A Swedish semla (semlor: plural) is a soft, buttery cardamom bun filled with a rich almond filling and topped with a flourish of whipped cream. Semlor begin to appear in Swedish bakeries early in January each year and continue to be enjoyed throughout the Lenten season. They are sometimes called Shrove Tuesday Buns because they were originally meant to be enjoyed as a last over-the-top treat on Tuesday night before the austerities of Lent began the following morning.
You are going to LOVE these rich, almond-filled semlor! They are as delicious as they are beautiful and are surprisingly easy to make. Keep reading for step-by-step instructions for making your own gorgeous semlor at home!
Why This Recipe Works
This semla recipe is the very best out there for a few reasons:
- The dough recipe uses a very simple technique called tangzhong that is used in making Japanese milk bread. It only takes about 5 extra minutes but it yields billowy, super soft buns that STAY soft for a longer period of time.
- They are perfectly buttery and sweet, and the dough is a DREAM to work with.
- The creamy almond filling is a simple combination of ground almonds, sugar and almond extract and NO PREPARED ALMOND PASTE OR MARZIPAN. This ensures great natural flavor and no overly sweet, off flavors.
- All-purpose flour forms the base of this recipe.
- Just 3 tablespoons of granulated sugar brings a welcome sweetness to the dough (without making them too sweet), and a teaspoon of salt rounds out all of the flavors.
- Milk and butter add moisture and rich flavor, and an egg brings structure.
- Instant yeast is the leavener in this recipe. See the FAQ section below for more information about instant yeast and how to substitute active dry yeast if you prefer.
- Cardamom brings quintessential Scandinavian flavor to these buns.
- The filling is a simple but delicious mixture of ground almonds, granulated sugar, almond extract and milk.
- And whipped heavy cream adds the final flourish to the top of the bun!
- Stand mixer (not necessary but nice to have)
- 2 rimmed baking sheets
- Parchment paper
- Pastry brush for brushing egg wash on buns
- Small, sharp knife
- Wide piping tip and piping bag (optional)
How to Make this Recipe
Although they look impressive, semlor are surprisingly simple to make. They are essentially just a round cardamom bun that is hollowed out in the center to make room for an easy ground almond and sugar filling. Top it with a little whipped cream and you are good to go. Here is the step-by-step process:
For the Dough:
- Begin by making the tangzhong: Combine 5 tablespoons of water, 5 tablespoons of milk and 3 tablespoons of flour in a saucepan. Whisk to combine. Heat over medium, stirring constantly, until the mixture turns into a thick paste. Set aside to cool.
- Next, whisk the dry ingredients by hand in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the warm milk, cooled melted butter, cooled tangzhong and 1 egg. Mix with the dough hook on medium low until everything comes together. Increase the speed to medium and knead until the dough is soft and satiny and clears the sides and bottom of the bowl. This should take about 4-5 minutes.
- Let the dough rise until 1 ½ to 2 times its size, about 1 ½ to 2 hours. The time this takes will largely depend on the temperature of your kitchen. Dough takes longer to rise in cooler temperatures.
- Divide the dough into twelve equal pieces and cover with plastic wrap while you shape them into balls. To form each roll, take a piece of dough and form it into a rough ball, pinching the dough where it come together to create a “bellybutton”. Place the ball, bellybutton side down, on a clean kitchen counter. Cupping the ball with your hand so that your palm is lightly resting on the dough and your fingertips are resting on the counter, make small circles with the dough until a tight ball is formed. Place the dough ball on parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.
- Cover the buns lightly with plastic wrap and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Let the buns rise for 45 minutes at room temperature. Brush with egg wash and bake for 12-16 minutes or until golden brown. Cover the buns with a clean tea towel (this helps keep them soft) and set aside to cool.
Make the Filling and Assemble:
- While the buns cool, make the filling and whipped cream. Combine the almonds, sugar, salt and almond extract in a the work bowl of a food processor. Process until finely ground. Transfer the almond and sugar mixture to a bowl. Add ½ cup of milk and stir until the mixture is delightfully creamy, adding additional milk 1 tablespoon at a time if necessary to achieve the desired consistency. Whip the cream and sugar together in a stand mixer until medium to stiff peaks form.
