Bread for princesses
A legend tells us that in the Middle Ages there was an Italian man called Marcus and he was really fond of a sweet bread which was then consumed. People named the sweetness after him: Marci-pane; which simply means ‘bread of Marcus’. Some claim that the word marzipan was born that way. But the etymology of the word is quite contested.
Earlier marzipan was a very precious and scarce resource and a delicacy of the wealthier elite. This changed in the 19th century when beet sugar was produced in European regions. Marzipan became cheaper and more readily available.
Marzipan is a dough-like mixture of ground almonds and sugar. It is often used to decorate cakes and wedding pies. It mostly is sold around Saint Nicholas time early December. The holy Saint Nicholas is after all the patron of marriage and family. An ancient custom teaches us that when a boy gave a piece of marzipan to a girl he told her he liked her very much.
Marzipan today is used in several ways. In Sweden one of the most known cakes is the so-called ‘prinsesstårta’ or princess cake. It is a cake with a long history, it first appeared in print in 1948 and became known as princess cake because the Swedish princesses of the time were said to be fans of the cake. The current princess cake is characterized by the green marzipan layer with icing sugar. Below you can find several layers of cake, cream and jam. While jam doesn’t appear in the original recipe, you can find the ingredient today in almost all cakes. Princess cakes are eaten at birthdays and special occasions such as fairs and weddings.
But there is another Swedish delicacy in which marzipan is used and that I want to talk about.
There is such a thing as a bun containing marzipan and cream, on which powdered sugar is spread.
It really looks very appetizing. As these little white snowballs appear in the windows of the Swedish bakers, shortly thereafter people begin to eat them like the world will end tomorrow.
They are called ‘semlor’ (plural of semla). Imagine a very lightly sweetened, cardamom-scented bun, filled with a few spoons of creamy almond paste and topped with a generous swirl of fresh, whipped cream. Simply delicious.
The buns hold a notorious role in Swedish history linked to King Adolf Fredrik. On the day now known as Fat Tuesday in 1771, he collapsed and died after eating a large meal and many servings of semlor, his favorite dessert. Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Earlier semlor were eaten only that particular day, but due to their popularity, there is now such a demand for them that the Swedes enjoy them from the end of the Christmas season until Easter.
Semlor are taken so seriously that as soon as they appear in bakeries, Swedish newspapers start tasting tests to find the best in town. If you can’t visit Sweden to taste a semla, don’t worry, you don’t need to travel to try one. You can make them at home. Just start baking!