Semlor (Swedish Cardamom Cream Buns)

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Happy Mardi Gras!

If we were still living in New Orleans, this day would have looked much different. I still can’t believe that Chicago hasn’t discovered Mardi Gras: 1) a huge party, 2) costumes, 3) parades, 4) drinking! We like all of those things! I mean, I guess the parade part is the biggest hindrance. We got a foot of snow here in Chicago last week. Most of the cars on my street are still buried. No parades or floats here. And I almost miss getting hit in the head with beads–almost. Because I would always, always, once a year, get hit in the head with beads. For me, it was a Mardi Gras tradition.

Anyway, the snow has kept us indoors for the most part and it has us both going stir-crazy. But the good part of being snowed in is the baking! I never feel like baking more than when it’s cold and snowy outside. And, since it’s Mardi Gras, I thought I would celebrate with the baked goods of the season!

Last year, I made King Cake Paczkis, with moderate success. This year, I took my inspiration from the Swedes and made semlor: Cardamom-scented buns, filled with sweetened almond paste and whipped cream.

Semlor are eaten in Sweden (and throughout Scandinavia) to celebrate Shrove Tuesday (a.k.a. Mardi Gras), known to the Swedes as Fettisdagen, or “fat day”, the last day before Lent. Like king cake and paczskis, the dish was originally created as a way to use up fats and sugar in the house, before the fasting that accompanies Lent. However, you can now find the buns on bakery shelves from January through Easter. It’s estimated that 20 million semlor (the plural of semla) are eaten in Sweden every year. Semlor are sometimes eaten in a bowl of hot milk, which is known as “hetvägg” or “hot wall.” And, though this might be rumor, it is even said that the Swedish king, Adolph Frederick, died in 1771 of digestion problems after eating, in addition to many other things, 14 semlor!

I tried to make these semlor several times. I used a few different recipes from around the internet. My friend Rasmus said that the most important part was that each semla should be light and airy, rather than bread-like and hard. And my first two tries did come out more like bread. Then I thought of the lightest and airiest rolls that I ever made: A Cozy Kitchen’s Everything Cloverleaf Rolls! Even though these rolls aren’t meant to be dessert, I used the base of that recipe to create the bun for the semlor. The result was super soft semlor buns, obviously a little sweeter and spiced with cardamom, ready to be filled with almond paste and cream! Semlor

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Semlor
Makes 8-10 buns.

Ingredients:
For buns:
5 tbsp sugar
3 tsp active dry yeast
1 cup whole milk, warmed to 115-120 degrees
1 egg yolk, beaten
4 tbsp unsalted butter, softened, plus another 1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 1/2 cups, all-purpose flour, plus another 1/2 cup for kneading
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp-1 tbsp vegetable oil for oiling the bowl
For filling:
3/4 cup almond paste, sweetened
1/3 cup whole milk
2 cups heavy cream

Confectioner’s sugar, optional, for sprinkling over the top

Instructions:

In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, yeast, and warm milk. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes to activate.

In a small bowl, whisk together 1 cup of flour, the salt, and the cardamom.

Stir the beaten egg and melted butter into the yeast mixture. Add the flour mixture and stir until completely combined, then add an additional cup of flour and stir until combined, then add one half a cup of flour and stir.

Lightly flour a surface and scrape the dough out onto the flour. Knead the remaining half cup of flour into the dough, for about 5 minutes.

Oil a large bowl with vegetable oil and add the dough, turning over in the oil to coat.

Cover with dishtowel and place in a warm area for an hour and a half, until double in size.

Divide the dough into 8-10 balls and place at least 1-inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover with a dishtowel and allow to rise for another 30 to 60 minutes. The dough should double in size again.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Brush the top of the buns with a little cream, or a beaten egg, before baking for 15-20 minutes, until slightly golden brown.

Remove from oven and allow to cool.

As the buns are cooling, whip the remaining whipping cream with 1 tsp vanilla extract.

Mix 3/4 cup of almond paste with 1/4 cup whole milk.

Cut a tiny cone shape in the top of each bun. Fill the space with about 2 tbsp of the almond mixture, then top with whipped cream. Place the lid of the bun back on top of the whipped cream and dust with powdered sugar.

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With their little powdered sugar party hats, they look a lot like every single round, snow-covered surface in Chicago right now, and they were a big hit in this house. I don’t know where to acquire a semla in the city of Chicago. There is stiff competition with paczkis and king cake here. I assume the old Swedish Bakery used to make them, but, alas, the Swedish Bakery is no more. If you find them, please let me know!

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King Cake Paczki

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I have been lucky enough to live in two of America’s greatest cities: Chicago and New Orleans. When we lived in New Orleans, I was introduced to the holiday of Mardi Gras, the bacchic feast day before Ash Wednesday. Of course, New Orleans manages to stretch the holiday for about three weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, which means work gets a little lighter for a month while traffic congestion gets a lot heavier (roads close, parades roll, etc.).