- Once the buns are completely cool, use a small, sharp knife to cut a triangular “hat” out of the top of the bun and set it aside to use later. Remove some of the inside of the bun using the knife and your fingers creating a nice hole for the almond filling. Slice off the bottom of the hat so that it is only ¼-½ an inch or so thick.
- Fill each bun with a spoonful or two of the almond filling and top with a flourish of whipped cream. You can use a piping bag and tip if you want more precision, or just dollop the whipped cream on top with a spoon. Artfully arrange the hat on top of the whipped cream and sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired. Serve!
These semlor are really a very simple and straightforward baking project, but I do have a few expert tips and tricks for making them the very best they can be:
- Use the tangzhong method as directed in the recipe. The simple process of creating a roux with water, milk and flour and adding it to the dough makes a HUGE difference in the final product. The dough itself is silky and smooth, and the buns emerge from the oven soft and tender with a golden brown crust. It's 5 minutes well spent.
- Make sure that you are using instant yeast instead of active dry yeast. They are two different products and work differently in a recipe. Want to substitute active dry yeast for the instant? Read the FAQs below for instruction on how to do so.
- Cover the rolls with a clean kitchen towel after they come out of the oven, and keep them covered as they cool. This helps to keep the texture pleasantly soft.
Shrove Tuesday (also known as Fat Tuesday) is celebrated the day before Lent begins, that six week period prior to Easter during which some Christians choose to fast or give up certain luxuries. The idea behind Shrove Tuesday is to indulge in something rich and delicious before the sacrifices of Lent begin the next day.
It's all about that final indulgence before the austerity of the Lenten season. For some, Shrove Tuesday is celebrated with pancakes for dinner. For others, it's a full-on party with cocktails and King Cake (hello, Mardi Gras!). In the Scandinavian countries, particularly Sweden, people indulge in a semla or two.
I like my semla for a fika treat with late morning or afternoon coffee, but you could certainly get away with serving these buns as an unconventional breakfast or even for dessert following a light meal.
The almond filling is very traditional, but really the options are endless! Two of my non-traditional favorites are a simple vanilla pastry cream or lemon curd. Another popular way to serve semlor is to stick with the original almond filling but serve them in a bowl with warm milk.
Basically a small amount of the flour and liquid (water, milk or a combination of the two) is cooked on the stove for a very short period of time creating a roux-like mixture. This process gelatinizes the starches in the flour allowing them to absorb more liquid and results in a higher rise (hello billowy buns!) and a more tender, moist bun that stays that way for a longer period of time. Check out this great article for more detailed information!
You simply need to activate it before adding it to the dough: After you warm the milk, sprinkle two teaspoons of active dry yeast on top. Make sure the milk isn't too hot! High temperatures will kill the yeast and your dough won't rise. The milk should just be warm to the touch. Let it sit for 10 minutes or until it begins to get a little frothy/ bubbly.
Once the buns are filled, they are best eaten right away or shortly thereafter. Should you have leftovers, simply cover them with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for up to two days. For instructions on how to store them prior to filling, read the FAQs below.
Yes, the buns keep well at room temperature for about a day (tightly covered once they are completely cool), and the filling can be kept, tightly covered and refrigerated, for 24 hours. Add a little more milk to the filling if necessary to loosen it and bring it back to a creamy consistency.
Unfilled buns freeze well tightly sealed in a freezer bag. Simply take them out and defrost at room temperature as needed. You can freeze the filling (before adding the milk) as well. Again, it should be tightly sealed in a freezer bag. Simply take out as much of the ground almond mixture as you need and let it come to room temperature. Add just enough milk to create a delightfully creamy consistency.
