Fat Tuesday, intolerance and how to bake semlor

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Yesterday was Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras. In Sweden it’s Fettisdag. In England it’s Shrove Tuesday, or more likely Pancake Day.

Pancake Day

Pancakes were a treat when I was a child. We did eat them sometimes on other occasions, but properly it was only something we had on Pancake Day. Imagine my surprise – and delight – when I got to Sweden and found that pancakes were a Thursday staple in all good restaurants. First you ate your pea soup; yellow-green, thick, salty and rather unpleasant. And then, as a reward, pancakes with cream and jam.

You could keep the cream and jam, I thought, but give me a plate of pancakes with sugar and a squeeze of lemon. (Back in the day, Swedes understood the sugar, but the lemon juice tended to fascinate and horrify. Not so much nowadays.)

All those Thursday pancakes, though, rather undermined the special quality of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

A virtue of necessity

Pancakes are just one, locally English, traditional way of eating up all the fat and sugar before starting on the Lenten Fast. It’s the same, but different, in other countries that follow the Christian tradition. Not everyone goes for pancakes, but everyone goes for something rich. One last fat day before the forty days of lean food as a penance for one’s sins.

Making a virtue of necessity, as I used to try to get across to my history students when I had them. Up until very recently, historically speaking, we all lived in a subsistence economy. Most years, for most people, there was precious little in the way of food to eat in the late winter. If you had to eat a bare minimum, why not make it a penance and feel good about yourself struggling through Lent? Come Easter you could feast again on the first fruits of spring.

But before the fast, there was one day when you had to get rid of all the rich food you might have left in the cupboard. So as not to be tempted during Lent. Hence Fat Tuesday.

Fat Tuesday buns

Sweden’s tradition is semlor. Fettisbullar – Fat Tuesday Buns.

Fat Tuesday buns - ready to rise
Ready to rise
Fat Tuesday buns - baked
Making the filling
Making the filling

As one gets older, one becomes more intolerant. Maybe not in every sense. Hopefully not in every sense. But a couple of years ago I discovered I’d become lactose intolerant. I didn’t know what it was. In fact I thought I might have come home from Ghana with an intestinal bug. Various tests later the doctors ruled that out. It must be your diet, they said.

Once I knew I was looking for something I was eating or drinking, it didn’t take an awful lot of experimenting to discover the real problem. Milk and dairy? How is it possible? But it is. Switching to lactose free milk or oatmilk, lactose free butter or margarine. (Urk.) Lactose free ice cream. It all improved my stomach. The hardest part was giving up cheese. Actually, I haven’t done so. Hard cheese hasn’t got so much lactose in it, and sometimes I have soft cheese and just live with the consequences. On the bright side there’s no reason to waste money on laxatives, just knock back some full fat milk and wait.

Where’s this going? Fat Tuesday Buns, of course. They’re made with whipped cream. Lots of whipped cream. And milk. Could I get them commercially lactose free? Probably, but I’d need to look, and in these Corona-times I’m not going to traipse around confectioners and supermarkets. No, I’m going to make my own.

Fat Tuesday buns: filling the buns
Filling the buns
Adding the cream
Adding the cream
Icing sugar on top
Icing sugar on top

And so I did. And although I managed to give away some, and get Mrs SC to eat one and a half, that left me to scoff four big ones myself.

I don’t need to eat any more till next year.

Fat Tuesday bun recipe

Want to try your hand at baking them? Here’s the recipe…

For the buns…

  • 75 grams butter (lactose free, or marg)
  • 250 milk (full fat, lactose free)
  • 25 g of yeast
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 dl sugar (or golden syrup)
  • (1 tsp ground cardamom or cinnamon – optional)
  • 400 g flour (plus some more for the kneading)
  • 1 egg

Melt the butter in a pan, cool with the milk to finger temperature (37°C). Mix in the yeast. Mix in sugar/syrup, flour, beaten egg, salt, spices (if used). Knead into a ball and let rise 30 mins under a clean dishcloth out of draughts. (My microwave oven is perfect for this.) Break the ball of dough down into smaller balls. I made 10, four of them smaller, six larger. I could probably have made 16 of the smaller size. Bake in the middle of the oven at 225°C for about 14 mins or until the buns have a nice colour. Take them out of the oven and let them cool.

For the filling…

  • 200 g almond paste (mandelmassa in Swedish. Or you can make your own with equal parts ground almonds and sugar. I didn’t got this far.)
  • 1½ dl full fat milk (lactose free)
  • 3 dl cream – whipped stiff (lactose free)

Slice the tops off the buns. Using a fork, dig out the insides of the buns to create a well in each. Put the breadcrumbs into a bowel. Grate the almond paste and mix it with the breadcrumbs and the milk to a soft mass, then spoon it back into the well in each bun. Add a good dollop of whipped cream and then cap with the sliced off bun tops. Powder with icing sugar.

Eat. With lots of hot coffee.

If you are dedicated to your Lenten fast, save this for next year. Otherwise, have a go now.


The last semla (pots of my Seville orange marmalade behind)
The last semla (pots of my Seville orange marmalade behind)

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