Back when refrigeration wasn’t up to modern standards, Fat Tuesday was a time to clear your house of indulgent foods. This led to lots of rich recipes, from Shrove pancakes to King Cake. In Sweden, the specialty is semlor. A group of people in Portland, Ore., are keeping that dish — and a few other Swedish traditions — alive.
Picture soft, sweet rolls, sort of like brioche, piled with creamy almond filling. Now picture them being made by a room full of young, mostly blond children speaking Swedish.
These semlor are being made by children at Svenska Skolan, a Swedish school program that meets Saturday mornings. During the last class, the kids baked the rolls and stashed them in the freezer. Now, they’re whipping cream, grinding almonds, and then putting them together. Nine-year-old Sophia Donato and 11-year-old Linnea Nilsson explain:
“Right now we’re putting in the …” Sophia starts off, “… filling for the semlor,” Linnea picks up. “It’s made of almonds, and you cut the top of the semlor off, and then you make a little hole in it, and you put the filling in there, and then you put the lid back on.”
Traditionally, the treats were made for Shrove Tuesday, as a sort of last hurrah of fat and sugar before Lent. But these days Sweden is fairly secular, and semlor are just a general treat for the winter season.
And though the Swedish school rents space from a church, it’s secular too — actually part of a program subsidized by the Swedish government called Svenska Utlandsskolor.
It’s for children with at least one parent who’s a Swedish citizen, and has branches all over the world. And a lot of them are probably making semlor right now.
“It started for Swedish families who were abroad and were coming back,” Gunilla Rohdin-Bibby, one of the Portland teachers, says. “And so they wanted their children to be able to just go back into the school system. But now there are a lot of families, not necessarily will they go back to Sweden, but they still want to have their children part of the Swedish language and culture.”
The classes are taught entirely in Swedish and cover history, music and traditional crafts. And they can also be a lesson for the parents. Cecilia Peterson grew up outside of Stockholm and has a daughter in Swedish school.
“Some of the things I have forgotten about, the Swedish school reminds me of,” Peterson says. “They said, ‘OK, in a couple of weeks we’re going to make semlor.’ I was like, oh yeah! Semla! I haven’t made that in a long time.”
Some parents, like Lena Braun, just appreciate the opportunity to catch up with other Swedish-American families. “Yeah, it’s just fantastic to get together on Saturdays, just hanging out and having a good semla and a cup of coffee,” Braun says. “And the kids are playing and having fun.”
Although the kids, like Sophia Donato, have some American ideas about how to improve the semlor. “It would be good if we had chocolate, and the bread was chocolate, and the almonds was chocolate, like melted chocolate,” she says. “And then it would be whipped cream with chocolate.”
Even without the chocolate, these semlor are a big hit with the kids. Their Shrove Tuesday roots may be more or less forgotten. But the tradition of coming together around Swedish culture and food — and a good strong cup of coffee — is just as sacred a practice.