Looking for more Scandinavian bun recipes? I've got several delicious options for you here on the blog:
Easy Swedish Semla (Lenten Buns)
For the Tangzhong:
- 5 tablespoons water
- 5 tablespoons whole milk
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
For the Buns:
For the Almond Filling:
- 2 cups blanched almonds
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- Pinch of salt
- ½-¾ cup whole milk
For the Egg Wash:
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon water
For the Sweetened Whipped Cream and to Finish:
- 1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- Powdered sugar for dusting optional
Make the Tangzhong
- Combine water, milk and flour in a medium saucepan. Whisk until combined and no lumps remain. Place saucepan over medium heat and cook mixture, whisking constantly, until it thickens, about 1-2 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Make the Buns
- Attach the dough hook to the mixer. Add melted and cooled butter, slightly warm milk, egg and the cooled tangzhong (it can be slightly warm to the touch) to the dry ingredients. Mix on medium low until fully combined.
- Increase mixer speed to medium and knead mixture for 4-5 minutes or until dough is slightly tacky but not sticky and clears the side of the bowl. It’s okay if it’s sticking to the bottom of the bowl slightly. You can also mix and knead the dough by hand but it will take longer, more like 8-10 minutes.
- Cover bowl with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise for a 1 ½ to 2 hours or until 1 ½ or 2 times its original size. The time will largely depend on the temperature of your kitchen.
- Once dough has risen, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and divide the dough into 12 equal pieces. Working with one piece at a time, gather up the edges of the dough into a rough ball shape, pinching the dough where the edges come together to create a “bellybutton”. Place the ball, bellybutton side down, on a clean kitchen counter. Cupping the ball with your hand so that your palm is lightly resting on the dough and your fingertips are resting on the counter, make small circles with the dough until a tight ball is formed. Place the ball on the baking sheet. Repeat with remaining pieces of dough.
- Cover lightly with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for 45 minutes.
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine egg and 1 tablespoon water to create an egg wash. Uncover the buns and brush each bun with the egg wash. Bake at 400 degrees for 12-16 minutes or until buns are golden brown. Cover the buns with a clean dish towel and let cool to room temperature (this will keep the buns from forming a hard crust).
Make the Filling and the Whipped Cream
- Combine almonds, sugar, salt and almond extract in the work bowl of a food processor. Process until almonds are finely ground. Remove the almond mixture from the work bowl and transfer to a medium bowl. Start by mixing ½ cup of milk into the ground almond mixture. Continue adding milk if necessary, 1 tablespoon at a time, until your filling has a creamy consistency.
- Place the cream in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whisk the cream on medium-high speed until it begins to thicken. Add sugar and continue whisking until the whipped cream is fluffy and and can hold medium to stiff peaks.
Assemble the Buns
- Use a small, sharp knife to cut a triangular “hat” out of the top of the bun and set it aside to use later. Remove some of the inside of the bun using the knife and your fingers creating a nice hole for the almond filling. Slice off the bottom of the hat so that it is only ¼-½ an inch thick.
- Fill the bun with a spoonful or two of the almond filling. Dollop or pipe whipped cream on top. Artfully arrange the hat on top of the cream. Repeat with remaining buns. Dust tops with powdered sugar. Serve immediately.
- To store: Once the buns are filled, they are best eaten right away. Should you have leftovers, simply cover them with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for up to two days.
- To make ahead: The buns keep well at room temperature for about a day (stored in an airtight container once they are completely cool), and the filling can be kept, tightly covered and refrigerated, for 24 hours. Add a little more milk to the filling if necessary to loosen it and bring it back to a creamy consistency.
- To freeze: Unfilled buns freeze well tightly sealed in a freezer bag. Simply take them out and defrost at room temperature as needed. You can freeze the filling (before adding the milk) as well. Again, it should be tightly sealed in a freezer bag. Simply take out as much of the ground almond mixture as you need and let it come to room temperature. Add just enough milk to create a delightfully creamy consistency.
- To substitute active dry yeast for the instant yeast: Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of active dry yeast over the warm milk and stir to combine. Let sit for 10 minutes until it gets a little frothy. Proceed with the recipe as directed.
If you loved this recipe, give it a star review! Also, snap a picture of your Swedish Semla and share it with me on Instagram using the hashtag #truenorthkitchen and tagging me @true_north_kitchen.