Living in Seattle has taught me the importance of coffee and while I have managed to wean myself from the first thing in the morning, mainline jolt of caffeine, I still enjoy the ritual of grinding the beans, making a big mug of coffee and then sitting down to drink it. In Sweden, they have a different coffee ritual that I can really get behind – whenever they have coffee, they also have a delicious snack.
In “Fika, the Art of the Swedish Coffee Break,” Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall describe fika as coffee plus something to eat but also a tradition that has deep cultural roots; it represents a time to slow down and take a break. The authors are women of Swedish decent who have been baking all their lives and who tell the story of Sweden’s cultural baking tradition through seasonal recipes and whimsical illustrations. They advocate baking simply, without fancy gadgets but with good, organic ingredients and most importantly, with love.
Like a trip to IKEA, the book is peppered with new and interesting sounding names; kladdkaka is “what you throw together when you’re pulling an all-nighter in college, or when you have a friend coming over to discuss their latest love interest,” semlor are hearty treats for when it’s dark and cold, biskvier are pastries from upscale cafes or at a celebration, småkakor are small sweet cookies served on a fancy trays and classic recipes like cinnamon buns or an open-faced sandwich are called simply klassiker.
I made the decadent mandelkaka, an almond tart that is sticky but not overly sweet, and kronans kaka, a naturally gluten-free cake made of mashed potatoes and almonds from days when flour was hard to come by. I served this one with whip cream and boozy cherries and it wasn’t overly sweet either – truly the perfect complement to a bitter cup of coffee. I love baking bread so I couldn’t resist making Swedish rågbröd, rye bread made with prunes and anise seeds. But while this recipe doesn’t follow tradition to the T (the prunes stand in for Swedish dark syrup that is hard to find here), it is certainly delicious and I wasn’t dismayed at all that the recipe made two loaves.
The fika recipes are heavy with butter and flour and a bit of sugar, but not too sweet. They remind me of the kind of treats that old school European grandmothers used to make for us when we were kids. Comparable to their love of coffee and cake seems to be an equal love of almonds and cardamom. They show up in everything, in various textures and so after I made almond tart and potato almond cake, I naturally had to make the cinnamon / cardamom buns.
Vetebullar means “wheat buns” in Swedish and contrary to the enormous, outrageously-iced things sold in American bakeries, these are sturdy, small and well-spiced. Unsurprisingly, they are also perfect with a cup of strong coffee.
VETEBULLAR (Cinnamon & Cardamom buns)
Makes about 30 buns
- 7 TBSP unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 C milk
- 2 tsp active dry yeast
- 4 1/2 C all-purpose flour
- 1/4 C natural cane sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp whole cardamom seeds – preferably freshly ground in a mortar and pestle
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 7 TBSP unsalted butter – at room temperature
- 1/3 C natural cane sugar
- 3-4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 2 tsp crushed cardamom seeds
- 1 egg, beaten
- Chopped almonds
1. Make the dough: Melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the milk. Heat until warm to the touch.
2. Put 2-3 TBSP of the warm milk mixture in a small bowl and stir in the yeast until it dissolves. Let it sit for a few minutes until bubbles form on top. I wasn’t paying attention the first time I made these and ended up killing the yeast by putting it straight into the butter mixture. Don’t do that.
3. In a large bowl mix together the flour, sugar, cardamom, and salt. Freshly ground cardamom is really nice here but make sure you grind all the pieces down as finely as possible. No one wants crunchy bits in their sweet bun.
4. Add the yeast mixture and then the remaining butter and milk. Work it together with your hands until you can form the dough into a ball.
5. Dust the counter or a cutting board with flour and knead the dough on it for about 3-5 minutes, until it feels smooth and elastic, adding more flour if it feels too sticky. The recipe suggests testing to see if the dough is ready by slicing into it with a sharp knife – if it has been kneaded enough there will be small air bubbles in the dough.
6. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and let it rise until it has doubled in size – about an hour.
7. Make the filling: When the dough is almost ready, you can start making the cinnamon / sugar / cardamom filling. The recipe offers a choice of cinnamon or cinnamon and cardamon but I made the combination roll with cinnamon powder and freshly ground cardamom and it wasn’t an overwhelming level of spice so I say don’t skimp. But again, it is important to get the freshly ground cardamom ground down really well here.
8. Cream the butter, sugar and spices together until mixed and you have a spreadable paste.
9. When the dough has finished rising, separate the dough into two halves and place one half on a flat, floured surface. With a rolling pin, roll it out into a large rectangle with the long side closest to you.
10. Spread half the filling on the rolled-out dough, getting as close as possible to the edges and making sure the whole surface is covered. Then roll the dough into a tight roll, rolling the dough away from you.
11. Slice the roll into ~1 inch slices and lay them on the baking sheet.
12. Repeat with the second half of the dough and filling, then cover the buns with a clean tea towel and let rise for 45 minutes.
13. Preheat the oven to 435 F. This is also a good time to make a pot of coffee because the baking time isn’t long and you’re going to want to eat the buns fresh out of the oven.
14. When the buns have risen, carefully brush them with the beaten egg and sprinkle each with the chopped nuts.
15. Bake for 8-10 minutes and then remove from the oven, transferring the buns to the counter, and covering with a tea towel to cool. Brones and Kindvall advocate simplicity in their recipes and here is a good example – why dirty a cooling rack when a countertop will do?
16. Finally, serve the buns warm with a big mug of coffee.