New-fangled takes on classic semla pastry fire up controversy

4:01 min

In the run-up to Fat Tuesday, food-minded innovators have turned their attention to a classic Swedish pastry, the semla, but not without controversy.

It's already been tough for semla purists. Just as you might get annoyed when you see shop windows filled with Christmas decorations in October, some people think semla deserve patience and shouldn't be brought out until Shrove Tuesday. But the perky-looking pastries with their creamy midriffs and their jaunty caps have been available in lots of bakeries and supermarkets for weeks now, so the semla purists are not in luck.

A lot of people in Sweden celebrate Fat Tuesday (Fettisdagen) by eating semla buns, which are made with cardamom-flavored dough, filled with almond paste, and given a generous dollop of whipped cream. But this year, there are some new twists on the old semla, and not everybody's celebrating. 

And this year, there's another thing which you might say is getting their pastries in a twist, because the old semla was suddenly swept by a blizzard of innovation. Bakers seem to be rushing to outdo each other with the next new-fangled semla: it's being served in the shape of hot dogs and hamburgers, even french-fry shaped semla that you dip into the whipped cream, a raw-food semla, semla milkshakes, and even beer served like semla with whipped cream and almond paste.

But by the looks of things, the semla-innovation fad all started with Mattias Ljungberg, the pastry chef who owns Tössebageriet, a bakery and cafe in the Stockholm neighborhood of Östermalm, who was experimenting with tortilla when he came up with the idea of semla wrap: almond paste and whipped cream, swaddled in a tortilla-shaped wheat dough spiced with cardamom. The whole thing looks a little like an enchilada, but tastes like anything but. Ljungberg launched it on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and it took social media by sweet storm.

To deal with the demand for his semla wraps, the bakers have to work round-the-clock now. Mattias Ljungberg has beefed up his staff by 10 to 15 more people, and the kitchen is bustling. Out front in the cafe, business is brisk, and a couple of customers are sitting at a table by the window, trying the semla wraps, coddled in blue and white paper.

"Better than I thought," one of the customers says, adding he probably won't order it again, but that he can check it off his list now.

His companion is more enthusiastic, saying, "In one bite, you get all of the flavors and textures of a semla without necessarily putting your face in a heap of cream."

Outside the bakery, people were a little more skeptical about the idea:

"I think traditional is better," says one passerby. Another says he thinks the idea of the wrap is "fun" but will stick with tradition.

Mattias Ljungberg, the baker, has been part of the Swedish culinary team for many years and more recently the Swedish national pastry team, and he attributes part of the team's success to putting twists on classic dishes, sometimes. 

In reality, the modern semla, which means wheat flour, is already an innovation. It started out as a German dish, just a dry wheat bun soaked in warm milk, and Ljungberg describes how in the 18th and 19th century in Sweden, it evolved with the addition of whipped cream and almond paste. For the last half-century or so, it has been served in the bun-shape that is familiar today.

However, selling it in wrap-form has been a financial boon for the bakery, which also runs a cafe. Ljungberg says sales of the wrap alone has tripled his day-to-day income. 

But the bakery does not offer semla after Easter, and at that point, Ljungberg jokes he'll invent something new.