Well, tomorrow is Mardi Gras! Full disclosure: I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Mardi Gras. One of my first experiences was getting punched in the face when a fight broke out in a group as I passed, and then I got hit in the head by a bag of beads (why do they even throw those!), not to mention my interaction with everyone’s elbows. I’m kind of shocked that I even considered going back again. But I did, every single year. One year, we lived about two blocks away from the parade route and that was the best. When I got tired of being elbowed in the eye sockets, I just went home. Or bought a corndog. That would usually get me through the rest of the parade.

But now, being far, far from the action, seeing all of my friends posting about the 610 Stompers they saw and the floats they rode and the shoes they caught at Muses, I get nostalgic. Chicago doesn’t celebrate Mardi Gras the same way that New Orleans does (few cities do). But both have their own beloved, pre-Lenten treats: King Cake and Paczki.

Both of these desserts were born from the same necessity: to use up fats and sugars in the house before Lent begins. But they are very different.

Paczki, (pronounced punch-key, or some drawn-out-vowel variation of that if you include an authentic Chicago accent) were brought by Polish immigrants to Chicago and several other cities in the United States, and are similar to jelly-filled yeast doughnuts. Paczki traditionalists would probably punch me in the arm for reducing their beloved dessert to those terms, but it’s true. King Cake, at least the kind that is gobbled up by the millions in New Orleans around Mardi Gras, is essentially a large cinnamon roll that’s been braided into a ring, also optionally filled with cream cheese or fruit jam, and covered with icing and sprinkles.

To bring together my two favorite cities, in a way sure to blaspheme both of them (sorry, everybody!!), I made  King Cake Paczki just in time for the holiday. This paczki dough is flavored with cinnamon before it is fried, filled with sweetened cream cheese, then topped with icing and sprinkled with colored sugar in the traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras colors: purple, yellow and green, which denote, respectively, justice, power, and faith.

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King Cake Paczki
Makes approximately 1 dozen. Slightly revised version of this paczki recipe from The Spruce.

King Cake Ingredients:
3/4 cup milk
1 packet (2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
3 tbsp granulated sugar
2-2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out dough
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp rum or brandy
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp of salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
oil, or lard (traditionally used), for frying
Purple, yellow, and green sugar

Cream Cheese Filling Ingredients:
8 ounces of cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar
3 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla

Icing Ingredients:
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp cornstarch

King Cake Instructions:

In a measuring cup, mix the milk, dry yeast, and 1 tbsp of sugar. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cinnamon, and the remaining 2 tbsp of sugar.

In a separate, larger bowl, use a hand-mixer to beat together the unsalted butter and sugar until it becomes white and fluffy.

Add in the whole egg, egg yolk, and vanilla. Beat just until the egg is completely mixed in and the mixture appears consistent.

Add a little of the yeast mixture and then a bit of the flour mixture to the wet ingredients. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, stir until you no longer see white streaks of flour. Continue alternately adding the yeast mixture and flour mixture to the wet ingredients, stirring until you no longer see streaks of white flour between each addition. Once you have added and stirred all ingredients, the dough should begin to form a very loose ball. If it is still quite loose and wet, add in 1 tbsp of flour at a time until it just begins to form, but no more than a 1/4 cup of flour should be added. The dough will still be quite sticky.

Grease a very large bowl, pour the dough into the greased bowl, spray the top of the dough with cooking spray, or lightly brush with vegetable oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set the bowl in a warm spot to rise for about 1 hour.

After about an hour, when the dough has doubled in size, punch down the dough, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise again for about 45 minutes.

On a lightly floured surface, pour the dough out and pat down until it’s consistently about 1/2-inch thick. Lightly flour the top of the dough and, using a 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut out rounds, placing them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. You may need to re-roll the dough and pat down again to get 12 rounds.

Cover the baking sheet with a clean kitchen towel and allow to set in a warm spot for about 1/2 an hour.

While the rounds are rising again, add two inches of oil to a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Using a deep-fry thermometer, heat the oil to between 325 and 350 degrees.

Add two to three rounds to the hot oil at a time. Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Flip the dough in the pan and allow to cook for another 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the finished paczki to a paper-towel-lined plate.

While the paczki are cooling, make your filling and icing. For the filling, use a hand beater to mix together the cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla. For the icing, whisk together the powdered sugar, milk, vanilla, salt, and cornstarch.

When the paczki have finished cooling, poke a hole into the side using a small, thin knife, without poking all the way through. Using a piping bag, fill each of the paczki with cream cheese. Drizzle the top with icing and sprinkle with colored sugars.

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Don’t be weirded out by these tiny plastic babies you see. Traditionally, plastic babies are baked into king cakes, and the person who gets the piece with the baby buys the next king cake.

The many breaks required in this recipe to let the dough rise are great for, say, drinking champagne, because you’ve got to make sure to get that out of your house along with all the fats and sugars. And because it’s Mardi Gras.