Making Semlor

Maja Ingeman / Heavy Table

If you observe the Christian faith, you probably know that today is Fat Tuesday, also known as the day before Ash Wednesday, which kicks off the Lenten season of repentance and reflection. Fat Tuesday, however, is a day of indulgence — a day in which the devout must pack on the pounds (hence all the butter and cream) before the Lenten fast begins. Traditionally, Swedes deviated from their fast on Tuesdays to eat tasty buns called semlor (one semla, two semlor) — so much that now, claims, “Fat Tuesday would be more aptly named fat January, February, and March.”

The wheat bun (which dates back to the 16th century, when the holiday was also called “Vita Tisdag” because only white things were to be eaten on that day) is flavored with freshly ground cardamom — buy some whole pods of white cardamom (we bought ours at Penzeys Spices), remove the husks, and grind the seeds in a clean coffee grinder.  After baking, the bun’s top is sliced off, the insides are scooped out like a jack-o-lantern, and the bread crumbs are mixed with almond paste and milk. This concoction is then spread inside each bun and topped with whipped cream.

When we did our shopping, we taste tested the marzipan and almond paste available at Cub Foods. Upon comparing ingredients, we saw that the marzipan contained corn syrup in addition to the sugar included in both products. The marzipan’s resulting sweetness and overly solid texture were comparable to the saccharine-sweet personality of the character of the same name, whereas the almond paste featured a fuller, nuttier flavor. Ideally, freshly ground almonds would provide the tastiest and healthiest option, though store-bought almond paste (or, if you like it, marzipan) constitutes an acceptable alternative in a pinch. After all, Fat Tuesday comes but once a year — you’ve got to get your fix!

So, without further ado — semlor!

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Makes 16-24 buns
Original recipe from

2 eggs
⅔ c butter, melted
1½ c warm milk
2¼ tsp (1 packet) active dry yeast
6 c all-purpose flour
½ c sugar
½ tsp salt
1 tsp ground white cardamom
4 tsp baking powder
½ c milk (plus more as needed)
5 oz almond paste (or freshly ground, sweetened almonds)
2 c whipping cream
2 tbsp sugar
powdered sugar

  1. Whisk together eggs with butter and milk. Sprinkle yeast over the top and allow to soften for 5 minutes.
  2. Sift together 5 cups of the flour with ½ cup sugar, salt, and ground cardamom.
  3. Combine the flour and milk mixtures until a soft dough forms. Cover the bowl with a towel, and allow to rise in a warm spot for 30 minutes.
  4. Sift together flour and baking powder. Stir into the dough and knead until smooth.
  5. Shape the dough into 16 balls (or 24 if you’d like smaller semlor) and place onto greased baking sheets. Cover with a towel, and allow to rise until doubled in bulk, 35 to 40 minutes.
  6. Bake in a 375°F preheated oven for 10 to 15 minutes until golden brown and the center has firmed. Cool buns on a wire rack to room temperature.
  7. Once cool, cut a slice about ½ inch thick off of the top of the bun and set aside. Scoop or cut out the center of the buns, leaving a shell about ½ inch thick. Tear the removed bread into small pieces and place into a bowl. Moisten the bread with milk, then mix in the almond paste until smooth. Add additional milk if needed until the almond filling is nearly as soft as pudding.
  8. Whip the cream with 2 tablespoons sugar to stiff peaks. Fill each shell with a spoonful of almond filling. Spoon whipped cream on top of the filling to ½ inch over the top of the bun. Replace the tops onto the buns, and dust with confectioner’s sugar before serving.


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