can find semlor?”
Centuries ago when Roman Catholicism reigned across the Scandinavian expanse, rich cardamom buns were served on Shrove Tuesday and were meant to sustain palates about to endure forty days of fasting. Although religious rituals are now less common in Scandinavia, the tradition of Lenten buns endures. The Swedes fill their semlor (and Norweigans theirfastelavensboller) with sweet cream and almond paste, often in a bowl of milk to soften the bun. In Finland laskiaispulla are spread thick with fruit preserves and marzipan. Estonians prefer their vastlakukkel simply with whipped cream. Danes and Icelandics use puff pastry to make their fastelavnsbolle.
In 1771 Swedish King Adolf Fredrik died after gorging on lobster, caviar, sour kraut, and fourteen semlor doused with milk. Lenten bun overdose is never pretty, but I understand the addictive properties of cardamom, butter, and almonds. For a true cardamom flavor, eschew those tempting jars of decorticated cardamom. White or green pods are best. Crush the seeds in a spice grinder or using mortar and pestle.
Note: adding baking powder to yeast breads garners surprisingly light fluffy dough.
For the Dough
4 egg yolks
2/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups whole milk, warmed to 110 degrees
1/2 cup sugar
1 package yeast
6 cups bread flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon fresh ground cardamom
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup whole milk or half-&-half, plus a few tablespoons for brushing buns
For the Filling
8 ounces almond paste, thinned with a few tablespoons half and half or cream
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 - 2 tablespoons powdered sugar plus more for dusting tops
For the Dough
1. In large bowl whisk together egg yolks, butter, milk, a few teaspoons of the sugar, and yeast, and allow to bubble for about 5 minutes.
2. Sift together remaining sugar, 4 to 5 cups of the flour, salt, and cardamom. Add to yeast mixture and stir with large spoon until dough comes together. Place dough on very lightly floured surface and knead until soft silky dough forms, about 5 to 10 minutes (Alternatively, use standup mixer with dough hook and run on low for 5 minutes.) . Place dough in clean bowl brushed with a bit of vegetable oil and cover with a towel or plastic wrap; rise in warm place about 30 minutes or until doubled.
3. Sift together 1 cup of flour and the baking powder; stir into dough and knead until smooth. Add more flour only if necessary.
4. Divide dough into 24 small balls; place at least 1 inch apart on greased baking sheets. Cover and rise about one hour or until doubled.
5. Brush tops of rolls with milk or half-&-half; bake in preheated 375-degree oven until golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes; cool on wire racks.
For the Filling
1. Cut each roll in half; scooping out center and leaving shell of 1/2 inches. Tear or crumble innards and place in large mixing bowl; moisten with a few tablespoons of the milk or half-&- half then blend in almond paste until smooth. Add additional milk as needed until filling is pudding-like.
2. Whip the cream with powdered sugar until stiff peaks form. Fill shells with almond pudding, then whipped cream; replace top of bun. Dust with powdered sugar and serve immediately.