Semla time? For Chef John

Dear John, (I bet you get a lot of these Dear John-letters),

My name is Andreas Ekström. I am a culture reporter at a Swedish daily, and also an author and a speaker.

By no means am I an expert on food, I am just an avid home cook and passionate eater. (I also did write a book that is vaguely glued together by stories about food, albeit not a cookbook.) And I have become a huge fan of what you do.

So. Around my house, my wife and our three children and I have gotten into the habit of stealing all sorts of holidays from all sorts of cultures and religions – any excuse to cook something fun or interesting or scary or pretty or ugly is good enough for us. Of course, we also want to spread the Swedish gospel, and I noted that you do not seem to have a recipe for the perhaps most beloved baked treat Sweden can offer: the semla. A semla is basically an airy cardamom wheat bun, partially filled with a smooth almond paste, garnished with whipped cream, and with the cut off top serving as a ”lid”. It is easy to assemble, but demands accuracy in the actual baking to get the bun right.

The lid needs to be cut triangular, with scissors, rather than cut off with a knife to be boring and round. Also, too much whipped cream will make it unpleasant to eat. The best way is to take off the lid, and scoop some cream up, and then take the big bite that inevitably leaves you with some whipped cream right on the nose. I would love it if you wanted to try it!

Here is the way I make them, and sorry for the metric system and the Celsius degrees, Anders Celsius was Swedish after all:

• Heat 200 grams of milk to around 35 degrees C.

• Use a Kitchen Aid or some sort of large food processor and mix the milk with 25 grams of crumbled fresh yeast and 260 grams of wheat flour. When you have a dough, let it rest for a quarter of an hour.

• Then keep feeding: 160 grams of wheat flour, one egg, three grams of salt, five grams of ground cardamom, 100 grams of room temperature butter and 80 grams of powdered sugar. Run the mixer slowly at first, and then faster. Let it run for at least five minutes, maybe a little more.

• Now you should, if everything has gone according to plan, have a wonderfully chewy soft elastic dough.

• Get your digital scale and put a small plate on it.

• Get 70 grams of dough, roll into a bun and place on parchment paper. Keep it spacious – when you leave them to rise for two hours under a towel, they double in size.

• Then bake at 210 degrees for an absolute maximum of ten minutes. Seven may be enough too, it depends on your oven.

• While the buns are cooling, make a creamy almond filling with 500 grams of fine almond paste, five grams of cardamom, a dash of vanilla extract to taste, 90 grams of powder sugar and 150 grams of milk. You can increase or decrease the milk depending on how loose you want the filling.

• You can put the filling in a plastic bag and cut off a corner to make distribution easy. You can also rely on your safe hand and a spoon.

• You get a triangular lid by cutting the bun with scissors, it is not difficult and looks twice as professional.

• Finally, dig out some of the bun, add the filling and sprinkle whipped cream at your discretion. But do not sweeten the cream! The cream has its own delicious taste, and the whole experience is surely sweet enough as it is.

So – when to do this? Fat Tuesday, in February! Here is the background story with all the information you might need:

Best regards from Lund, Sweden! Do get in touch if I can clarify something, should you be interested to try this! You may publish everything in this email if you so wish and use or modify the recipe in any way! The gospel of the semla needs to be heard! 🙂