Lent in many countries is filled with many wide and varied cultural traditions. Historically, as well, Lent is a period of fasting. As such many countries this time is also wrapped around food celebrations just before the 40-day fasting period begins with the idea being that you are strengthening yourself for the long days ahead. Today the idea of fasting is not a common one so these food rituals have been re-envisioned over time sometimes in a more celebratory coloring. In Iceland, two days before the beginning of Lent, homes, restaurants and bakeries overflow with delicately-made cream puffs or buns. These buns, similar to a cream-filled chocolate eclair, come in all different shapes and sizes, filled with cream or jam and sometimes drizzled in melted chocolate.
Children "earn" their share of buns by "beating" their parents out of bed. This is done with their made-at-school bolludagsvöndur (bun wands), that are colorfully decorated with strips of paper and shiny ribbon. Parents are then obligated to give their children one rjomabolla or cream puff for every "blow" received. It is thought that this custom is derived from acts of penance performed during Lent, evolving over time into a lighthearted children’s game.
The custom of "bun day" came to Iceland from either Sweden, Denmark or Norway in the nineteenth century. These countries also have their Lenten bun specialties. In Sweden, the smela is descended from the German and Danish kumminkringlor, a pretzel-shaped bread with cumin, which came to southern Sweden during the 1600's when the area was under Denmark's rule. The pastry tradition varies some between each of these Nordic countries. In both Finland and Sweden, semla, is prepared with a filling of marzipan and whipped cream, lots and lots of whipped cream. In Norway, it is called a Fastelavnsboller or Shrovetide bun.
King Frederick of Sweden loved his semla. He was done in (d. 1774) by 14 servings of this dessert (which was preceded by a grand feast) and soon died of indigestion. During this period the buns were boiled in milk which gave way in the 19th century to the addition of sugar and cinnamon. Before the evolutionary jump to today's indulgence, consisting of a cardamom-spiced wheat flour bun and a filling of the pastry as bread crumbs, milk and marzipan. It is then capped off with the top and finished with whipped cream. Traditionally it was served with a bowl of hot milk or most likely today with coffee.
Buns made of melted butter, flour, eggs and water and filled with cream are the traditional cream puffs and the most popular ones. Other varieties include cream puffs with strawberries, blackcurrant, fresh fruit or Daim chocolate. Meat balls and fish balls are also popular on this day. In fact Medieval Icelandic law texts say it is just fine to eat a double portion on the Monday and Tuesday preceding Lent. Much of the bun eating now, however, takes place on Sunday, however, since Monday is a work day. During this time Icelandic bakers estimate they sell one million buns. This figure averages out to just about buns for every Icelander.
The two most common types of buns now are yeast buns, which make up 70 to 80 percent of the bakery buns, and choux-like pastry buns (cream puffs), but other types are also baked. In the first half of the twentieth century, the buns were usually made from cake dough. Often a jólakaka (Christmas cake) recipe was used, perhaps with an extra egg or two added, and the raisins left out. Deep-fried donuts called ástarpungar (Love Balls) are also served on Bun Day.
Needless to say folks are particular and passionate about semla. I've included a cartoon from Mostly About Food below along with the comments of an expert enthusiast on this pastry:
"The bun itself should be a light golden brown and about 10cm across. The 'lid' is preferably triangular and properly sprinkled with powdered sugar. It should sit squarely on its cream bed. The whipped cream shouldn’t overspill the edges and should rise 2-3 cm - just so your nose doesn’t dip when eating...the bread mustn’t be too dense and should be lightly sweetened. The whipped cream ought to be hand-whipped and lightly sweetened as well."
Immediately after this Icelandic bun bonanza comes Shrove Tuesday, called sprengidagur, or Bursting Day. This is day is filled with bowls and bowls of salted lamb and split pea soup eat as much as possible, until you are about to burst.
If you've prepared pâte à choux before you will find this recipe familiar.
1 cup (8 ounces) water
1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 heaping cup (4 1/2 ounces) AP flour
4 large eggs
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.
In a medium-sized saucepan, bring the water to a boil, add the butter and salt, and stir until melted. Add the flour to the water/butter mixture and stir well until the dough pulls away from the sides of the pan. Let this mixture cool for about 5 minutes, in order that the eggs won't cook as you add them. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each one until completely integrated with the dough and the mixture is smooth rather than shiny looking.
Using a cookie scoop or two spoons (a teaspoon or tablespoon depending on how large you want your puffs), place a good spoonful of dough onto a parchment-covered baking sheet. You can get about 12 large spoonfuls to a sheet. This recipe will make about a dozen and a half if you're using tablespoons, each enough for one good-sized serving.
Bake the puffs for 25 to 30 minutes depending on the size. Do not open the oven during the first 15 to 20 minutes, or the puffs may collapse.
While the puffs bake, prepare the filing. (see below)
After the puffs are baked, remove them from the oven and turn the oven off. Make a slit in the bottom of each puff with a knife, and turn them upside down on the baking sheet. Return them to the oven with the door cracked open and leave them for about 5 minutes. This allows the steam to escape so they won't get soggy as they cool.
To fill, cut the puffs in half horizontally. When all are filled and topped off pour glaze over each one.
1 pint heavy cream, whipped
1 tsp or more almond extract (or lemon or vanilla)
1 tsp granulated sugar
Whip heavy cream with sugar. As it nears whipped cream consistency add extract of your choice
In double boiler over hot, not boiling, water, heat 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate pieces with 1 tbsp butter or margarine, 1-1/2 tsp milk, and 1-1/2 tsp light corn syrup until smooth, stirring occasionally.