What is a Semla?

Janis Adams

Semla is a sweet pastry popular in Nordic cuisine. Referred to as fastlagsbulle by those who speak Swedish, semla is a round, light, airy bun or bread roll. It can be served plain or, after being hollowed out, the bun may be filled with jam or marizpan. This pastry is often presented with coffee or in a bowl with warm milk at breakfast, or as a sweet treat when it has a filling.

Semla gets much of its distinct flavor from cardamom.
Semla gets much of its distinct flavor from cardamom.

The name semla derives from the semolina flour that is used to make the delicate pastry. It is a yeast roll that derives much of its distinctive flavor from the spice cardamom. The rolls are allowed an ample amount of time for rising, which is what gives them the lightness that adds to their uniqueness.

The buns are baked until they reach a rich golden brown color. They are then allowed to cool before any filling is added. Often whipped cream is piped onto the top or the top is dusted with confectioners sugar. The topping is often dependent upon what the semla is filled with, allowing the pastries with different fillings to be easily distinguished.

Originally, these pastries were served on Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday before the fasting of the Lenten season began. The buns were considered to be a sweet indulgence before a time of observed deprivation. Before if became popular to fill the buns, they were placed in a bowl of hot milk and eaten. The buns are now commonly offered in bakeries in Finland from Christmas until the end of the Easter season.

A Finnish trademark, the semla was chosen as the representative food of Finland for Cafe Europe. Cafe Europe was an event that was held on 9 May 2006. Its purpose was to offer a cultural initiative which would encourage people to learn of the cultures of the nations of the European Union. Semla was proudly served at participating cafes across Europe on that date and was widely heralded as a sweet success.

This pastry has reached such renown in Finnish culture that it has been included in popular novels. Whether fictional or real, there are avid fans of semla throughout the Nordic countries, and in many other places, as well.

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