Semla is one of the Swedish specialties at the acclaimed bakery Lost Larson
It’s telling that in Chicago, Fat Tuesday — the day before Lenten Season begins, this year on Tuesday, February 13 — is generally referred to as Paczki Day. Weighing in at around 400 calories each, the Polish pastries inevitably whip up excitement among fans who form long lines, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, to snag paczki by the dozen in a wide array of classic and contemporary flavors.
Amid all the paczki pandemonium, however, lie Fat Tuesday specialties from a variety of ethnic groups that now call Chicago home. In Andersonville, the city’s historic Swedish American enclave, a lauded local pastry chef is shining a spotlight on the Scandinavian tradition of the semla, a rich yet delicate sweet roll also known as fettisdagsbulle, literally “Fat Tuesday bun.”
As in the case of many Fat Tuesday treats, modern semlor (the plural of semla) evolved significantly from their original form. Historically, semlor simply referred to bread rolls floating in warm milk, a combination also dubbed hetvagg. In an ominous anecdote, 18th-century Swedish King Adolf Fredrick is said to have died after wrapping up a hearty, boozy meal with 14 servings of the dish. Today, typical semlor are small, baked yeast buns enriched with butter and egg, flavored with cardamom, stuffed with almond paste and whipped cream, and finally, dusted with powdered sugar. Sweden’s neighboring countries feature regional variations, such as Finnish laskiaispulla and Danish and Norwegian fastelavnsboller.
Bobby Schaffer (Grace, Blue Hill at Stone Barns), has made a name for himself in the city with his contemporary takes on Swedish pastry traditions at Lost Larson, his stylish bakeries and cafes with modern minimalist Swedish vibes in Andersonville and Wicker Park. The seasonal item has a crowd of eager adherents who start peppering Schaffer with questions about availability “as soon as January hits,” he says. This year’s lineup blends old and new, juxtaposing a traditional version with playful semlor, including one stuffed with raspberry jam and topped with raspberry whipped cream and a spin on bananas foster. They’re available to walk-in customers through Monday, February 12 in both Andersonville and Wicker Park, and online pre-orders are open for pickup on Fat Tuesday in Andersonville.
The concept of fun and funky semlor is a full-on phenomenon in Sweden, says Karin Moen Abercrombie, executive director of Andersonville’s Swedish American Museum. In Stockholm, famed 90-year-old coffeehouse Vete-Katten typically sells around 14,000 semlor ahead of Lent each year. “Today, there’s almost a competition between bakeries of who makes the best semlor,” she says.
Schaffer had his first taste of semlor in January 2018 during a trip to Stockholm with his sister ahead of Lost Larson’s debut in Andersonville. His memories of the encounter, which unfolded in a “very old-school” bakery in Sweden’s capital, are vivid: “The texture of the cream [was] so soft, and hitting that layer of almond paste gives it a chewy, unctuous texture,” he says. “It’s very satisfying to dig into one of those.”
Back in Chicago, he had a serious task on his hands with the debut of his stylish bakery and cafe with modern minimalist Swedish vibes. The Swedish Bakery, a neighborhood icon for more than eight decades, had closed the year prior in 2017, and residents made plain their high expectations of Schaffer’s endeavor. Given his recent semlor meet cute, Schaffer was eager to introduce his version and included them on his opening menu, which happened to arrive in June.
“I was a little overly exuberant to start making them,” he says, laughing. “I was quickly scolded by [Abercrombie] that it was not semla season… I didn’t want to start by offending Swedish people.”
Abercrombie, a Swedish immigrant who has spent nearly 40 years in Chicago, doesn’t remember her first semla but does recall eating them with warm milk (a la King Fredrick, though in smaller quantities) as a girl. For her, the Swedish Bakery’s closure struck close to home. “They were the ones, for many of us, who connected us back to our home country and childhood memories.”
Despite its more contemporary approach, Lost Larson’s dedication to Swedish baking and pastry — as well as Schaffer’s openness to feedback from the community — have played vital roles in maintaining Swedish American culture in the city. The museum will also feature semlor in its pop-up cafe on Fat Tuesday, but for Abercrombie and Schaffer, it’s not about competition. “We all have to work together because if we don’t support each other, none of us will survive,” she says.