Friday, March 20, 2009

Fastlagsbullar at last!

©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

A few days ago I posted receiving marzipan from Susanna in Bangkok. Yesterday we used the marzipan and made Swedish "fastlagsbullar", 16 in all. Hmm-m, they were yummy! We invited a good friend and her children over to share the fun and we polished off the lot of them. First I baked the sweet buns, then Emy and I carved off a little "hat" and placed a square of marzipan inside with a generous dollop of whipped cream on top (generously supplied by Catherine P). The lid was then put back on and powdered sugar sprinkled on top. Baking with Chinese flour is a bit tricky, it's not exactly like Swedish (or American flour), slightly fluffier and airier so the buns were not as dense, chewy and golden brown as Swedish ones. It was also difficult to get the cream to stay "stiff" in the warm air but the taste was perfect.

Attempting to explain the science and cultural history of this baked treat to my British friend I realized I needed to know more, so here is what I found out:

My mother's side of the family is from the province of Skåne in the very south and the buns are called fastlagsbullar there, but in much of the rest of Sweden they are known as semlor (one bun = en semla). They can also be called fettisdagsbullar or hetvägg. Semla comes from the Latin semila, flour of a fine quality. 

In the beginning the bun (known as a lenten bun in English) was eaten only on fettisdagen (Shrove Tuesday) during fastlagen (Lent or Shrovetide). As Swedes gradually became more secular and few people fasted before Easter, it became the tradition to eat the bun every Tuesday during the seven weeks of fasting. These Tuesdays (tisdagar) became known as fettisdagar. Nowadays lenten buns appear around Christmas time and - to the detriment of every Swede's waistline - can be consumed every day of the week. Bakeries and cafés vie to bake the most popular fastlagsbulle, with the different tastes discussed in local newspapers and magazines. 

As mentioned above, Emy and I made 16 buns, all of which got consumed in one way or another by three adults and four children. One of our Swedish kings, Adolf Fredrik (the father of Gustav III) died on Fettisdagen February 12, 1771 by eating too many buns. It must be said however that he had also just digested a large amount of sauerkraut, boiled meat and turnips, lobster, Russian caviar, bloater, warm milk and a bottle of Champagne. He'd just returned from a health spa cure and the shock to his system caused stomach cramps, dizziness and later in the day  a stroke that killed him. Hardly surprising. 

After we ate our buns we went off to our local jumbly restaurant and ate a blow out Sichuan meal consisting of "twice-in-the-pan pork" (huiguo rou), The Palace Guard's Chicken (gongbao jiding), sugared corn, dry-fried potato slices (ganbian tudou si), dry-fried string beans (ganbian siji dou), doufu soup, beer and rice. I slept like a baby last night.