Kitra: As a cardamom-lover and extremely pale person, I have developed a deep affinity for Scandinavian baked goods. I’ve fallen hard for Korvapuusti, the Finnish cinnamon bun variation, but nothing tops my affinity for Semla. I saw a picture about 7 years ago and set myself on a mission to make them. Cardamom bun? Almond paste? Whipped cream?? Yes please. I’ve only made them a few times, but wow are they delightful.
Jordan: They’re a traditional Swedish pre-Lent treat that somehow morphed into a during-Lent treat as well. This does not track with my understanding of Lent as a time of abstention, but I suppose when you live in the frigid darkness you need something to get you through.
There’s something about the idea of scooping out the innards of a food, reusing them, and then scooping them back out with a hat made of the food that is incredible to me and I cannot get over.
And if anyone is confused and/or horrified by what Kitra just said, here’s the summary: Semlor—the plural of semla—are lightly sweetened cardamom buns. You slice off the top (the “hat,” as we call it), scoop out the middle like a tiny bread bowl, mix the crumbs with almond paste, refill the bun with this mixture, add a generous amount of whipped cream, and put the hat back on at the end. A common way to eat them is to use the hat like a spoon to eat what you can, then eat the rest of the bun as-is.
And if that doesn’t sound like the most incredible idea, I don’t think we can be friends.
(Fun unrelated fact: Kit Kats are also made of themselves.)
BUT. It’s also kind of a lot of work. Which is fine, because they are great and you only have a narrow amount of time where they’re supposed to be eaten (not that I’ve observed that restriction…) but it also means I’ve been dreaming of a way to get that experience without so much finessing.
Kitra sent me a very excited message when Erin McDowell (our beloved Pie Queen) posted a beautiful semla cake, so we set our sights on that. It… did not go well.
Maybe it was cold (it was), maybe we were impatient (we were), but it just did not do what we wanted.
The cake—really a bread baked in a bundt pan—did not rise. At all. It was one of the saddest cakes we have ever made. I think Kitra laughed until she cried when we turned it out and saw the final product.
So we took the first failed batch of dough, turned it into the aforementioned Korvapuusti, ate the baked loaf with butter for breakfast, and went back to the drawing table. It needed to be yeasty and bundt-shaped, but not actually require rising because we planned to make this cake in the winter and yeast does not like my house in the winter.
We found our solution in an old Smitten Kitchen post, a pound cake based on a James Beard recipe. We added cardamom and some yeast for flavor, and we had our base.
It’s just not semla if it isn’t yeasty. And semlor shouldn’t be *too* sweet, since you fill them with something that is incredibly sweet. This one turned out pretty much exactly like we hoped.
From there, it was just a matter of scooping, mixing, and reassembling.
And if I may say so, this cake was made for scooping.
The cake itself is sweet but not too sweet, moist but not squishy, and equally perfect for breakfast, dessert, or fika. Lightly sweetened whipped cream is optional but very strongly encouraged.
It really helps cut the sweetness, and is in my mind an essential component. We decided not to fill the cake with it, though, to help with storing and serving.
We ended up with a beautiful bundt cake with a wonderful surprise inside, and possibly the easiest way to both make and eat semlor.
Cake adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from James Beard
We don’t fill the cake with whipped cream here so that it will store better, but if you’re making this for a crowd you could put a generous amount of whipped cream between the two halves. Just cut your slices very carefully to avoid it all squeezing out.
For the cake:
- 8 eggs, separated into whites and yolks
- 1¾ cup (350g) sugar, divided
- 3 cups (375g) flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon cream
- 1 teaspoon yeast (either instant or active dry)
- 1 pound (4 sticks) butter, softened
For filling and serving:
- 7 oz almond paste
- ½ cup milk, plus more as needed
- Powdered sugar
- Lightly sweetened whipped cream
To make the cake
Preheat your oven to 350°. Generously coat the inside of a bundt pan with baking spray or butter and flour.
Using an electric mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Gradually add 1 cup (200 grams) of the sugar and continue beating until the egg whites hold stiff peaks. Scoop the egg whites into a separate bowl and set aside.
While the mixer is running (or after, if you’re using a handheld mixer), sift the flour, baking powder, cardamom, and salt into a bowl or onto a thin cutting board or sheet of parchment. Return it to the sifter and repeat one or two more times. (The original recipes insist on three total sifts; we might have stopped at two.)
Heat 1 tablespoon of cream in a small bowl in the microwave. Add the yeast and stir together to dissolve as much as possible. It’s fine if it doesn’t all dissolve; you’ll have a paste roughly the consistency of a chunky mustard.
In bowl of the mixer—now fitted with the paddle attachment, if using a stand mixer—beat the butter until it is fairly smooth, then add the remaining ¾ cup (150g) sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and butter/yeast paste and beat until the mixture is pale and smooth.
Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix just briefly to get it combined, then fold the rest together by hand. Fold in the egg whites as gently as you can.
Transfer the cake to the prepared bundt pan and bake 50-60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool at least 30 minutes in the pan before turning the cake out onto a rack. Cool fully before filling.
To fill and assemble
With a large serrated knife, slice the bundt cake in half. Lay each half with the interior of the cake facing up. Use a small knife to score the cake in two circles, leaving about ¾ of an inch around the outside and inside edges. (Make sure you don’t cut all the way through the cake!) Use a spoon to scoop out the middle between the two score lines, placing the cake you remove in a large bowl. Use your fingers to break down the chunks of removed cake until it resembles crumbs.
In a mixer, beat the almond paste until it resembles crumbs. Add the ½ cup milk and beat until the mixture is as smooth as possible. Add the reserved cake crumbs and beat the whole thing until it is as smooth as possible; it will end up roughly the consistency of mashed potatoes. If you need to add a splash more milk, do so here.
Carefully spoon the mixture into the center of the cakes, keeping the filling roughly level with the cake. You should have just enough to fill both halves evenly.
Reassemble the bundt cake by placing the removed top back on the bottom half. Lightly dust with powdered sugar and serve each slice with whipped cream.